STRAWBERRY: The Straying Plant

Strawberries

Strawberries are a disarmingly modest but luxurious fruit. At their best they should be home-grown, caressed by the summer sun on their beds of straw to the most brilliant ruby colour so that you smell them on the air before you see them: like melons, nectarines and pineapples the nose detects their ripeness before the tongue. We seem to think of them, quite wrongly, as quintessentially British. We serve them at Wimbledon and Ascot at outrageous price, take them on picnics, mash them up with meringue to make Eton mess. Is it because they are synonymous with the fragile and precarious midsummer that we love them so much? Do they symbolise our national obsession with the weather and our pursuit of the sun?

Like the cherry, the strawberry is sometimes listed as one of the fruits of Paradise, associated with the Blessed Virgin because the fruit simultaneously symbolises purity and fertility. It combines the magic colours of red and green: life and resurrection, the renewal of the vital force. Strawberries are embroidered on Desdemona’s fatal handkerchief, the enchanted cloth given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian. Strawberries appear in fairy tales and nursery rhymes ( “Goldilocks, Goldilocks wilt thou be mine?”); are the second most popular flavour in ices; feature in one of Jane Austen’s most comic episodes in “Emma”. Esther Rantzen used to tell an anecdote to illustrate Fanny Cradock’s supreme disagreeableness : offered jewel-like wild strawberries at a luncheon, the great cook waved them away with a dismissive, “darling, I ate them for breakfast.” It was a insult to a national institution, Britannia slapped in the face. And the fruit is healthy, one of your five a day, excellent for the skin whether eaten or applied as a face packs. Full of trace elements, with even a trace of the traces in strawberry jam as Dame Edna used to say.

Sweet strawberries versus the tarter raspberry: the childish and the slightly more sophisticated and adult. Both are quietly used in modern perfumery, to give an impression of innocence, the carefree and the playful: une fete champetre in the manner of a Fragonard idyll. “Soft berries” is the blanket term you often see, as in Lalique’s Amethyste, and Dior’s very edible Cherie which melds popcorn and strawberry sorbet. I love Andy Tauer’s ROSE VERMEILLE – the name is so perfect for a start, vermeille meaning both the brilliant red of bursting fruit, and the process of gilding silver to fashion a fairy dish ideal for this gourmand floral. ROSE VERMEILLE is a posy of roses and violets placed atop a bowl of raspberries and strawberries picked in a Swiss forest, dusted with whipped cream sweetened with sugar and vanilla. The bottle contains crystalline glass beads which add to the fantastical nature of the perfume experience: a basket of flowers and fruit picked by Hansel and Gretel or sent by angels from St Dorothy in the Heavenly Gardens.

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Une Touche de Rouge

Rothko Foundation Robert Bayer, basel

Whenever Nicky Haslam is introduced on the radio I jump to it, adjusting the tuning and turning up the sound for he always has something fascinating to say to be pondered on later. In youth he was a friend of the great beauty, wit, ambassadress and writer Lady Diana Cooper and I always wait for her to come up in his conversation. The other day was no exception. Mr Haslam talked of Diana Cooper’s mother, the 8th Duchess of Rutland and her singular views on interior decoration. Violet Rutland – “the artistic Duchess” – was an original in all her attitudes. Diana’s memoirs recall how her mother drew and sculpted to professional standard; condemned tomatoes, lemon flavourings, holding hands and being seasick as common; invariably wore the family tiara back to front. When I was a child our old gardener remembered working for the Rutlands at Belvoir Castle and pinching Violet’s behind as she sat sketching in shrubbery, mistaking her rear view for that of an under parlourmaid.

Violet passed on to her daughter this fascinating theory that when you come to furnish a room, it should always be completed with “une touche de rouge”. I couldn’t wait to try out this idea but I soon realised that it was already in effect willy- nilly around the house – the principle works so well that you often seem to achieve it effortlessly and involuntarily, almost instinctively. That splash of red, however small, which brings the rest of the room together, like lipstick completing and signing off a woman’s maquillage. The scarlet cushion dumped down in a decor of blues, pink and ochre; one crimson parrot tulip on the kitchen dresser; a vermilion tooth glass; a bowl filled with nasturtiums. Positioning that touche de rouge is like switching on a light.

Red is the most psychologically, emotionally and culturally loaded of all the colours. It’s probably also the most vibrant violent and varied, with infinite associations and resonances. It inevitably stirs up emotions and reactions. In some languages and societies it is the only colour; the same word is used both for “colour” and for “red”. In Russian, “krasnya” means beautiful as well as red. For the Egyptians it was the personification of the bare burning desert, of chaos, war and evil. Nuns used to be permitted a red pocket hanky as the only spot of colour in their dress: a psychological crutch, an emotional licence implicitly acknowledged by the Rule. It’s the colour of prostitution, a tradition going right back to the early books of the Old Testament; of passion, life, love, victory, blood, danger, birth, help, warning, justice. In the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel, red provides the plot: Davis perversely wears a “gloriously red” gown to the virginally white Olympus Ball, losing her lover and ruining her life in consequence. Even in black and white, such are the mental associations  of the colour – Jezebel the Scarlet Woman – that the device works without reservation. Red is all things to all men: to me it always manifests with something of a shriek. I can’t wear it, makes me look like a corpse.

How can the touche de rouge relate to scent? I think it’s the leaven in the lump, the unexpected touch of genius, thrown in instinctively, which transforms a humdrum formula into a unique  masterpiece. It’s the overdose of vanillin in Shalimar, the barmily exaggerated aldehydes in No 5, the wine lees in Malle’s Une Rose. For Opium, it was the choice of name: now routine, then so outrageous. Historic Caron perfumes are really one massive touche, a spreading stain of crimson baroque surrealism, a disturbing Rothko canvas. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Encens et Bubblegum is an inspired daub of poppy red.

The touche is not grotesque; it may shock but that is not its aim or purpose. Its not a substitute for creative thinking. It’s not the avocado mousse made up with lime jelly and mandarins or that awful dress run up from sirloin steak or Princess Beatrice’s pretzel wedding hat.  Rather the touche de rouge is the catalyst that brings about the Big Bang, the fiery vital spark of creation.

Picture by Robert Bayer, basel.