The Poisoned Chalice

 

A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created  by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.

Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.

We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.

No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”

Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”

And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.

The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from  legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer,  Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and  nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?

Yes. It was quite a scenario!

I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.

I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.

But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.

Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.

And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.

*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House

¤ we at Les Senteurs know Msr Flechier best for his two sublime creations for. FM – Une Rose and Lys Méditerranée.

¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.

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BANDIT: by Robert Piguet out of Germaine Cellier

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Back in the 1970’s, the roguish matinee idol charmer Stewart Granger talked on afternoon television about what attracted him to a woman. She should be immaculately dressed,gloved, maquillee, shod and coiffured – “because I want to look at her and think, ‘I’m going to DESTROY all that!'” Coughs and lowered eyes all round…but I bet a whiff of Bandit would have driven the old boy right off his head. Bandit is a leather chypre, the total urban scent. Colossally sophisticated, even formidable, it is the ultimate parfum-de- film-noir; a scent of night clubs, car showrooms, private seances, art galleries, penthouses, theatres, and the sort of restaurant where children are unwelcome. It wears well with green suede gloves, elaborate lingerie,sable fur, cocktail napkins, pink Sobranies, crisp eye veils, Ferragamo shoes and vintage Schiaparelli. Wallis Windsor’s painted lobster dress is a perfect Bandit accessory. So is a lapis Faberge cigarette case, casually chucked about. This perfume always takes centre stage: everything else is an add-on.

Wear Bandit if you wish to seduce and intimidate and where you intend to dominate the proceedings by force of character, devastating chic and effortless charm. Seldom has a perfume been so demanding of the wearer. Possibly a scent to catch a very specialised husband, it is almost impossible to imagine being worn by a bride unless to create the most extraordinary impression. Anti-floral, stylised, artificial and magnificently rich in synthetics (Cellier was fond of tenacious chemical bases) Bandit has no vulnerability about it and few women would wish to be perceived as incisive, and imperious at the altar.But it has sex all right, and to a remarkable degree.

Bandit was created by Germaine Cellier, the first great female nose of the 20th century, a woman as elegant, magnetic and glamorous as any of her clients. Fracas, Jolie Madame and Vent Vert are all daughters of her genius. Beautifully dressed, an acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Piaf, and moving in Parisian artistic and intellectual circles, Cellier made the acquaintance of the couturier Robert Piguet, former protege of Poiret and patron of Givenchy, Dior and Balmain.A suite of legendary perfumes spilled out from their laboratory and atelier, the first and greatest being Bandit in 1944.

All sorts of stories are told of the perfume. An old gentleman told me years ago that Piguet had asked Germaine to create a scent for his lover, a wild young man known as “Le Bandit”, very soon after killed in a car crash (” I knew the boyfriend!”). Bandit is also said to have been made as a gift for the gorgeous actress Edwige Feuillere, darling of the film intelligentsia and blessed with glorious red-gold hair and a ravishing husky voice. It certainly sits uncommonly well on the sort of pale, thin translucent sometimes freckled skin that often accompanies this tint of hair; the type of complexion that so often turns white waxy flowers like jasmine and tuberose. A product of the War years it exudes such a perversity, ambiguity and sheer weirdness that it is often wrongly assumed to have been a favourite in the pan-sexual Berlin and Paris of twenty years earlier. Certainly it has echoes of Tabac Blond and it could have been worn perfectly (maybe it was) by the likes of Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Margo Lion and Jo Carstairs. Men may sport it with elan and confidence; providing they be as poised as the girls.

When I smell Bandit I feel the hand on my shoulder of Zarah Leander, the great revue star, singer and actress who captivated Sweden, Germany and most of Europe in the 1930’s. Too tall and too massive for Hollywood, a natural red-head with a huge appetite for money, food, alcohol and cigarettes Zarah overwhelmed her audiences and employers: fans were said to have fainted at the sight of her,overwhelmed by her aura; an Italian journalist described her as a beautiful creature from another planet. On set she drank whisky or vodka through a straw from what purported to be Coke bottles or glasses of milk. Her voice recorded as a deep bass and her mystery was intensified by a lifetime of large impenetrable dark glasses. Nordic and practical, she liked to be photographed scratching her pigs on her Swedish farm; when she fled from Germany in 1943 with her film career in ruins, she turned to running her own fish cannery. Swathed in furs, her towering height increased by stilettoes, her skin a mass of freckles, her hair according to her own account “an interesting blend of beetroot and carrot” Zarah used Bandit to make a dream team for 40 years. Where does one end and the other begin? Cigarette papers and tobacco; then the dry fragrance of face powder, the silk lining of a coat, the tang of red hair, the exquisite soft leather of shoes, gloves, bag, all warm from flesh-contact. A hint of whisky, of body heat and feral animal oils, even fresh perspiration; the sharpness of a green corsage or stage-door bouquet. In a copse once, I saw a red dog-fox leap from a bed of violets: here is the fox but no trace of violets except a waft of their musky fleshy crushed hearts.

Image: filmmuseum-potsam.de

Fanny Cradock: The pleasure of cooking is listening and looking…

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Much derided and mocked for years, Fanny Cradock continues to enjoy a certain notoriety: her spidery eyelashes and gash of a mouth have quite a following on YouTube. She has also garnered a grudging admiration. Rude, hectoring and often offensive Fanny certainly is; but her brash and breezy confidence is stimulating and there is something very appealing in the way she has evidently no fear of food and will stand for none from her audience as she barks out orders in that husky actressy voice.

Dated and repellent some of her recipes may be – the green fish, blue mashed potato and morsels of buttered stale cake dolled up (Daniel Farson’s phrase) to look like roses – but she bashes her materials around with bravura. There is none of the fear that is used as a weapon by many modern cookery exemplars: chefs justifying their status by stressing the perils of cuisine. Beating up her liberal requirements of cream, eggs and butter – “softened – which I hope this is…” – you cannot imagine Fanny having truck with allergies, eating disorders or diets.

Watching these ancient morsels of film (many of them recorded “live”) you can sometimes detect signs of an inner tension but this is more, I think, a surge of adrenalin, a determination to beat the clock, the rage of a winner than any doubt of her talent. Sometimes, as with Julia Child, you suspect she’s had a couple before going on, but it’s more probable she is only high on her own personality and sense of style. A rich sillage of Femme, Miss Dior, Joy – not to mention Elnett hair spray – is almost visibly coming off her in waves as she vigorously beats her roux – “think about that woman next door who you’ve never really liked…”.

Like Mildred Pierce, Fanny Cradock puts her pies in the oven by the clock, and takes them out by the clock. What cake would defy her? I don’t think she had much actual liking for food: she seems herself to have eaten for necessity rather than pleasure. Food she dished up as a status symbol: as she once explained, she liked to have it do her Regency dining room justice. I have done a certain amount of cooking all my life, privately and professionally and like Fanny I like to have a tip up my sleeve if ever asked for advice – something to say if the cameras ever come round.

And here it is for what it’s worth. When you cook, use all your senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing all count as much as taste. Any or all five will let you know when a dish is ready for table. Listen for the cake whistle like a dying lobster as it rises; and hear the roll of the water as it boils. Watch for the pasta and fish become opaque, the onions transparent and the cabbage change from churlish green to a lime emerald like dry seaweed returned to ocean; or the mushrooms become slippery black like black pearls. Feel the cream, choux pastry or scrambled egg thicken under your touch; or judge the heat of the oven with your hand to size it up for slow-cook meringues, lightning souffles and medium roasts. Ice cold hands do not merely indicate a warm heart. They also raise the best pastry.

One might say the sense of smell was invented by the Good Lord primarily to keep us away from danger. However complex and elusive some of us may find perfume, nearly everyone is quick to smell burning, smoke, gas, rotten eggs or that piece of meat that’s been too long at the back of the fridge. But learn to develop the nose in a more positive way – can you smell when a jacket potato is baked or a fowl is roasted without opening the oven door? All it takes is a little practice and observation; as with choosing a fragrance, just relax and be guided by instinct. Meanwhile, at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, officially voted finest restaurant in the world, you may delight your senses with an edible interpretation of Guerlain’s Shalimar – blood orange, roses, vanilla, mango and cream. A charming nod to the days when colognes were taken internally and the prevalence of the belief that what smells good must do you good. Bouffe bien!”

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

“Consider the lilies…”

Lily of the Valley has inspired mankind for centuries

Lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically

“… Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Always productive and fascinating to smell perfume oils and then return to the original source – the flower which inspired them. The fascination for me lies in discovering how the flower actually smells in the raw, often remarkably different from what we imagined or remembered.

The radiance of the lily of the valley has inspired mankind for centuries. Modern sources sometimes claim it originated in Asia, though Nicolson’s exhaustive 1886 Gardening Dictionary describes it as native to Britain and at that period still to be seen growing profusely (imagine!) in English woods. Medicinal and spiritual qualities (the warding off of evil spirits) are attributed to it, and an extensive folk lore is not the least of its charms. The flower is said to represent Our Lady’s Tears at the Crucifixion; and sometimes named Jacob’s Ladder or Ladders to Heaven – from the Patriarch’s dream of angels, ascending and descending the Divine staircase.

I have a plant before me now: exquisite in form and colour, both the flowers and foliage. With its vivid green silky spear-shaped leaves and pure white bell-like flowers (one of its French names is Clochettes d’Amour) it was a definitive corsage for Edwardian ladies, fashionably pinned to furs or lapels with a diamond clip. As the sun or the heat of the body warm the blossoms, the sweet,fragile yet pungent fragrance arouses almost unbearable nostalgia.

Inhaling it now, the scent is unexpectedly musky, very expensively soapy, verging on the powdery; with delicate hints of jasmine, orange blossom, even rose. Remarkably sophisticated, with a subtle suggestion of spice rather in the style of an old-fashioned clove carnation; complex and bewitching, unmistakable yet paradoxical.

For lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically. A conjuring trick of the highest order but you can see from the other flowers that it references, even from a pot on my kitchen table, how it can be pulled off, if very rarely. Dior’s Diorissimo is one such example: it was the designer’s favourite flower. His funeral took place in a bower, a cascade of lilies. Caron‘s Muguet de Bonheur catches the waxy muskiness of the flower: a salute to the Parisian chic of Claudette Colbert who wore it; and a souvenir of the French custom of offering lilies of the valley as a token of love on May Day. If you are after for the green, airy, spring-like quality try Frederic Malle‘s Lys Mediterranee – a gorgeously fresh garden of white flowers with lily of the valley nestling discreetly but sweetly at the heart.

‘They toil not, neither do they spin’… lilies of the valley earn their place in creation just by being.

Image from Wikimedia commons