The Coconuts

coconut-palm

When I was a tot we had a annual fair come to our village. It was held in the scrubby fields before the railway bridge, long since built over with offices and warehouses. Naturally, we never saw it all lit up by night; it was said to be unspeakably dangerous¤ after dark, and besides my mother had three children of five and under. My father hated fairs and had his work to do. So we went in the afternoon, in convoy: the pushchair, the pugs on leads continually underfoot, and Mrs Sarson bringing up the rear, full of dire warnings about carny folk, kidnapped kiddies and faulty machinery. We were allowed to go on no rides except the Dodgems and the Merry-Go-Round. Waltzers and the like (to my guilty relief) were strictly out of bounds. I was 23 before I took my first and only trip on the Big Wheel and at once wished I hadn’t.

Of course we were forbidden to eat any fairground goodies: the sugary-sizzling toffee apples, frizzly fries or clouds of tawdry-glamorous rosy candy floss. And of course we grizzled and whined until a taste was finally allowed – “you won’t like it, you’ll see!” – only to find it so much Dead Sea Fruit: the hard green apples so sour, the gleaming shellac coating so perilous to teeth and the floss sticking creepily to one’s face and clothes like shocking pink ectoplasm. Funny to remember how sticky hands drive small children mad. We were told to spit on an adult’s hanky and were then roughly wiped down like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s kittens.

There was a coconut shy. I don’t know if the nuts were glued on in the traditional way, but our infantile bombardment never shifted one. Then one year the publican’s son came with us and knocked off a prize and presented it to my mother on whom I think now he probably had a crush. We took it home, all rough and hairy like a shrunken head, and marvelled at it. No one had the faintest idea what to do with the thing beyond exhibiting its trophy status. The adults thought the contents were likely to be not particularly good for us: they had been through the privations of the World Wars, remember, and I think probably had very little idea what coconuts were, outside of the South Seas ads for Bounty bars (which nobody liked anyway).

“Oh! That poor Coconut!” It ended up cracked open with a hammer in the back yard, and then we gnawed the white flesh from the larger of the gritty fragments – a slow, messy and disappointing business. But the smell was good and I’ve loved any sort of coconut accord ever since, whether in soap, shampoo, hand cream, scent or mixed with raspberry jam in maids of honour. I find it sensuous and calming and fun.

It’s a tricky oil to play with in perfumery as an excess of coconut can be overwhelming & suffocating and too much reminiscent of sun tan lotion: however, a perfumer of imagination like the great Sarah McCartney makes a virtue of this with her witty trip to a very lickable seaside in WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS. Coconut is a quintessential perfume paradox: it often appears to be where it is not. As Miss Dietrich used to say: “Ich habe den Eindruck gegeben, nicht wahr? Aber ich war es nicht!”¤¤

In glorious tropicana scents like ASHOKA and COCCOBELLO an accord of fig trees or fig milk creates an olfactory illusion of coconut palms; and of the fragrant water contained inside the young green fruits that is suddenly the preferred health drink of the moment. Don’t say it was I that told you, but apparently the water is so pure and blessed that you can at a pinch use it in an emergency as a substitute for human plasma. And of course it is quite a different substance to the coconut milk which is prepared by human hands from the mature fruit, and which tastes and smells so good in a green Thai curry.

If you prefer your coconut served more sweet and gummy, try E.Coudray’s gourmand life-enhancer VANILLE & COCO.  BIJOU ROMANTIQUE on the other hand uses the accord as delicately and transparently as a piece of frosted sea glass through which you glimpse a triton’s garden of jewelled underwater flowers. Please also bear in mind that – as Frederic Malle and Dominique Ropion found when they created CARNAL FLOWER – the tuberose flower secretes a molecule very reminiscent of coconut. This adds a delicious ambiguity to many perfumes, notably Creed’s VIRGIN ISLAND WATER which reveals itself in many guises, rather like the antics of the Wizard of Oz: are you smelling waxen narcotic flowers or a Malibu cocktail – or a sparkling decoction of limes?

We’re all nuts for coconuts, us perfume knuts!

¤ fairgrounds certainly had a very alarming odour then – the sweating screeching barkers and their high-perfumed ladies; the oily engines; gaseous fumes; greasy illicit wads of paper money; fear.

¤¤ “I gave that impression, didn’t I? But I wasn’t!” ( Of her attributed eroticism )

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Hello, Dolly!

verhextdotcom

Some of our younger visitors & staff say they couldn’t possibly walk from Les Senteurs to Selfridge’s. Take heart! it only takes 5 minutes. This fabulous store was once the out-of-hours playground of the glittering and quasi-mythical Dolly Sisters, daughters of a Hungarian tailor and one of the great cabaret acts of the Roaring Twenties. Were they identical twins, Rosie being the slightly more ample and amorous of the two? Or, as used to be rumoured, was there a decade between them, relying on artful maquillage to close the gap? Their success spawned a slew of sister acts including the two Norwegian boys who became the toast of Paris parodying the Dolly act as “The Rocky Twins”.

The eponymous Gordon Selfridge (sharing the accolade with Dorothy Lamour of being the Marshall Field department store’s greatest U.S. export) fell for the Dollies hook line and sinker and transferred them from a flat in St Martins Lane to the huge mansion off Berkeley Square which is now the Landsdowne Club. Disastrously he laid on continuous late night store openings exclusively for the girls – who naturally helped themselves to whatever took their eye. And that was more likely to be sables, platinum and pearls than bread rolls or stationery.

But as we know from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

“He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend..”

The stars of this curious fun-loving menage burned out in the 1930’s with the collapse of the world economy: ill health, bankruptcy and lost looks put an end to all three of them. But Selfridges itself still dances on, as gay and glittering as ever; though the bright young people no longer demonstrate the Charleston on the roofs of passing London cabs and the treasure hunts through the vast departments have long ended. And the exotic perfumes that once enfolded Rosie and Jenny Dolly – Molinard, Caron, Coudray, Isabey, Grossmith, Knize, Houbigant – stream like a scented shimmering ribbon back to the blue door of Les Senteurs, just five minutes up the road.

Image: verhext.com

Vanilla

wikimedia diego rivera

When I was young, no one had much time for vanilla. To most of us it meant no more than a boring flavour of anaemic ice cream, the one that was always available once the strawberry and chocolate had run out or proved too expensive. People came out of confectionery shops with their faces on the floor: “They only had vanilla…”. My grandmother had a horror of food colourings or flavourings (poisonous) so we never experimented with vanillin, and vanilla pods were unheard of in our neck of the woods. My father’s interest in puddings was as a test for alcoholism. To see someone refuse dessert was a sure sign that person had a drinking problem, as certain as a vampire recoiling from garlic. “They can’t stand the sweetness!”

So we missed out on a lot of erudition and amusement: vanilla is a fascinating substance, chock-full of romance. Of course it has a justified reputation as an aphrodisiac, and as we’re all grown ups I’ll remind you of one of the reasons why. It’s the fruit of a species of orchid, bearing green and white flowers: the two words “vanilla” and “orchid” derive from the Latin and Greek words respectively for the female and male genitalia. This is on account of the intrinsically suggestive shapes of the plant, and something to remember when you’re lighting Mizensir‘s delicious Orchidee Chocolat candle. The ancient Mexicans prized vanilla, whisking it with chocolate and chili (though not sugar) to a cold foaming drink served to royalty and the gods to stimulate their appetites. Imported to Europe, it was sold at vast price to inflame rakes and courtesans, something in the style of modern Viagra. Modern scientists established that it contains a molecule very similar to that found in human milk: no wonder then that vanilla is a comfort food par excellence, stimulating thoughts of the nursery, the kitchen, animal warmth and nurturing protective snug love.

What excites me, too, is the reflection that vanilla is one of the oldest plants on the planet, a link between us and the dinosaurs. We are smelling a blossom at which a Stegosaurus might have snuffed in the Cretaceous period 30 million years ago. What a mind-expanding thought is that! Dinosaurs lived in a terrain very different to ours: flowers were only just beginning to evolve during the Cretaceous. Frederic Malle’s Jurassic Flower is a delicious anachronism. No grass; few deciduous trees, but rather palms, ferns, horsetails and the like. Dragonflies the size of swallows buzzing about. And then, this extraordinary evolution of dinosaurs into birds: when I look at my budgie – especially into his little blue eyes – I can see how an erect biped like a Tyrannosaurus might well have gone down this route, given enough time. However I find it very hard to imagine the horned Triceratops or the tortoise-like Anklyosaurus mutating to become airborne. But through all these vast changes, the eventual arrival of Man and the birth of civilisation, the vanilla orchid has remained constant, our living link with Eden. Pretty heady stuff.

Vanilla’s reign in modern perfumery is but a moment in time, dating from 1925 when Guerlain made vanillin such an exaggerated and successful feature of Shalimar. Now it warms, softens and expands florals, sweetens gourmands and takes the spotlight as a solo performer. Often confused with tonka (another plant derivative) vanilla is darker, smokier, far less sweet. It’s easy to study in the raw: buy a packet of pods and inhale. And then you can infuse them in anything, from coffee to custards. Keep one in the sugar jar, the tea tin or the biccie barrel. They last for ages and having been steeped in cream or other liquids can be washed, dried and used again.

E. Coudray do a brace of contrasting vanilla perfumes. Vanille et Coco is almost maddeningly gooey-sweet, incorporating coconut, amber and sticky fruits; but it has a gorgeous golden greed and voluptuousness which in a certain mood can hit the spot exactly. Its stately sister Ambre et Vanille is more restrained, though hot with iris, heliotrope and marigold, spices and woods. Villoresi’s Teint de Neige has its own cult following: a gauzy gossamer cloud of jasmine, white roses and sifted powdery vanilla icing sugar. The quintessence of soft and romantic femininity, an Edwardian glass dressing table cascading with lace, glace ribbon and goffered muslin. Pierre Guillaume is the niche king of sophisticated gourmanderie, so vanilla fanciers should inspect his Parfumerie General and Huitieme Art with method and enthusiasm. Don’t miss Creed‘s luxurious Sublime Vanille; and we end with the grand finale of Mona di Orio’s resplendent Vanille, a French galleon sailing out of Guadeloupe or Martinique, laden with bitter oranges and a whole plantation of vanilla pods perfuming the trade winds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

…and of course, Quite Alone…

One seems to come closest to the famous in their bedrooms despite the fact that by the time the chambers are thrown open to the public their occupants are long since dead. The oddest and most neglected (I was the only visitor) was at Field Marshall Rommel’s wartime beach villa outside Tunis: the bedroom was dark and stark with a narrow bunk (“time to turn over, time to turn out”) and a scorched lampshade which looked as though the Desert Fox had used too high a bulb wattage. A whiff of Tabac still seemed to hang around the dank plunge bath. Across the Atlantic, Noel Coward’s Jamaican bedroom is full of creeping damp and no glass in the windows. Only slightly mildewed, “That Man” talc still lurks heroically in the bathroom cabinet.

Queen Victoria’s cosy Sterbezimmer may be seen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Here she died in the arms of the Kaiser in a surprisingly simple room with a lot of flowered chintz, the carpet patterned with pink roses. A wooden nightstand by the big double bed no doubt contains a you-know-what within. Over the pillow hangs a coloured photo of the Prince Consort, taken lying cold and dead in 1861. A painting of Albert as a fairy prince in armour stands on an easel by the bed, the first sight meeting the old Queen’s eyes as she awoke. What we don’t see, maybe surprisingly to the modern mind, are the ritual appurtenances of clothing, hair dressing and adornment which of course would be stored next door in the dressing room – that room once so full of life and interest and bustle, sometimes doubling also as bathroom and wardrobe.

There at a gloriously ornate turquoise and gold Sevres glass with romping cherubs cavorting beneath a crown Victoria gazed into her own blue eyes, round as buttons, and watched her hair being polished with silk before being dressed: “60 years a Queen and always the same hairstyle!” said my pompadour’d and disapproving great grandmother. Here, too, Victoria dabbed a little perfume on a handkerchief or on one of the huge lace fans she favoured. Whereas it was considered then de trop for a respectable woman to scent her skin, the faint sillage from a wisp of fluttering fabric was permitted. In youth Victoria loved brilliant striking floral scents – E Coudray was one of her suppliers and Creed another. Think of her embowered in the roses of Fleurs de Bulgarie, that extraordinarily dense bouquet of crimson Bulgarian roses, which smells at first of pear drops, honey and nectar: some people find that the intensity of it gives them gooseflesh, makes the hair on their arms rise. But wait for the rose attar to open, soften and flower on what smells like a golden ottoman of ambergris, musk, tonka and vanilla. You come to a uniquely stately, confident and womanly scent and one that in the extraganza and concentration of its simple formula gives an idea of the monolithic, massive nature and structure of Victorian perfumes.

I leave you at the toilet table of Marie Antoinette, as described by J B B Nichols; that gold and crystal altar wheeled forward like Juggernaut to the windows among the lilac bouquets and peacock feathers of the cavernous Versailles bedroom.

‘This was her table, these her trim outspread
Brushes and trays and porcelain cups for red;
Here sate she, while her women tired and curled
The most unhappy head in all the world.’

Image from english-heritage.org.uk

60 Glorious Years!

Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation

Les Senteurs salutes Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee: 60 glorious years in the style of her great great grandmother Victoria, just the two of them having achieved this feat in the thousand years since the Conquest. Only the reigns of George III and Henry III come close: 10 years ago, Her Majesty said she thought she could give the latter a run for his money, and this she has done with elan. George III has been pipped by a matter of weeks. Long Live the Queen!

Let’s have a look at some suitably queenly scents for the occasion. Creed has been a supplier of couture and perfume to royalty for 250 years so we might start with Fleurs de Bulgarie, a blood-red Bulgarian rose fragrance based on a formula offered to Queen Victoria in the days when she was herself young, passionate and rosy. Madly in love with the beautiful Albert (who she noted wore nothing beneath his cashmere breeches) Victoria adored brilliant colours, jewels, musky perfumes and eye-popping dresses – once turning up on a State Visit to Paris in an outfit trimmed with geraniums and clutching a large bag crotcheted with a bold poodle motif. Fleurs de Bulgarie is magnificently opulent and intense; roses all the way blended with sandalwood, musk and ambergris. It sits like the Black Prince’s ruby in the Crown Imperial – glowing and exotic.

Creed owe a huge debt to Napoleon III’s Empress, the Spanish beauty Eugenie de Montijo, for their establishment in France in the 1850’s. With her abundant red-gold hair, quizzical butterfly eyebrows and huge violet eyes Eugenie followed in the steps of her idol Marie Antoinette by making Paris the fashion capital of the world. The couturier Worth was brought over from Lincoln to design the Empress’s vast crinolines; and as the Empire faded and the crinoline began to evolve into the bustle, Creed presented their prototype for what is now Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie – a sumptuous powdery oriental, with a palpitating heart of jasmine on a creamy base of iris,vanilla and musk. It has the gift of evoking the fabrics and style of the era – taffeta, velvet, organdie, bombazine, crepe, brocade, satin – and in the mind’s eye reflects their colour: violet, the newly invented magenta, snowy ermine and glossy black sables, the parure of imperial amethysts you can see today in the Louvre.

Still on the Creed shelf there’s Fleurissimo, that white and green hyper-floral which captures the frosted magnolia beauty of Princess Grace; and Millesime Imperial, launched in 1994 to celebrate 140 years of service by Creed to the Imperial Courts of Europe. Fleurissimo is one of those exquisitely thought-out fragrances which perfectly evokes the woman to whom it pays homage: cool, beautiful, elegant, a little reserved but magnificently sensuous. Spray a little and you see the likeness of Her Serene Highness shimmer before you.

The scents and creams of E.Coudray, all got up in pink, ivory and gilded packaging, make wonderful Jubilee gifts, either for oneself or for a dear one: this House has been in business since the 1820’s and once shipped toiletries and perfumes out to the Emperor of Brazil and the Tsars of Russia. Victoria, too, was a loyal client: what we tend to forget is that 120 years ago, this tiny old lady in black was the centre of the world – she was on the list of every tradesman on the planet, from Windsor to Kabul.

Grossmith of London made the sparkling floral Betrothal for the wedding of Victoria’s grandson, the future George V, to Princess May of Teck. May became Queen Mary, the lady who famously advised, “never miss an opportunity to use a lavatory”; and who was so intrigued by the harvest fields of Badminton during World War Two – “so, THIS is hay…!” A blonde Gemini subject, the sophisticated champagne floweriness of this gorgeous green scent was perfectly suited to the wearer. Detractors of Mary – and of Victoria – tend to forget they were both Geminians: interested in everything, intensely feminine, fascinated by the the realm of the senses. And of course also blessed with the concomitant shortcomings…

Now our own dear Queen is a stolid faithful Taurus, loyal and true. It would be vain and impudent to speculate on her choice of scent, but the Taurean generally avoids anything too heavy, too cloying or sweet and that seems to fit the Royal profile. Something lightly crisply floral I would imagine is her personal preference.

May she wear it in Good Health and Joy this Jubilee Year!

We remember Victoria’s superb reply to one of her many grandchildren (I think it was Princess Marie Louise) who said after the Diamond Jubilee drive to St Paul’s amid the cheering masses, “O! Grandmama! How proud you must feel!”

“No, dear child: very humble…”

I feel that our Queen would echo this.