A Carpet of Flowers, A Carpet of Tears

 

A clever man on the wireless said that whether or not we are aware of it, sleeping or waking, we are smelling smells ALL the time. Continuously and continually, like animals. And we know how wild beasts are: from shrews & field mice to elephants & polar bears, they are in a perpetual state of agitated nervous tension. The olfactory sense is a constant nagging spur to survival. This past week I have been under a veritable bombardment of smells and thereby living on my nerves in consequence.

 

I saw a man mowing down a patch of huge purple violets. I had to ‘say something’: it was like watching a massacre. Well, it was a massacre. He laughed. He said, ‘I thought they were weeds’. But the strange and wonderful thing is, that within just a few days the musky perfumed carpet was all in bloom once more: violetta triumphans! Shy and dainty violets may be; but they are tough and dogged too. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte and his adoption of violets as his emblem – the violets and the golden bees. I wondered whether the tiny Emperor¤ saw something of himself in the flowers: diminutive, but strong and irresistible, rising up from exile in Elba to throw Europe back into panic and terror.

 

I came back from church last Sunday still pleasantly be-fogged by incense from the thurifer which swung in great arcs over the congregation. I love the look of the perfumed blue clouds as much I do the smell. The scented smoke billows up into the vaulted arches, and wreathes around the gilded angels and painted gargoyles. The incense slowly invades dark corners of the building and steals into the soul. It cannot be kept out. It purifies, sanctifies, cleans and inspires. It lulls you; and it brisks you up.

 

So I walked up the road and the divine gave way to the mundane but comfortable. An echo of the respective roles of SS Mary and Martha who feature so much in the Christian liturgy just now. The woman of worshipful meditation: and her sister, cumbered with domestic industry. Here was the nostalgic savoury smell of Sunday lunches being brought to table. Quite a rare odour nowadays – roast beef or lamb¤¤, gravy and hot horseradish, mint sauce, fatty potatoes, boiled cabbage, smoking oil. All meshing and contrasting with the spring smells of the first lawn mowings, the chilly fresh air, the trumpeting garish daffodils. And of course, a bonfire – the acrid pungent combustion of winter rubbish, so different from the nostalgic smouldering of autumn leaves. A March bonfire sends you rushing out to get the clean laundry off the line and inside. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle goes mad.

 

Many years ago, of a sunny Sunday morning, I used to be wild for the taste and smell – besides the tonic effect – of Cinzano Bianco. The lust for Cinzano maybe grew in turn from infant experiences of my grandfather’s parlour. We used to toddle round after Sunday school. The house below the church has been demolished these past forty years, but in my memory I can still see the great drinks tray laid out with gin, “It”, Martini, Noilly Prat. The fumes of alcohol mingled with those of turps, oil paints and a damply sputtering log fire. When grandpapa had given a cocktail party he would go round afterwards and tip the dregs from all the glasses into one bottle, shake it up and save it for the next Sunday.

“Thrift, thrift Horatio!” – and with quite a kick.

 

Cinzano and Martini take their distinctive aroma from dozens of herbs and spices: “over sixty”, says one label. I guess it is that which makes these beverages smell and taste very like cheese and onion crisps. (Those same crisps they tell us that Mrs May has forsworn for Lent). What an intoxicating combination of contrasts and sharp savoury green & gold odours: the crunchy and the oleaginous; the salty and the unctuous.

 

Shall we end with another carpet, this time of roses? When I attended the recent Fragrance Foundation Jasmine Awards in Piccadilly, the specactacular flowers by Moyses Stevens were not the least of the attractions. A vast urn filled with roses and lilac towered over a table wrist-deep in exquisitely scented rose petals of every shade. I felt pleasantly similar to the flower-drowned victims of Heliogabalus.

 

Not to mention The Babes In The Wood:

 

“And Robin Redbreast Sorrowing

Covered them with – rose – leaves!”

 

¤ did you ever see Bonaparte’s satin shoes, in a glass case at Malmaison? A comfortable fit for a large cat or a hare, I thought.

¤¤ very lean nowadays. Joints look and taste totally different from the gory “marbled meats” of my youth. They look reconstructed, even “dumbed-down”. And do you remember roast mutton? (“Hand onion sauce and redcurrant jelly separately”). Gorgeous: despite the strong smell of wool.

 

…AND NOW:

 

I must enthusiastically and gratefully acknowledge every dear reader, customer and friend of Les Senteurs & of Lemon Wedge who has been so kind as to congratulate this old boy on his recent Jasmine Award.

 

I am so very touched and appreciative of all your warmth, kindness and generosity. THANK YOU, so much.

 

On the day of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise said to the gallant aged Sovereign:

 

“O, grandmama! How proud you must be!”

 

To which the Queen-Empress replied,

 

“No, dear Child. Very humble”

 

I must confess to being both.

 

Thank you.

Love

James.

A Pop-Up/ All-In /Family-Friendly Christmas ….. and the hens laid Brexit eggs!

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“Si jeunesse savait; si veillesse pouvait”. Some of my younger readers may never have tasted – nor yet smelled – an icicle. In the old days you broke them off from a low roof or drainpipe, and licked them gingerly. They took their metallic mineralic redolence from tiles, slates, brickwork and tarred felting. They were full of tang. Sometimes a dead leaf or blades of grass would be embedded in the ice. Do you remember people trying to make snow-filled pancakes, as mentioned on the wireless just the other day. There were squeaks of disbelief in the studio, but I certainly recall rumours of this exotic and rather romantic recipe, though it was never put into practice at ours. Neither did we see dishes of snow topped with cream: surely this is an American idea?

I remember the icicles because they represent the incarnation of so many Christmas Eves. The snow usually came a little later, for New Year. The 24th December was all about the smell of water, rain, dampness, ice. This old ghost of Christmas Past looks back over the decades and sees our kitchen in the twilight. The mopped-out floor is covered in fluttering newspapers marked with gum-boots, paw prints and little kids’ feet. The back door is banging in gusts of unseasonably stuffy wind. The sink is full of my father’s ice trays, and the melting frozen peas forgotten by a neighbour who’d called for a mid-afternoon gin¤. We are waiting for the turkey.

Our flightless bird used to be delivered at the very last minute, usually on Christmas Eve night, when a certain anxiety might well be setting in. A florid old man would come round around eight o’clock, half-blotto – demanding more whisky: and he’d sling the bird on the kitchen table. So then my dad had to sort it out. The smells of turkey preparation from the feathered stage are enough to put you off for life. Also, in those days, there was a lot of controversy about the stuffing. The preliminaries involved great scrubbings-out, and then prolonged sniffings, of the cavity. Was everything sufficiently clean and sweet? (Nowadays many people go in for turkey “crowns” – a cropped, trimmed & sanitised format – and no wonder)¤¤.

Christmas morning came round all too soon: time for the full ritual of turkey worship to begin with the lighting of the oven. After which the phantasmagoria of Christmas smells went crackers : “open that window!”

New Year’s Eve we had beef.

Of course, we had a few words of warning from those ubiquitous seasonal surveys this past week¤¤¤. When choosing your New Year champagne, go for a brand that offers bigger bubbles. I tend to keep off the champagne; it’s too acid for my tum. But now it appears that larger bubbles – once considered vulgar – produce a finer scent and therefore a superior flavour. The findings of another scientist-gang suggest that a fragrantly frugal champagne breakfast is, after all, likely to do more you good than oats, fruit and eggs. Defying the conventions of centuries, dieticians now propose that fasting from supper right through to next day’s lunch is the way forward to perfect health. No more savoury smells of The Full English (“served all day”). I haven’t eaten a regular breakfast since the 1970’s so I ought to be as fit as a buck.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the cold, cold tomb”

My mother used to say they sang this in the air raid shelter. But even in church today we note some diminution of traditional smells. The verse above has been “adjusted” in some modern hymn books. The Three Kings are apparently more likely to have brought “incense” than the more specific frankincense. For myself this refinement of translation comes too late for me: I’m leaving my nose be and keeping to the old ways.

On behalf of L.W. and of everyone at Les Senteurs may I now wish you the Happiest, Most Peaceful and Prosperous of New Years? And, Thank You All!

¤ “two rounds of the best hot gin punch” is what Cratchit children drink in the 1951 British movie ‘Scrooge’.

¤¤ but my Canadian cousin now writes to me of her sister-in-law’s bird:

“…listen to this!… She put it in the oven FROZEN and PRESTUFFED – and only had to roast for 6 hours…!??  From FROZEN?!?!” It turned out perfect!”.

¤¤¤ , only the other day, a MORI pollster came round the village just after dark. No one would admit him.

If you really want to know – look in the Mirror…

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A report in the Times last week – buried under the news from America – was all about current British food fashions and forecasts, as reported by the Waitrose analysts. Health and efficiency is – naturally – key: but so, too, is an interesting appreciation and cultivation of a sense of smell. So, seaweed, cactus water and coconut flour are among the hard-hitters now trending. And it seems that Polynesian cuisine is going to be the next big sensation, the taste of 2017. Vegetable yoghurt will be all the rage; also promised – thrillingly – are perfume-themed cocktails.

I felt quite intoxicated by the idea of a Polynesian diet – so, the other evening I went down to my nearest ethnic eaterie. I rang the bell. The menu was rich and evocative: including chicken long rice; lomilomi (that means “massaged”) salmon; kalua pork; and masses of poi, both leaf and root. The scent and taste of the islands. All that succulent golden aromatic fruit exhaling honey dew and sunlight. Crackling roasts basted in coconut oil and brought to table wreathed in tiare flowers. (Thoughts of cultural appropriation recrudesce but are rapidly dismissed*). No wonder that early western visitors to the Pacific islands thought they had reached the outer shores of Paradise. Sailors reared in the slum rookeries of London and Toulon were ravished by the unknown and delicious scents floating out to their ships from the mountains and lagoons of “the new Cytherea”. I once sailed out from Galway on a warm spring morning to the Isles of Aran: the perfume of spring flowers – violets, cowslips, bluebells – drifted over the water to the ferry passengers with amazing power and radiance.  This is a singular beautiful phenomenon – the fragrance of a new land sweeping over the salty billows like an ambassadorial suite. Our CORSICA FURIOSA is a perfume that presents Napoleon’s birthplace thus: rain-drenched minty lentisticus, honey and tomato leaf. TULUM is a garland of roses, limes and mangoes, thrown down by the old Aztec gods from a sapphire sky into the Yucatan Caribbean.  Come by one day soon, and try.

But to return to the newspapers. What strikes me most in these dietary ruminations is the comforting reflection that we at Les Senteurs have always been – and still are –  very much in the van of style & fashion. We have – thank goodness – our fingers on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. We are currently looking at all kinds of cacti though we may not plant them in our perfume nursery quite yet. We are awash with coconut and seawater. Last month our Egeria  collaborated with the Daily Mail on a feature celebrating the cocktail as perfume and vice versa. Right back in 2012 we had hosted a Valentine’s Event to explore this same intriguing theme. Like ancient shamans and wizards, our minds are opened and stimulated by the divine fog of fragrance in which we spend our days. Mind reading and telepathy are in the air, especially in this super-weird year. Like the Sibyl at Delphi, we inhale the scents which exude from the innards and skin of Mother Earth to be caught in a thousand bottles. We have heard and tasted – merely metaphorically, mind! – the Shrieking Mandrake.¤

Some seers look into the future by gazing into a bowl of water which blooms with visions of things to come. Some perfumers refresh their noses by inhaling from vessels of clear cold water. We use coffee beans for this at Les Senteurs: not maybe as picturesque but more practical. Water needs endlessly replacing as it becomes corrupted with scent; just as in the prophet’s dish it is clouded and disturbed with jostling phantoms.

As to the coming use of vegetables in yoghurt: it’s about time. We most of us enjoy yoghurt as a marinade and a dressing. Some of us have  experimented with it on the skin, as a purifying masque and moisturiser. Most foods can be applied both within and without. Centuries ago this was also true of perfumes. Different foods feed different parts of the body – helping us to see in the dark; to fade freckles; to nourish our brains; to make our hair curl. Taste and smell are inextricably linked in the human sensory system. That old Polynesian poi root, when cooked, will eagerly absorb all surrounding odours and flavour. Perfumes which celebrate food have long since moved on from the traditional accords of cake, chocolate and cream. Gourmand flowers are now all the go: a return to the eighteenth century idealisation of feminine beauty as rose petals laid in cream. From the kitchen garden come carrot, cucumber, celery, coriander, cumin – and a vast range of herbs – all extensively used in perfumery¤¤. Some of the more intense and earthy tuberoses carry a powerful suggestion of their own tubers – and of sacking, soil and humus. There is a whiff of a fine cabbage-leaf cigar in Killian’s LIGHT MY FIRE ; and of course, botanically, the divinely scented velvet wallflower is a cabbage-cousin. I have waited years for the honeyed smell of bean flowers to grace the perfumers’ palate: the overwhelming redolence of broad beans in bloom. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Finally, it’s a funny thing but no sooner do we take on a new scent referencing the Marquis de Sade – ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – than it all hatches out at Penguin Books, too. One of de Sade’s tales is being prepared in a new English translation. Apparently it caused a ruckus at the publisher’s. One of the translators said it made him feel physically sick – “upsetting to read and edit”. The editor at Penguin wept when presented with the final version.¤¤¤ So you might want to have another gander at the perfume which is fascinating and compelling but not, we think, traumatic. Mind you, I’ve always been very very wary of that old Marquis myself.

The old year fast fades but everything at Les Senteurs is wonderfully new and fresh in spirit. See you soon.

* to coin a phrase of the great E.M.Delafield.

¤ years ago we sold Annick Goutal’s celebration of the weird root – MANDRAGORE. “And its carton was gleaming in purple and gold”. We still heed Pierre Guillaume’s advice to taste perfume on the tongue.

¤¤ ANGELIQUES SOUS LA PLUIE – the smell of gentle February rain on a walled kitchen garden.

¤¤¤ See The Times 5.11.2016 – for full report & enthusiastic Editorial.

The Coffee Sonata

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that no cup of coffee tastes as good as it smells. The same might be said of bacon and cigarettes. When I was a child I had two curious idees fixes of adventurous high romance in daily life. The first was the modest desire to possess a sponge bag, filled with toilet requisites: my first term of boarding at prep school both fulfilled and killed that fantasy. “My passion & my poison”.  The second was the yen to live on coffee and sandwiches. For many years this wish partially came true.

When I was at school we brewed up instant coffee from pre-dawn to dusk on charred gas-rings which burned with a spectral blue light in dingy corridors. We learned to drink Nescafe and Maxwell House black and unsweetened as our pocket money dwindled with the term. Coffee was served constantly: from the time we arose surreptitiously at 5am to attend to our neglected essays until we   reluctantly retired at 10 pm. At one stage I reckoned I was drinking at least 25 mugs a day, often more. No wonder we were all so lively and – well – ‘exuberant’. Like Balzac we were inflamed and maddened by the beverage.

Nowadays I am told that the sandwich is moribund – “The Great Sandwich is dead!” – elbowed out by cakes – “O! The CAKE!” – and miniature meals in little pots¤. But then as now I loved the idea of wonderfully aromatic and brilliantly coloured sandwiches. White waxy bread or brown granary bread lavishly buttered then daintily¤¤ plastered with ham, mustard, tomatoes, egg and cress, cream cheese and cucumber – and accompanied by stinging strong hot coffee “handed separately”. That heavenly contrast of smells and tastes: the bitter black coffee and the moist, well-stuffed snacks: yin and yang, absolutely. Even reading about such refreshment in novels – often called for after a shock or during a crisis – still makes my mouth water.

Gertie Lawrence used to sing about the experience:

“The things I long for are simple & few:
A cup of coffee, a sandwich and you”

(She “don’t need lobster or wine”).

The very word “coffee” (from the Arabic via the Turkish) is one of my favourites. I like the double F’s and E’s – the soft exoticism of of the assonance. I am prejudiced in favour of that old Hollywood writer Lenore Coffee simply of account of her exotic name. Ms Coffee’s movies turned our heads¤¤¤ just as the eponymous bean does. The drink originated in Abyssinia where the ancient Coptic monks used it to keep them awake during the prayerful vigils of the night. Contrary-wise I was assured many years ago that in Brazil it is served as a soothing nightcap.

Coffee chocolates, coffee eclairs and coffee ices. Coffee and walnut cake: now there’s a divine combination of taste, colour, texture and scent – the graininess and slight bitterness of the nut and the smoothness of the coffee. Coffee enemas; coffee grounds to deter the slugs – especially germane in this strange summer – and coffee perfumes.
At Les Senteurs you can smell coffee flowers whipped up with frothy cream and chocolate in MUSC MAORI. ( “You’re the cream in my coffee” – remember Marlene’s screen test for The Blue Angel? She always said it had been pinched by the Red Army in ’45, and eventually she was proved right).

Then there’s INTOXICATED – a scented jeu d’esprit that one can imagine being served up to the Empress Josephine, that connoisseur of perfumes, on a painted Sevres tray. Picture la belle Creole lolling in her great golden swan bed at Malmaison: the wallpapers and draperies are saturated in her favourite musk and rich jasmine oils of the Islands; the smell of 10,000 roses drifts through the windows. And mingling with all this, coffee – “hot as Hell, black as night and sweet as love” – fragrant with green cardamom seeds and precious glazed sugar from Josephine’s homeland in Martinique. An earlier femme fatale, the Dubarry, relied on coffee – among other things – to stimulate the appetites of Louis XV. Of a morning, early, he’d kindle the fire and she’d boil the water – “La France! Ton cafe!” Their little private bourgeois idyll, years before Marie Antoinette took up farming.

And most recently, please Ladies and Gentlemen, here comes 8 MARS 1764 by Pozzo di Borgo, premiering soon at Les Senteurs. More C18th redolence: an evocation of the era when the cult of coffee reached its peak. Cognac and bitter coffee; sweet incense, leather and glittering citrus notes. The life of the Corsican grandee, Carl Andrea Pozzo di Borgo, St Petersburg’s Ambassador to Paris, translated into immortal fragrance. (Before you ask – he never met Josephine; he was Napoleon’s mortal foe¤¤¤¤).

“There’s An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil!” So, come, another cup? ‘

¤ Tesco sells a dear little pack of 2 hard-boiled eggs – exquisitely shelled – on a miniature bed of baby spinach. The perfect “snack on the track”.

¤¤ not too daintily, mind. “Be generous!”

¤¤¤ she scripted big hits for Flynn, Harlow, Crawford, Davis…

¤¤¤¤ though he achieved the distinction of being portrayed on film by Norman Shelley, an actor loved by millions as ‘Colonel Danby’ in The Archers.

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!”