The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

Wasn’t it funny when Ms Sturgeon “channelled Kellyanne Conway” (BBC R4) but nonetheless kicked off her shoes before sitting on that now famous sofa? Maybe she’d read our chat on this page the other week about going barefoot in the house. I’m so glad this theme has gone viral: it’s a social etiquette that needs defining in Britain once and for all. As a dear regular correspondent observes regarding the removal of shoes:

“… it is of course de rigueur in many Asian countries. Moreover, I do not lose my poise or posture: should I find it difficult to bend down there is usually someone around to undo my shoe laces…”

Now, there’s a class act!

Just now I am bombarded with divine spring smells. All weekend the sun has shone, drawing out the perfume of the narcissi and hyacinths in the garden. Indoors there is a wonderful blend of delicate scents opening and flowering in the new April warmth and light. A phial of the new Frederic Malle triumph SUPERSTITIOUS, gleaming with glass-green aldehydes, is the star performer. Its sophisticated glossy authority enhances the soft creamy sweetness exuding from my lovely stephanotis, Coty’s gift without parallel. And then I was given a tin of Kusmi tea from Paris: aren’t I spoiled? Kusmi is ‘Le thé des tsars’¤, brought from the Champs-Elysees. My present is the new ‘Euphoria’ blend – there are many others.

‘Euphoria’ is well named. When you open the tangerine & gold tin you may think that there’s been a muddle in the shop. You seem to be looking at a bouquet of the most exceptional pot pourri. Pieces of fragrant orange peel – generous chunks! – rub shoulders with cacao and roasted mate. That’s the official party line but I can see, smell and taste other things in there: jasmine? vanilla?  I mashed two large pots of this blissful blend yesterday and the exquisite aroma filled the house. Should you be lucky enough to be gifted by Kusmi my tip would be, don’t be in a hurry to throw out the dregs: let them sit and perfume your sacred space. And the tea also tastes delicious served cold, on a hot afternoon of transplanting, digging and weeding.

I keep thinking about St Martha¤¤ and the holy house at Bethany, also filled with odours. Martha’s cookery; her sister Mary’s precious ointment of spikenard; the smell of their brother Lazarus’s sudden illness and death. Yesterday’s deeply disturbing – and lengthy¤¤¤ – Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus’s rising from the tomb. His sister Martha is appalled – as we should all be – as the listener is – by the prospect of the opening of his grave: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”. The smell of death is truly terrifying: so final, so uncompromising. You can fool yourself no longer. No wonder certain highly-scented flowers give people the horrors – it is not so much the perfume of the blooms but the grim knowledge of what the fragrance is intended to conceal.

Lazarus, however, walks forth from his cave in the rock. He is sound and sweet and presumably redolent of burial oils and spices, though still terrifyingly wrapped with cere cloths. “…And his face was bound about with a napkin”. What dread there must have have been when that napkin was removed. Yet – and here was the miracle – all was well. Lazarus was alive and whole again;  later he is said to sailed with his sisters to evangelise Provence and the pagan Gauls. But, as Our Vicar said, he knew he must die – and rise – a second time.

From my long-ago cooking days in a City restaurant, I remember a terrible crisis one morning. The butcher never turned up with the poultry – but the boss refused to alter the menu and remove the featured Chicken Dish of the Day: he really did have a death wish, that one. This was the great occasion on which St Martha – urgently solicited – worked a true miracle. For – see! – the long-delayed chicken finally went into the oven well after noon: and not a soul thought to order The Dish of of Day until the chooky-chook was beautifully cooked and wondrously savoury. Although we were very crowded that lunchtime, everyone mysteriously preferred to choose cold quiche.

However, this episode marked for me the beginning of five years of vegetarianism. I had cooked enough chickens¤¤¤¤. The sight of all those pallid-pink joints and their post-feathery chilly smell nauseated me. Chicken in the raw. I was like King Lear with his hand:

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

And after that things were really never quite the same again.

¤ though I think that most of the Tsars of the Kusmi era ( the firm was founded in St Petersburg in 1867) had an anglophile preference for imported Liptons and Twinings.

¤¤ the name Martha and the word ‘myrrh’ probably have the same semantic origins. Once again, the motif of smell.

¤¤¤ permission given to sit, if necessitated by bodily frailty.

¤¤¤¤ remember Garbo on being asked why she retired at age 36? “I had made enough faces”.

“Too kind..”

vanity

 

I believe it was “Dizzy” Disraeli who opined to the effect that: “We all love flattery: and when you come to royalty, then you should lay it on with a trowel.”

Certainly the widowed Victoria purred  like a cat under her Prime Minister’s assiduous attentions. Rotund and querulous in black bombazine and crepe, the Empress of India revelled in being cast as Disraeli’s dainty “Fairy” and “Fairy Queen”.

Elizabeth Tudor demanded to be assured that she was the Fairest Princess in Christendom. Not even the grossest flattery was excessive for her: was it a game? Did she secretly enjoy seeing statesman and intellectuals making fools of themselves over a tragic old lady? Perhaps she saw that the demanding and obtaining of continual irrational praise was a measure not of her beauty but of her power. And that was why the horrible ( and boring ) Earl of Essex who surprised her, balding and undressed in her own bedroom, had to die. Elizabeth knew that after that experience – shattering to both Queen and courtier – Essex would never be able to lie convincingly, eyeball to eyeball, again.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot and I’ll tell you why. My spies in the department stores tell me that currently the most frequently-heard complaint from perfume purchasers is that the fragrance brought the wearer no compliments. No one said a word. The crash of silence! – to coin a phrase.

It used to be widely said that if you could not smell your own perfume then it was the perfect match for you. There is something in this apparent paradox. As we all know, the more you are in love with a scent the less you pick it up. The brain and the nose are all at peace and they don’t need to keeping registering the fragrance. They know you are happy and safe with it. So they simply switch off and worry about something else.

Frederic Malle told us that he knew he’d got a hit with iconic Musc Ravageur when he sent his P.A. down the Metro doused in the new scent, and the Paris commuters went wild. It certainly is a rousing accolade to be told you smell marvellous but I don’t think we should either panic or grouse when we don’t get the compliments.¤

The compliments don’t come largely because many people are still shy about scents. Smell is a very intimate thing. Smelling bad is, as we know, something even your best friend may not be able to tell you. I would hesitate to comment on a stranger’s gorgeous scent unless asked specifically for an opinion. Men can’t help acting on Impulse – but I’d be very wary of stopping someone in the street to pass a remark on their redolence. Especially in these strange days! I wished someone a good morning recently and the sky fell in. “WHAT did you say to me??”

I am just old enough to remember a time when my elders thought it intolerably gauche, tasteless and bad form to praise anything. You thanked your hostess for entertaining you, but you would never single out the food, or her dress, her hair, her jewels or her perfume for specific comment. Diana Mitford’s old nanny told her on her wedding day to stop fussing at the glass, for:

“Nobody’s going to be looking at you, dear”.

Drawing attention to oneself; seeking attention or approbation was then beyond the pale.

This may not have been altogether healthy; but, in any case, do we not wear perfume primarily for our own private delight? When lovely customers come to the shop to find themselves something new, they often worry that their partners may not care for the chosen prize. I always advise them as I’m now advising you. Say Absolutely Nothing to your Loved One; just wear the perfume with quiet confidence. Don’t canvass opinions. Asking others for their views on what you are wearing always makes folks nervous – and consequently “predicates the answer ‘no'” as we used to learn in French grammar lessons. Never explain and never complain.

Well, doesn’t it make sense? Please yourself and then at least someone’s happy.

Have a joyously perfumed week!

¤ “She’s wearing TRAMP – and everybody loves her!” was a wonderfully ambiguous advertising line some 40 years ago.

Compliments Of The Season

peter-doig-snow

 

Last week began with Gaudete Sunday, the mid-Sunday of Advent when, as our vicar said, we give thanks for having made it half-way to Christmas. I am ashamed to say that this festival of progression was a new one to me. Mind you, I have got to the stage when I might just have forgotten about it. I was struck by the roses-in-the-snow motif – that timeless emblem of hope; and a recurring theme of folk and fairy tale. About her neck the vicar wore a deep dusky pink stole – a stylised damask garland of the Mystic Flower. Roses represent such a complex kaleidoscope of symbols – everything from perpetual immaculate virginity to raging passion. No wonder every perfumer wants to have a least one crack at a rose fragrance.

I can think of nothing more delicious and festive than the gift of perfume. This year I have received one such already. It’s lovely! I was warming a bowl of soup at noon. There was a terrific double knock at the door like the arrival of Marley’s ghost: and there stood a special postie carrying the most perfect cardboard box you ever saw – it was all stuffed with golden paper and in the depths of all the gleam and glitter was a heavenly little bottle. You know, at Les Senteurs when someone purchases scent as a present, we always offer an accompanying sample so that the recipient can try the fragrance from the phial first, in case the gift doesn’t suit. But personally I am so touched by the thought that a kind friend has chosen me something, that I am invariably disposed to be crackers about the incoming perfume.

Also, I am rarely given scent because, of course, people think, “look at him, surrounded by hundreds of the world’s most glorious scents! Why should he want another one?” But life works the other way about. I remember years ago at work we were looking for a leaving gift for a dressy lady, and I voted strongly for a thick silk twill scarf. My mates all cried out, ‘But, no! Joycie already has hundreds of scarves” – and I said, “so evidently they must be her favourite thing!” Fragrance lovers will always be panting for the next one, that I can assure you. Impossible to overdo it.

The University of Prague has produced a survey. They did this test, and they found that if you want to choose the perfect scent for a man – I mean, as a Christmas surprise – then bring along his sister and ask her to pick it out. “The reason may be that brothers and sisters smell the same”; and “that sisters prefer odours that match products of their own genes”¤. For, to really work, a fragrance should compliment the natural odour of one’s own skin. I think we all know that by now. We’re chasing  the beautiful phenomenon whereby a scent seems to bloom on the skin, coming apparently not from the bottle but from the very pores of the wearer. A million molecules of body and perfume blending exquisitely in one perfect reaction.

Reading this newspaper report caused me to think about the fragrances I’ve worn over the years that have provoked a reaction: the rare and much-desired audible, vocal reaction I mean. I can’t answer for what secret thoughts have gone on in people’s heads, thank goodness. A kind friend once told me I should be “very careful” in what I wear, and I appreciated that. It’s sage advice that has resonated down the years.

It’s evidently the oriental tribe that work best for me. The warmest compliments I’ve had in years have been for Malle’s MONSIEUR. (mobbed in the library – and at the butcher’s): and Tauer’s INCENSE EXTREME – solicited in the street. Most gratifying. I remember from thirty years ago the “oooh’s” and “aah’s” in a train carriage on a foggy damp New Year’s Day. These gasps were apparently prompted by a spray of Shalimar – in the eau de toilette concentration. There were those more ambiguous squeaks at the National Gallery indicating strong reactions to that very intense rose-coloured Joop! And – a Warning To The Curious – unmistakable sounds of disapprobation in the stalls during a cinema showing of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, indicating that I’d sadly overdone Chanel’s Coco.

But, what the hell? Any kind of reaction brings a perfume to life, and slightly too much scent is always preferable to rather too little. Otherwise, what is the point?

Wishing You All a Very Merry and Joyous Christmas filled with Sweet Smells and Happy Thoughts.

¤ see The Times Tuesday 13/12/16; report by Tom Whipple on p.3.

Light Of My Life

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

When I was a tot, I lived in and by the historical biographies of R. J. Unstead: “People In History”. One of many favourite lives was that of the penal reformer Elizabeth Fry: that enthrallingly vivid detail of the young Fry – to the scandal of Norwich – sporting purple boots with scarlet laces. And then her first visit to Newgate, seeing the windmill on the roof of the prison – “to draw off the evil air”, the supposed cause of gaol fever.

At this time of year I freshen the air around the home with abundant scented candles. There’s something about igniting a flame – some principle of physics, I mean – that in itself clears the air. Just observe the effect of striking a match. But, in mid-winter, with the windows so often closed, the stove bubbling and the sun at its lowest, a perfumed candle is a benefit rich in pleasantly practical symbolism.

December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy when the Church – especially in dark Sweden – celebrates the patron of light and clear vision. The Saint descends, crowned with flames. For all of us, a glowing candle signifies comfort, hope, romance, a wish made or a desire fulfilled: a candle flame shines out like a good deed in a naughty world.

About the house I now have two elegantly snug Frederic Malle candles: SANTAL CARDAMOME and the bookishly leathery CHEZ MONSIEUR. In the dusk of late afternoon their scarlet glasses glow like ardent hearts or arctic sunsets. To echo the scent of potted bulbs I’ve got Robbie Honey’s beautiful spicy lily CASA BLANCA set in its suede-textured pearl grey glass; and Tom Daxon’s exquisite WHITE NARCISSUS. I kindle Cloon Keen’s neroli candle SPANISH ARCH to clear my mind and calm me down after too much gift wrapping. Because it’s odd: I enjoy performing ’emballage de luxe’ at the shop, but when I’m at home, in a frazzle over Christmas presents, wrapping drives me absolutely up the wall. I get sharp shooting pains in my head. Apparently, when the late Prince of Wales first met Mrs Simpson he started moaning to her over the cocktail chit-chat about this very thing; and she said, “Oh Sir! That is something I would be very happy to do for you.” And – do you know? – he was dotty about her from that very minute. How well I can understand that.

feast_square_500-web

My neighbour is having her kitchen painted. She is being very prudent about sealing up all her foodstuffs while the decorators are in. Because, years ago, she had a nasty experience. The ground floor was done out with eggshell emulsion and the pungent smell of the paint got into all the food. It was so bad that for days afterwards she and her family were tasting eggshell emulsion in everything they ate; even to  it after meals. The penetrating reek of paint¤ – like that of petrol – is what they call a ‘Marmite’ polarising experience. It makes me feel slightly sick; though modern paint is much more diminuendo in its aroma. I used to work with a woman who had to go home when the office was being redecorated: her chest played up something shocking, not to mention her nose and eyes. Mind you there was something very wrong with that office: my eyes stung and watered continually for four years. Possibly it had to do with fumes arising from the packed files of old newsprint: no computers, then.

When I was very small – three or four years old –  I got all my senses confused during a period of home improvement. (Some might say my wits have never recovered). Our own kitchen was being spruced up and a new table introduced. This table was covered with a smooth formica. It was bright yellow, lightly freckled in white, very similar to the many dishes of scrambled egg served upon it. I remember having the smell of the paint, the furniture and the eggs all muddled together in my head. I often wonder whether – much as I love them – that is why I rarely eat scrambled eggs, even today without feeling ever so faintly nauseated.

Going back to the idea of filtering the air. During the summer I bought a sheet of poppy-patterned stamps. As I left the post office – gawping at the pictures – a gust of wind tore the paper from my hand and into a thick and closely trimmed privet hedge. Like the Prince in Sleeping Beauty I boldly tunnelled into the foliage: it was SO thick; so dense and so filled with muck and filth and dust and grime. I retrieved my stamps but I had to go home and change from the skin out. Now – and how satisfyingly! – I learn that the Victorians planted privet for this very reason. As well as having sweet-smelling white blossoms, the good privet acts as a natural filter for all the pollution of the streets, trapping dirt in its depths and doing its brave bit to clean the air.

A privet candle would seem to be the next big thing: so many memories trapped among the twigs.

¤ I have remarked before on this page how Sherlock Holmes deduces that the smell of fresh green paint is being used as a red herring to disguise the stink of murder. (See: The Adventure of the Retired Colourman in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 1927. ‘ “Pooh! What an awful smell of paint!” cried the Inspector.’)

The Perfume That Hurts

duo-web

 

It is a popular theory, noted by Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin amongst others, that librarians generally loathe books. Toilers in confectionery factories never touch the chocs: we all know that. Could it be, then, that scent sometimes gets on the nerves of perfumers and irritates the most ardent of perfumistas? Very possibly. Now Quentin Bisch, creator of Etat Libre D’Orange’s imminent new fragrance Attaquer Le Soleil, tells us that he had always abhorred the smell of cistus labdanum. Taking his distaste as a challenge, he wrought Soleil exclusively from this sweet resin. For that’s the total sum of the perfume: layers of labdanum in varying degrees, of different strengths and with a myriad faces. The odour of cistus manifests like the shifting aspects of some heathen god – simultaneously personifying half a dozen paradoxical roles from Universal Magician to infant victim. And, I’m here to tell you, Attaquer Le Soleil is absolutely ravishing and mesmerising; no less for possessing that perverse piquancy of having been begotten by dislike upon incompatibility.

For – maybe – it is extra special just because of its creator’s qualms, not in spite of them. I remember the former nun Monica Baldwin remarking in one of her books that, in the convent, you learned to become very wary of a sister who was egregiously kind and friendly. It meant that the nun had conceived a particular dislike of you and was trying, in charity, to overcome her profound aversion. And then, too, perfumers love a challenge. Every one of them wants to have a crack at a perfect rose; an unparalleled glittering crystal citrus; the most jungly of vetivers. A perfumer like any other artist wants to define a genre; to break boundaries; to outstrip limits; to defy his own reasoning. Upon occasion, to shake up his own preconceptions as well as those of his clients and the fans.

As all the Life Coaches tell us, once we confront a fear then the terror melts away into its own native void. The sense of smell is always pretty unsettling because it is so little understood; and because any odour triggers off feelings about the Great Matters of Life. Our past and our memories; our self-preservation; sexual desire and procreation; life and death. We define ourselves by the scents we use; many people pine and languish when their favourite perfume is commercially withdrawn, dying a thousand deaths before the final consummation of discontinuation. Perfume is not all about straightforward pleasure, not by any means.

So would you wear a scent you don’t like: fragrance that you, in fact, detest? You might well. I have known such cases. People will choose a perfume to please a loved one; to attract attention; or simply because it lasts well, indifferent to how it smells. Another tribe and tongue (and I, too, have dwelled in Arcadia) will struggle through the beastly top notes of a fragrance just to reach the paradise below and beyond. In a masochistic way one then grows to relish the discomfort of the initial accords in anticipation of the delights to come. “If It Isn’t Pain Then It Isn’t Love”, as Miss Dietrich once sang in the movies. For once the censor was fully awake: ‘song cut before release’.

A customer told me how a dog had howled and moaned when she wore a certain notably animalic Serge Lutens fragrance. She found this off-putting. Others might relish it: Circe and the ship-wrecked sailors in your own back yard. The now universal promulgation of oud fascinates me and many others because it presents a riddle – I am always intrigued by oud, but am not invariably inclined to wear it. I like to have it about me but not necessarily on my person. I enjoy it best as an attar: gummy and concentrated, not blended into a western scent. I enjoy its farouche and dangerous quality. This is why I am so drawn to Frederic Malle’s The Night: ‘for The Night is at hand and it is well to yield to The Night.” Editions de Parfums present this most exotic of oils in its most magnificently concentrated and austerely awesome form: it’s up to every individual to reason it out, to come to terms with The Night as one does with Life itself.

Incidentally, a wonderfully generous customer made me the present of a tiny phial of oud last week: I have it beside me in bed as I write this, to sniff and inspire. The gentleman gave it to me because he said I reminded him of his grandfather: a unique accolade which gives the oil a very particular quality.

As I came round the corner from the Underground Station last Friday morning the pavement was up and the air was heavy – very heavy indeed – with the dangerous blue smell of gas. The workmen were all there, putting things to rights. The air shimmered with fumes and I was relieved to turn the corner before someone lit a cigarette. And just around the corner was this beautiful and curiously vivid rose-red car: I’ve never seen a car sprayed such a hue. I stood and peered at it – and then was seized with SUCH an uncanny – a truly weird – sense of horror and nameless dread. It was the effects of the gas, I’m sure of that: some curious short-circuiting of the gas together with an elementary sense of self-preservation. And the rose colour must have triggered some long-repressed associations.

But doesn’t the nose play us curious tricks! ”

NB:

There’ll be a fabulous LES SENTEURS Competition coming your way very soon: it’s all about Scent and its Darker Side. Keep your eyes, nostrils & minds open! Details to follow. Intrinsically valuable prizes to be won!

A Plum In My Mouth

plums_early_morning

 

Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.

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 )