Our Vegetable Love…

“You’ll fall into the flames of hell if you dig any deeper” said our gardener Mr Sarson as I grubbed about in my own little patch of garden aged 5 or so. Mr Sarson must have been in his eighties but was lean and wiry after a lifetime working as a railway ganger. He had once found a severed human head on the line – “it took three men to lift, it weighed so heavy”. And I wondered how the executioner had coped with Mary Queen of Scots who we had learned about at school: the infant curriculum was very different in the 1950’s. After Mr Garner died, eating a pickled onion, Mr Cannon came to help: he had sailed German POW’s down the Rhine in a caged barge in 1919; been a professional dancing master, and as a boy had pinched the behind of Violet, Duchess of Rutland in the shrubbery at Belvoir Castle: “I took her for the parlour maid”.

These two gentlemen introduced me to the vegetable world which flourished exceedingly in my father’s garden since so many of his animal patients were buried there. Vegetable lore we learned, and the smell of all the old favourites. Radishes are easy and quick for even the youngest child to grow, though their leaves may sting a bit; and their rose pink hue is as vivid and exciting as their cracked-ice peppery scent and tart hot/cold taste. Our neighbours, elderly maiden ladies, lived on radish sandwiches and dripping: it sufficed.(Their brother was a morphine addict, in the nonchalant respectable style of a Victorian bachelor).

So many vegetables have the most bewitching scents: the dry hot spiciness of celery; the rubbery, flowery earthiness of purple sprouting broccoli; the searing sweet and sour pungency of wild garlic especially on a cliff patch in bluebell season. Carrot has been recently added to the perfumer’s palette as a sweetener, and can contribute to an excellent synthetic fleshy fruit accord. Tomato leaf has something of the same magic as geranium – hot, green, spicy, and dusty. It is replete with the nostalgia of those ruined walled kitchen gardens, frost-cracked glasshouses and stagnant water butts that you sometimes discover abandoned beyond the formal gardens of a minor stately home. Now, I know tomato is a fruit, but in the minds and habits of most of us it is treated as veg. It was probably Annick Goutal who pioneered its use in her Eau de Camille – a perfume smelling of broken flower stems and the inner pale flesh of wild grasses.

Yet vegetables and man have until the twentieth century had a wary relationship: for millenia vegetables were the preserve of the poor, served up like animal swill while the rich dined on white bread, meat and sugar. The onion and the lettuce may have been sacred emblems of fertility in Ancient Egypt (due to their propensity to run to seed in a phallic bolt) but they still fed the pyramid toilers rather than grace Pharaoh’s table. When the Americas were first colonised, the treasure fleets brought back potatoes, avocados and tomatoes; all snapped up in the West as intriguing novelties but just as quickly abandoned. They took centuries to fully assimilate as part of the food chain; and for westerners to learn how to cook and season them.

This often seems to cause the British unreasonable difficulties: one thinks of traditional Christmas brussels boiled to mossy mush,and marrows cooked to rags. My grandfather used to say that his favourite way to prepare a cucumber was to cut in half and put in dustbin. Highly distrusted by European doctors, American produce became notorious for other qualities. Avocado is a Mexican Nahuatl word for “testicle” – as “orchid” is in Greek – and so could be choked down as a flavourless if stimulating aphrodisiac. Potatoes turned out to be of the same family as the enchanters’ nightshades, clearly poisonous and possibly diabolic; and as for the colour of these “love apples”, these tomatoes! Painted like harlots and obviously to be avoided. According to Lady Diana Cooper, her mother Violet (the same woman who was goosed by our gardener) banned tomatoes from her dinner table as impossibly common. This prejudice is still not entirely extinct in some circles, I can assure you.

Vegetables are still, I suppose, generally thought dull and worthy; your dreary 5 a day to keep you regular and minimise the household bills: one can still live very cheaply live on roots. Therefore the scents of their leaves and flowers, though often delicious, lack the psychological glamour demanded by perfumers: though the scent of field of broad beans in flower rivals Grasse jasmine, and see how a bed of scarlet runners (grown in Tudor gardens purely for their gaudy flowers) drive the bees wild with their fragrance. Even the wonderful scents from vegetable-related flowers (the cabbage-cousin wallflower; the sweet pea) rarely make it into the commercial perfume bottle; maybe unconsciously rejected on account of their humble relations.

Be that as it may, our niche perfumers continue to garner a little romance from the kitchen garden: try The Unicorn Spell where an eccentric and beguiling top note of dawn-picked runner bean leads into frosty violets. The cucumber in En Passant helps to spangle the white lilac with rain. Gorge on Gantier‘s sweet, rich, outre Grain de Plaisir, a presentation of celery as aphrodisiac – as used so famously by Mme de Pompadour and her eighteenth century contemporaries, brewed up with ambergris, chocolate, truffles and vanilla. I think the 21st century will continue to see fascinating new experiments with the odours of the vegetable kingdom just as our cooks soldier on promoting their vitality and potential excitement in our diet.

Image from wildaboutgardens.org.uk

Ask Your Dad!

Guy Robert

When I was a boy there was no Father’s Day (at least in the UK) but now it’s a Big Thing which tries to bridge a great yawning gap in the shops between the window displays of Easter chicks and the ominous threats of “Back To School!”. Well now we’re stuck with this new festival and really, what’s not to like? Men need more celebration and spoiling. So why not make the most of it and treat your old dad to some scent? Though nowadays Dad is more likely to be a Colin Firth or David Beckham type than Wilfred Brambell or Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street. So much the better: the modern man is making up for lost time and enjoying the pleasure of fragrance that so many previous male generations have missed.

My last gift to my father on The Day was a biography of Rasputin (one of his hero-villains: he’d seen the Barrymores in “Rasputin and the Empress” as a child) which made him feel sick. I’d have done far better to have stuck with his regulation Grain de Plaisir, Gantier’s modern take on a eighteenth century rake’s love potion, full of reliable aphrodisiacs such as vanilla, celery and amber: woody, sexy with a dry spiciness and the sweetness of barley sugar. He adored this, preferring to splash it all over (in the phrase of the day) his bald head and face so that it clung to his hats and flannel scarves. He came late to the joys of scent, well into his sixties, but then developed a rapacious pleasure in it recalling the extravagant applications of much earlier generations.

For the whole culture of scent began with men: men as perpetuators of the  life-cycle in their role as incarnators and placators of the gods. The latin phrase per fumus – through the smoke – gives us the clue. The smoke of burnt offerings opening a visible scented path to the skies, pleasing the nostrils of Heaven and linking men with the Divine.The odours of the pyres developed into the sacred oils worn by the King-Priests and thus into secular use by the privileged laity and aristocracy. A leading example of  the old peacock theory – the male in full feather: gaudy, scented and resplendent to indicate readiness to mate and attract the healthiest and fairest of women to ensure the breeding and survival of the fittest. Perfume as an adjunct to divine procreation: the Pharoah fertilising the Nile sanitised in the Christian era into the ceremonies of the marriage of Venice with the sea, and the Russian Tsars blessing the waters of the Neva. An emblem too of the transfer of divine power – British monarchs right through to our present queen being anointed with holy chrism at their coronation.

It is only with modern history (beginning abruptly in 1714 according to the old text books) that the martial peacock alpha-male starts to fade, only to rise again, phoenix-like, some 150 years later. Brilliant colours and flamboyant dress go undercover as industrialisation, urbanisation, the first stirrings of female emancipation and the middle class work ethic transform Europe: perfume for men fades from fashion if not from use. Even Oliver Cromwell (“Lord protect us from Protectors”) had not disdained to anoint himself with unguents of rose and orange flower, but then a certain drabness creeps in as men are tamed and caged by a more sober society.

When Victorian males use scent it has to accentuate not fertile virility but a man’s prowess as earner, responsible worker and sober father. Male scents loose their heady and hedonistic floral and animal aspects and mirror what a man does with his respectably ordered life: he starts to smell of an idealised version of his environment,occupation and pastimes: leather, woods, herbs and citrus evoke agriculture, farming, gardening, travel and the outdoors. Hygiene is another factor: people start to wash their hair and bodies so that fragrance no longer needs to camouflage bad smells but au contraire emphasises freshness, health and a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Fata Morgana of the “natural” perfume is born.

Today, thanks to a succession of social scientific and sexual revolutions,perfume for men is more rich, varied, eccentric and eclectic than it has ever been. At Les Senteurs men account for a good third of our customers; and very eloquent, passionate and well-informed they are too. The taboos are broken, the barriers are down: modern men are realising there is only no such thing as a “correct” or appropriate male perfume. The only essential is that it should amplify, reflect and enhance the wearer, become part of his very essence and personality. Perfume does not make the man…but a man can certainly make the perfume, transmuting it through his own skin,hormonal balance and definition into a unique signature and statement.

Les Senteurs would like to dedicate this blog to the life and memory of a wonderful man and inspired perfumer, the late Guy Robert who died on 28 May. Guy was the grandson, nephew and son of perfumers and of course the father of our dear friend and colleague Francois Robert. One of the greatest creators of the second half of the 20th century, Guy leaves a legacy of superlative richness, elegance and variety. Caleche dominated the 1960’s, to be followed by L’Equipage, two great classic beauties for Hermes. Guy made the original and unsurpassed Amouage, the sublime Mme Rochas and a treasury of exquisite scents which place him among the Immortals of the art of perfumery. Irreplaceable as a great gentleman and individual, Guy Robert will live forever in his galaxy of classic and unforgettable creations.

Image from 1000fragrances.blogspot.co.uk