The Coffee Sonata

hitchcock-notorious1

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.

The Wicked Uncle

Rosalind Thornycroft Richard III On an unusually beautiful morning of our perfect Indian summer I awoke feeling like the Mole in The Wind in The Willows, possessed of a great urge to get out of the house and do something a bit different. So I put up an egg sandwich and hopped on the first bus into Leicester to see for myself what is afoot with the remains of Richard III in the newly designated Cultural Quarter. The Cathedral is full of screens behind which they are digging out the grave in the crypt and then the new tomb will lie above in the nave. There’s a newly planted herb and flower garden outside graced by a statue of the last Plantagenet in Bosworth armour, with a spicy nip of catmint from beneath his mailed feet, but no alley cats to roll in it. This part of town has been greatly smartened up. That sharp scent in the clear silky air persuaded me to give the accompanying exhibition a miss: it’s permanent so no doubt I shall go eventually but it seemed to be too lovely a day to be indoors with all the flashing lights and booming sound effects. All museums have a certain airlessness about them, some of the most famous being the most oppressive. There are too many fast food cafes for one thing and too many sealed windows. It’s a new kind of stuffiness to that of the old days. I remember the smell of the old Leicester Museum in New Walk, just a few minutes’ stroll away from Richard. It is now greatly changed and modernised: the menagerie of stuffed animals which so entranced and secretly terrified me as a child have all gone. I realise now that the pungent odour that hung over everything then must have been some kind of embalming fluid: and maybe the emanations of the partially unwrapped bitumen-blackened mummies in a shadowy back gallery. Like a lot of Leicester people I can’t get too excited about King Richard in death. Our vicar thinks he should have been left alone in the privacy of his car park, not dug up to make a Roman holiday. I’m with her there. I think we have far too many exhumations in this modern craving for certainties. Exhumation is a dreadful and solemn thing, traditionally performed by the light of torches as though it were something shameful: the participants holding cologne-soaked cloths to their faces, and prayers said as spades jar against rotting wood and eternal stone. Nowadays it is all sanitised and glossed over by easy talk of DNA and glib scientific journalistic niceties. Poor old king, his bones all spread out on a table for the world’s press to peer at. How would Richard have smelled in life? Probably not that bad. The folk of the late middle ages were rather cleaner than their immediate descendants. They didn’t for one thing have the fear of washing and bathing which came on rather later due to cranky medical theories, sewage-polluted rivers and water-borne diseases. Medieval people liked hot baths, often taken communally. The habit had been brought back by the Crusaders, along with such expensive and desirable niceties such as soap, attar of roses, incense, spices, damask and silks. Jolly pictures of naked ladies in the bath show them still wearing their hennins, veils and cauls, the bare head still being regarded as the most erotic and private part of the anatomy. MIMI_MMW_10A11_069V_MIN_1-650x482 So Richard would have had his baths; washed his hair occasionally; dried and mopped himself with linen towels. All very necessary after being half boiled in a suit of armour all day whether in battle or for arms practice. Skin might be rubbed with bunches of herbs or with grains of musk; it was also rinsed, massaged and toned with primitive blends of what we should think of as eau de cologne – concoctions such as the 14th century Queen of Hungary Water, the European best-seller (to be taken internally, too) of rosemary, marjoram and pennyroyal. It was Richard’s clothes that caused problems: the damp of those stone castles must have permeated everything, despite being laid up in cedar chests and layered with dried rose petals and lavender. None of the garments apart from the shirts were washable; and underwear as such was unknown. The furs so essential for warmth were not all properly cured and the tanning processes of leather relied heavily on the use of human excrement. The most popular method to deter moth was the hanging of one’s clothes on poles above the open pit of the latrine. So you can see for yourselves that a certain whiffiness would have been only exacerbated by the attempted camouflage of civet, musk and ambergris. Picture the scene! The Tower, the sleeping Princes, the reeking bottled spider scuttling up the winding stair..but all that is another story…