A Plum In My Mouth

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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.

Autumn Leaves

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Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

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Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

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Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

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An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

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I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

Tobacco Rose

The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

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To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

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Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

My Happiness: a special Christmas blog for Les Senteurs by guest writer Mrs Lemon Wedge

morethingsdotcom

O! The soft sweet golden glow of DRIES VAN NOTEN: all the tenderness of Christmas morning. Or the ferocious night-time sensuality of COLOGNE POUR LE SOIR, richly animalic like the rosy satin lining of a sable coat. The flowery dew of NOCTURNES, a rope of luminous pearls still warm from the wearer’s body. The dark sacred odour of the Christmas night stars in MYRRHIAD.
How privileged and fortunate am I to be Mrs LW, with all the treasures of the fragrance world at my husband’s generous disposal!

Why is perfume such a great gift? It is altogether timeless, both ancient and modern in its facility to become an integral part of you and your dreams. Imagine sitting up in bed on the Great Day in the darkness before dawn, with that curious magical feeling of uniqueness, and all of Christmas in the air, that still wonderful atmosphere that begins in early childhood and hopefully never quite dies away. It’s still there, if only for a minute or two: the world of carols, snow and Santa; of stuffed stockings, Margaret Tarrant Nativity picture books and infinite good will.

So there I shall be on the Day of Days, propped up in bed with a cup of hot sweet tea under my Princess Margaret apple green satin eiderdown wondering “Now, HOW shall we set about all this?” I agree with Elizabeth David and would prefer a light lunch of smoked salmon and champagne but Mr LW always says, “my dear, I shall give you The Works!” Indeed he is already below decks in the kitchen, manipulating the festive bird with deft hands and spatulas. Or apparently so, for suddenly he appears the foot of our bed, setting this intriguing package before me, exquisitely wrapped and ribboned. It feels wonderfully heavy and solid. For one awful moment I fear it might after all be a book or a set of table mats. But, no, its too square for that and too small. And there’s a faint juddering when i shake the parcel indicating the presence of a bottle. My lovely Mr LW has done it again, for sure. “Careful, now..”, he says. He adjusts my pillows a trifle and sits beside me to watch my face.

Shall I daintily pick off the wrappings like a finicking archaeologist and put them aside for use again? Or open my present in one glorious wasteful rip, yanking off all the tussore, grosgrain and glitter like James Mason pawing at Margaret Lockwood’s stomacher? I tear the coverings asunder, loving the explosion of cracklings, rustlings and rendings. And there it is. Surely nothing beats the thrill of a luxuriously crafted box in black, red or white; then easing off the perfectly fitting lid to discover a jewel-like flacon filled with … with?…well, with every possibility and infinite variety under the sun.

You can choose perfume every Christmas for a lifetime and the fulfilment and excitement never palls. The joy of a new bottle of scent – whether it’s a signature, an old favourite or a suprise novelty – never dates, never stales. It promises infinite riches, experience and adventure. It’s like being born all over again, especially when you’re lying in bed spraying lavishly from a big now bottle, immersed in your own dream world.

But where is LW? Eager, I hope, to be thanked in a suitable manner. Not at all: gone below and making with the goose fat and roast spuds. My treasure!”

PS

Entre nous, this year I’m giving her the sweet and sultry broken blossoms of Kilian’s GOOD GIRL GONE BAD. Our little private joke.
But say nothing!

Merry Christmas!
LW

Image: morethings.com

Vanilla

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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

What To Look For In Autumn

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7 modern niche classics to sustain and style you through the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:

L’Eau d’Hiver by Editions de Parfums

Elusive, transparent, gleaming, mysterious, cashmere-soft.
Honey, caramel, iris, hawthorn and carnation as translucent as morning mist melted by the sun.

Aqua Vitae by Francis Kurkdjian

Throw back your head to catch the warm rays of St Luke’s Little Summer. A last holiday break to stock up on the light and heat radiated by mandarin, tonka, lemon and hedione, the blessed sunshine molecule.

Back To Black by Kilian

A rich store of honey, spicy sweet luxury stolen from the bees of Laos, combined with patchouli, cardomom, olibanum, vanilla + vetiver. The scent of fragrant fresh hay and fertility.

Tabarome by Creed

Crisp, invigorating; virile and bracing. Ginger and tobacco, patchouli and green tea for streamlined vigorous elegance. Summer has gone, autumn is full of promise and adventure.

Dries Van Noten by Editions de Parfums

Creamy vanilla and lemon verbena. Subtle hints of patisserie at a pavement cafe on a bright blue morning: a silky-smooth peaceful start to a perfect day.

Sucre d’Ebene by Huitieme Art

The woody cool grey scent of witch hazel dissipates like autumn rain in a comforting heart of tonka and sugar cane from Barbados. Draw the curtains and stir up the fire: blissful animal comfort.

Rose Anonyme by Atelier Cologne

The last rose of summer darkened with oud, plum and dark notes of the lengthening velvet shadows. Patchouli, ginger and oriental incense notes soaked in a brooding atmosphere of full-blown opulence and seduction.

Tell them about the honey, Mummy

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I did not glean all my experience of the magic of honey from its great late prophetess Barbara Cartland but I was always fortified and entranced by her views. She wrote of perfectly preserved honey found included in ancient Egyptian burials and painted the rooms of her own house pink and turquoise inspired by the lapiz and terracotta of the tombs, which colours she believed promoted eternal youth and vigour.

Honey is instant nursery nostalgia, a reward for good behaviour; a healthy food that is also delectable – sticky fingers, buttered soldiers, a lost Golden Age: “and is there honey still for tea?” Those old-fashioned jolly teas where a super-abundance of sucrose, caffeine and spices which had the eaters drunk and reeling on food. Like vanilla honey offers comfort and reassurance. Honey is toddling around the garden in infancy, talking to the bees and imagining a riot of colour and floral glory realised on the Sissinghurst scale from a single packet of gaudily packaged Woolworth seeds: and I’m still pottering and fantasising like this, pushing sixty. Honey’s the food of the old pagan gods, healing and nutritious, promising health and immortality – a land flowing with milk and honey. St John the Baptist lived on it in the wilderness; the carcass of Samson’s lion became a bees’ nest. Just like perfume, honey is a talisman, handily bottled and perfectly portable; magically symbolic and still eminently practical.

Honey is the product of a society akin to ours: the teeming world of the hive with its hierarchy and queen, its drones and workers. Napoleon took the bee, like the violet, as his imperial symbol: intended as emblems of industry and diligence the golden bees were depicted by cynics as his rapacious family swarming on the thrones and riches of Europe. Sceptics pointed out that reversing the old royalist fleur de lys on carpets and fabrics made a rough and ready stylised bee without undue expense.

Why have the flowers in a fragrance without the nectar? Beeswax and honey both add a depth and a pungent back note to perfume; old perfumers used honey to add sweetness to simple flower waters. Mixed with hay, beeswax contributes to the characteristic musky woody leatheriness at the base of such Caron classics as N’Aimez Que Moi where it warms and illuminates the fragrance. Lutens’ Miel de Bois manifests in a grassy greeny tobacco-like haze which reminds me of an old admiral I once knew whose pipe smelled like a carpet of spring flowers on the Greek islands. And then there’s Vohina, the Huitieme Art fragrance which sounds like a bee-queen Roman deity, maybe the sister of Melissa the honey-goddess.

Vohina is peach blossom, lavender honey and hay. The intense pink and mauve sugariness of the flowers and the crisp but cloying wax comb melt in aching sweetness on the tongue as well as in the nose before deepening into the aromatic depths of viscous honey from an sleepy August harvest field of summer herbs and grasses. The rosy gold of juicy fruit flesh alternates with the crushed stalks of lavender and the musty heady grainy odour of pollen and unrefined honey, still full of the natural detritus of the bee colony. It is this contrast of the hot stifling organic claustrophobia of the hive with pristine peachiness and the faint sweatiness of lavender oil which makes Vohina so mesmerising. Rather than pinned to a pyramid structure of notes, Vohina revolves in a kaleidoscope, like sun-dazzled eyes, flashing its different facets in dizzy rotation and exuding the scents of a rural heatwave. Too hot to sleep, lying the hay in a midday stupor, sense overwhelmed by sensuality.

Image from Wikimedia commons

The Obsidian Butterfly

On a clear evening you nip out to the dustbin or call the cat and gaze up into the night sky at the glittering infinities of space. Worlds within worlds; burned out stars from millions of years ago shining out with a phantom light. The great constellations, abstract memorials of mortals abducted or rescued from Earth, are displayed in the heavens like skeletons of giant insects pinned to the cork board of the firmament. Or as the Egyptians saw it, the arched body of the goddess Nut roofing the world like a gigantic croquet hoop. The Evening Star, the radiant personification of Isis goddess of magic,still looms low in the sky and suddenly the unending vastness of the universe, the oppression and menace of it all (what IS out there? WHO is out there?) is overwhelming and you leg it for the sanctuary of a fugged-up kitchen. Five minutes contemplation of the stars puts everyday cares and worries into a very meagre perspective

I love the kind of stories where science fiction meets fantasy and mythology. Something along the lines of Rider Haggard’s She, with its themes of suspended time and eternal youth. Or Rudyard Kipling’s terrifying little black comedy which begins with the author’s teasing information that this is only one of 355 stories about King Solomon, “..it is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped”. It’s probably banned now, being somewhat misogynistic: Solomon’s 999 nagging wives (and the Butterfly’s shrewish mate) are taught a severe lesson when at a turn of the King’s ring, the whole golden palace and its seraglio are lifted into the outer darkness of space by Djinns and Afrits. Screams and shrieks fill the black void as the world temporarily whirls into nothingness until the ladies, Royal and Insect, learn to behave.

Pierre Guillaume’s bizarre and beautiful Naiviris is an uncanny but unconscious echo of this tale: Kipling lists the plants in Solomon’s gardens with incantatory relish – the tall iris, pink Egyptian lilies, hyssop, camphor trees, spotted bamboos, orange tree and ginger plants. Naiviris picks up this theme of oriental heat revolving around scarlet African iris (“so spikey and unfriendly” remarks Ann Todd in another context) and scented woods; a swoon of glowing red earth, dust and pollen. It is hypnotic and erotic, but at the same time weirdly metallic and withdrawn – a hot garden without earthly heat, torrid yet somehow inhuman with no animal sexuality, all sense of flesh or skin witheld: an alien interplanetary garden of the upper air. Fabulous and fantastic in every sense.

Plunge deeper among the stars, try Guerlain’s superbly named but appropriately hard to track down Vega; or Goutal’s Nuit Etoilee. L’Eau Guerriere evokes the sense of a pressurised cabin, the glittering clear air of the stratosphere, the purity of upper air and the blinding light of the sun. Cold metal, fitments, restricted oxygen levels, the exhilaration of soaring into space. Escape from this world: the smell of a perilous alien liberty

Image from user ADiamondFellFromTheSky on Flickr.