Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

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Keep Your Powder Dry!

“A bit of talcum
Is always walcum” – Ogden Nash.

Tins of Devon Violets, Damask Rose and English Lavender are the archetypal gifts for Mum and female family circle.  But now, and not for the first time, talc is in the dock over health concerns. Vast damages – $72 million! – have been awarded in Missouri against Johnson & Johnson. How poignant and strange that our dear old childhood friend and innocent lifetime companion, baby powder, should be besmirched. That symbol of cosy innocence, smelling faintly of orange blossom with distant reassuring echoes of eau de cologne, NARCISSE NOIR, and the firm but fair security of mummy, nanny & the monthly nurse: it’s too sad for words.

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I love silky talcum – not corn starch or rice powder – but it’s on borrowed time and not only because of medical reservations. Talc’s delightful and fatal impracticality is part of its charm. To use powder with the abandon and lavishness it is owed, one needs a readily wipeable bathroom – chrome, glass and tiles – and a maid on the payroll, for favour of constant mopping. No doubt the pace of modern living has contributed as least as much as health concerns to the decline of talc. Powdering takes time. Do you remember Vanessa Redgrave, years ago, playing Clementine Churchill on TV? She sat at her glass, leisurely, sensually and thoroughly powdering and patting her arms & shoulders preparatory to going downstairs to a Chartwell dinner. And at Downton Abbey, the insufferable Lady Mary used to powder her kid gloves, the easier to roll them on, in that notorious bedroom.¤

For thousands of years women – and men – have powdered their faces and bodies to sop up excess moisture and oil, and to present a flawless matte smoothness to the world. In the chronicle of fashion, powder is also inextricably involved with the story of false hair. The history of male pattern baldness in our present royal family is a fascinating one. Not less so is the tale of two abnormally hirsute monarchs who started a trend for men’s wigs. In the 1660’s two cousins sat on the thrones of England and France: both Charles II and Louis XIV had magnificent heads of black curling hair and it was probably a form of flattery that their male subjects of any consequence very abruptly took to shaving their own heads and wearing hot heavy wigs – a trend that lasted well over a century and which has still not quite died out in our modern law courts. By the 1700’s men were powdering their perukes with gold dust¤¤; blue or silver tinted orris; perfumed rice and pumice powder (available in violet, rose, neroli, ambergris, musk); even with flour. It was the use of the latter, with concomitant setting creams of bear grease and lard, that gave rise to those occasional head infestations of insects, mites and even baby mice. Or were those stories merely envious satires, put about by those who were unable to fork out the modern equivalent of around £5,000 for a decent wig ?

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled ‘The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande’, showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

At any rate, the powder ritual may have begun as a sort of dry shampoo routine but it soon became a de rigueur accessory. Women followed suit. Marie Antoinette’s return from Varennes to Paris house arrest in 1791 is one of the great set pieces of the Revolution. Her women washed her hair clean of stale powder and the grime of the roads, only to discover that her blond cendre tresses had turned as white as snow in the course of three days.

To be sure, powdery scents are all about romance and nostalgia. Powder suggests not only the milky warmth of starchy soapy nursery security but also the childhood scented kisses of female friends and relations; their bags, their maquillage, their clothes. There may be a spicy snuffy-tobacco tang of dad too. And a memory of certain foods – rice pudding, custard creams, meringues, icing sugar ( “dredge generously”) – that whizzes you back through the Time Tunnel to sitting on someone’s knee in the warm crumby comfort of cake and caresses.
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So powdery scents can scatter and melt and segue into the gourmand tribe. People come to Les Senteurs from far and wide for Villoresi’s TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Think of drifts of ice crystals in the opalescent glow of the Northern Lights – emerald, gold, carnation pink and mauve. And at a high window, behind glass, a professional beauty sits powdering her face, her cheeks painted by the reflected rosy stain of the snows, and her colour heightened by a dish of candied dragees.  More sexually ambiguous is POUDRE DE RIZ, the aura created by love and its illicit practitioners – a stifling evocation of  hair and warm lickable skin polished with coconut-tinged monoi oil, and nacreous with sheer rice powder. Compare it if you will with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, SHEM EL NESSIM. Here all is frou frou and susurration; an ivory miniature world of crepe de chine tea gowns, feather boas and endless drifts of embraceable iris. This last is perhaps the most sophisticated and, at the same time, the most innocent of our great powdery triad.

Divinities sitting slightly below this triptyque and exhibiting permutations of powder might include:

– the raspberry waxiness of LIPSTICK ROSE with its warm and lusciously generous cleavage

– the wanton confectionery/tobacconist boutique of DIVIN ENFANT

– the witty hot pepper powderiness of PIPER NIGRUM

– the sweet smoky gunpowder/ pistol-cap/ Christmas cracker trick that inflames LA FIN DU MONDE and HIMALAYA.

– the pancake stage makeup and black suede ankle-strap lavatory heels which seduce in PARFUM SACRE.

– and a new arrival on these shores, exclusive to Les Senteurs: IRIS PALLADIUM – ample, luxurious and paradoxical. Blue chiffon iris with a glittering mineral accord.

Lest anyone should be inclined to consider powdery perfume a mere frivolity, let him think on. What is powder but the very stuff of Time itself? All things – ourselves included – come from dust and ashes and return into them. And here thoughts arise of the immortal Ashes of Roses – an evocative and profound name! A three minute sermon in itself.
¤ talc is excellent for removing oil and grease stains from fabric, too. Keep the soiled item well away from water. Coat the stain in a good thick layer of talcum and leave for as long as possible – at least 24 hours – for the powder to absorb the grease. Brush off. Repeat as necessary. Be patient: you will be nearly always be assured of total success. I have seen pale blue silk and new white linen perfectly restored.

¤¤ a charming extravagance briefly revived by such exotics as Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead in the early 1930’s.

How Are Your Roses?

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Early summer slips like your fingers like running water: you stretch out your hands to grab all the loveliness, the flowers and the blossom, but Time gallops on remorselessly. The laburnum, the may, iris, lilac, bluebells and lupins wither and perish at a heartbreaking rate beneath his scythed chariot wheels, like a speeded-up David Attenborough feature. May and June really are the months when you must force yourself to stop, stare and smell before Nature devours herself. My blue bearded iris have lasted barely a fortnight but their scent is more delicious than ever in its brevity, seeming to have something of a rich golden dessert wine in its translucent, powdery depths. At dusk, as the bats flit overhead, half dozen plants scent the entire garden.

This year I’ve fought a hard battle with the aphids: I think the long dry spell in March and April encouraged them. Myriads made desperate incursions into my herbaceous border so that I lost precious early flowerings; my tight green rose buds were caked with them. Proprietary bug killer discouraged the creatures but it also scorched plant leaves. Some experts recommend the slow and messy process of scraping the aphids off by hand in a squashed pulp; the trouble is you always miss a colony or two. You can be strictly organic and collect ladybirds and introduce them to their favourite food; but even Our Lady’s Little Beasts (as the Dutch call them ) have limited appetites.

Then a French cousin in Aquitaine sent me a tip which I pass on to you: it seems to work. You mix up a mixture of water, soap and olive oil; add a few cloves of garlic, leave to macerate and then spray onto the infected areas. The oil allows the mixture to adhere to the plants even after rain. The aphids quietly suffocate. The plant is unharmed. The only thing is, do not spray downwind on a breezy day – as I did. You will find yourself pungently and aromatically garlic-scented.

Ironic though that one of the most beautiful roses I’ve seen this year is on a patch of cinders in our local Tesco car park. Obviously a relic of an ancient lost garden, this tough old plant is untended, unloved but blooms in a fumey dusty desert like an Old Testament prophecy. No aphids there. This yellow rose of Tesco smells cool, rich and redolent of the finest tea. I attach a snapshot: judge for yourselves.

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How appropriate that the auctioning off a long-forgotten Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting should be scheduled this month. It has a wonderful name: ‘The Triple Rose’ ( good name for a perfume, by the way). Expected to fetch upwards of a million pounds, this is a study of three flame-haired sisters draped in red & entwined before a rose hedge. Their mouths – those unmistakable carved Rosetti lips – are like pouting buds about to burst into full erotic bloom. If I were to choose a perfume to complement this gorgeous panel I’d go for Papillon’s Tobacco Rose to be unveiled exclusively at Les Senteurs this June. The creation of the astonishing Elizabeth Moores, Tobacco Rose has all the sultry overblown quality of a Rosetti, the sultry sensuality and the hypnotic intensity. Beeswax, hay and amber cast a spicy veil over blended rose oils while superb oakmoss works its own arcane dusky magic. Pervasive, bewitching and all-encompassing, Tobacco Rose unfurls its petals to reveal a heart of darkness.

Find Papillon on Twitter @papillonperfum

Three Minute Sermon

IRIS

I walk out into my back garden and down the lane to the fields where at this  time of year the warm air smells like the best perfume shop in the world. There’s a bed of old-fashioned blue bearded iris beneath the kitchen window in ground as dry as dust; they are flourishing, as they have done for years, in what is little more than sandy grit. Ultimate low maintenance. They need no care or attention whatsoever: they just get on with it and for three weeks every year they smell like the plains of Heaven.

‘Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’.

The mesmerising enveloping langourous fragrance of iris is truly out of this world. It’s the roots, the rhizomes that are used in perfumery but if you’re mad about scent please don’t forget to poke your nose into those weirdly orchidaceous flowers adorned with their hirsute inner crests dusted with golden pollen. You’ll find it difficult to move on, to return to reality.

The scent is soft, powdery: its summer’s evening warmth is enhanced by the cool silkiness of the petals. There’s a sophistication, a poise about the perfume that reminds us that the iris, not the lily, was the inspiration for the French heraldic fleur de lys. These flowers give off a note that is very close to aldehydic, a knowing stately nod to Mlle Chanel and her stable of scents created by the chemical genius of Ernest Beaux. He must have loved this flower named after the Roman goddess of the rainbow, arching her body across the skies in her mantle of many colours.

Finally tearing myself away from the Mysteries of Iris I go down the fields with a bucket and spade in search of horse manure for my roses. The meadows smell like the Caron Paris boutique, truly. You sidle in off the road, negotiate the stile and the scent comes close to knocking you over. Clouds of keck, cow parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace crown the grass with endless dancing webs of creamy flowerlets and pollen. Here I inhale that gorgeous note of hay that haunts the depths of all the Daltroff classics: green, sneezy, warm, peppery, sweet, close, simultaneously very dry and faintly damp. Here it is, free for all, on the edge of the cow pasture intensified by hawthorn and new grass. The smell of burgeoning nature, growth, reproduction, fertility and life.  Truth stranger than fiction: reality stronger than artifice.

Say It With Flowers

In this Diamond Jubilee year of the second Elizabeth (of whose perfume tastes we know little) let’s remember her great royal namesake who died after a reign of 45 years on March 24 1603. It is well attested that Elizabeth Tudor had a particularly acute sense of smell, and an especial detestation of the then fashionable trick of treating soft leather with lavender oil: this brought on the violent nervous headaches to which the Queen was prone. We have the amusing tale of her ordering some courtier out of her presence on account of his perfumed cape only to have him best her (a rare event) with his riposte “Tush, Madam, tis my boots that stink!”

And the devastating anecdote of the poor man who broke wind when bowing to his sovereign and hid his mortification in self-imposed exile for seven years. When finally he re-appeared at Court Elizabeth was at her most charming,gracious and hospitable before remarking over her shoulder as she swept out, “We hath quite forgot the fart…”

The Virgin Queen bathed more often than was considered safe for her health; about once a month. Her near-fatal smallpox of smallpox in 1562 was attributed to this dangerous indulgence. Elizabeth’s daily hygiene routine would have consisted of wipings down with cloths soaked in rosewater, colognes and spirits. Spring water was also imported from spas for her use, London sources being far too filthy to use. To sweeten the breath it was then logically but fatally thought well to swill the mouth with vinegar, honey and sugar. Vain of the whiteness of her skin and her long delicate fingers the Queen cut a far more attractive figure however than her successor James 1st whose hands, perennially unwashed, were said be as soft as black silk.

For propaganda purposes Elizabeth sat for a succession of portraits which defined her popular image according to strict government guidelines, and which became more symbolically complex as they grew increasingly less realistic. The Rainbow Portrait was painted when the Queen was sixty seven but there is no acknowledgement of this in the painting: she is fantastic in appearance, literally ageless. She holds the eponymous Rainbow in her left hand – we are tactfully reminded that without the Sun (Elizabeth herself) the Rainbow cannot exist – and we think of Iris, the goddess who trailed her multi-coloured cloak across the sky and gave her name to the exquisite flowers which even in Tudor times played such a key role in perfumery: orris powder, from the dried and pulverised iris roots, was used to scent clothing, hair, closets, chests and linens.

The Rainbow portrait is so crammed with symbols that a small book might be written on its various possible meanings; the point is that in an age of illiteracy these now enigmatic emblems would have been immediately understood and appreciated by everyone who saw the painting itself, and the innumerable cheap prints and copies which took the Queen’s image to the masses.

Let’s take only one detail: the plants embroidered on the royal bodice. Elizabeth is personified as the virgin goddess Astraea who dwelled on Earth in the Golden Age when the world was one vast (and surely English) flower meadow.
Furthermore, each plant has a specific meaning:

The Arum – for ardour (and devotion to duty)

The Cowslip – for grace and youth (the Queen’s, naturally)

The Honeysuckle – for fidelity and the bonds of love (between the Queen and her subjects)

The Pansies – for her wise thoughts

The Acorn – for immortality, and for the English oak which built the ships that destroyed the Armada and founded the Elizabethan empire

The Rose – the Tudor badge and the emblem of the Virgin

The Carnation – a woman’s love (for her people)

The Violet – faithfulness

This rich, compact but elaborate shorthand may suggest to you a new approach to assessing a perfume, reflecting on the ingredients and their arcane significance; what may still be concealed from us is the alchemical relevance of the scents of the flowers and their medicinal properties. Construct your own iconic perfumed image: per perfuma ad astra!

Image from Wikimedia commons