“Anything in the fridge?”… What Alice Found There

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Cellophane boxes of mauve cattleya orchids, maybe – or fragile gardenias keeping cool and creamy before their last and only outing, pinned to a satin shoulder strap or a jacket lapel. Very Dolly Sisters. So, are you looking at the new (and the final) series of MR SELFRIDGE? It gets increasingly perfume-y; claustrophobically and wonderfully scented. The great Elizabeth Arden – remember Blue Grass? – has now put in an appearance, magnificent in elaborate draperies of rose pink. And those Sisters! I don’t know why they are portrayed as tousled wiggy blondes – the twins invariably wore signature sleek black bobs with bangs – but the characterisations give some idea of Rosie and Jenny’s extravagant and tragic erotic hysteria. Last week we were treated to the spectacle of Rosie between the sheets with the Chicago-born store magnate. She was sporting nothing but a dazzling parure of diamonds, including improbable and rather risky chandelier earrings. I guess this is how Gladys George, in pre-Hays Code days, might have been presented in THE ROARING TWENTIES. Like the Marquise de Pompadour and other successful courtesans the Dollies were compulsive collectors of exquisite fragrances: tools of their craft. You can try some of their favourites by Isabey, Molinard and Caron at Les Senteurs today.

But back to the fridge and its exotic cargo. Nowadays, in even the most modest dwellings, fridges tend to be great big things, the size of locomotives: the kind of chillers in which Eva Peron kept her blue minks during the summer months. Or the flower cold store in which LW was once briefly locked. (“It was just for a laugh…”). Cold always diminishes the projection of odours but this is no reason not to keep a refrigerator in good order. I have smelled some beautiful things in there – sherry-soaked ratafia trifle, bowls of stewed plums, summer raspberries half-crystallised in sugar – but also some of the worst.

We always kept a clean fridge at home but my father did bring in strange things which were kept chilled in bowls: ink caps or unidentified fungi, skinned hares, whole ox tongues, ribbed whorls of spongy tripe, dusky-feathery rook pie. Such dishes could give you a bit of a turn when you opened the fridge door unawares in the deep dark larder. They often had an uneasy queasy natural redolence, but at least they were fresh. I think one of the vilest and intensely nauseating smells I have ever encountered came from a tupperware box of decomposing kidneys found at the back of an icebox in a professional kitchen, victims of slack stock rotation.

Communal fridges are always tricky: those installed in staff rooms, offices and shared living accomodation. They get cluttered up – no one likes to be seen to be interfering with other people’s provisions by doing a bit of ordering so of course food becomes dried up, contaminated, neglected and forgotten as junky Pelion is piled upon wholefood Ossa. Quinoa versus Chicken MacNuggets. But, have you noticed? Nowadays, nothing seems to actually go bad. Or, at least, decay takes such a long time to set in that you are almost bound to notice, and have made your own pre-emptive strike before the sliced bread and cheese grows its own blue furry coat and runs off. Modern food is so pickled in salt and sugar that it is more or less mummified¤.

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A certain staleness is usually the worst thing that you now smell in fridges. I’m always having rehabilitated young offenders at the door – these poor folk who are sent out by our masters to sell ludicrously priced domestic items to householders:  three dusters for a tenner or individual J-cloths at £5. I feel very indignant on these callers’ behalf but who can afford much of that sort of thing? Anyway, ages ago – rather in despair – I bought three little devices rather like perforated golf balls and they kept my fridge as sweet as a nut for years. A good wipe out with a solution of bicarbonate of soda or vinegar is nature’s own disinfectant, as is a large open bowl of cold water, replaced every hour or so. Add a cut lemon for added effect and a splash of colour. You can’t beat vinegar. Years ago I went to Paris on shop business with our manager. We put up in a picturesque old hotel by the Gare du Nord. The garden walls were lined with shards of looking glass; and every morning the entire establishment smelled like a pickle factory as a sub-concierge went right through the whole of the ground floor with vinegar and scalding hot water.¤¤

Coming full circle, I’ll remind you that if you keep your fridge nice and clean you can also store your scent in it! Light and heat are the enemy of fragrance. As Frederic Malle demonstrates, perfume does excellently in a wine cooler, or in a refrigerator at medium temperature. To me, a chilly-minded cologne – Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant is an especial favourite – is especially delicious on a sticky summer day when served direct from the fridge. “Cheers!”

¤ Mind you, when I was at boarding school we kept butter (if we could occasionally get hold of a piece) in inky study cupboards. It got to taste very musty, and acquired a curious texture, as did the bread it sat upon. And I remember a boy regularly being sent a large carton of pork pies by his grandparents and having them lying in and around his desk and locker for weeks. Another child kept fruit cake down his bed: for safety’s sake.

¤¤ these are my preferred methods, but I have just seen on the web a “tip” for disinfecting the fridge by inserting a tray of cat litter. Fresh and unused, of course: but this idea still makes me feel rather sick.

Hello, Dolly!

verhextdotcom

Some of our younger visitors & staff say they couldn’t possibly walk from Les Senteurs to Selfridge’s. Take heart! it only takes 5 minutes. This fabulous store was once the out-of-hours playground of the glittering and quasi-mythical Dolly Sisters, daughters of a Hungarian tailor and one of the great cabaret acts of the Roaring Twenties. Were they identical twins, Rosie being the slightly more ample and amorous of the two? Or, as used to be rumoured, was there a decade between them, relying on artful maquillage to close the gap? Their success spawned a slew of sister acts including the two Norwegian boys who became the toast of Paris parodying the Dolly act as “The Rocky Twins”.

The eponymous Gordon Selfridge (sharing the accolade with Dorothy Lamour of being the Marshall Field department store’s greatest U.S. export) fell for the Dollies hook line and sinker and transferred them from a flat in St Martins Lane to the huge mansion off Berkeley Square which is now the Landsdowne Club. Disastrously he laid on continuous late night store openings exclusively for the girls – who naturally helped themselves to whatever took their eye. And that was more likely to be sables, platinum and pearls than bread rolls or stationery.

But as we know from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

“He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend..”

The stars of this curious fun-loving menage burned out in the 1930’s with the collapse of the world economy: ill health, bankruptcy and lost looks put an end to all three of them. But Selfridges itself still dances on, as gay and glittering as ever; though the bright young people no longer demonstrate the Charleston on the roofs of passing London cabs and the treasure hunts through the vast departments have long ended. And the exotic perfumes that once enfolded Rosie and Jenny Dolly – Molinard, Caron, Coudray, Isabey, Grossmith, Knize, Houbigant – stream like a scented shimmering ribbon back to the blue door of Les Senteurs, just five minutes up the road.

Image: verhext.com

Gardenias! Joan Crawford’s Favourite!

Gardenia Jasminoides Illustration

“She’s got a fabulous figure she no longer puts to any use and skin like a gardenia that’s been one day too long in the ice-box”. Here’s the inimitable Sue Kaufman describing one of her party guests in Diary Of A Mad Houswife, a book I loved so much I literally read my copy to pieces. The horrible guest is “a minor movie queen from the 1940’s” and if ever a flower symbolised the great years of Hollywood it is the gorgeous gardenia: exotic, unreal, like flowers cut from ivory velvet or white satin. They gleam and glow in their waxen creamy purity like Von Sternberg’s mad beautiful sets for The Devil Is A Woman: painted white and sprayed, like the costumes, with aluminium paint. Gardenias are like artificial flowers come to life, with their impossibly shiny dark emerald leaves that rustle like Garbo’s paper camellias in Camille: and then that glorious unearthly scent. I’m quite happy to kneel in the muck on any London street to inhale gardenias outside a florists.

“These Foolish Things” … remember how the line “Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” once got this song banned on radio? The young Bette Davis was seduced on a bed of gardenias by Howard Hughes; Jean Harlow was buried under a carpet of them; Orson Welles’s muse, the Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio, ate salads of gardenia and rose petals to intensify the velvety pallor of her skin. Joan Crawford went through her famous “gardenia phase” when the fan magazines featured her swimming through drifts of them in her pool. She wore them in movies and publicity shots, and pinned them to furs and shoulder straps for premieres: but as she tells us, they so quickly turned brown, “just too much body heat”. Joan had perforce to substitute Tuvache’s heady “Jungle Gardenia” for the real thing.

Gardenias are real Art Deco blooms: their geometric Rene Mackintosh look, their snowy whiteness, perfect for a Syrie Maugham interior and an era when white and platinum was de rigueur. This was also the era when Chanel made sun bathing fashionable: nothing looked sexier and more stylish than a gardenia against a honey-gold tan. Mlle liked it so well she brought out her own gardenia scent in 1925. Men loved them too,as boutonnieres on dinner jackets and black cashmere evening coats. But these iconic flowers of the late 1920’s and early 30’s were first categorised in the 18th century: and their wonderful name is merely an eponym, deriving from the botanist Alexander Garden of Charleston, Carolina. For me that’s the only faintly disappointing thing about them: it equates with tuberose meaning “propagated by a tuber”, when you long for both names to have some fantastic and extravagant Latin derivation to complete their fantasy.

The first gardenia perfume I fell under the spell of was by Goya. It was only the talcum powder, hidden in a bathroom cabinet, but it came in a wonderful white and green can with a gardenia worthy of Redoute on the label; the smell was sweet and dry and powdery/spicy. Really nothing like a living gardenia but entirely bewitching: a highly stylised interpretation of the fragrance, like the versions by Crabtree & Evelyn, Floris and Penhaligon’s in years to come. Annick Goutal created Gardenia Passion – closer to the real thing, even to the faint hint of brown bruising. Ma Griffe worked a miracle with an entirely chemical rendition. The thing is, the oil can be extracted from the plant but the yield is infintesimal, thus making it very very pricey. Most perfumers prefer to synthesise, using natural oils such as neroli and tuberose to create a wholly convincing ersatz gardenia. Kind of suitable for such a fabulousy unreal bloom.

Isabey have recreated another great 1920’s perfume: their Gardenia claims to use precious vital extract from the plant and appropriately comes in a glamorous flacon like a cube of gold. It’s heavenly: soft, whispery smooth – like cream silk velvet – with sandalwood and iris to add even more depth. Goutal’s recent Matin d’Orage blossoms in a Japanese Zen garden; gardenias drenched with summer rains opening under a stormy sky of purple and violet. And I love the diaphanous transparency of Pierre Guillaume’s Gardenia Grand Soir, a delicate breath of a corsage from a beautiful woman’s shoulder.

Heartbreaking fragile beauty; powerful emotional perfume. No wonder Billie Holliday made gardenias her trademark.

Image from guide-to-houseplants.com