Lavender is one of the first benevolent plants we meet as tiny children. It’s non-poisonous, tough, grows more or less like a weed and smells delicious. Most gardens and patios have a bush somewhere. Lavender is one of the relatively floral smells we all know from infancy. It thrives on dry poor soil and is cheap, or used to be. This year however it was going for £10 a pot at the local hardware store on Mothering Sunday which I thought a bit saucy. You can dry it and make sachets or pot pourris to scent the laundry and deter the moth, at least up to a point. I lost some of my faith in that last quality when a favourite cardigan embalmed in lavender was completely devoured by moths, the worst damage being in the region of the pockets which I’d packed with the stuff.
I love lavender and resent the way it is too much associated with faded maiden ladies, an image perpetuated even in the 21st century by the eponymous Maggie Smith/ Judi Dench movie. Miss Marple uses lavender water for high days and holidays; and then there’s that maudlin Gracie Fields song about the Little Old Lady Passing By – “in your lavender and lace”. It’s an English tic, this: the French, Italian and Dutch see lavender as virile and energising, clean and uplifting, healing and calming. They take the aromatherapeutic view, I suppose inherited from the old Romans who loved the stuff and gave it its name, deriving from “lavare” – to wash. They cleansed their bodies with the fragrant healing oil which is yielded by every part of this ancient plant, and laid up their heavy woollen togas in the dried flowers. It was probably Roman colonists who brought the herb to Britain, two thousand years ago.
I grow lavender: the common or garden type, and that fancy variety which looks like lilac bumble bees. And I wear it. My old favourite was Jean Patou’s long discontinued Moment Supreme: purple prose in perfume! Vast amounts of lavender suspended in sweet vanilla and tonka like a medieval flan for an Emperor’s feast. At Les Senteurs we have three especial crackers: Lorenzo Villoresi’s dark, intense, austerely beautiful Wild Lavender which smells like great bunches freshly culled from a wet garden. Caron’s immortal Pour Un Homme, one of France’s perennial bestsellers since 1934, blends lavender oils with a dash of rose absolue and a lingering melting base of tonka and vanilla. It is as soft and relaxed as a lilac cashmere sweater: although it earned its place in perfume history as the first fragrance specifically branded for men, it also works deliciously on a woman’s skin. The jury is out as to whether lavender can be sexy – and I think it is! – but it is certainly (as Tynan wrote of Dietrich) without gender. I rest my case.
And then there’s Andy Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin.pa This is my current summer favourite, my passion. Andy uses Alpine lavender grown high on the slopes which imbues it with a wonderfully cool, slightly mentholated tang – “cool as a mountain stream”. The dry woody fragrance of lavender is accentuated and exoticised with orris, frankincense and cedar; the sweetness increased with rose and vanilla. There is a glorious generous freshness and a slight juicy fruitiness withal; Reverie Au Jardin is as far as you can get from drawer liners and the old Bazaar & Rummage image. It’s lush, expansive, intricate and as beautiful as a Mediterranean dawn.