Lavender’s Blue

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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.
Use lavishly.

Be Like Dad: Keep Mum

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In the old times, when Mothering Sunday was a feast of honouring one’s mother church, children brought home a posy of wild flowers for mamma. I remember as a tot that my grandmother was still keen on this idea. When I made a fuss about the problem of finding them in our streets she allowed that flowers picked from the garden would just about do. I was wary of this as there had recently been a row about helping myself to daffodils but I remember gathering a small bunch of sea blue sillas from beneath the sitting room windows and these went down well.

So I have been scanning the shelves here at Les Senteurs looking for the fragrance of wild flowers that might intrigue you and please your mum. You can cheat a bit if you want to, as so many of our garden blooms started off in hedgerows, fields and streams before being refined for the garden. You can always blur the edges and fall back on iris, rose, jasmine and tuberose if you must. Meanwhile the more creative can use their imaginations to romantic effect.

James Heeley’s L’Amandiere is an enchanting visualisation of a perfect spring day. An orchard of almond blossom spreads a pink and white canopy over a carpet of hyacinths and bluebells while a note of linden florets suggests the imminence of summer while evoking the sweet green lushness of new grass. Almonds and their flowers are loaded with appropriate symbolism – the Mystery of the Virgin Birth, hope, fertility, life’s sweetness & bitterness, the path of righteous living, the passing of the years. Maybe to emphasise the intensity of spring, L’Amandiere is conceived as an extrait, a parfum: concentrate and compressed vitality, the richness and bounty of the two Universal Mothers: Earth & Nature.

Now wander barefoot into a field of red and white clover. Are children still taught to suck nectar from the flowers as we used to do? Atelier Cologne’s Trefle Pur continues a tradition of clover fragrances which began with Piver’s barnstorming Trefle Incarnat nearly 120 years ago. This new 21st century clover is a fragrance simultaneously lush and innocent, rainy and sunny, with touches of violet leaf, basil, moss and neroli. Knee high in buttercups, “when the fields are white with daisies” as Florrie Forde used to sing.

Lorenzo Villoresi’s Yerbamate is another perfumed pasture, this time revolving around sharp green galbanum oil. This plant, related to our cow parsley & fennel, grows wild in the mountains of Iran but this scent to me is very English: emerging from a deep dark wood into open meadows under a clear blue cloudless sky. It’s like wading through trefoil, camomile, ferns and sorrel surrounded with flowering trees rampant with sap & spring vigour.

An honourable mention here too for Ophelia by Heeley Parfums. Think of Millais’s painting of Elizabeth Siddal floating downstream on a current of flowers. Though here you must permit a certain poetic licence for we smell not rosemary, pansies and rue but the tropic elegance of tuberose, ylang ylang and jasmine. However these heady scents are treated with a freshness, lightness and modesty which are the special charms of a wild flower.

As for the charms of your own wonderful mother find them all reflected in the 1001 myriad magical perfumes of Les Senteurs. Why not pop round?

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

10 Key Odours

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Picking up on that new American theory of smell we were talking about on Tuesday, I drew up a list of specimens in the shop.

MINTY : Geranium Pour Monsieur by Editions de Parfum.

There’s plenty to chose from in this category, but I’m plumping for Malle’s green ice spectacular with peppermint and mint absolute and the creamy musky base.

DECAYED: Charogne by Etat Libre D’Orange

Overblown flowers, the weird beauty of ylang ylang and incense with fleshy animalic hints. The scent of gamey carrion, food on the edge of rot.

PUNGENT: Velvet Oud by Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Weighted wine-coloured velvet drapes, impregnated with smoky earthy oud. A scent so thick and heavy you can cut it, bruise yourself on it.

SWEET: Teint de Neige by Villoresi.

Powdery and white, like snow or icing sugar. Delicately candied jasmine flower, rose petals, vanilla and soft blond woods. A lovely face, a crystal mirror.

LEMON: Verveine d’Eugene by Heeley

Lemon’s not as common as you might suppose. Here’s a dazzling lemon verbena with blackcurrant, pink rhubarb and green bergamot. Droolingly citrus: is your mouth watering?

FRAGRANT: Un Bateau Pour Capri by Eau d’Italie

Peony, jasmine, cedar, rose and heliotrope with a dash of champagne and clear morning sunshine. Smells like the plains of Heaven.

POPCORN : Aomassai by Parfumerie Generale.

If you can’t wait for La Fin du Monde try this adult feast of caramel, toasted hazelnut, liquorice and resins. Black and gold fires, smoky vanilla, liquid tonka.

FRUITY: Playing with the Devil by Kilian

Hide and seek in the woods. Dripping juicy blood orange, peach, blackcurrants and lychee.

WOODY: Sandalo by Lorenzo Villoresi

Dark, clean, sombre, grainy: Asian and European woods, sap, bark and the forest floor.

CHEMICAL: Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange

The intimate fluids secreted by the chemicals of the human body – interpreted with adrenaline and azurone layered with flowery accords.

So that’s mine. Or one of mine. And what is yours?

Image: fisheaters.com

Total Immersion

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As you know, at Les Senteurs we make rather a good job of finding a fragrance to complement a particular occasion. A woman came in the other day looking for a perfume to wear as godmother at a christening. Now I suppose the imagination at once goes to something light, crisp, fresh and florally green – new life, new hope; “we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree”, you know? One thinks of Malle’s Lys Mediterranee or Cloon Keen’s Bataille des Fleurs.  However, I’d been to a baptism myself only the previous day and had been overwhelmed in the chancel by a spontaneously generated redolence of myrrh, the godfathers’ smooth spicy scent and vases of crimson & cream late roses, with just a hint of pure clean baby.

So for my visitor – who was dramatically brunette with fine clear olive skin (for such things will alter the perception and wearing of a scent) – I chose the following. Parfum Sacre from Le Selection de Caron is a new translation of the classic mix of roses, pepper, cinnamon and incense. Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi is a fantasy tour of the Persian Castle of the Assassins : the perfume is a head-turning and head-spinning kaleidoscope of sweet incense oils, rose, tuberose, amber,narcissus and orange blossom. My new friend took away a sample of each to ponder: we await her decision with interest.

Image from: thetimes.co.uk

A Fine Baby Boy

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I didn’t write about royal baby joy at the time as everyone was complaining of saturation coverage: I enjoyed it very much myself, something cheerful for a change. And now that Prince George has gone home, we may perhaps take a little look at him. Baby Cambridge’s appearance on July 22, day of stupendous, stupefying heat, the most intense of the year, seemed richly mystically symbolic: a Son of the Sun, grandson of Diana of the Moon. A ray of the Sun in Splendour, device of his distant Plantagenet ancestors. Astrologically Prince George is just caught within the watery Cancerian net as demonstrated by the breaking of tropical electric storms and deluges over London within hours of his birth, but he’s on the cusp of fiery Leo too, a creature of heat, passion and flame. I should think he’ll run rings round his Gemini papa and lock budding horns with his tough and charismatic Capricorn mother. A perfect amalgum for a future King: proud, loyal, economical, charming, creative, magnetic, sensitive, gentle, empathetic and responsible. And with enough of the deep crustacean shell and native caution to preserve his regal distance. Sharing the day: Mama Rose Kennedy, Terence Stamp, Oscar de la Renta, Bryan Forbes and –  supposedly – Alexander the Great.

Always excepting the unfortunate Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, this baby is the first Heir to the British throne since the Conquest to be born under the sign of Cancer. All things being equal, he’ll be the first crowned Cancerian monarch in 1000 years. We’ve had plenty of mighty Leos and glittering mercurial Geminians, stubborn dutiful Taureans and balanced, impartial Librans – “affable, suave and dapper” – but no King Crabs. Our Cambridge infant should prove to be a revelation in kingship, though probably long after the last juice has been squeezed from Lemon Wedge and his rind consigned to the recycling. However, one must not presume or assume. Like Nostradamus I looked into my basin of dark waters on your behalf, and now wonder, after all this continuing uninformed talk of abdications, whether it will not be William who in the end springs a surprise. Will he maybe decide to take a rain-check on kingship and hand the reins, untried, over to George VII? After all, William too is on the Cancerian cusp.

Royal births used to be, almost by definition, harrowing and terrible affairs. It was not until our own Queen’s lifetime that the custom of having the Home Secretary on hand to witness the legitimacy of the baby was done away with. This precaution started after the widely believed rumour that James II’s son and heir was a changeling, smuggled within a warming pan into the bed of Mary Beatrice of Modena – incidentally, one of our few truly beautiful Queen Consorts.

Royal mothers-to-be were secluded in their apartments weeks before and after the birth; rooms closed and shuttered against perilous light and dangerous fresh air. Goats and cows were brought to the bedside so that their fresh milk would lose no time nor potency in nourishing the young mother; other animals – sheep and lambs and hares – might be slaughtered in situ after a difficult delivery so that the Queen and offspring could be cosied up in freshly flayed warm skin. Can you even begin to imagine the state of the stale foul air, further heated and corrupted with blood, sweat, wine (to wash baby), a blaze of candles and braziers of disinfecting herbs and incense? Queen Jane Seymour never recovered. We know that in 1778 Marie Antoinette nearly died in labour at Versailles for want of fresh air: the King himself smashed the windows, all sealed up for winter, and revived her with the bite of a frosty December morning. And what about the horror story of Queen Mary Tudor? She was immured in her darkened sweltering rooms for month after month after month till it finally had to be horribly admitted that there was no baby coming, that the whole pregnancy had been a fearful illusion. In her memoir, Catherine the Great paints an awful picture of her baby son Paul, his tiny face puddled in sweat, swaddled in a cradle packed with velvet and furs on the direct orders of the Tsarina Elizabeth, herself beautiful, massive and always wine-purple in the face.

The modern baby is marketed as a creature of pure and pretty scents, smelled to advantage on a plumply hydrated uncorrupted baby skin. Do baby worshippers still pay the ultimate accolade of declaring their intention of eating the new arrival? This must somehow connect with the well-known phenonemon of all new-borns looking, however briefly, like their fathers so that papa does not doubt his paternity – and like Saturn (or an animal) devour his own progeny. I like that baby smell, and without sentimental illusion: I’ve changed many nappies, and cleaned up sick in my time. Every healthy baby has an sweetly innocent odour about it, no matter how much of a mess it’s temporarily gotten itself into.

And this smell is what? Well: milky, biscuity, rusky, slightly sicky sometimes, a whiff of ammonia, skin, hair, soap. And  a lavishly powdered bottom, which is why perfumes such as the increasingly rare Narcisse Noir, Villoresi’s Teint de Neige and Kilian’s Love (…Don’t Be Shy) are so much in demand: these confections of orange flower, vanilla, marshmallow, iris and rice have a sweet and nostalgic powderiness which I guess spells nourishment, nostalgia, nursery security, Mummy’s perfume, Nanny’s solid bosom. Narcisse Noir has the slightly citric clogged dampness of Johnsons Baby Powder: a note that emerges in the heart of the scent as the orange hits the orris. Caron has now brought out My Ylang, a creamy white floral, dusted with icing sugar: meringue or derriere? Kurkdjian’s Cologne Pour le Matin is far from infantile but its wonderfully woozy evocation of daytime naps – clouds of thyme, lavender, neroli – lays you down in a doll’s bassinet like Gulliver in Brobdignag.  There is always the faintest hint of wet nappy in orange blossom and mock orange, especially when overblown; not exactly unpleasant but disconcerting and attractively disturbing – a reminder that babyhood is strictly limited; that the serpent has already entered Eden. Which is where the intrinsic corruption of Divin Enfant comes in with its bizarrie of tobacco, cassie, mocha and rose: leading by inference to George’s Christening : the next big photo opportunity.

Cake or Pastry?

From ilovemuffins.es

“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

Picture from: ilovemuffins.es