“Dear Diary”: my week in perfume

Les Indémodables founder Valerie Pulverail and her partner Remi Pulverail, founder of L’Atelier Francais des Matières with Claire, Daniela and James!

SUNDAY:

Pack up for the return to London. Very hot. Reluctant to leave my tower lilies, now in full bloom in a pair of pots framing the back door. This is their second year, and they’ve put on a massive growth spurt. The taller lily is well over six feet, with a stem as sturdy as a young sapling – “no need to stake”. At the summit – rather as in a belfry – hang twelve trumpet blooms. Each is the size of a eccentrically-shaped soup bowl, and the colour of a very rich cream custard with scent to match. Ginger, lemon, tonka, vanilla, musk and jasmine accords attract swarms of insects – and me. Why does no perfumer produce a fragrance to replicate this heavenly smell? I’m always asking this question. Never get a satisfactory answer.

 

 

MONDAY:

My office day. Pop down to Richmond. Queen Elizabeth 1’s favourite palace once stood on the river bank. All that remains now is The Wardrobe. Officious person tells me, “..that doesn’t mean a cupboard in which to hang your clothes, you know.” Elizabeth Tudor died here – not in the Wardrobe. I always think it was a foolish place to bring a sick cross old lady in wet windy March weather; but I suppose the Queen insisted. The Thames at Richmond intensifies winter cold and damp; but in July all is idyllic. Dancing in the streets and flowers everywhere. Office is filled with the scent of a bowl of ripe mangoes. Am shown a new eau de parfum from Mizensir with the provocative name of Tres Chère – masses of orange blossom and vanilla; comforting, seductive and a great booster of spirits. Mizensir perfumes are all great fun – an essential quality in scent. Clever Mr Morillas!

 

TUESDAY:

A very warm night. Troubled dreams of Myrna Loy; and of pugs. A dear former colleague writes that she is visiting the H.Q. of Aspects Beauty, “custodians of luxury cosmetic and fragrance brands”. Aspects live in a gorgeous old house – Balneath Manor – in East Sussex which once belonged to Queen Anne of Cleves. The property was part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII. A pleasing irony, because one of Old Harry’s grouses was that Anne smelled funny. Now her lovely home is filled with wonderful scents. A pub quiz mentality kicks in here, and I think about other divorced Queens of England – Catherine of Aragon, Sophie Dorothea (locked up by that old brute George 1st); and, of course, the scatty Caroline of Brunswick, barred at the Abbey doors from George IV’s coronation. She too “smelled offensively” – too lazy to wash, her own parents said. The English Ambassador put in a word, but all in vain.

 

WEDNESDAY:

So hot that I draw across the curtains upon arising to keep out the cruel glare. Am pleased to recall the ancient Egyptians personifying the angry sun as the “Lady of the Chamber of Flames”. Interesting weather for smelling scent. All the oils come shimmeringly, blazingly, to life and open up like so many peacock tails on hot damp skin. A pyrotechnic perfume show. Go marketing for dry goods and beverages to adorn tomorrow’s Les Senteurs Event. Lemons, limes, mandarins and raspberries make a wonderful splash of colour – a Frida Kahlo still life. Put on a splash of our new Paloma Y Raices ‘en hommage’. The Edgware Road seems endless in this heat – “a long long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams…” But there’s no white moon beaming at the end of it. Return to shop with my loot. Pascale says I’m making funny noises. It is possible.

 

THURSDAY:

Meet the wonderful Valerie and Remi Pulverail who fly in from Annecy for our Event. The kind, gracious, generous and richly informative Pulverails have come to talk about Valerie’s new brand Les Indémodables. Five scents inspired by the classic perfume families – and now exclusive in the UK at Les Senteurs. Just For Us!! We are blessed indeed. Become very excited. Each fragrance has a silky smoothness, profound depth and a jewel-like brilliance. The names add to the sense of rich colour and luxury: Fougére Emeraude, Chypre Azural, Iris Perle…A fragranced wardrobe of dreams. Shop fills up wonderfully for Event: Remi and Valerie speak thrillingly and persuasively. A great success. Home very late, by taxi.

 

FRIDAY:

Rendezvous with Valerie and Remi at 11am at Les Senteurs, Belgravia. The Pulverails both look fresh as daisies, crisp and immaculate, full of energy and knowledge. Valerie is the epitome of French chic in a cunning white lace jacket. Fascinating two hours of training. Our shop manager says, “I have never enjoyed a training more, nor learned so much”. Finally understand exactly why Calabrian bergamot is the BEST bergamot: often stated, never before explained. Here’s the reason. Thanks to the proximity of Mount Etna across the straits, Calabria has its own micro-climate. Night temperatures consistently warm, balmy winters. The volcanically-manured soil feeds and nourishes the temperamental bergamot trees and their fruit.  Remi makes reference to the fact that few flowers bloom for longer than three weeks. (Jasmine is one exception). We agree ruefully that, as we grow older, these weeks seem to shrink. Dissect Cuir de Chine and discover the radiance of natural Chinese Osmanthus Absolute. A miracle! Never smelled anything like this. Les Indémodables demonstrate that, even at my age, revelations in perfume can occur. Ask Remi about fragrances celebrating lilies. He is kind and sympathetic but we come to no definitive conclusion.

After work, take late train home to Leicester. As I step onto my native heath, the Heavens open – am soaked as I dash across London Road. Had almost forgotten this refreshing sensation.


SATURDAY:

Drink chilled redbush tea all day – a new craze much recommended by my neighbour. Flowery, delicate and refreshing. Find a Chinese pot pourri dish – still filled and fragrant – at Oxfam. Buy a yellow orchid and an Italian plate. Tower lilies still holding their own. Still pumping out perfume. They have one week left.

 

 

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“…give him the air!”

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Sometimes after a busy day in our shop I feel absolutely soaked and saturated in scent. I am exuding fragrance from every pore, like a dying agar tree or a sticky cistus bush. Scent seems to be within me as well as without. I am, as the French say, wonderfully  “embalmed”¤ in perfume, like the ancient Egyptian procedures evoked in ANUBIS. I am pleased to remember that the necromancer sorcerers and priests of Karnak & Thebes used fragrance as a spell to reconstitute flesh and to renew life. Being pickled in perfume can be a rather attractive sensation, although it is disconcerting when taxi drivers lower the windows during the ride home; or if people look askance and shift themselves on the Tube. Mind you, the most unsettling thing on the Underground nowadays is that I need only step into a carriage to have kind young people leap to their feet, proffering seats. It is very kind but also a memento mori.

The other day, I was given a lift to the shops. At the traffic lights I looked over into the car drawn up alongside. Despite it being a warm sunny morning all the windows were sealed. The driver stubbed out one cigarette and in a single smooth fluid movement lit another. “Kid like you shouldn’t smoke so heavy”. Quite a rare sight these days, to see someone so kippered in tobacco smoke. I thought of all those post-war British movies which revel in the evocation of claustrophobic smells. Remember a badly hung-over Jean Kent frowsting between grubby sheets with a caged parrot at the end of her bed?  There are bottles of every sort all over the place, and a quarter ounce of “Seduction” is ungraciously slammed down on the dressing table as the woman In question¤¤ examines her furred tongue in the glass and lards on more lipstick.

How the camera lingers over the slovenly antics of Susan Shaw in ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947). She comes home from a dance at 3am, too drunk to undress, and falls into bed in her clothes: later we see her hanging up her crumpled frock, evidently preparatory to another outing. No question of the dry cleaners: maybe a dab with a petrol-soaked rag later. Presently, she has a bath in front of the kitchen range and washes out her undies in the dirty water. As I watch these films over and again, I notice all the open doors and windows¤¤¤. People then believed in fresh air, and the directors and set dressers never forgot it. Considerably more recently – 30 years ago – I remember my father, purple in the face, wrenching open sealed windows (like Louis XVI at Marie Antoinette’s bedside) in over-heated restaurants. They’d have the police on him, now.

It’s all very different from a tv ad I saw last night – a strange thing! A young woman is unaware that her lovely home reeks of dog. Her guest is repelled. A huge title flashes up to announce she’s become “NOSE BLIND”. (I gather there’s another version featuring a chap whose furniture is impregnated with the smell of beefburgers: other people’s lives…!).  Our parents and grandparents were only too aware that they had to be on the lookout for unwelcome odours, and so they took natural precautions. If you fried fish, then you opened the house doors fore and aft for a cleansing through-draught. But the poor confined girl with the bulldog has become complacent and anosmic in a world where everything is ruthlessly deodorised, disinfected and hermetically sealed: and in which no one now expects to eat a peck of dirt before they die.¤¤¤¤

When I’m drenched in scent like a pre-Revolutionary Marquis  – last Friday it was with LITTLE BIANCA, our new rosy and romantic Exclusive by Alberto Morillas – I like to pass the fragrance on. And one does so, willy nilly, like the coloured dust from a butterfly’s wing. If you are well perfumed the sillage will lightly and persuasively invade the auras of those you meet, greet and embrace. Greek courtesans, it is said, used to immerse their sandals in fragrance and so lay an enticing trail in the dust. A perfumed scarf or handkerchief will pass on a Chinese whisper of scent. No doubt I leave traces on those Underground banquettes or cab seats. Should you be intrigued by this idea, let me remind you that the palms of the hand are wonderful conductors of scent: spray them with your fragrance and you will leave a little of yourself on everyone & everything you touch.

There was a most amusing man on the wireless recently, talking about the connection of hands across history and peoples. Apparently when Barry Humphries shook hands with Arthur Miller all he could think was, “This was the hand that once caressed Marilyn”. Well – I have shaken hands with Daniel Day Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – so I’m now a tiny link in that immortal adamantine chain.

I have mentioned before that when I clasped Marlene Dietrich’s hand back in ’72 – the nails painted to match the gold and rose Balenciaga trouser suit – the hand was curiously and wonderfully perfumed. In fact it dripped & dropped perfume, like the myrrh so sensually described in the Song of Solomon. If you have a sense of romance, picture that gallant inventive little German hand – frost-bitten from the War – passing on its redolence to Piaf, Alexander Fleming, General Patton, Jean Gabin, Moshe Dayan, the Beatles, Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Orson Welles,  JFK, Fred Perry, Audrey Hepburn, the Burtons ….and on & on. It’s a glorious metaphor for the irresistible pervasiveness of smell and scent. Doors and windows cannot keep perfume out: as Nancy Mitford wrote of the Duc de Richelieu, if you put him out of the door he comes back down the chimney.

Pass it on!

¤ “embaumer 1.vt to embalm 2. vt to give out a fragrance, be fragrant; l’air embaumait le lilas – the air was balmy with the scent of lilac..” – Collins Robert French Dictionary.

¤¤ in the film of the same name: 1950.

¤¤¤ take a look at Fred and Laura’s well-aired house in ‘Brief Encounter’.

¤¤¤¤ LW has already consumed his share, and keeps on munching.

At the turn of the year… Pt 1

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I bought a delicious Mizensir candle to brighten the home this Christmas. Foret de Roses smells like the bower of the Sleeping Beauty – garlands of heavy velvety crimson roses blossoming in a dark wood, rambling across an earthy mossy forest floor and throwing green tendrils against a turret wall. A bit of seasonal magic. It’s been my refuge against the warm winds constantly banging and buffeting around the East Midlands, smelling not of the soft refreshing rain which seldom came, but of damp and moisture, like half-dried laundry. Then the freeze set in and the roses had a second flowering, blooming like wine-red snow crystals.

My other reliable comfort is, as you know, is a good read. I found the cult thriller “Gone Girl” at Oxfam just before Christmas so, having been told at the library that there was a 3 month waiting list, I snapped it up with relish. Now I’m only glad I didn’t pay full retail: here’s a book with a bad smell to it and not only in its unsparing lists of chewing gum, stale beer, carry-out polystyrene coffee, cheese fritos and endless bodily secretions and effluvia. Maybe the authorial intention is satirical but – to use an old fashioned phrase – I found the whole tone of the novel objectionable and it’s not a volume I shall keep on my shelves: it can return to the nothingness from which it came. As in the past with tarot cards, a ouija board and terrible fake movie star biographies I feel happier with it out of the house. So what next? I’ve got the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary from the library – flatulence, halitosis, herbal tea, stewed apple and Bavarian ozone. A wonderful friend has sent me Defoe’s ”Roxana”; and my brother needs help with a talk for the bi-centenary of Waterloo.

Colourful details, he asks for. I tell him about Napoleon’s prodigious use of Farina cologne, exhausting a couple of bottles a day, a true perfume alcoholic. He and his Marshals had it packaged in slender flasks which they slid down inside their glassily polished boots so that they could carry scent with them – “Globe Trotter”-style – to the ends of occupied Europe. The Emperor was rubbed down, washed and massaged in cologne, as were Louis XIV and James 1 before him: monarchs who, cat-like, avoided water while still intent on keeping themselves nice. Though, as we know, Napoleon notoriously preferred his inamoratae on the grubby unbathed side, despite – or because of – his two empresses running up huge perfumery bills chez Lubin and Rance.

The other, more gruesome, thing I always remember about Waterloo is the business of the teeth. Thousands of dead young soldiers lay unburied on the battlefield for weeks while enterprising ghouls pillaged their corpses for sound healthy teenage teeth which kept international dentists supplied with denture material for the next 40 years.

Christmas – like scent – is all about memories. This year we saw the last of Billie Whitelaw – who once played Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in a 70’s tv series I recall being shot on tiny box sets almost entirely in shades of mauve and green. Mandy Rice Davies’s obituaries were illustrated with cut-out- and-keep photos of an unbelievably poised teenager (18 then was today’s 40) striding into court in the summer of ’63 as fresh and fragrant as her petalled hat. And we said goodbye to dressy tennis champion Dorothy Cheney aged 98 who leaves us on a most apposite note:

“The girls today don’t look like girls when they’re on the court… For me there’s never too much perfume or lace!”

A very happy and healthy New Year to You All!

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