“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.

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Spanish Carnations: Vive el Rey!

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It is sad to see the old King of Spain putting aside his crown. When he came to the throne in the 1970’s after Franco’s unspeakably protracted end Juan Carlos was a great golden figure of traditional Bourbon glamour and vigour. The elegant & charming Queen Sofia was said to Hoover her own palaces and there were two pretty neo-Velasquez Infantas plus the little Infant Felipe for the picture papers to delight in: a perfect “Hola!” family to lead Spain out of the long shadows of the Civil War. My friend Dona Pilar who sold newspapers down our road had grown up in a country where women were forbidden to wear trousers nor any garment in red or yellow – the national colours. Do you remember, old books on colour symbolism used to say grimly “in Spain the public executioner is arrayed in yellow”?

And now all this has ended in the anti-climax of abdication and the dreariness of scandal. But the Spanish royals have never had much luck. Maybe Louis XIV’s pushing his grandson onto the throne in 1700 drew down a native curse on the Bourbon intruders. There followed feeble-minded monarchs who never got out of bed, were caricatured by Goya, chased out by Napoleon and subjected to anarchist outrages. An Infanta sent to Versailles as the fiancee of Louis XV was eventually humiliatingly returned to Madrid, labelled ‘Not Wanted’. The beautiful blonde Queen Ena, an English princess and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had her wedding dress spattered with blood as a result of a terrorist bomb, an augury of a disastrous marriage.

What, I wonder, do we have in the shop as an olfactory ave atque vale to King Juan Carlos and to the new Felipe VI? Carnations are the national flower of Spain; crimson, pink and snowy flowers pulsating with that hypnotic creamy musky clove scent which electrifies you when encountered in a garden. A red carnation, say Spaniards, is the symbol of hopeless passion, erotic despair.

Ironically none of the perfumes at Les Senteurs use Spanish carnation oil but let that pass: the scent, if not the poetic conception, is similar; and (perceptible) carnation of any species is not common in modern perfumery. Caron’s Piu Bellodgia is a graceful reworking of their immortal Bellodgia first launched in 1927: a lighter, drier accord; powdery like petals. Myself, I think I may even prefer it to the great original. Creed’s Acqua Fiorentina is a decadently lush corncupia of white carnations atop velvety greengages and bursting plums; while Une Fleur de Cassie from Editions de Parfum uses the flowers to enrich an already hedonistic extravaganza of mimosa, acasias, apricots and jasmine.

But for a truly Hispanic experience, the full monty with castanets, fans, guitars mantillas and peinetas, try the Cuban pastiche of Molinard’s Habanita. This is perfumery’s legendary take on the Carmen/ Dietrich sluttish cigarette girl fantasy; you know, the one that has tobacco workers rolling cigars on their thighs; the story that inflamed the House of Molinard in 1921 when smokes were the sexiest smells in scent in the wake of Caron’s barnstorming Tabac Blond. Florid, smoky and dark as the Havana night, Habanita is spangled with stars of orange blossom, jasmine and lilac in a thicket of leather, benzoin, amber,oakmoss, vetiver and cedar with florid flashes of raspberry and peach.
It’s oily, earthy, seductive and as penetrating as a Toledo steel estoque.

Ole! We salute His Most Christian Majesty, King Felipe, as he takes the throne on June 19th.

Hello, Dolly!

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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.

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Knize Ten

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The end of the Great War saw a frenzied creative activity in the creation of scent: without Caron’s Tabac Blond there would have been no Knize Ten; without Knize Ten there might have been no Habanita. We have all three pillars of perfumery holding up the roof of Les Senteurs: the most remarkable and oddest of the trio is Knize Ten. Extraordinarily difficult to find, its reputation is enormous but in no way belied by its reality, once found. It is surrounded by an almost sinister aura.

When I was young and warnings came via whispers rather than the internet, certain things were held to be arcane and dangerous, to infallibly bring bad luck: such as possession of tarot cards, writing cheques on a Sunday, sticking a postage stamp upside down and reading The Golden Bough. Knize Ten is a bit like this: it has such an accumulation of myth about it and such a powerful presence that the challenge of wearing with it without being overpowered by its legend is too much for some.

Knize Ten is one of the final legacies of old Imperial Europe – the Kaiserzeit in full decadence with all the glamour, gloom and grotesquerie that children of that era – Von Stroheim, Pabst, Von Sternberg, Zweig, Mann – brought to their films and books. The tailoring firm of Knize was founded in 1858 by the Czech Josef Knize but had been bought out by the Wolff family long before the Emperor Franz Josef gave the House its Royal and Imperial Warrant in 1888, the year Queen Victoria’s daughter became Empress of Prussia for just 99 days. In its heyday there were Knize showrooms in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Karlsbad and even New York dressing not only royalty but the German military; gentlemen of both sexes; Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. Today Knize Ten, always a star since 1921 (though the exact date is debated) is a murky canary diamond gleaming in the shadows of its own past.

Knize’s Teutonic darkness closes in oppressively and hotly after a brilliant hesperidic burst of rosemary, lemon and orange like sun burning through Berlin fogs over the swamps of the Spree. Knize draws across heavy baize-lined velvet curtains, shutting you in with a padded heart of rose, jasmine and clove carnation whose animalic notes come panting after, echoed in accords of castoreum, civet, amber, cedar and patchouli. The full expression is immense, bursting out of its confines – heady, heavy, swollen; and faintly sweaty, like fine wool heated by vigorous exercise – the feverish walkers of “The Magic Mountain”, or Luis Trenker in one of those unhinged mountaineering Silent pictures of the late 20’s. A wholesome unwholesomeness – or maybe vice versa.

One is confronted with a huge physicality and a sense of a faint (or rather more?) soiling. Speaking for myself, Knize Ten’s attraction never fails, but one application leaves me feeling coated, sealed, painted like that girl in Goldfinger. There’s hardly room left to breathe: Knize Ten is a total experience, it possesses you wholly, crushes you in its fatal ursine embrace. The final kicker is that oily black work-out of Prussian leather and what some people swear is the odour of rubber. And of course for many this is the money-shot, the clincher that makes the fragrance irresistible. It doesn’t play- pretend fetishism like some modern scents: it is itself a fetish, in same way as Narcisse Noir or Bandit. We keep it in a cage.

It Couldn’t Please Me More

Luscious, golden, exotically armour-plated pineapples seem in many ways a more suitable nomination than the humble apple for the fruit that lured Adam and Eve from Paradise. First of all there is that wonderful contrast between the thorny exterior and the succulent inside: as piquant as cracking open a crab or scarlet lobster. The sunshine yellow flesh so aromatic and sticky-sweet is yet refreshing, thirst-quenching and if caught at exactly the right moment (you must smell the fruit in the shops as does the French housewife to catch it at the moment of perfection) just slightly crunchy without being fibrous. The rind is an aesthetic pleasure to watch as it ripens from jade to topaz and there is money to be made from the blue green leaves: in the days when pineapples were generally brought whole to table bets were laid on the number of spiny leaves (like baby aloes) sprouting from the head. There are always far more than you think.

Instead of a token of temptation – and how would our Mother Eve have peeled it? – the pineapple became on account of its rarity a symbol of hospitality during its first 500 years in the West, introduced from the Americas at vast cost of money and human misery. The first fruit to be grown here in the 1670’s by the enterprising and appropriately named gardener Mr Rose was personally presented to Charles 2nd and a picture painted to record the great event. Europeans spent fortunes trying to emulate Mr Rose’s efforts and cultivating a dainty dish to set before kings and honoured guests. Growing pineapples over here was a laborious, expensive and heart-breaking business: you needed pineapple pits, hot water pipes, constant turning, cosseting and applications of warm manure. Pineapples demanded 24 hour attendance; garden boys became their personal nursemaids as they were found to be even more difficult to rear than babies in the perilous eighteenth century. How ironic nowadays to find them priced down to a pound in the Co-Op when the raw fruit is often cheaper than a can of chunks.

Then, they became the ultimate luxury, the ne plus ultra gift: the equivalent of a Damien Hurst diamond skull, or a mink T shirt. (I said to this lady wearing the latter, “how do you clean it?” She said, “I buy a new one”). If you look at the stately homes of England you’ll see stone pineapples on roofs and gateposts; gilded ones on curtain finials and glass ones in the form of ice buckets and menu holders. Shining pineapples reflect the sun aloft on St Pauls; and sit atop the domes of the National Gallery if you look up from the yearning huddled masses of Trafalgar Square, every fruit promising a superabundant generous welcome.

Later, pineapples become iconic of Weimar Berlin, even having a song – “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – dedicated to them in the stage version of Cabaret. Those of you who are fans of The Blue Angel will remember Marlene being courted in her dressing-room by the boorish sea captain with a bottle of sekt and a pineapple from the Indies. Not that it gets him anything but the bum’s rush. It was around this time (1929) that pineapple started making the occasional foray into commercial scent. Perfumers noticed, like those canny housewives, what a glorious fragrance was to be had from the fruit and wove it into their own fantasies: it could be extracted (once again, at great cost) from the whole fruit via the juice, or produced synthetically. Volatile and appetising, pineapple made a voluptuous alternative to lemon, orange or bergamot in the top notes of a fragrance and added an aura of luxurious indulgence to the whole.

The late lamented Colonie by Patou was one of the cult glories of the 1930’s: a smell of the tropical possessions of the French empire, full of swampy vetiver and pineapple evoking steaming soaked mangrove forests and sweaty jungles – interesting to compare with Pierre Guillaume’s Indochine which takes the same inspiration but creates a totally different vision of incense + temples, the spirit rather than the flesh. Molinard de Molinard is an exquisite cool green veil of roses, muguet and mosses with a delicate nip of pineapple and raspberry: treat your bottle with great respect, cloaked in the darkness of your deepest drawer, as it fades rapidly with sunlight, but nurtured like fine fruit this is one of the most delicious and little known of perfumes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Ananas Fizz (now defunct) with its tang of added coconut milk was great holiday fun. Belle Epoque by Knize includes pineapple among its multi-coloured Knickerbocker Glory of ingredients, but probably the ultimate triumph of the pine has come with Creed’s Aventus, the house’s best-seller of all time, even rivalling the legendary Green Irish Tweed. A dark aromatic woodsy scent full of jasmine, birch and juniper, oakmoss and vanilla, Aventus is a precious setting for the gleam and glitter of pineapple in the effervescent top notes grabbing the attention and seducing the senses.
A great introduction to an olfactory experience of this most welcoming and sociable of aromas.

Nosmo King

Catherine Deneuve Smoking

“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.

George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.

For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?

So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods

And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.

As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”

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