“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express

 

Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

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Blood And Sand: Part One

marlene-dietrich-in-garden-of-allah

 

The stirring emotional scent of wet earth and newly-turned soil – “the red earth of Tara” or the aubergine-purple ploughed fields of the Midlands – has influenced many fragrances. Eighty years ago Jean Patou’s Colony explored the swampy forest floor of Indo-China. But what of the smells of apparently barren terrain? Eternal wastes of wilderness; the endless deserts – burning hot by day, penetratingly cold after the nightly drama of the death of the sun. Icy conditions numb, shrink and diminish smells and their perception. Antarctic explorers tell us of months in the snows, smelling nothing at all except the occasional pungent whiff of guano from a colony of exceptionally fishy sea birds. Extremes of temperature do perfume no favours, as all good fragrance curators know.

Yet the romance of the bare eastern desert – “on your far hills, long cold and grey” – has inspired many strange, beautiful and remarkable scents. The magic of these lies in the shifting shimmering sands which ensnare and capture elusive and deceptive odours, yielding them up as a Fata Morgana, sporadically and reluctantly, under the probing and teasing of the perpetual winds. Each grain of sand is a minute particle of a lost desiccated civilisation; of primeval rocks; of vanished lives. Each is the tiny crystalline cocoon of an infinity of odiferous molecules: a perfume paradox of the quick and the dead. A master perfumer can create a living dream from a handful of desert dust: an expansive gorgeous butterfly crawling from a wizened brown chrysalis. A marvellous dream born of a gusty void.

The desert – “the face of the infinite” – represented the apogee of exotic eroticism to our great grandparents. The expansion and refinement of the science of archaeology awoke the hearts and minds of the late Victorians to the romance of the enigmatic sands. Those drifting dunes which had silently and implacably engulfed cities and empires in preservative powder now began to give up their secret lives & smells. The canopic jars, dried flowers and perfume phials found in the tombs demonstrated how important scent had been to these lost civilisations. It is not coincidental that the modern oriental family of fragrances was classified around the time of the Tutankhamun mania of the early 1920’s. Novels such as The Sheikh, Beau Geste and The Garden of Allah dropped the historical connections and ran with the raw appeal of the desert and its wild hot-blooded denizens, crazed by sun, wind and sand.

Some of my readers may remember Vallee des Rois, the heady Harrods perfume exclusive of the 1980’s: in its lapis blue sea-glass flacons, Vallee was more Nile than desert nullah. It was very sweet, and to me smelled of hot lemon & honey with a twist of tuberose. Elizabeth Moore’s Anubis captures the perfume of the Egyptian dead more dramatically and exactly. Here we smell kings and courtiers laid out for eternity in those spices, resins and incense oils which, through their own intrinsic magic restored the embalmed to the delights of The Second Life.

The moods of the ever-changing desert are sketched in Andy Tauer’s bewitching pair: L’Air du Desert Marocain and Le Maroc Pour Elle. If L’Air is the cool night wind of the Maghreb desert, then Pour Elle with its passionate musky jasmine is more reminiscent of Arab or Berber myth. Its heady odour is like that of a seductive succubus whirled into some semblance of human shape by wreathed blown sands, leading a man to perdition in a far mirage. It is the scent a cinema audience may imagine emanating from Marlene Dietrich as she kicks off her high heels at the climax of MOROCCO¤ to follow Gary Cooper and the Legion into the Sahara, bare headed and barefoot in a wispy cocktail dress.

Pierre Guillaume, too, has an affinity with the desert. Maybe perfumers love  this wilderness theme because it is as mutable, enthralling and elusive as fragrance itself. One’s mouth waters at the crimson oasis earth of Dhjenne, fertile with palms, green wheat and cocoa beans: “as pants the hart for cooling streams…”. Guillaume’s earlier fragrance, the graceful Harmatan Noir, is delicate and wistful – faint but pervasive trails of mint tea, white jasmine, cedar and salt carried on the air currents across the northern wastes of the Dark Continent.

The Romans – who inadvertently created the Sahara by the extinction of the once vast forests of North Africa – brought the desert back to the Seven Hills in the sinister shape of the sandy arena of the Colisseum: a miniature landscape peopled with African beasts and the condemned from all over the known world. It was here – “lit by live torches” and saturated by the smells of roses, incense, excrement and the “sweaty nightcaps” of the mob – that the concept of blood and sand was first horribly born. We shall consider this in more detail next week.

¤”She’s not half stuck on herself” murmured a girl sat behind the young Quentin Crisp at a London showing in 1930. You can rendezvous with Marlene, back in the desert & swathed in white chiffon, in the movie version of the GARDEN OF ALLAH, shot in beautiful 1936 Technicolor. “…In the silence you’ll hear a box-office record crashing..” ran the ambiguous ads.

Mama Rose

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Madonna of the Roses

Mothering Sunday falls on March 15 this year, which still leaves you time to choose a glorious perfume for that unique lady in your life. Maybe Mother has already dropped a hint as to what fragrance she would love as a gift; or perhaps you have a standing order for her favourite signature scent. If not, here are a few ruminations at the shrine of the modern Matronalia: potential perfumes to offer up with thanks at the altar of the Mother Goddess!

By and large the British are not so hot on botany but a rose is the one flower that everyone knows. It is a symbol of universal currency: even the name is basically the same in all the main European languages. The rose has not been on the planet as long as the Jurassic magnolia – flowers came late in evolution though they pre-date Man – but it has entranced us since anthropoid apes first stood upright and tucked blossoms in their fur.

Because of their universality, and due to their scent, delicacy, beauty, richness and colour, roses have accumulated a great body of lore and cult significance. The rose is the symbol of maternal love as well as of carnal passion. It represents altruistic suffering (the flowers sprang from the blood of Christ); or wounded rejected love (the thorns which injured baby Cupid). The goddess Aphrodite – “foam-born” – was blown ashore in a cloud of rose petals on the sands of antique Cyprus, the birthplace of perfumery. Roses are the emblem of the Queen of Heaven whether she be personified by Juno, Isis or the Blessed Virgin – “The Mystic Rose”. Mary appears in countless medieval paintings crowned with roses, or sitting with the Christ Child in bowers and arbours; even enthroned among the stamens of one vast Cosmic Rose, with angels swarming overhead like exotic insects attracted by the Divine Sweetness and Odour of Sanctity.

No wonder with all this tremendous back story we all think we know what a rose smells like; or what it should smell like. One of my favourite perfume legends is the rumour that Nahema, Guerlain’s gorgeous hymn to the Flower of Flowers does not contain a drop of rose oil: all is magnificent illusion, a dance of pink and crimson veils. What a stroke of genius that might be! Every perfumer longs to create the definitive rose scent, as he does the sheerest and most glittering of colognes. But in perfume terms, what is the scent of a rose? Should it be a beautiful template, like Garbo’s face, on which to project our olfactory desires and perceptions? Science now allows molecules to be identified, isolated and manipulated to the nth degree: yet a rose fragrance still remains one of the most controversial of creations – “THAT doesn’t smell like rose to ME!”

Consequently, Les Senteurs have cultivated an extensive nursery of roses on the shelves. Here come 12 of the best, in no particular order but all beautifully long-stemmed and worthy of Mother’s finest crystal vase. And we have plenty more to choose from,too, so why not come by before Sunday? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

UNE ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Une Rose

Editions de Parfums – Une Rose

Red wine, black truffles, blue camomile + Turkish rose. Stately and majestic.

ROSE ANONYME by Atelier Cologne

O8-RA 100ml Packshot
Hot dark nights spiced with ginger, incense, oud and patchouli.

TOBACCO ROSE by Papillon

Papillon - Tobacco Rose

Papillon – Tobacco Rose

Heady surreal clouds of overblown rose, beeswax, honey and patchouli.

DELIRE DES ROSES by Caron.

Caron - Delire de Roses

Caron – Delire de Roses

Sweet and diaphanous; jasmine, lychee & lotus at a cool poolside.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY by Editions de Parfums

portrait of a lady 100ml

Editions de Parfums – Portrait of a Lady

Turkish roses fizzing with spices,patchouli and amber. Audaciously elegant: a silver frost melting to golden sun.

LIPSTICK ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Lipstick Rose

Editions de Parfums – Lipstick Rose

Raspberries, vanilla and the scent of a gleaming lipstick warmed on a lovely mouth.

UNE ROSE VERMEILLE by Tauer Perfumes

Tauer Perfumes - Une Rose Vermeille

Tauer Perfumes – Une Rose Vermeille

Sweet, creamy rosebuds served with cream in a silver bowl. Playful & joyous.

A LA ROSE by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Maison Francis Kurkdjian - A La Rose

Maison Francis Kurkdjian – A La Rose

Inspired by the pastoral portraits of Marie Antoinette; a rococo cascade of pink champagne.

FLEURS DE BULGARIE by Creed

Creed - Fleurs de Bulgarie

Creed – Fleurs de Bulgarie

A favourite of the young Queen Victoria, lover of flamboyance and colour: crazily deep, dark and intense Bulgarian roses.

HIPPIE ROSE by Heeley

Heeley - Hippie Rose

Heeley – Hippie Rose

Hommage to the 1960’s and that Summer of Love: take a lovin’ spoonful of incense and patchouli with your roses.

PAESTUM ROSE by Eau d’Italie

Eau d'Italie - Paestum Rose

Eau d’Italie – Paestum Rose

Roman temples and the votaresses of Venus: myrrh, coriander & osmanthus.

ISPARTA by Parfumerie Generale

Parfumerie Generale - Isparta

Parfumerie Generale – Isparta

Turkish rose oil sharpened by piquant red fruits and deepened with woods and aromatic resins.

Wishing you all a very Happy & Loving Mothering Sunday!

Fallen Angels

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Such incredible fierce desire to re-watch REBECCA: do you remember the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of bottling up her memories like perfume? Larry grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. I thought Hallowe’en this year was pretty diabolical in the literal sense. It’s become such a massive occasion (commercially second only to Christmas), and on that mad Friday evening when temperatures in London reached 74 degrees things to me seemed frighteningly out of hand; had gone Too Far. Everything was going curiously awry – Tubes packing up, trains running late, tourists losing their way and fainting in the heat. We were all led astray that night: the popular consciousness had frivolously courted evil and boy! did we reap the wild wind.

As we know, goodness and virtue have a beautiful odour – Alexander the Great’s sweat smelled of violets; the relics of the saints give off an immortal redolence of roses. The corresponding perception is that evil smells corrupt, foul and repellent. And, according to old medical miasma theory, what smells bad will make you sick: disease is transmitted not by germs but by smell. This theory was current even a hundred years ago: my grandmother (her father was a health inspector and recognised smallpox cases by the characteristic smell of apples) certainly subscribed to it. I remember being hurried past stagnant ponds with a hanky drenched in iced lavender cologne clapped over my nose.

Satan, the Fallen Angel of Light, smells of sulphurous fires and excrement. Not for nothing were early matches, soaked in bone-rotting phosphorous, named Lucifers. I used to have dreadful dreams about sensing the demonic presence, not by the smell but by a glimpse of the cloven hoof behind a door or curtain. And of course that hoof takes us back to the notorious smell of goats, the farmyard and the pagan world of satyrs. Kilian chooses to eschew a close encounter with the Evil One. PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL is inspired by ideas of the Great God Pan rioting through lush fruity thickets “spreading ruin and scattering ban”; the old fertility god of the ancient world who was proscribed as a demon by the early Church.

But this is an innocent if indulgent scent. Go a shade darker with Nu_Be’s burning lake of SULPHUR which conjures up night’s dark angels with black angelica, cinnamon, the eternal fires of ginger, opoponax and pimento. It’s one of a series of perfumes celebrating the elemental and generative elements of the universe: SULPHUR separates the Creationists from the Darwinians and has a certain theatrical fiery flash to it. Blue flames to light up Christmas and to dress you as the Demon King for the panto matinee.

CUIR VENENUM by Parfumerie Generale has long been an object of veneration and curiosity to collectors of the bizarre. A fathomless abyss of soft musky leather illuminated with burning sulphur and bitter myrrh; and perversely sweetened with innocent orange blossom – Satan before and after the Fall. And finally try the Serge Lutens curiously mesmerising VITRIOL D’OEILLET, which brings out the love/hate metallic sharpness of pinks and carnations hiding beneath their peppery sweetness, as a vitriol thrower conceals her sulphuric acid in a posy of flowers.

Devil take the hindmost: why not come by, come buy?

Vanilla

wikimedia diego rivera

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

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

Twilight Sleep – L’Eau de Circe

circe

I warned (or promised) you that we should return again to the theme of sleep; and what better time than now when the lurch into spring plays havoc with the body. The clocks go forward, temperatures fluctuate violently, clothes feel too heavy or too light. An Iraqi Kurdish barber once told me that the logical healthy remedy was blood letting – to drain off the poisons of the winter, to relieve seasonal tensions and impurities and that sensation of fogged vagueness. Twilight Sleep therefore strikes a chord: it’s a title I had long bagged for use, but I now find that Edith Wharton beat me to it in 1927. My great aunt was sedated with the German twilight sleep procedure in 1922: she awoke with twin daughters and a foster baby in the bed. A dream transformation indeed.

The Greeks believed that dreams come to and fro from the Valley of Sleep: those that pass out through the Gates of Ivory are mere fantasies, those that leave through the Gates of Horn are destined to come true. The dreams and thoughts of Twilight Sleep are those wandering reveries of half reality, half unconsciousness when we drift and then come to ourselves still unable for a few seconds to distinguish fact from fiction – those moments when we startle awake at our desks, on the Tube or before the tv unsure where or who we are, maybe drooling a little, bemused and half stunned.

Parfumerie Generale’s L’Eau de Circe is a magical but baffling phantasm of this realm. A soft warm damp cloud tinted with all the hues of the setting summer sun, this perfume is mysterious as it is seductive. It references the ethereal and the earthy, the grotesque and the romantic. Circe was an enchantress from a family of magicians who beguiled Odysseus on his sea voyage home from Troy. The hero’s thwarted attempts to reach his wife in Ithaca follow a classic anxiety dream pattern: like those nightmares in which one tries continually to catch a train, pack a suitcase or find the right book, Odysseus is hindered at every turn by the intervention of a supernatural being. Cyclops, Sirens, Lotus Eaters all impede him. The lovely Circe lays on a luscious feast in the gardens of a scented palace for the crew of the traveller’s ship; then on a whim, disgusted by their gluttony and drunkenness, she transforms them into swine in a typical abrupt dream metamorphosis. With divine aid Odysseus forces Circe to restore his men to human shape and in another sudden volte face the witch becomes a benevolent fairy.

Pierre Guillaume’s scent floats in an intoxicating haze of lilacs, osmanthus. The initial effect is of harmony, gentle innocence and peace; but then the animalic powdery musky lilac starts to pound and a fruity vinous note of osmanthus introduces a faintly oppressive mood, heightened by a dampness, a humidity: hypnotic yes, but maybe with a touch of feminine menace. Is osmanthus perhaps one of those trees beneath which it is dangerous to sleep? Do the sleepers awake raving like those who doze beneath the cypress, the datura or the pink and white oleander? L’Eau de Circe captures that moment just before the gorging sailors become pigs, the moment when the sorceress’s baleful beautiful green eye freezes the feasters with a basilisk stare. It reminds us of Alma Tadema’s painting of another doomy banquet – the diners frozen in time as the suspended canopies of roses let fall and millions of petals suffocate the revellers beneath. L’Eau de Circe is a riddle worthy of the sphinx; we smell it like children thrilled by the beauty and terror of a fairytale, reassured by the certainty of a happy outcome