Blood And Sand: Part One

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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.

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Autumn Leaves

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Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

B9-VF 200ml Packshot

Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

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Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

Bois du Portugal flacon75ml + etui

An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

MFK-OUD cashemere mood WEB

I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

Tobacco Rose

The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

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To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

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Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

My Happiness: a special Christmas blog for Les Senteurs by guest writer Mrs Lemon Wedge

morethingsdotcom

O! The soft sweet golden glow of DRIES VAN NOTEN: all the tenderness of Christmas morning. Or the ferocious night-time sensuality of COLOGNE POUR LE SOIR, richly animalic like the rosy satin lining of a sable coat. The flowery dew of NOCTURNES, a rope of luminous pearls still warm from the wearer’s body. The dark sacred odour of the Christmas night stars in MYRRHIAD.
How privileged and fortunate am I to be Mrs LW, with all the treasures of the fragrance world at my husband’s generous disposal!

Why is perfume such a great gift? It is altogether timeless, both ancient and modern in its facility to become an integral part of you and your dreams. Imagine sitting up in bed on the Great Day in the darkness before dawn, with that curious magical feeling of uniqueness, and all of Christmas in the air, that still wonderful atmosphere that begins in early childhood and hopefully never quite dies away. It’s still there, if only for a minute or two: the world of carols, snow and Santa; of stuffed stockings, Margaret Tarrant Nativity picture books and infinite good will.

So there I shall be on the Day of Days, propped up in bed with a cup of hot sweet tea under my Princess Margaret apple green satin eiderdown wondering “Now, HOW shall we set about all this?” I agree with Elizabeth David and would prefer a light lunch of smoked salmon and champagne but Mr LW always says, “my dear, I shall give you The Works!” Indeed he is already below decks in the kitchen, manipulating the festive bird with deft hands and spatulas. Or apparently so, for suddenly he appears the foot of our bed, setting this intriguing package before me, exquisitely wrapped and ribboned. It feels wonderfully heavy and solid. For one awful moment I fear it might after all be a book or a set of table mats. But, no, its too square for that and too small. And there’s a faint juddering when i shake the parcel indicating the presence of a bottle. My lovely Mr LW has done it again, for sure. “Careful, now..”, he says. He adjusts my pillows a trifle and sits beside me to watch my face.

Shall I daintily pick off the wrappings like a finicking archaeologist and put them aside for use again? Or open my present in one glorious wasteful rip, yanking off all the tussore, grosgrain and glitter like James Mason pawing at Margaret Lockwood’s stomacher? I tear the coverings asunder, loving the explosion of cracklings, rustlings and rendings. And there it is. Surely nothing beats the thrill of a luxuriously crafted box in black, red or white; then easing off the perfectly fitting lid to discover a jewel-like flacon filled with … with?…well, with every possibility and infinite variety under the sun.

You can choose perfume every Christmas for a lifetime and the fulfilment and excitement never palls. The joy of a new bottle of scent – whether it’s a signature, an old favourite or a suprise novelty – never dates, never stales. It promises infinite riches, experience and adventure. It’s like being born all over again, especially when you’re lying in bed spraying lavishly from a big now bottle, immersed in your own dream world.

But where is LW? Eager, I hope, to be thanked in a suitable manner. Not at all: gone below and making with the goose fat and roast spuds. My treasure!”

PS

Entre nous, this year I’m giving her the sweet and sultry broken blossoms of Kilian’s GOOD GIRL GONE BAD. Our little private joke.
But say nothing!

Merry Christmas!
LW

Image: morethings.com

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

Nor poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the world….

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A kind reader and interlocutor asks for my thoughts on insomnia: a nightmare, is my oxymoronic response. I am not an habitual sufferer but some of my nearest and dearest suffer tortures from les nuits blanches. As ever, in her ineffable “ABC” Marlene Dietrich offers some practical German lore: prior to retiring prepare a dark rye sandwich filled with sardine and chopped raw onion. Eat it in bed. It will knock you out like a blow from a sandbag. I’ve never had the nerve to try this remedy, as inevitably raw onion plays hell with me but there’s no doubt that ingestion of food at 3am (a biscuit, a spoonful of honey, warm milk- Nature’s own proven sleeping draught) can work wonders. Which is why a touch of gourmand perfume on wrist and pillow may help to induce sleep: I’m thinking of the creamy white chocolate of Musc Maori, a velvety syrup of tonka, vanilla and cocoa to lull the brain and unwind the knotted nerves.

But as sufferers know there’s a difference between temporary sleeplessness and the writhing agonies of an insomniacs white night: the racing mind, the sweats, the anxiety, desperation and angry despair. The bedside clock leering at you as it races towards its predestined pre-dawn shrilling. I associate this condition with extremes of temperature, tangled bedclothes and those terrible peppermint green nylon fitted sheets that were all the go in the 1970’s and which shot forth static sparks as your restless feet pedalled the bed: the scent of perfume stimulants like Mad Madame and Malaise of the 1970s – the electric tuberose of Madame being so thrilling and hyper that it banishes forever the thought of sleep. The purple hearts of perfume which bring back memories of a Fulham cafe called “Up All Night”: an ironically ambiguous name I always thought.

For, as sleep inexorably recedes, the nervous system becomes so unbearably taut that any loud smell may amplify unbearably like the ticking of that cruel clock. Try time-honoured lavender to soothe: Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin reminds me of my grandmother’s excellent advice to meditate on the colour and texture of a sapphire velvet curtain. Here’s a translucent blue-green breeze of Alpine lavender which cools your hand and guides you to a soft cool bed of roses and soporific scented woods. Just deeply inhaling and rolling your eyes upwards at its beauty may help. First World War shell-shocked patients were advised to roll up their eyeballs as far back as they’d go. This I have tried: it causes involuntary yawning, and this infallibly – eventually – promotes sleep. It worked last night. Try it while you’re waiting for Santa this Christmas Eve…

Image from botinok.co.il

Come To Bed Eyes

Kind regular readers of this page will know that I have a penchant for perfumes redolent of the unconscious and the realms of sleep. The bedroom is the room where I prefer to be: years ago I was told by a friend in analysis that this is a bad sign, a refusal to confront Life. This I doubt seeing as how our indubitably vigorous and confrontational medieval forefathers revered the bedroom as the only private space in manor or castle: a luxury to which the poor, bedded down with the cattle and pigs, could not aspire. A room for contemplation and introspection: the scene of birth, begetting and dying. The holy of holies of the home and family. Now, a reversion to life in the bathroom – a return to the warm waters from which we all sprang – that really is a worrying development, as witness the endings-up of Callas, Marat and Blanche Dubois.

Two scents to loll alongside you on the pillows, then: Poudre de Riz and Cologne Pour Le Matin. Both mesmeric and hypnotic, perfumes to drowse and lull. The germ of Poudre de Riz comes from the Belle Epoque novel “L’enfer”, a classic study of voyeurism in which a jaded gentleman spies through a hole in his hotel bedroom wall at the changing scenes of love next door. Pierre Guillaume’s creation catches the languor of spent passion, slaked desire – the scent of those observed, not of the Peeping Tom. It is also the odour of that crimson room of assignation where Emma Bovary and her lover meet at Rouen; the powdery pearly smell of Lea’s great temple-of-love bed in Colette’s “Cheri”. Pan-sexual, sweet and ambiguous Poudre is the aura created by love and its practitioners – a close, airless evocation of hair and warm skin gleaming with monoi oil and nacreous with sheer rice powder. An emanation of crepe de chine, lace, silk and feather bolsters. Compare it if you like with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, Shem el Nessim: there, too, is frou frou and susurration – but Poudre de Riz is emphatically interior and intimate while the Grossmith cracker is for the grands boulevards. Poudre is marabou, chiffon and monkey fur, whereas Nessim sports bird of paradise plumes and chinchilla.

Draw back the velvet drapes, leave the city for the Midi dorée and smell Cologne Pour le Matin, Kurkdjian’s hypnotic child of sun and heat. This is a fragrance to celebrate the selfish animal joys of waking only for the pleasure of dozing again; the almost liquid relaxation of the body on Egyptian cotton sheets behind slatted blinds; but this time alone, cat-like, in love with sleep and torpor. Here the powdery quality is of lavender, iris, violets, thyme – veils of mauve and blue sun-dried Mediterranean flowers shimmering in the heat starred with specks of golden dust in the filtered bedroom light. You can almost hear the cicadas in the garden below the windows, and the whisper of the sea beyond. The sparkle and purity of orange blossom negates sex but emphasises escapism, a spiritual freedom as the body surrenders to heat, the white light of noon and clean dreamless sleep – a sleep like falling down a deep green well.

I have a feeling Aromafolio has still not yet exhausted this theme. Dors bien!

Image from culture.gouv.fr

Ghost Stories

I remember years ago hearing about a candle maker, an artist one should say, who was able to conjure up the spirit of a loved one in scented wax: he had recreated the perfume aura of Rita Hayworth so that her daughter should feel her presence about the house upon the striking of a match. There is something essentially ghostly and ethereal about all perfume with its electric stimulation of memory: maybe this is why many people find it hard to throw away empty bottles, why they cherish old flacons as they would clothes and accessories of loved ones, still faintly and intimately scented after long years, the occupants having long since departed and fled.

Perhaps all perfume is the alluring ghost of plants, woods, blossoms – like Hiawatha’s rainbow of all the flowers of the prairie: “When on earth they bloom and perish / Blossom in the sky above us”. Distilled in elixir and more powerful than they were in their first life they flower again, a marvellous parallel of rebirth and regeneration. Like a ghost, the magic of a perfume does not always reveal itself to everyone; it appears in a different manifestation to each. It mysteriously changes smell and personality according to your moods and health. In her wonderful story “Poor Girl” Elizabeth Taylor writes of a malevolent lubricious haunting by a perfume, a dry musky scent, which fills a house with disturbing seductive fumes, a ghost from the future rather than the past.

This is a brilliant inversion of the traditional association of the reek of cold decay with phantom manifestations. (Think of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s monstrous-smelling car in “Mr Wrong”). “Pink May” is Elizabeth Bowen’s sinister/comic tale of a poltergeist wrecking a war time love affair (and marriage) by mercilessly disrupting a woman’s early evening beauty routine at her dressing table as she makes herself lovely for sin. J Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents (based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”) refutes the cliche that film cannot translate a sense of smell: in the midsummer gardens of Bly luxurious white roses grow in profusion and fill the vases of the house. Never have sun-drenched perfect flowers seemed so sinister nor adorned such horrors

I think of all our stock at Les Senteurs Pierre Guillaume’s Louanges Profanes (untranslatable really: but “evil praises” comes close) is the most other-worldly, both in name and substance: a shimmering summoning of the supernatural; a glamorous ambiguous translation into the jener Velt.

Image from user tony’s pics on flickr.