Lavender’s Blue

lavender-fields-in-Provence_travel_lavender-fields_trip_Provence_hottrip-net1

Lavender is one of the first benevolent plants we meet as tiny children. It’s non-poisonous, tough, grows more or less like a weed and smells delicious. Most gardens and patios have a bush somewhere. Lavender is one of the relatively floral smells we all know from infancy. It thrives on dry poor soil and is cheap, or used to be. This year however it was going for £10 a pot at the local hardware store on Mothering Sunday which I thought a bit saucy. You can dry it and make sachets or pot pourris to scent the laundry and deter the moth, at least up to a point. I lost some of my faith in that last quality when a favourite cardigan embalmed in lavender was completely devoured by moths, the worst damage being in the region of the pockets which I’d packed with the stuff.

I love lavender and resent the way it is too much associated with faded maiden ladies, an image perpetuated even in the 21st century by the eponymous Maggie Smith/ Judi Dench movie. Miss Marple uses lavender water for high days and holidays; and then there’s that maudlin Gracie Fields song about the Little Old Lady Passing By – “in your lavender and lace”. It’s an English tic, this: the French, Italian and Dutch see lavender as virile and energising, clean and uplifting, healing and calming. They take the aromatherapeutic view, I suppose inherited from the old Romans who loved the stuff and gave it its name, deriving from “lavare” – to wash. They cleansed their bodies with the fragrant healing oil which is yielded by every part of this ancient plant, and laid up their heavy woollen togas in the dried flowers. It was probably Roman colonists who brought the herb to Britain, two thousand years ago.

I grow lavender: the common or garden type, and that fancy variety which looks like lilac bumble bees. And I wear it. My old favourite was Jean Patou’s long discontinued Moment Supreme: purple prose in perfume! Vast amounts of lavender suspended in sweet vanilla and tonka like a medieval flan for an Emperor’s feast. At Les Senteurs we have three especial crackers: Lorenzo Villoresi’s dark, intense, austerely beautiful Wild Lavender which smells like great bunches freshly culled from a wet garden. Caron’s immortal Pour Un Homme, one of France’s perennial bestsellers since 1934, blends lavender oils with a dash of rose absolue and a lingering melting base of tonka and vanilla. It is as soft and relaxed as a lilac cashmere sweater: although it earned its place in perfume history as the first fragrance specifically branded for men, it also works deliciously on a woman’s skin. The jury is out as to whether lavender can be sexy – and I think it is! – but it is certainly (as Tynan wrote of Dietrich) without gender. I rest my case.

And then there’s Andy Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin.pa This is my current summer favourite, my passion. Andy uses Alpine lavender grown high on the slopes which imbues it with a wonderfully cool, slightly mentholated tang – “cool as a mountain stream”. The dry woody fragrance of lavender is accentuated and exoticised with orris, frankincense and cedar; the sweetness increased with rose and vanilla. There is a glorious generous freshness and a slight juicy fruitiness withal; Reverie Au Jardin is as far as you can get from drawer liners and the old Bazaar & Rummage image. It’s lush, expansive, intricate and as beautiful as a Mediterranean dawn.
Use lavishly.

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

mandragore

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