Roman Holiday

In this continuing oppressively muggy weather our intellectual energies are sapped. Consequently I’ve returned to a degenerate old habit. Every night I’ll watch the same DVD: time after time. For the last few weeks I have been hypnotised by ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’ (1961). It’s so relaxing to pick a familiar film to pieces, knowing that no shocks or surprises await you; but that new innuendoes are still there to be understood. Tiny overlooked details are yet to be found in the corners of the frame. Very similar it is to exploring the outer limits of your favourite perfume. And so, only two nights ago, kneeling before the set with my sharpest specs on, I spotted the flacon of Shalimar to the side of Mrs Stone’s dressing table: the same prop and bottle previously noted in Diana Dors’s beauty shop in ‘Yield To The Night’. Guerlain, your magic spell is everywhere!

‘Mrs Stone’ – adapted from the Tennessee Williams novella – is as disturbing as anything you might expect by that upsetting writer. The film is a study of – I suppose –  sexual desire, loneliness and moral decay. Abruptly widowed in the skies over Rome, the “proud…arrogant” – and to use a modern euphemism, “troubled”  – stage legend Karen Stone comes to live in a palazzo apartment on the Spanish Steps. Here the angel of death and his troupe of unlikely heralds in the costumes of low cafe society come to stalk, court and seduce her.

What twists the knife, is the unnerving casting of Vivien Leigh in the title role. The whilom Lady Olivier is compelled to play out her own tragic story in the unattractive persona of Karen. There is not a sympathetic character in the movie: not even among the servants where a more sentimental piece might have discovered a little warmth. Mrs Stone’s maid has a smirking knowingness to her; her chauffeur (Warren Mitchell, would you believe, in a bit part¤) is perfunctory and gruff. Alone among assorted birds of prey – though she is ironically the only one so stigmatised by the script – Karen Stone begins to lose her bearings, to drift.

She “was becomingly alarmingly conscious of a sense of drifting if not of drowning in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapours.” ¤¤

As the narrator intones this, we pace with Mrs Stone in her sealed airless pastel bedroom with its huge empty sateen bed and closets of Balmain couture on padded hangers. These were the days when bags, shoes and gloves were dyed to match the dress. Karen sits at her dressing table loaded with its extensive armoury against age. The “fluids and vapours” materialise – not rushing, but torpid – as luxurious lotions, creams and perfumes. Unguents for the embalming. There stand Shalimar and Miss Dior, for sure; those with keen eyes will probably identify other famous names. Here, too, as throughout the film are endless arrangements of flowers. “Floral tributes” might be more appropriate: there is something funereal about the stagey profusion of waxy magnolias, freesias, lilies and indecent anthuriums. Their scent may be invisible but the claustrophobic painted sets seem saturated by it. When Karen buys a posy of muguet in the street, she fidgets and sniffs with it while lying to old stage colleagues that she has an incurable illness. And we then remember “Flores para los muertos!” – the ominous flower seller in the earlier Leigh vehicle A Streetcar Named Desire. We gradually notice too that Mrs Stone’s soi-disant best friend (Coral Browne) is clad exclusively in shades of black, white and grey whenever they – uncomfortably – meet. Colours of premature mourning.

This sense of doom is intensified by the modern audience awareness of Vivien Leigh’s own precarious health, neuroses and early death. One of her many preoccupations was with hygiene and her fear that others might find her evil-smelling. She worried about her breath; and kept a series of silk embroidered squares which she threw over discarded intimate clothing. Mind you, there may be something exaggerated about this last report. I remember reading it out to my mother some 40 years ago, and she said “oh, we ALL had those cloths then. Maybe not silk nor embroidered – but everyone had them…”

Vivien Leigh’s signature perfume was apparently Patou’s Joy: that wonderfully intense and exaggerated heady animalic jasmine that either delights or repels. It’s an old favourite of mine although – or is it because? – within the rainy damp loveliness you can detect the faint whiff of imminent decay.

And that’s how poor Vivien looks on film: a wrecked beauty at age 47; garishly made-up, atrociously coiffured. Kittenish still, sometimes, but now a spiteful hard-eyed kitten who has been teased too much by life. Her tormentor-in-chief is the Contessa who is obsessed with – amongst other things – food. With “fine dining”, as we might say now. In the original story, I remember the Contessa as being consequently obsese. Here in a stroke of casting genius she’s played by the angular and voracious Lotte Lenya – forever famished for caviar, lobster and money. Here we go again, back to the predatory birds and the smells of meat, flesh and blood – life and death in Rome, ancient and modern.

 

 

This September – 50 years after her death at the age of 53 – Sotheby’s are holding an auction of Vivien Leigh’s personal possessions. And right now in this “red raw moment”¤¤¤ we have at Les Senteurs a sensational new perfume. Andy Tauer’s L’EAU conjures up an aura of a happier Roman holiday with all the languorous delights of la dolce vita. L’EAU is a glorious paradox. This rara avis is a sensual citrus, an erotic hesperidic. It smells of sunshine on ancient balconies, terraces and verandas. Ancient stones soaked in a light and warmth that melt your bones in joyous languor as you open a second bottle of Limoncello. L’EAU wraps itself around the wearer in a cloud of lemon blossom, orange, bergamot and iris. The wonderfully persistent base lingers on for hours thanks to what appears to me to be beautiful infusions of amber, musk, sandalwood and tonka. It really is blissful: so sexy, stylish – and, unparalleled for a citric scent, sumptuous. Why not pop round?

¤ the whole cast is extraordinary: amongst others we meet –  Ernest Thesiger, Jean Marsh, Maria Britneva, Edward de Souza, Jill St John, Warren Beatty, Mavis Villiers, Elspeth March, Sam Jaffe and – toast of the early silents – Bessie Love.

¤¤ shooting script by Gavin Lambert

¤¤¤ Molly Keane, passim.

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Making An Impression

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Last week I talked about those who wear scent in the hope of earning a compliment. Since then I’ve been thinking about the application of perfume in order to make one’s mark; not quite the same thing, though sometimes the two conditions may coincide.

Years ago there used to be seen around Town a spry little old lady who habitually wore a large grey hat, shaped, coloured and textured like a mushroom. In the shade of its wide felt brim her deep-set eyes were shadowed in brilliant malachite green. It was she who told me that visitors found their way to her door merely by following the heavy trail of Shalimar across the city plains of cement. Another exotic, whose hair sprang from her head like a fountain, soaked herself and her furniture in Woods of Windsor’s Wild Orchid. Neither of these women sought compliments on their fragrance: but they used perfume to state their presence and to demand recognition. Not to define themselves, exactly; they were both very emphatic personalities. But perhaps scent was needed to bolster their confidence and even to provide company in a solitary existence. As someone said to me once of a cigarette, a bottle of perfume can be a little friend. (“You’re Never Alone With A Strand!”).

Both sexes will usually admit that they are not at all averse to compliments on their fragrance: any praise comes as a massive bonus to their own private enjoyment. But men and women approach this quest from a different viewpoint.

In the animal world, it is the male who marks his territory and defines his dominion by use of his bodily oils and secretions. His consequent and evident strength attracts a mate. The female uses her odour to allure this powerful partner. So when a man demands he be praised for his fragrance, is it actually an acknowledgement of his power, intellect and virility that he is seeking? A woman on the other hand wants simply to be loved for herself and for her delicious aura.

After a lapse of almost two centuries modern men can’t seem get enough of perfume. Here’s a neat little paradox: nineteenth century males played down scent for fear of seeming effeminate¤. The man of today, “en revers”, emphasises his masculinity and beefs it up by wearing an appropriate fragrance, just as his warrior ancestors did 3,000 years ago. It was men after all who began the whole culture of scent, right back at the dawn of civilization.

So are we to think that men now demand more perfume for themselves because of a current crisis in male confidence ? Could well be. Nearly 90 years ago a very comical little book came out¤¤ which described ‘A Wave of Beards’ settling over Europe in Elizabethan times. Presently the fashion died out and for at least 200 years Western men were clean-shaven. And then – significantly in the long emotional reign of Victoria – back the beard came, much heavier and thicker than before. And look at us now. Elizabeth II has celebrated her Emerald Jubilee and never was there such a wave of facial hair among her subjects. Same like the scent.

“Our sense of smell evolved in a very rich landscape” says Dr Kara Hoover, a professor of olfactory evolution¤¤¤. This global landscape is now spoiled by pollution of every kind which is in turn damaging our sense of smell. If we are all truly wild and bestial at heart, you can see how, in turn, this corruption of our most instinctive and basic animal sense can probably affect our gender identity too.

As our own dear Queen so often says
“It’s interesting, isn’t it!”

¤ but originally the word effeminate had a quite different meaning, describing the kind of men who ingratiated themselves with women the better to seduce them.

¤¤ ‘1066 and All That’ by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman:1930

¤¤¤ as reported in The Times last week.

All Hold Hands!

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Well, this has been a dismal week that has led us a weary way to midsummer and to the Referendum. Strange auguries!¤ The scent of the roses has been blotted out by the constant rain: the inundation of the Midlands has been terrible. All I can smell are water and damp; bubbling drains, wet conifers and woody bonfire smoke.

“Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden..”

But things can go too far; get out of hand. It is more like October than June. The downpours have bleached the landscape to a uniform shade of dun, like very old cotton garments. I’ve been watching greedily the rose buds thicken and proliferate on the bushes since March and now they have burst indeed, but into only poor sodden rotting sponges. I’ve been waiting for the perfume of those Constance Spry’s for eleven months and now I’ve all but missed it. Like Ayesha, I must wait a small eternity for the pillar of living flame to come rolling round again.   “Chastening work, gardening!” – a terrible reminder of the vanity of human hopes. The only thing to hold onto is, that the garden ultimately rights itself in an eternal cycle, and certainly not solely by the agency of human hands.

Our hands! The hands that will duly inscribe the ballot paper on June 23rd now tie up the shattered lupins and collect the snails in a pail. Hands that speak a second language, and reveal in their marks and movements, their opening and closing, all the secrets of their owner’s character. What the Chinese admiringly call “orchid hands”.

And those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float …pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains…”. Or, as it may be: dry, cracked and crinkled like autumn leaves or baby armadillos¤¤.

Hands – like our noses and sense of smell – are even more individual than we once thought. Pathologists can now identify a person by the whorls, flecks and lines on the back of a hand as definitively as by finger prints. And look at your palms, lined like miniature maps of the universe – the tracks of the stars and of your tears. “All human life is here”.

Years ago, long before I came to work at Les Senteurs, I lived for a season in Germany. An aged neighbour, with whom I used to drink Advocaat and eat Spekulos biscuits of a Friday evening, told me I had hands like the Madonna. I have never had such an extravagant – fanciful, even – compliment, before or since. The dear lady still had very sharp eyes: she must have seen something that neither I nor anyone else ever has. She also told me that during the War her husband – a relative of Chekov’s – had obliged her to wear a certain perfume simply because it was endorsed by the actress Zarah Leander for whom the late Herr Zirkenbach had had “ein Schwarm”.

We were looking at the shop the other day at a French phrase book published by the Daily Mail in 1930 – “Conversations of Real Use”. There is included a charming vignette “At The Perfumery”: interestingly, the vendeuse sprays the scent on Mme Dupont’s palm, not her wrist or the back of the hand. The fleshy palm (often a cannibal treat in times gone by) is an excellent reflector of perfume: it holds and disperses fragrance well and tenaciously. In addition, the palm is convenient and highly accessible for smelling while one is assessing the effect. And besides, if you wear scent on your palms, you will leave your exotic invasive imprint on everything – and everyone – you touch. A delicious memory, a fragrant echo left in your wake: an act of possessing – “I belong to Mme Bonaparte”.

It may well be that for us reticent British this is going just a little too far; a disconcerting act of intimacy. And I daresay the wrist is also a more practical and democratic area for testing: putting perfume on the palms is a bit like growing six inch Manchu finger nails. Unless you lead a life of complete luxurious leisure, the palms are going to be speedily corrupted by the countless smells of daily life, one rapidly succeeding the other. On the other hand, once your choice is made why not try the trick, at least for one enchanted evening? If you jib at spraying direct onto the hand – and, ladies! watch your nail polish! – then add your scent to a spot of unfragranced hand cream and so apply. I have been on the receiving end of this style of vampery: it is quite intoxicating. We are so sensitive to new smells that you only have to shake hands – at the very least – to seem subsumed in the other’s aura, drenched in their personality. ¤¤¤

You all remember what Chanel said – “wear perfume wherever you wish to be kissed”. The romantic novelist Elinor Glyn – the original identifier & curator of “It” – is said to have suggested to Rudolph Valentino that he kissed the palm of his leading lady’s hand rather than the conventional back. The result is well known – fans jumped into live volcanoes. Enjoy your perfume responsibly!’

¤ yesterday a great buzzard soared overhead in the vasty and briefly blue empyrean: now what does that signify?

¤¤ remember Madge, the outspoken manicurist of the Fairy Liquid ads?

– “Sorry I’m late, Madge, they were mending the roads!”

– “Looks like you stopped to lend a hand..”

¤¤¤ I am thinking of Dietrich’s hands exuding Youth Dew outside the Stage Door of the Queen’s Theatre: June 1972. (And see also today’s illustration, as above).

Wait For The Moment When DIANA DORS…

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact...

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact…

…proves herself a compelling actress in YIELD TO THE NIGHT (1956). An influential film in the campaign for the abolishment of capital punishment in Britain this is not, however, the story of Ruth Ellis. The Joan Henry¤ novel upon which the script (also by Henry) was based had been published in 1954, the year before the Ellis case. But no doubt director J. Lee Thompson readily enhanced the curious “coincidences” of plot and character: the rackety and unhappily married platinum blonde, the fatal public shooting of the faithless lover; the background culture of night clubs and pre-drinking; unhinged sexual obsession and jealousy. And of course – the frame and core of the film – a vital young woman’s last three weeks in the condemned cell at Holloway prison, told unsensationally¤¤ but in semi-documentary and horribly dreary detail. Joan Henry had been banged up in Holloway herself, and she was not sparing with the local colour. It’s not at all an easy film to watch. You may have to take it in short tranches, at least the first time around. But view it you should.

Mrs Mary Hilton (Dors) has been sentenced to death for gunning down her rival, the rich and disagreeable Mrs Lucy Carpenter in a London mews. Their mutual lover, Jim, has gassed himself in Mona Washbourne’s lodging house on New Year’s Eve, to the strains of Knees Up Mother Brown and Little Brown Jug coming up the stairs from his landlady’s party. Mary then uses Jim’s wartime revolver to commit her murderous act of despair and revenge. The casting of Dors ( an old friend and colleague of Lee Thompson and Joan Henry) was a masterstroke. Diana’s screen image and her apparently raffish but also obscure and ambiguous off-screen personality could not have suited the character better.

In flashbacks to the events which led to the crime, Mary seems a typical Dors character: exuberantly blonde, open-hearted, bosomy, impetuous and fun- loving. The audience is pre-conditioned to expect bad behaviour from Dors: was  not the star once publicly condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Mary is one of a long line of individuals in British Cinema whom my mother used to describe as “naughty little girls”: discontented & sexually active young ladies who work in “Beauty Shops” but whose speciality is making trouble. Remember Phyl, landed with the manicures (and all the Allied Services) in MILLIONS LIKE US? And Queenie in THIS HAPPY BREED, who runs off with a married man and breaks her parents’ hearts? Mary’s discreetly curtained establishment – “Martin Douglas” – is right at the centre of things, perhaps in Sloane Street or Bond Street. “Lots of people came into the Beauty Shop…” recalls Mary in Holloway. The shop is a maybe a euphemism; certainly a metaphor for life, for sexual experimentation and adventure.

No completely “nice” girl would be standing there on counter, looking edibly gorgeous in “that sort of place”, selling perfume. That’s made quite clear. Mary is on the slippery and risky slope of living with vicarious luxury, even if a romantic dinner later consists of a tin of Heinz spaghetti. But, such a glorious counter of scents as Mary has to offer! Never was such splendid product placement of Guerlain and Lucien Lelong. The glorious Shalimar parfum flacon (1 oz) even gets its own glittering close-up and we glimpse Mitsouko, too. You’ll probably spot other old favourites if your eyes are sharper than mine.

Then Jim appears, sniffing around and trying to remember the name of horrid Lucy’s scent:

– ‘…not as cloying as that. Something sharper, more like the bouquet of very good brandy..’

– ‘ “The Lost Weekend”, by the sound of it!’

Mary is an excellent saleswoman  – ‘you’d be fortunate to have this person work for you!’: outgoing, immaculately groomed, knowledgeable of stock. Her counter is spotless; her manner is a nice blend of light flirtatiousness and reassuring briskness. And she’s not afraid to “ask for that sale”.

It turns out, of course, that Mary is wearing the perfume in question: an ironic re-orchestration of the old shtik of wife and mistress being given the same fragrance to avoid “mistakes”.

– ‘It’s called Christmas Rose…we only have very small bottles of Christmas Rose at 5 guineas’ ¤¤¤

The name is inspired: the plant which in the language of flowers is said to mean “please relieve my anxiety”; the coldly beautiful, poisonous and witchy hellebore which blossoms imperturbably through the coldest months of the year, decked in the semi-mourning colours of mauve, white and dark purple. It is one of the many strands of the flower imagery that plays such a major role in the film, echoing  the Christian burial service:

“He cometh up and is cut down like a flower…”

And throughout YIELD TO THE NIGHT Mary is obsessed with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and its intimations of mortality –

‘”Loveliest of trees, the cherry• now
Is hung with bloom along the bough…”

….hung…’

The aged prison visitor Miss Bligh (Athene Seyler) – a lightning sketch of gaol reformer Margery Fry•• – comes to see Mary in Holloway.  Miss Bligh is a great gardener –

‘…it’s chastening work, gardening’.

This triggers off all kinds of thoughts in the contemplative viewer – Christ’s Agony in the Garden; Our Mother Eve in Eden; and another poem, Kipling’s sermonising, sententious but irresistible The Glory of the Garden. Miss Bligh unpins a small bunch of violets••• from her own dress and presents them to Mrs Hilton:

‘There you are, my dear. They’ll give you some water and you can put them beside your bed.’

But in her cracked and peeling cell with its parody of an en suite bathroom, and the dreadful “Other Door” at the foot of her bed, Mary cannot even do that. A ghastly “caring” provision is made for every bodily need and necessity in Holloway – if only for three weeks.  The constant starchy meals and mugs of cocoa*; “tea!”; ‘plenty of sugar’ dumped  on her porridge by a flustered wardress. There are the endless footling games of chess and cards to “distract” the prisoner; the smothering fuss over the blistered foot of one so soon to be killed. The terrible naked lights are kept on twenty four hours a day ( all the better to see the unsparing truth ) and there’s an upsetting scene where Mary is bathed like an infant while a wardress cuts her nails. Yet the intrusion of a spontaneous posy of flowers cannot be accomodated. The wild violets with their disturbing ungovernable fleshy sensual scent do not “fit” – and the tin mug in which they are dumped will not sit on the window sill either.

Mary’s last three weeks on earth are in the month of April – “the cruellest month”; the fertile, Easter month; the sweet rainy month of The Canterbury Tales. Life should be crazily burgeoning not being brought to an abrupt and unnatural end. But what a weird and blasted April Lee Thompson creates! The prison yard sets are dressed to look like a nuclear winter. “There’s a bitter east wind”, and not a bud on the twigs. Only at the very last, on Mary Hilton’s final afternoon, as she comes to some sort of terms with her fate does the sun briefly come out and there’s a distant glimpse of a daffodil.

But by then the light of the sun is too bright for Mary and she asks to be taken back to her cell where the last smells are of bromided tea, the medication of calming injections, the slopping-out pail
and the final cigarette which burns on long after Hilton’s life is snuffed out.

DIANA DORS  1931 – 1984
diana dors perfume

¤ Joan Henry became the second Mrs Lee Thompson a couple of years later.

¤¤ unlike the film’s publicity.

¤¤¤ that’s around £90 today.

• “white cherry = deception”.

•• sister of pre-eminent art critic, Bloomsbury sage and Omega Workshops maestro Roger Fry.

••• “violets = faithfulness, modesty”.

* note the tin plate of baked beans, maybe mirroring the canned spaghetti eaten in happier days.

Tom Daxon: Bear with me

BEARANDLOGO

How do you feel about bears? I am devoted to the creatures: my favourite wild beasts. Some biologists think that they are closer to Man even than the primates. The skeleton of a bear – and the bear’s posture when it gets up on its hinders – is very like that of a human. Whether they be black, brown, white or grizzly, bears have about them an apparent affability and solid self-sufficiency that is deeply attractive. They are also powerful, resourceful and enigmatic: the polar bear keeps a poker face so that one never knows until too late whether his mood is benevolent or deadly. Solitary, intelligent and brave bears are a formidable animal role-model. “I always think bears are simply terribly attractive” says Victoria in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate.

Clearly, classy young perfumer Tom Daxon feels the same: he has a confident and massive brown bear as his logo, an unexpected touch which I find extremely engaging. There is a wonderful contrast between the huggable furry face and the classically elegant bottles and packaging of Tom’s brand: the beast adds a touch of humour and quirkiness to a product which for my money is one of the most satisfying and interesting lines of British perfumery today. And how marvellous it is, to see this resurgence in the art of British fragrance. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries England played a central role in European perfumery: London was the most important and powerful city in the western world, the centre of a vast empire. The fragrance trade flourished accordingly, equalled in splendour only by that of France and fed by exotic ingredients from the British colonies. The wheel has come full circle – we are once more the epicentre of scent with products known and exported all over the world. Tom is based England but his scents are made in Grasse, in a long-standing intimate partnership with family friends of the bosom Jacques and Carla Chabert, father and daughter perfumers whom Tom has known since childhood.

My current Daxon rave is still CRUSHING BLOOM – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous scent. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & swooning in the conservatory; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair, in a corsage or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. But CRUSHING BLOOM is more than just a thrilling name it is also a perfume of immense panache, style and eternal chic: it bows to the past and salutes the future.

Crushing Bloom from Tom Daxon

Crushing Bloom from Tom Daxon

Then consider the pale golden beauty of another favourite, SICILIAN WOOD: a delicate but exquisitely defined orchestration of citrus, floral and woody notes which conjures up the presence of a southern orchard carpeted with jasmine, lily of the valley and glowing windfalls, the sunlight drawing the fragrance from the barks and branches of the ancient trees. Tom always delivers what he promises: his scents are never tricky or showy but have an assured confidence and silky authority, just like those bears.

Sicilian Wood from Tom Daxon

Sicilian Wood from Tom Daxon

Many of us yearn for a signature scent, something as near as we can get to an involuntary animal identity, a defined seductive/ warning presence, an assertion of personality. Humans long for the reassurance of recognition: “I shall know as I am known”. Tom Daxon takes his inspirations from the fascination of raw materials; he appreciates perfumes that recreate a specific material or perception – the touch of cool long wet grass or silver-iris cashmere; the odours of fine leather, frankincense and cognac. This visceral response of the creator gives his scents a frankness and purity that make them instantly recognisable; the smooth link of an old tradition illuminated by a new perception. It also makes Daxon fragrances ideal for use as the most prestigious of perfume wardrobes with a mood to suit every occasion. Much as I was entranced by a lady who told me that the Free French were able to find her London apartment by following a long long trail of Shalimar a-winding down the Goldhawk Road, I would much prefer the infinite variety so praised in Cleopatra.

Tom Daxon

Tom Daxon

Maybe one day Tom will present with us with the definite odour of the Serpent of Old Nile. Meanwhile for now, EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR.

You can meet Tom Daxon at our festive soiree on Wednesday 10th December at our Seymour Place shop!

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Vanilla

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When I was young, no one had much time for vanilla. To most of us it meant no more than a boring flavour of anaemic ice cream, the one that was always available once the strawberry and chocolate had run out or proved too expensive. People came out of confectionery shops with their faces on the floor: “They only had vanilla…”. My grandmother had a horror of food colourings or flavourings (poisonous) so we never experimented with vanillin, and vanilla pods were unheard of in our neck of the woods. My father’s interest in puddings was as a test for alcoholism. To see someone refuse dessert was a sure sign that person had a drinking problem, as certain as a vampire recoiling from garlic. “They can’t stand the sweetness!”

So we missed out on a lot of erudition and amusement: vanilla is a fascinating substance, chock-full of romance. Of course it has a justified reputation as an aphrodisiac, and as we’re all grown ups I’ll remind you of one of the reasons why. It’s the fruit of a species of orchid, bearing green and white flowers: the two words “vanilla” and “orchid” derive from the Latin and Greek words respectively for the female and male genitalia. This is on account of the intrinsically suggestive shapes of the plant, and something to remember when you’re lighting Mizensir‘s delicious Orchidee Chocolat candle. The ancient Mexicans prized vanilla, whisking it with chocolate and chili (though not sugar) to a cold foaming drink served to royalty and the gods to stimulate their appetites. Imported to Europe, it was sold at vast price to inflame rakes and courtesans, something in the style of modern Viagra. Modern scientists established that it contains a molecule very similar to that found in human milk: no wonder then that vanilla is a comfort food par excellence, stimulating thoughts of the nursery, the kitchen, animal warmth and nurturing protective snug love.

What excites me, too, is the reflection that vanilla is one of the oldest plants on the planet, a link between us and the dinosaurs. We are smelling a blossom at which a Stegosaurus might have snuffed in the Cretaceous period 30 million years ago. What a mind-expanding thought is that! Dinosaurs lived in a terrain very different to ours: flowers were only just beginning to evolve during the Cretaceous. Frederic Malle’s Jurassic Flower is a delicious anachronism. No grass; few deciduous trees, but rather palms, ferns, horsetails and the like. Dragonflies the size of swallows buzzing about. And then, this extraordinary evolution of dinosaurs into birds: when I look at my budgie – especially into his little blue eyes – I can see how an erect biped like a Tyrannosaurus might well have gone down this route, given enough time. However I find it very hard to imagine the horned Triceratops or the tortoise-like Anklyosaurus mutating to become airborne. But through all these vast changes, the eventual arrival of Man and the birth of civilisation, the vanilla orchid has remained constant, our living link with Eden. Pretty heady stuff.

Vanilla’s reign in modern perfumery is but a moment in time, dating from 1925 when Guerlain made vanillin such an exaggerated and successful feature of Shalimar. Now it warms, softens and expands florals, sweetens gourmands and takes the spotlight as a solo performer. Often confused with tonka (another plant derivative) vanilla is darker, smokier, far less sweet. It’s easy to study in the raw: buy a packet of pods and inhale. And then you can infuse them in anything, from coffee to custards. Keep one in the sugar jar, the tea tin or the biccie barrel. They last for ages and having been steeped in cream or other liquids can be washed, dried and used again.

E. Coudray do a brace of contrasting vanilla perfumes. Vanille et Coco is almost maddeningly gooey-sweet, incorporating coconut, amber and sticky fruits; but it has a gorgeous golden greed and voluptuousness which in a certain mood can hit the spot exactly. Its stately sister Ambre et Vanille is more restrained, though hot with iris, heliotrope and marigold, spices and woods. Villoresi’s Teint de Neige has its own cult following: a gauzy gossamer cloud of jasmine, white roses and sifted powdery vanilla icing sugar. The quintessence of soft and romantic femininity, an Edwardian glass dressing table cascading with lace, glace ribbon and goffered muslin. Pierre Guillaume is the niche king of sophisticated gourmanderie, so vanilla fanciers should inspect his Parfumerie General and Huitieme Art with method and enthusiasm. Don’t miss Creed‘s luxurious Sublime Vanille; and we end with the grand finale of Mona di Orio’s resplendent Vanille, a French galleon sailing out of Guadeloupe or Martinique, laden with bitter oranges and a whole plantation of vanilla pods perfuming the trade winds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fanny Cradock: The pleasure of cooking is listening and looking…

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Much derided and mocked for years, Fanny Cradock continues to enjoy a certain notoriety: her spidery eyelashes and gash of a mouth have quite a following on YouTube. She has also garnered a grudging admiration. Rude, hectoring and often offensive Fanny certainly is; but her brash and breezy confidence is stimulating and there is something very appealing in the way she has evidently no fear of food and will stand for none from her audience as she barks out orders in that husky actressy voice.

Dated and repellent some of her recipes may be – the green fish, blue mashed potato and morsels of buttered stale cake dolled up (Daniel Farson’s phrase) to look like roses – but she bashes her materials around with bravura. There is none of the fear that is used as a weapon by many modern cookery exemplars: chefs justifying their status by stressing the perils of cuisine. Beating up her liberal requirements of cream, eggs and butter – “softened – which I hope this is…” – you cannot imagine Fanny having truck with allergies, eating disorders or diets.

Watching these ancient morsels of film (many of them recorded “live”) you can sometimes detect signs of an inner tension but this is more, I think, a surge of adrenalin, a determination to beat the clock, the rage of a winner than any doubt of her talent. Sometimes, as with Julia Child, you suspect she’s had a couple before going on, but it’s more probable she is only high on her own personality and sense of style. A rich sillage of Femme, Miss Dior, Joy – not to mention Elnett hair spray – is almost visibly coming off her in waves as she vigorously beats her roux – “think about that woman next door who you’ve never really liked…”.

Like Mildred Pierce, Fanny Cradock puts her pies in the oven by the clock, and takes them out by the clock. What cake would defy her? I don’t think she had much actual liking for food: she seems herself to have eaten for necessity rather than pleasure. Food she dished up as a status symbol: as she once explained, she liked to have it do her Regency dining room justice. I have done a certain amount of cooking all my life, privately and professionally and like Fanny I like to have a tip up my sleeve if ever asked for advice – something to say if the cameras ever come round.

And here it is for what it’s worth. When you cook, use all your senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing all count as much as taste. Any or all five will let you know when a dish is ready for table. Listen for the cake whistle like a dying lobster as it rises; and hear the roll of the water as it boils. Watch for the pasta and fish become opaque, the onions transparent and the cabbage change from churlish green to a lime emerald like dry seaweed returned to ocean; or the mushrooms become slippery black like black pearls. Feel the cream, choux pastry or scrambled egg thicken under your touch; or judge the heat of the oven with your hand to size it up for slow-cook meringues, lightning souffles and medium roasts. Ice cold hands do not merely indicate a warm heart. They also raise the best pastry.

One might say the sense of smell was invented by the Good Lord primarily to keep us away from danger. However complex and elusive some of us may find perfume, nearly everyone is quick to smell burning, smoke, gas, rotten eggs or that piece of meat that’s been too long at the back of the fridge. But learn to develop the nose in a more positive way – can you smell when a jacket potato is baked or a fowl is roasted without opening the oven door? All it takes is a little practice and observation; as with choosing a fragrance, just relax and be guided by instinct. Meanwhile, at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, officially voted finest restaurant in the world, you may delight your senses with an edible interpretation of Guerlain’s Shalimar – blood orange, roses, vanilla, mango and cream. A charming nod to the days when colognes were taken internally and the prevalence of the belief that what smells good must do you good. Bouffe bien!”