Long Ago and Caraway…

 

Here we are again in the great season of asparagus, that timeless luscious
delicacy and supposed aphrodisiac. There was a big hoo-ha last month when the crop was blessed at Worcester Cathedral. A man was robed up in vegetable garb, and he pranced about as the Spirit of the Asparagus. For some this was much too pagan, with hints of The Green Man, the Great God Pan and Druidical nature worship. I’d imagine, too, that – in the subconscious at least – the carnal associations of the crop bothered some critics. I’m talking about the way asparagus supposedly promotes physical passion: its phallic symbolism; the role it played at Roman orgies; and the way it smells.

Jilly Cooper once remarked on how the unmistakable whiff of asparagus always hangs around the geography of great country houses at this time of year. It lingers in bodily fluids as strongly and evidently as beetroot or garlic. Indeed, the smell of older woodier asparagus has a definite similarity to that of the starry-flowered wild garlic: pungent, smoky, spicy, a suggestion of fried onions. That potent bruising highly-invasive odour is such a virile and piquant contrast to the faery-ferns of asparagus foliage. These are the delicate and feathery fronds that one used to see in wedding boutonnieres¤. The little Carr girls, if you’ll remember, used asparagus boughs to build an airy bower for the dreadful Imogen Clark in ‘What Katy Did’. And despite its luxurious reputation – and ludicrous prices in some fine-dining eateries – asparagus is not hard to grow. We had a great bed of it at home in the old days, laid down in the 1940’s if not before. My father chucked on a bit of manure; the cats sunbathed there; the crop came up year after year in full force. Pagan in its profusion!

So why not bless the sweet asparagus? The ceremony can do nothing but good. No doubt the heathen vegetable will benefit from some spiritual taming just as Edwardian hostesses tried to refine it at table by handling it with tongs.

Also on my larder shelf this week is a jar of caraway¤¤ seeds. When I was young every decent household seemed to have a caraway seed cake ‘on cut’. Cakes then were not the screechingly sweet sugar-goo mountains so ubiquitous today. ‘That’s not cake, duck: that’s gateau’, we were told in shops. You made seed cake with the old dry rub-in method. This largely went out when every cook demanded an electric mixer¤¤¤. Seed cake was generally rather dry and crumbly: it went well with very strong, very hot tea or – traditionally at a funeral – with a glass of sherry. Beatrix Potter and Charlotte Bronte both celebrated it. It smelled of caraway’s cousin, fragrant aniseed: the scent that supposedly drives dogs crackers – though growing up in a veterinary household I never saw evidence of this. And my father used to come home laden with seed cakes; his favourite thing at tea time. My aunt made a classic version; and there were fans baking cakes for him in every farmhouse kitchen

 

 

Pa would sometimes ask for dark marmalade to be stirred into the mixture; or he simply spread on his own Cooper’s Oxford at table. The unusually luxurious version of seed cake given in The Constance Spry Cook Book (1956) calls for five eggs, candied orange peel, freshly grated nutmeg¤¤¤¤, brandy and ‘a handful’ of sugared caraway comfits. Imagine the heavenly fragrance of that little beauty, cooling from the oven in shades of copper and amber and gold! The sort of cake that used to make old-fashioned tea parties so giggly.

Sixty years ago, old village ladies used impossibly vulgar nicknames for caraway seeds which will not be repeated here. But, culinary-wise, caraway is so versatile. The seeds perk up a boiled cabbage, go good with roast potatoes – and with spuds in their jackets. Let the potato bake almost through; cut it in half; dip the cut ends in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and caraway. Then return to oven until the crust is crisp. The aroma of caraway is improved and strengthened by soaking, baking or otherwise cooking. The seeds are good to chew, too. This was the invariable habit of the Baroness Lehzen, the young Queen Victoria’s gouvernante. For years Lehzen’s presence in the royal palaces would be heralded by a redolence of breath-sweetening caraway and a faint clicking noise, as of a canary or budgerigar pecking away. It was Prince Albert’s abomination of this habit, as much as his resentment at Lehzen’s influence on the Queen, that persuaded him to be rid of her once and for all.

Years ago, at the start of a Harrods Winter Sale, a beautiful Irish girl who looked like Ingrid Bergman said to me in the canteen:

“We have to EAT our way through this terrible time!”

Let’s eat and SMELL our way through the Election period! Caraways, asparagus and what you will.

¤ an unintended fertility symbol?

¤¤ isn’t ‘caraway’ a romantic word? Makes me think of Coramandel screens, Ronald Firbank characters, Edith Sitwell and her ‘Gold Coast Customs’.

¤¤¤ remember the tv ad with Maria Charles? ‘Don’t make yourself a slave, darling! Get him to buy you a mixer like your mother’s.’ Tempi passat.

¤¤¤¤ mildly mood-enhancing, as you know.

Imitation of Life

 

I have been brought a wonderful gift from the other side of the world. A dear friend has been vacationing in Grenada, one of the Lesser Antilles, the Windward Islands that fall like a shower of shooting stars into the western Caribbean. On the map, Grenada is one of a string of jewels that form a crescent moon sparkling in the sea between Puerto Rico and South America.

 

And my present is gem-like too. It is a lei or necklace made of the principal wealth of Grenada: sweet-smelling spices. My garland is about 36″ long and structured with seeds, tiny gourds and a few scarlet beads strung on thread. But the principal glory of the necklace lies in its scent. Between the beads, as on a rosary, are strung larger ornaments: dried spices, cut and shaped like weird precious stones. Gnarled pebbles of root ginger, cloves like tiny fingers of black coral, bay leaves folded in the shape of fairy envelopes. There are pieces of cinnamon and whole nutmegs dabbed and daubed with painted raindrops. There are bits of pimento and sweety-buttery tonka and little twisty whirls which I have yet to identify. Possibly they are the arils of nutmeg which, when dried, become golden mace.

 

The magic of the thing…the perfume! The concept is so simple: the effect is so stunning. As I write I have the necklace hanging by my bed. It could be worn round the neck, but it is fragile. I might wear it on summer evenings to come, while sitting quiet and still in the garden. I’m thinking it would permeate my clothes, as it has the green and white cotton bag in which it travelled back to London. For now the string of treasures is suspended where it can catch the nearly-spring breeze from the window and boost my sleep hygiene.

 

The whole room is now gently but emphatically suffused by a sweet warm fragrance which seems to be gradually and deliciously invading the entire house. I am told that, as and when the spices start to fade, their scent can be revived by spraying them with a little warm water as one does with pot pourri.(Or I do, at any rate: it seems to work).

 

I wonder for how many centuries these wonderful necklaces have been made. For ever, I guess. In the West, too, we know that hollow or porous beads have often been used as perfume vehicles. Women in the ancient world filled clay beads with scent and hung them in their hair or their ears; or stitched them to their clothing. Marie Stuart went to the scaffold wearing a golden perforated rosary stuffed with ambergris: the odour of the sanctity of Catholic martyrdom.

 

Les Senteurs is filled with ‘les oiseaux des îles’: a flight of exotic fragrances that are inspired by various islands. They combine two contradictory yet complementary kinds of magic – a world in miniature surrounded by (usually) warm seas, plus an olfactory experience without limits.

 

“As on our shelves your beauteous eyes you bend”¤, your nose will whisk you off to Capri, the Virgin Islands, Corsica, Île Poupre, Sicily, the Seychelles and Jamaica. Revel in our stock of chypre perfumes, all paying homage to Cyprus the birthplace of Aphrodite. The goddess of love and desire was born from the waves of the Mediterranean and blown ashore at Cyprus in an aura of roses and spice.

 

“No man is an island”. Our entwined scents bring us all together in harmony. Further bonding may be achieved by a generous tot of aromatic Spiced Gold Rum – “a smooth warm spirit with rounded flavours of vanilla”. It tastes just the same as my necklace smells.

 

Cheers!

¤ with apologies to Susan M. Coolidge

Hot Cross Buns

easter

 

Now, every weekend when I come home it is to find a pile of the week’s newspaper clippings laid on the table for me, sourced and filleted from The Times by my darling brother.  Last Friday night, my stack of print was topped by an interview with a florist. One of her triumphs was designing a 3-D funeral tribute for a fragrant lady: it took the form of a huge flowery bottle of Chanel No 5.¤ The week’s obituaries, too, were redolent: Cliff Michelmore’s childhood was spent at Cowes, favourite haunt of yachting Royalty and ” smelling of mothballs, cigars and expensive perfume” . A former student of Anita Brookner – Neil MacGregor no less – remembered her office being suffused with scent. Brookner fans have always appreciated how frequently, powerfully and variously perfume is described in her novels: used for pleasure, for refreshment¤¤; as a purge or as a malign weapon of the predatory. I often used to see Dr Brookner, endlessly walking around London; wary and remote as Garbo, usually wearing an immaculate navy reefer jacket and flats. Once, she looked through the window of Les Senteurs but alas! she entered not.

We approach Easter and our minds seem fit to burst with comings and goings. It’s an emotionally thrilling and consequently exhausting time. Winter, slowly this year, gives way to spring; the clocks go forward ¤¤¤; death is succeeded by rebirth. We are drained and refilled, as with a transplant of blood. The smells of Easter should billow forth with gusto and extravagance. The first ceremonial cutting of the grass (already done, with immense relief); the daffodils and hyacinths; the Festive baking and entertaining; the painting of the eggs; the lilies and incense in the churches; the greedy chocolates; and the fragrant embalming spices of the Tomb.

It is these last that we celebrate in a curious form; nowadays probably quite unconsciously so. For the “…mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight..” and the “sweet spices” brought by Nicodemus and by the Myrophorai to the Garden of Gethsemane are supposedly the inspiration for our modern hot cross buns. The sweet smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, the sugar and the fruits are the richly symbolic culinary descendants of the precious oils used in the ancient middle eastern cultures for the final anointing of the body for the tomb. You can smell another, more elaborate, interpretation of this heritage at Les Senteurs in ANUBIS, that Papillon masterpiece which celebrates the funerary rites of old Egypt and the mysteries of the Pharaonic tombs. For the Egyptians perfume was both a preservative and, more especially, a spell to revive the dead through the arts of Isis, mistress of fragrance and its concomitant necromantic magic.

AnubisSQUARE
Hot cross buns are one of the last accessible remnants of medieval folk religion. A thousand years ago spices and dried fruit were unimaginable delicacies, reserved for the banquets of Heaven and Earth. We all know the comical story of Queen Elizabeth refusing to be be fobbed off with five emeralds “the size of a man’s finger”, insisting rather that Francis Drake hand over his cargo of black pepper from the Indies. Today we can pick up six “luxury” fruit buns for under £1, but for some of us they still have something of the uncanny and the charmed about them.

easter 2

My grandmother (and, unconsciously or not, she was echoing Elizabeth Tudor’s legislation here) insisted that hot cross buns should be eaten only between Good Friday and Easter Monday. My mother was very dubious – scandalised indeed – about their appearance at other times of year. Much of this attitude and mystique has rubbed off on me. A bun baked on Good Friday is supposed never to go stale or decay; a piece broken from it will cure the sick or guarantee safe passage to a ship at sea. I have never yet put these attributions to the test, partially because I also grew up with the received idea that one may steam fish¤¤¤¤ on Good Friday with a clear conscience, but cook nothing else.

But the fragrant aroma of a sweet-scented hot cross bun, warming in the oven, is wonderful! No doubt its olfactory piquancy is enhanced by all  these guilty confused thoughts, conflicting emotions and memories of Easters long past. It is one of the quintessential Paschal smells, wafting up the stairs as early morning tea is brewed. Although, perversely, for myself hot cross buns, as they say of revenge, are a dish best served cold. The fruit, unheated, tastes juicier. But – as Lillian Gish used to say – judge for yourselves.

Wishing you all a very Happy and Radiant Easter!

¤ myself, I’d be glad of a flacon of Creed, when the time comes, wrought from fancy dyed green carnations and gardenias. An apt summation of my career.

¤¤ one exhausted heroine empties an entire bottle of scent into a scalding bath

¤¤¤ “Spring forward/Fall back”

¤¤¤¤ later elaborated to fish pie