Our Vegetable Love…

“You’ll fall into the flames of hell if you dig any deeper” said our gardener Mr Sarson as I grubbed about in my own little patch of garden aged 5 or so. Mr Sarson must have been in his eighties but was lean and wiry after a lifetime working as a railway ganger. He had once found a severed human head on the line – “it took three men to lift, it weighed so heavy”. And I wondered how the executioner had coped with Mary Queen of Scots who we had learned about at school: the infant curriculum was very different in the 1950’s. After Mr Garner died, eating a pickled onion, Mr Cannon came to help: he had sailed German POW’s down the Rhine in a caged barge in 1919; been a professional dancing master, and as a boy had pinched the behind of Violet, Duchess of Rutland in the shrubbery at Belvoir Castle: “I took her for the parlour maid”.

These two gentlemen introduced me to the vegetable world which flourished exceedingly in my father’s garden since so many of his animal patients were buried there. Vegetable lore we learned, and the smell of all the old favourites. Radishes are easy and quick for even the youngest child to grow, though their leaves may sting a bit; and their rose pink hue is as vivid and exciting as their cracked-ice peppery scent and tart hot/cold taste. Our neighbours, elderly maiden ladies, lived on radish sandwiches and dripping: it sufficed.(Their brother was a morphine addict, in the nonchalant respectable style of a Victorian bachelor).

So many vegetables have the most bewitching scents: the dry hot spiciness of celery; the rubbery, flowery earthiness of purple sprouting broccoli; the searing sweet and sour pungency of wild garlic especially on a cliff patch in bluebell season. Carrot has been recently added to the perfumer’s palette as a sweetener, and can contribute to an excellent synthetic fleshy fruit accord. Tomato leaf has something of the same magic as geranium – hot, green, spicy, and dusty. It is replete with the nostalgia of those ruined walled kitchen gardens, frost-cracked glasshouses and stagnant water butts that you sometimes discover abandoned beyond the formal gardens of a minor stately home. Now, I know tomato is a fruit, but in the minds and habits of most of us it is treated as veg. It was probably Annick Goutal who pioneered its use in her Eau de Camille – a perfume smelling of broken flower stems and the inner pale flesh of wild grasses.

Yet vegetables and man have until the twentieth century had a wary relationship: for millenia vegetables were the preserve of the poor, served up like animal swill while the rich dined on white bread, meat and sugar. The onion and the lettuce may have been sacred emblems of fertility in Ancient Egypt (due to their propensity to run to seed in a phallic bolt) but they still fed the pyramid toilers rather than grace Pharaoh’s table. When the Americas were first colonised, the treasure fleets brought back potatoes, avocados and tomatoes; all snapped up in the West as intriguing novelties but just as quickly abandoned. They took centuries to fully assimilate as part of the food chain; and for westerners to learn how to cook and season them.

This often seems to cause the British unreasonable difficulties: one thinks of traditional Christmas brussels boiled to mossy mush,and marrows cooked to rags. My grandfather used to say that his favourite way to prepare a cucumber was to cut in half and put in dustbin. Highly distrusted by European doctors, American produce became notorious for other qualities. Avocado is a Mexican Nahuatl word for “testicle” – as “orchid” is in Greek – and so could be choked down as a flavourless if stimulating aphrodisiac. Potatoes turned out to be of the same family as the enchanters’ nightshades, clearly poisonous and possibly diabolic; and as for the colour of these “love apples”, these tomatoes! Painted like harlots and obviously to be avoided. According to Lady Diana Cooper, her mother Violet (the same woman who was goosed by our gardener) banned tomatoes from her dinner table as impossibly common. This prejudice is still not entirely extinct in some circles, I can assure you.

Vegetables are still, I suppose, generally thought dull and worthy; your dreary 5 a day to keep you regular and minimise the household bills: one can still live very cheaply live on roots. Therefore the scents of their leaves and flowers, though often delicious, lack the psychological glamour demanded by perfumers: though the scent of field of broad beans in flower rivals Grasse jasmine, and see how a bed of scarlet runners (grown in Tudor gardens purely for their gaudy flowers) drive the bees wild with their fragrance. Even the wonderful scents from vegetable-related flowers (the cabbage-cousin wallflower; the sweet pea) rarely make it into the commercial perfume bottle; maybe unconsciously rejected on account of their humble relations.

Be that as it may, our niche perfumers continue to garner a little romance from the kitchen garden: try The Unicorn Spell where an eccentric and beguiling top note of dawn-picked runner bean leads into frosty violets. The cucumber in En Passant helps to spangle the white lilac with rain. Gorge on Gantier‘s sweet, rich, outre Grain de Plaisir, a presentation of celery as aphrodisiac – as used so famously by Mme de Pompadour and her eighteenth century contemporaries, brewed up with ambergris, chocolate, truffles and vanilla. I think the 21st century will continue to see fascinating new experiments with the odours of the vegetable kingdom just as our cooks soldier on promoting their vitality and potential excitement in our diet.

Image from wildaboutgardens.org.uk

“Chuck him without a qualm, Violet!”

Dans Tes Bras Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums

The first violets of the year are opening on the grass verge by my bus stop. Very early this year. Strange that such beautiful and iconic flowers should spring from the litter of crisp packets, flattened Coke tins and ciggie butts; akin to Swift’s “gaudy tulips sprung from dung” and not a whit diminished by their sordid fertiliser. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a brilliant lettuce-green; and while the flowers are not as large or fragrant as Parma’s the scent is a knock-out.

And not quite as you imagine: every year I am pleasantly and slightly shocked by it. It’s definitely a carnal, indolic smell. Sweet of course, and musky, but sometimes almost like the faintest whiff of fresh meat: not at all like the traditional Devon Violets bath salts or those cheap mauve cachous “traditionally eaten by maids to sweeten the breath”. Violets in the raw have a sexy, sensual, fleshy smell, albeit extremely subtle: hence their use in modern “skin scents” (not a very attractive term: and is not every perfume intended for the skin?). Malle‘s Dans Tes Bras is a classic of the genre: violet blended with iris, suede and cashmeran, just lightly brushing the wearer’s skin,alighting on it like a butterfly.

And yet the violet was beloved by the late Victorians as a symbol of innocence, shyness, and modest womanhood. There was a rage for them in the garden, the conservatory, as a perfume, as a crystallized delicacy, a wine and as a dress accessory – posies of the real thing, and made of silk or velvet to pin on hats and gowns. Violet became excessively popular as a colour and as one of the newly fashionable flower names for girls: Violet Trefusis, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, Violet Bonham Carter; Sherlock Holmes’s client Violet Hunter; Violet Carson,and on the new cinematograph, Violet Hopkins. Old catalogues list wonderfully named plant varieties for cultivation  – Marie Louise, Neapolitan, Victoria Regina, White Czar and Comte Brazza.

Both sexes doused themselves in violet fragrances: even our dear staid George V loved Trumper’s Violettes d’Ajaccio, maybe influenced by his mother Queen Alexandra, who lived in a haze of violet and rose. So ubiquitous was the use of violet perfume that it fell quite undeservedly out of fashion in the mid-20th century, hopelessly stigmatised by that other awful phrase – “old ladies’ scent”. (As we hear on the news today that the expression “old dears” is to be banned, wouldn’t it be nice to see the back of that silly phrase, too?)  For years violet scent was very scarce in the shops, and then around the late 1990’s perfumers once more returned to its magic, re-invented for a new generation.

Now we have the quintessentially 21st century extravaganza Lipstick Rose which wittily subverts all the traditional presentation and shows up a dazzling shocking pink bouquet of raspberry, rose, violet, grapefruit and aldehydes. The Unicorn Spell also turns the old ideas inside out and sparkles like an icy green forest where violets brave the frosts to exude their odour. For those who desire to swathe themselves in an aura of purple and flame velvet, try Caron‘s Aimez Moi: a baroque fantasy of Parma violets, apricots and vanilla. Gourmand to a degree, smell me…eat me.

But there is another aspect to violets – what we might call the “Political Perfume”- and to this I shall return another time.