What’s it all about?

A while ago I somehow came across Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap site and wanted to use her illuminated capitals on my blog.  After some thought I decided they would be best used to illustrate posts about something I can’t photograph and at the same time I read Perfumes: The A-Z guide and the two ideas coalesced.

The posts are written to some made-up alphabetical rules, which are explained right at the end.  And take courage, they get shorter as the end of the alphabet is neared.


A is for Aniseed

Although I’m not old, I’m not young either, but I’m really happy that way. Being in my thirties I’ve realised that everyone isn’t having more fun than me, that I’m happy and healthy and have more treats than I deserve. Consistent with this, I’ve become more mature and measured in my indulgences, and anise is a good illustration of how my taste has changed, but one of my favourite flavours has remained a favourite, despite getting older.

During my childhood we were allowed pocket-money to the tune of two times our age – thus 10p aged five, 12p aged six and so on – but the most we could spend on sweets each week was 10p, always on a Saturday, always in the village shop. Every week it was my habit to blow the lot on aniseed balls and go round sucking them for hours until I got to the

tiny, underwhelming seed in the middle that was the only thing about them approaching the natural, herbal sweet they must have been once. For the rest of the day my tongue and mouth would be evil, bright red from the colouring.

Growing a bit older and becoming more outgoing in my teens I started going to the pub, where Pernod & lemonade was my drink of first choice. Hoping to appear sophisticated – supping pastis and talking about Camus – it glowed fantastically under the UV strips they used to have in clubs (perhaps they still do). I loved the stickiness and the Frenchness, but most of all I loved the flavour, which would spritz up my nose if the lemonade wasn’t the trad 1990’s two-day-old-flat sort.
Just as then I still adore anise, but now I get my kicks from the fennel bulb – very pure and healthy in comparison to the treats that led me to love its flavour. Knowing how well it gets on with sugar I was surprised to discover how well it works in savoury dishes, but as Niki Segnit says ‘it’s a very combinable flavour’. Lovely braised, charred, macerated and marinated – in particular with lemon and shellfish – it is also lovely to gnaw on raw whilst ruminating.
Maturity seems to have brought me slightly more adult tastes then, but like everyone I’m struck by a little existential crise once in a while and when that hits I turn to Bassetts for comfort – with a copy of I Capture the Castle and a bag of liquorice it’s hard to feel glum.

B is for Bleach

By rights the smell of bleach ought to be more associated with work than home for me. Coming into hospital triggers olfactory memories for most people, be they cabbage or carbolic. Despite this, hydrogen peroxide smells of Saturday mornings and scrubbing to music turned up loud enough to be heard over a vacuum-cleaner – bleach is the smell of Radio 2.

Eventually over a few hours the smell drifts into the background, what remains is an undertone of cleanliness, tasks complete, ticks on a list, crumb-free worktops and temporarily shiny taps. For perhaps a day this prevails, but the chemical law of entropy applies to housework just as much as labwork and it’s easy to see why some give up in the face of these repetitive tasks and let it slide. Grubbiness has a way of creeping in, but the blue bottle is always on hand, an ally against the grime. How unfeminist my thrill every time; the restoration of order, the elimination of dirt, the whiff of a good job done well. I love the smell of bleach.

C is for Cumin

Curry is purported to be our new national dish; a particular favourite for takeaways, ready-meals and after the pub ten-tandooris-and-ten-pints-of-Stella type nights out. Despite ‘going for an Indian’ thus entering the vernacular, it’s probably true that most of what we eat is cheffed and served by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Brits. (Except of course in Leicester where things are complicated by many of the Asian population having roots in Idi Amin’s Uganda,); whatever its heritage though the British curry has evolved in isolation into something splendid.

For all curries my one essential ingredient is cumin – fragrant, lemony and almost floral. Glorious when freshly ground it’s the spice I would choose above even cardamom if I was only allowed one on my desert island. Happiness is a kilo of East End cumin powder to sniff, a dosa and dal from the old incarnation of Halli and something fruity and hoppy to drink, maybe a half of Bays Breaker.

D is for Damp Canvas

During primary school years, much of the summer holidays were spent at friend’s houses or they would stay at mine, and often this was made more exciting by camping in the back garden.  Every day was spent gathering strange treats for midnight feasts – I remember cough sweets being a peculiarly frequent feature – every night a blur of thin torch light as precious batteries ran down to fitful sleep.
For my family camping involved my Pa’s bright orange climbing tent from the sixties; though it had braved Welsh hillsides and Alpine mountaintops, the orchard in midsummer was now all it was fit for.  Gaping holes in the groundsheet and a bad attack of moth to the outer, undaunted its little orange triangle was every child’s Swallows & Amazons ideal.
Happily now I cannot walk into a flower show, or village fete without the smell of the marquee transporting me to the eighties and those neverendingly long summers.  I adore the slightly mildewed, slow-drying smell of thick cotton canvas and in the solid cold of this November it’s a happy thing to remember.

E is for Earth

Even as a child I preferred the outdoors to the indoors, as long as it was summer and the evenings were light enough that I was trusted to run about with my brother and sister.  Freedom to spend hours sitting in a muddy ditch hanging off branches, moving plants, building with stones and channeling water didn’t seem much at the time, but I see now it was a privilege.  Getting home we’d climb out of clothes so stiff with earth they’d stand up on their own and stink like water rats and algae.
Happiness now still lies in a similar vein – digging in the garden or walking in the country.  I’d inhale a clod if I could and keep that wet brown smell close by at all times.

F is for Fig

Four wheels bad, two wheels good – so I’ve always believed somehow, despite growing up in a place where needing a pint of milk or the paper meant choosing between the car or spending an hour pedalling back and forth from the village.  Going on a holiday or expedition as a teenager almost always involved my bike and in university holidays I continued this but branched out into non-British trips.  Happily I found likeminded others and on the last big cycling trip I did we went to Galicia, although with hindsight I have no idea why northern Spain in September seemed a good idea.  It rained of course, but in between we had amazing blasts of sunshine and scenery and incredible friendliness from the villagers we stopped and spoke to in our rubbish Spanish.  Just as Laurie Lee had led me to expect, they had very little but happily gave it to us.  Kindnesses included a lady who dismantled a wall so we could wheel our bikes into her garden to camp and another who stripped her fig tree for us to take on our way early one morning.  Luscious and dark, sweet and perfumed I adore figs, but none has ever been as good as those we were given on that holiday.