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.

G is for Grass

Goodness, what a cliche eh?  Hot days, picnic blankets, Scotch eggs, strawberries and the smell of newly-mown grass.
I am not apologising though, it’s a universal, nostalgia-fest of a smell because it’s one of the best.  Just a sniff and we’re all transported to a rounders match at primary school, a sweaty park-bench date, a cricket match with friends and tea, or our own back garden on one of those summer evenings as long as yards of rolled turf.  Kindness and fondness smell like this.  Love too has a whiff of it I think.

H is for Hot sun skin

Have you ever come inside after a day outdoors in fine weather to wash your hands, and as warm water hits warm skin smelt something difficult to describe, but evocative of every summer holiday you’ve ever had? I don’t know what peculiar chemistry makes my skin smell like that after sun; it’s not suncream – that’s another smell altogether – this is the smell of fresh air, clean sheets and vitamin D.  Just thinking about it now I’m back in cotton dresses, eating gazpacho and watering the garden in the blue evening.  Kicking off my sandals and sniffing my forearms like Patrick Suskind’s madman.  Little pieces of madeleine come in a variety of disguises it seems.

I is for Incense

In my life I’ve spent a great deal of time in chuches; I’m not strongly religious, but have a great fondness for singing, which isn’t quite matched by my aptitude sadly.  Joining a choir involves a lot of heading out on cold nights after work and a fair amount of hanging around at rehearsals, but one of the many joys is the great glut of Christmas music and concerts at the end of the year.  Keeping these in mind helped me through many a drear November night of notebashing to an out-of-tune piano.
Lincoln has one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Britain, and at Christmas we used to visit with family and also for the first school carol concerts I can remember.  Making the whole thing more wonderful to a tiny girl, the church elders always dug out their best mitres, cassocks and staffs and someone went about swinging incense before the service began.  Now I’m a little surprised this went on given the CofE mistrust of such things, but the Bishop must have liked things being ‘a bit High’.  O Little Town has never smelt so good.

J is for Juniper

Just a whiff of scrubby heath and dry nights hovers over my G&T.  Key to the ruination found at the bottom of the gin bottle is the dark berry of juniper.  Looks belie origins though, these aren’t true berries but souped up cones, a few fleshy scales pumped up to tempt the birds.
Much has been made of the mix of gin’s other botanicals; coriander, angelica, anise, fennel seeds, cardamom and orange often feature, but juniper is its constant, dark heart.  Nothing else gives bitterness with an earthy base and in the classic mix it rubs along surprisingly well with citrus and quinine – a potion to ward off malaria into the bargain with a bundle of Happy Valley and Raj nostalgia attached.  Oh go on, dig out that green bottle, unscrew the lid and have a sniff, you’ll remember what I mean straight away.

K is for Kitchen

Keystone of any house and its most important daytime room, my kitchen is the place I want to be when I’m at home.  Living in there for most of the time I often have a book, always Radio 4, sometimes a bit of knitting and the cats, and the smell of the place in the background always a mixture of season and place.  Mincemeat and cinnamon at Christmas, basil and tomato plants in the summer; today hyacinths are out-competing baking bread downstairs.  Not for me a plug-in, room-spray, pretend-vanilla-scented kitchen; real life comes with a splash of sour milk too sometimes, but I’m all the better for it.

L is for Lemon

Little remains to be said about the lemon that hasn’t been said before by ad execs, so particular is its power in food, drink and all the various potions in which it is abused by the cosmetics industry.  Much is rightly made of its spritz, acidity, freshness and wonderfully decorative colour – so that it can be found liberally sprinkled through and over artliterature and music 
None of these secondhand experiences though is as good as zesting it under ones nose and eating something containing the result.  Of note it has the ability to combine in sweet (lemon tart), salty (preserved lemons) and sour (Pisco Sour cocktails) recipes without a hint of dissonance.  Pig-like in fruity form, by which I mean you can use everything but the squeak, even the pith is handy to help marmalade along its way to a set.  Quite how it could happen outside R4 that I become separated from the world, but still be allowed a choice of one fruit, I’m not sure.  Rest assured though that if Desert Island Fruit is ever commissioned to interview me, mine will be a short list, topped by lovely lemon.

M is for Mint

Money is made in a mint, and I like the slang term for rich folk that describes them as ‘minted’.  Not having the OEDto hand I’m unsure if this has anything to do with the herb, but I hope it does as unfurling green leaves and freshly printed, old style pound notes could easily be connected.
On the subject of smell though, money is generally grubby and smells a bit fusty, whilst mint is all things bright and beautiful.  Perfectly summery, in our house used to brighten a multitude of Lebanese inspired salads, it also is a trad classic in the English spring Sunday lunch.  Quenching thirst in tisanes and sweetened black tea better than water, it marries so well with citrus and booze that it’s also the green heart of the Mojito and a very welcome addition to soulless pub Pimms and lemonade mixes.
Running riot in my garden a while back, I have confined it to barracks in a terracotta pot, but am still pulling out roots from the ground which give off a blast of minty earthiness when they come up.  Sniffing this whilst tidying as we head towards winter I begin to see why cats find the smell such a drug and always feel wistful for the end of cold days and return of the sun

N is for Night

Nocturnal smells are different in summer and winter.  Over the warmer months open windows at dusk allow moths past flapping curtains, soft garden smells creep in and layer themselves at ankle level to stay there until dawn.  Past October though there are sharper, metallic edges that stay head-height, peppered with ozone and wakefulness.  Quite a creature of routine and always early to bed by choice, shiftwork has shown me night in all seasons and at all hours.  Rarely is there nothing new to notice in a private, out of hours city – a barn owl by the road, or the scent of Mahonia.  Surely the best of night-time smells though is the one that ends every shift, bread toasting after I get home, take off my shoes and break out the marmalade.

O is for Orange

One of the world’s best scents and also my favourite colour.
People that know me will have heard the story of the best orange I’ve ever eaten about a hundred times; it was bought during a hitchike on Lewis in a greengrocer’s van after a day spent hillwalking.  Quite the most perfect and orangey shape, the sweet but also acrid fruit filled the part of me that had been aching for vitamin C in the scurvy world of a Scottish island holiday.  Reluctantly I shared a couple of pigs with my friend and relished the scented, oily accretions that peeling an orange leaves under the nails.
Since then I’ve had lots of other good oranges in their many varieties – as Sevillemarmalade, Navels and their babies, blood orange spremuta and all the little orange cousins that come in stockings at Christmas.  The Hebridean orange has become almost mythical in memory; but whether sliced into Campari, or in a cake with chocolate on top, the smell is still evocative of balancing on a sack of potatoes in the back of a van, looking at beautiful hills and feeling very content.

P is for Pears Soap

Peppery scent, amber colour and a deeply scooped profile, Pears smells of the past and is tactile and beautiful.  Quintessentially English in its heritage,  it’s also an object lesson in branding and marketing; Millais’ Bubbles now rightly resides in Liverpool in close proximity to Port Sunlight.  Really I don’t know what Pears soap smells of because to me it smells of my Pa, I think it’s a bit herbal and a bit musky and I can’t resist the scent or its barley sugar transparency.

Q is for Quince

Queer cousin of the apple, the quince differs from its Rosaceous relatives both by its uncommon yellowness and the furriness of its skin.  Rarely grown in Britain it features more strongly in Mediterranean cooking, in particular thick, pinkish membrillo paste.  Strongly perfumed, a little goes a long way in sweet and savoury food and I always feel I’m having something a little unreconstructed and mediaeval when I eat quince.  Though its floweriness is not to everyone’s palate, I love the way it looks and smells and it’s the best ornament for a winter kitchen.

R is for Rain

Richly loaded with cliche, imagery of a landscape after rain is so linked to smell that Hermes even have a scent that attempts to emulate it.  Soaking earth, wet streets and damp sand smell different, but all are linked by an indefinable freshness that I’ve never found in a bottle.  The rainfall itself is almost neutral, but the composite of what it falls on and how it reacts to a drenching is what is so delicious, even if that is London tarmac, privet and cat’s pee.  Undeniably there is a larger than usual romantic element to this smell, the limbic system sees to that and I’m happy it does in a country as wet and consequently verdant as ours.

S is for Strawberry

Sugary-smelling when ripe, the scent of strawberries is olfactory shorthand for British summer.  Though most intense in tiny alpines, it’s also strong in older garden varieties, even more so once June sun has reached under the serrated leaves to ripen the hidden fruit. Unless you are without a soul or a nose this must be one of everyone’s seasonal

T is for Thyme

Take any old piece of potato and onion, add olive oil, a piece of thyme, flame for grilling and you have the smell of all the best Mediterranean holidays.  Unmistakably acrid and herby, it rises up underfoot as you stride out for your evening kir, Campari, or beer; to the background of whirring cicadas and rustling cypress bending over the road.
Virtual Amalfi coast in a box: 89p from Sainsbury’s – keep some thyme to hand for sniffing on those days when all it does is hail greyness.

U is for Undergrowth

Under the trees lining the Camel there is a smell of moss and leaves that are always damp, a fungal topnote betrays the constant turnover by slime moulds and their true fungus cousins.  Vegetabley and muddy, as the year turns it changes a little; dry weather leavens the yeast with a smudge of hay, wet and cold keep it flat and green like the liverworts.  Walking by the water I usually find something new to see, plants just coming into flower or fruit; birds arriving, leaving or breeding; but the smell under the oaks is always the same.

V is for Violet

Voluptuously velvety purple, the scent of violets is flower heaven and deserves rehabilitation from its association with bath cubes, and bath salts, and all things old lady.  What could be nicer than stealing an afternoon to read a new paperback with a box of the best violet creams?
Xylem, phloem and cambium, the biochemistry of photosynthesis, and petal cells stuffed with reflective pigment are all part of the violet magic.  Yet without aeons of coevolution with their pollinators they might be without their lovely scent, which would be a sad loss to all perfumers, pastry chefs and to me.

W is for Warm wine

When food is cooked in red wine a curious exchange occurs as alcohol is forfeited for richness of flavour, pervading whatever is bathing and bobbing around in it.  X, some unknown quantity, or undefined process, means the smell of wine gently simmering as you come through your front door can be better even than the smell of wine in the glass.

Yet another scent that I’d find it hard to live without, pity those poor anosmics who don’t know what they are missing.

X is for Xerox

Xenophobes and broadsheet nostalgics might not like this one, but the smell of hot ink on paper doesn’t make me think of whirring presses and Fleet Street, so much as time spent in copy-shops with project reports, dissertations and theses.  Years and years in higher, further, and too-much-education-by-half often found me in KwikKopy, hopping foot to foot and hoping the agonised-over words would gain a bit of stature for professional attention and expensive paper.  Wordprocessing and laser printers are now so common this wouldn’t thrill the average undergraduate, but I still surreptitiously sniff my hot documents for a whiff of toner, which has top notes of blackened nerve ends and burnt dust.

Y is for Yeast

Yielding, bouncy and fragrant, yeasted dough smells of growth and the promise that great things will emerge from the oven with the help of those furiously budding little cells.
Zero tolerance to the Atkinsites, I want toast, loaves, rolls, cholla, and in my dotage it will be brioche for breakfast and Chelsea buns for tea everyday.

Z is for Zinc

Zipping along the bar comes an espresso, but those poised at the zinc smell not only coffee, but also a below-the-elbow silvery tang as a euro piece in the palm scrapes the counter; the scents of hurry and addiction are all here.

AtoZed – can you see what it is yit?

The A to Zed of smells was fun to write; after a shaky start I got into the habit of doing one a week and it’s been interesting to think about how to describe something intangible.  For most of the subjects the scents are highly evocative to me, but I wanted to avoid too much sentimentality, and Proust having lead the way didn’t make things any easier.
It was sometimes tricky to know what to put in and what to leave out, for instance zest is a wonderful word, but lemon and orange were already there and there is a limit to the amount of citrus most people can take though my passion for them is unbounded.  (To whit, endless posts about citron).
And I love Jessica Hische‘s typography, sometimes I chose the alphabet to try to match the post.  More often than not though I just chose the one I liked the most.

So now this alphabet of scents is finished, my question is did anyone notice that the posts were also alphabetical?
The rules I set myself were that the post must start with the same letter as the title, but may not be the same word.

Also I decided that the initial letters of the sentences in each entry should follow alphabetically too.

So if I take N as the example, the smell was Night.  The first word of the post is Nocturnal, followed by Over, Past, Quite, Rarely and Surely.

Or for Fig, the first word of the post is Four, followed by Going, Happily, It, Just, Kindnesses and Luscious.  You get the idea.

I was keen not to fudge the difficult letters like Z and X, but you’ll notice that I shyed away from the X for ages, only approaching it when I couldn’t avoid it in the V is for Violet post.

Did you see what I did?  I’m not sure there is a name for this, although abecedarium or lipogram might cover it I think that is perhaps slightly wrong.  I asked a friend who is all about words, but he didn’t know.  Perhaps some of you will.