Saturday 30 June 2012

Roussillon: red ochre and resistance

"Because of their age - or rather their agelessness - and because of their common ochre color the houses look much alike to a foreigner walking through the streets for the first time. He cannot distinguish between the Laporatti house and the Charrin house, which stand side by side, but any child in the village could tell him that the houses are totally different."
                                       Village in the Vaucluse by Laurence Wylie

Much more reading than writing this week, and one of the treasures of the bookshelf I’ve been delving into for research is Laurence Wylie’s portrait of Roussillon in the early 1950s. An American academic who  subsequently became Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, Wylie paints an intimate portrait of the red ochre village he calls Peyrone in the years following the second world war.

It was – and still is – a collection of narrow streets perched on a whale-shaped cliff rising from the floor of the Luberon valley. Shades of red, orange and yellow sandstone glow against dark green fir trees in a living Fauvist painting.

Samuel Beckett found sanctuary here on Bonnelly's farm after the wartime Parisian Resistance network he belonged to was betrayed by a corrupt priest. With arrest by the Nazis imminent - some fifty members of their cell had alredy been captured - Beckett and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south on forged identity papers in September 1942.

By 1944 when the South of France was no longer the Zone Libre, the Irish playwright was again in the thick of the Resistance, hiding explosives in the house and going on patrol with the local Maquisards. The whole of the Luberon valley was strongly partisan, fighting for the return of liberty from the Germans.

In the original French version of Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot, 1952) the character Vladimir speaks of living in the Vaucluse, remembering the ochre quarries and picking grapes for a man named Bonnelly. The English translation saw the clear references to Roussillon replaced by the Burgundian wine country around Macon.

Dr Wylie lived, along with his wife and their two small sons, in the village during 1950 and 1951, when times were very different. His study of Roussillon, Village in the Vaucluse (Harvard, 1957) is widely considered a classic: "sociology with rich human overtones". It's certainly full of wonderful details which give a real sense of life as it was lived, rather than romanticised, then (even if the widow of the famous chef Escoffier did run the local hotel).

There are two cars in Peyrane less than five years old, the big Citroen of the Notaire and the butcher's red truck with pink plastic pig heads. If we exclude these two, the cars of the commune of Peyrane average about twenty-five years in age.

 ...fear of a future war has destroyed confidence in the future. (...) To plant fruit trees one must have confidence in the future. Most of the farmers with whom this problem was discussed had the same reaction: "We know we should plant trees but what's the use? Who knows if we and our children would be here by the time they started to bear?"

Seventy years later, the Bonnelly family still harvests grapes and makes good wine on their Roussillon estate, the Domaine du Coulet Rouge. The village is hugely popular with tourists, packed in summer and with an air of quiet wealth out of season.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Art for art's sake

In the months when I find writing difficult - and always when I'm waiting for publishers and agents to decide what they want to do with the work I've already produced - I have to turn to other creative outlets. I can't just do nothing; I would boil over with frustration. When I really feel as if I need to clear my mind and allow myself to see and think in a different way, I get my paints out.

I'm a pure amateur. Sometimes these paintings work, and sometimes they don't, but that's not really the point. The intent is to have some fun. Over the past few weeks I've been working with fast-drying acrylics on several canvasses. I had a big, ambitious idea (perhaps too ambitious!) after looking at André Derain's Road in the Mountains (below), painted in 1907 two years after Derain had spent a summer in the South of France with Matisse and the two artists developed the innovative, bright bold style that became known as Fauvism.

Not only do I find this style very appealing, but its very directness makes it seem attainable by a happy paint-splasher like me. I had six blank canvasses: three of 20 x 16ins (51 x 40cm) and three slightly smaller; so I decided to see if I could put them together to make one large whole picture, perhaps hanging the constituent parts slightly apart on the wall if it ever got to that stage. A kind of exploded Derain, if you like.

So I set to work, taking elements from his paintings, and aiming to come up with a scene reminiscent of the Calanques near Cassis, showing the sea inlet. And then I started finding out about Nicolas de Staël and looking at his work. It seemed that some elements of his blocked colour would add something more interesting, so I did a five-minute study of two cypress trees:

I liked the effect, so I changed the trees in my painting and added more to the another canvas that forms the top left hand side of the whole:

Now I have to confess here that the piece as a six-panel whole doesn't really work. Try as I might, I can't make the other side balance. This is where a real artist would know exactly what to do but I lack the knowledge. But just for illustration, here are the six elements put out together on the conservatory floor:

No false modesty - it's not right as it is. But I do like the cliff panel and the two cypresses, and I might even put them up as separate pictures with all the other paintings on the tall white walls of the new sitting room in the French house. The important thing is that I do feel a sense of achievement, and an even greater appreciation of the details in works of art created by the masters.

Sunday 24 June 2012

More detective work leads to Fontaine de Vaucluse...

Yet again, the blogging world brings like minds together. My trail of curiosity and detection that went from finding Elizabeth David’s house in Ménerbes to the tragic suicide of artist Nicolas de Staël in Antibes (The concert and the final painting) piqued the interest of another Francophile, Evelyn Jackson at Melanged Magic.

What was it about the music in last concert de Staël listened to in Paris that had such a galvanising, creative and ultimately tragic effect on him? Intrigued, Evelyn listened to a recording of Schoenberg's Serenade Opus 24, and read in the accompanying commentary that the central portion of the work is a sonnet by Petrarch.

‘Which sonnet was it?’ writes Evelyn. ‘Could there be a clue to why this particular piece of music 'sang' to de Staël? I spent most of the morning doing the Google thing and found that the sonnet of Schoenberg's 'Serenade' is Sonnet 217, part of Petrarch's Cantoniziere to Laura, his life-long love and Muse. It took a bit of digging, but here is the sonnet in English:

Sonnetto 217

Once I hoped, lamenting so justly
making such fervent verses heard,
that pity's warmth might be felt
in that hard heart that freezes in mid-summer:

and that the cruel cloud, that chills
and veils it, might disperse with the breeze
of my ardent voice, or others might hate her
for hiding those eyes that destroy me.

Yet I seek no pity for myself, nor hatred
for her: I do not wish it, nor is it possible
(such are my stars, and my cruel fate):

but I sing her heavenly beauty, so
that, when I'm free of this flesh, the world
will know the sweetness of my death 

‘It's one of Petrarch's later sonnets that speaks more of unrequited love and the reality that hope is gone. Laura barely knows he exists and will never love him. I think the last stanza is very telling. The poet almost looks forward to the “sweetness of my death”. Is this what compelled de Staël to take his own life? Was he following Petrarch's advice? Certainly it was well-known that de Staël suffered from bouts of despair and depression, but could the music with its core of unrequited love and death have tipped him over the edge? We'll never know for sure, of course. All this is pure speculation driven by that endless curiosity to know more of the story. But isn't it intriguing how poetry, music and great paintings melange into a story of love, life and death?’

I don’t think I can add anything to Evelyn’s words, except to say thank you very much for the determined research and pushing the story on.

In yet another illustration of how creativity always seems interconnected, the medieval Italian poet Petrarch is forever associated with Fontaine de Vaucluse – a beautiful and (out of season) a rather eerie spot that ends in a wall of rock and cold green water. It happens to be one of my favourite places in Provence and I blogged about it here, giving some of the background to the story of Petrarch’s infatuation with Laura.

Thursday 21 June 2012

The House I Loved

That night, when the house was asleep, I fetched a candle and I found that map of the city you used to like to look at. I rolled it out flat on the dining-room table, taking care not to spill any wax. Yes, I could see it, the inexorable northern advance of the rue de Rennes sprouting straight from the Montparnasse railway station to us, and the boulevard Saint-Germain, a hungry monster creeping westwards from the river. With two trembling fingers I traced their paths until my flesh met. Right over our street.

                              From The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

Anyone who knows what it is to love a house and a setting will empathise with Rose Bazelet in this haunting novel. The place is Paris, the year 1869. The city is being redeveloped on an unprecedented scale: by order of Emperor Napoleon III, whole neighbourhoods are being torn down to make way for Baron Haussmann’s vision of modernity.

Magnificent centuries-old homes, landmarks and churches are not spared. Streets are being hacked into rubble by armies of workers with pickaxes. But in one house, Rose Bazelet waits and refuses to go. The Bazelets were property owners; the house is her life, her place in the world and sanctuary, and that of her late husband Armand, to whom she writes the letters that tell her story.

Isolated in what is rapidly becoming “a chilly ghost land”, Rose remembers the grand house as it once was, with “a soul, a heart, living and breathing”; the dining room with its emerald-green leaf pattern wallpaper and gold, crimson and violet panes of stained glass in the windows; the view out onto the rue Childebert and the Erfurth fountain (image below).


Tatiana de Rosnay has a real gift for the telling descriptive detail. The prose is perfectly judged and brings the background to searing life. Lyrical and nostalgic passages – especially those of the cut flowers which I took to represent doomed beauty - are unsettled by harshly vivid scenes of the new world outside Rose’s walls: the noise and stinking clouds of dust, the soot from destructive fires, the grit in the mouths of parched onlookers.

Bitter-sweetness for the reader, too. We know that Haussmann’s new streets and six-storey buildings will make the city arguably the most beautiful in the world. Yet we are witnessing the human cost of the transformation. The failed protests. The unlikely alliances and comrades- in-arms. The sheer stubbornness of the spirit when there is nothing more to lose.

Throughout it all, we learn more of Rose’s relationships with her husband, her children and the unlikely friends she has made late in life after his death. Compelling and deceptively easy to read, it’s a multi-layered book about strength and family, a literary novel to be savoured rather than rushed through simply for the story – although I found that both satisfying and poignant too, especially when I read the final page, an extract (a real one?) from Le Petit Journal newspaper.

And if it’s a mark of a good read that you want to find out more about the book’s historical basis, then this is a great one. The next time I’m in Paris, admiring the boulevard Haussmann and the other grand streets that cut so confidently through the city, I will pause a while and imagine the other Paris, gone forever. Here is a contemporary picture, Percement de la rue de Rennes; and below it a corner of the boulevard Haussmann:

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Some mystique at last...

Two new foreign editions of The Lantern have been published this month: the Czech and Slovak translations, both handled by the respected Prague publisher Fortuna Libri. Lucerna v temnotě (Lantern in the Dark) is the Czech title, and the simpler Lampa is the Slovak version. The two languages are different but inter-related. 

There's also an exceedingly fine cover, showing the facade of a very grand and desirable house - seriously, could you resist that house even if it was a step into the unknown?! But the best part for me is the name of the author: Lawrensonová. I like it. I may have to use it. "So...Mr Bond, do I surprise you...?"

Sunday 17 June 2012

Agua Lavanda

The parcel arrived a few days ago. A surprisingly large box, and buried in green plastic bubbles inside, the bottle of Antonio Puig’s fabled Agua Lavanda.

I knew it came in a plastic bottle, that this is a fragrance splashed on daily with abandon in Spanish bathrooms by both men and women. At £7.50 plus p&p this is not by any means an expensive purchase. But the size of it – the size of a wine bottle! And so, the moment of truth…could the scent possibly live up to expectations?

The answer is a resounding yes. Forget any ideas that cheap lavender scent will be thin, sharp and unpleasant (as, I’m sorry to say, too many English lavenders are). This is sweet and mellow from the first contact with your skin, and surprisingly deep. Its advocates are right when they say that the balance of the different elements is perfect: the dominant note is sweet lavender but the presence of rosemary, bergamot and geranium give it some zest too. There’s a slight zing of ginger too, at least that’s what the chemistry smells like to me.

Then, after ten minutes or so, the base notes of tonka (vanilla), cedarwood, moss and a tiny hint of musk begin to assert themselves. From then on it’s fresh and clean, but slightly dreamy too, redolent of the fields and hills of the Catalan region where it was first made.

From what I read, Agua Lavanda has been part of Spanish life for more than seventy years. For that to happen, the perfumier has to achieve a special alchemy, a magical element. If that’s there, the perfume will grow ever more powerfully down the years, in part due to the sense of history surrounding it. Imagine all the sensory memories it carries, for so many people.

So yes, too, to the notion that Agua Lavanda could be a real Lavande de Nuit. Not in every element of scent, but in the sense that it is a perfume made of the simple country fragrances of southern Europe, so beautifully made that it has never gone out of fashion and has captured the imagination of generations. Coincidentally, and yet crucially, it was created near Barcelona in 1940 when the war in Europe and the political situation in Spain necessitated manufacturing companies to be self-sufficient in the raw materials they used – just like my Distillerie Musset in Provence.

I couldn’t resist an experiment though. I decanted some Agua Lavanda into an old Annick Goutal spray bottle and added just a few drops of Hypnôse by Lancôme which I thought might bring some bright white flowers into the mix, along with vetiver and more woody vanilla. Then – very, very carefully as it’s so overpowering – I squeezed a tiny drop of Serge Luten’s Un Bois Vanille onto my arm to get the vital smoky element I was looking for and then sprayed the mix into that. Five minutes later, I think I came very close to smelling the fictional Lavande de Nuit.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

The concert and the final painting

The trouble with being endlessly curious is that there's always something else you'd like to know. Perhaps curiosity is a prerequisite of being a writer, or a storyteller at least: you are searching for a coherent narrative, striving to flesh it with detail.

So when I wrote yesterday about Nicolas de Staël listening to an orchestral concert in Paris and being so affected by the music that he rushed back to his painting studio in Antibes, I realised almost as soon as I had posted that I couldn't leave it at that. What was the music that had struck him so deeply? What was the last painting he worked on so feverishly and left incomplete?

When I found out, the answer was so poignant and made sense of an image I'd seen previously without understanding its significance, that I had to come back with a postscript.

To some extent this PS is also a correction of various details in the first post. It's a given that the more research you do, the more unreliable initial sources are proved to be, and so it is with this story. For example, I found a photograph of the building in Antibes where de Staël had his studio, which cannot possibly have been on the fourth floor:

There were also suggestions that a failed love affair - "un amour d'idiot" - had contributed to his despair, rather than the disparaging critic. As for the music, it seems the artist attended two concerts in Paris: the first featured pieces by one of his favourite avant garde composers, the Austrian Anton Webern, and the second - the crucial one - was a performance of Schoenberg's Serenade for Seven Instruments and Bass Voice (op. 24).


The Schoenberg concert was on March 6th, 1955, and it seems that the drama of de Staël's overnight flight south to begin painting followed almost immediately by his death was just that: a dramatic myth.

If he died on March 16th, then he painted feverishly for at least a week. But when you see what he produced in that time, it's certainly possible to believe that he hardly stopped for food or rest.

His penultimate canvas was The Piano (reproduced above) which was more than two metres by one and a half metres in size. And the artist's last, unfinished work, was The Concert, a truly massive six metres by three and a half.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The artist at Le Castellet

Le Ciel Rouge, 1952

One trail always leads to another…and so my discovery that the cookery writer Elizabeth David lived for some months in a large house in Ménerbes far more associated with another famous name from the 1950s inevitably made me want out find out more about the artist Nicolas de Staël. Who was he and what brought him to Le Castellet?

As it turned out, it was a romantic, bohemian and ultimately tragic tale, all too fitting for the gothic undertones Elizabeth David had sensed in the fortified medieval manor house (post here).

Nicolas de Staël was born in 1914 into an aristocratic Russian family in St Petersburg. Five years later the family was forced into exile as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. When both their parents died in Poland, he and his two sisters were sent to Brussels. He studied in Brussels, latterly at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In the 1930s he travelled widely, living first in Paris, then – in search of bright light - in North Africa where he first met his partner Jeannine Guillou in Morocco. At the beginning of World War II, he joined the French Foreign Legion, and fought in Tunisia.

By the end of the war he was living in Nice. During the occupation life for an impoverished immigrant was hard and he supported his sick wife, Jeannine, her son from an earlier relationship, and their daughter by working as a furniture polisher. Jeannine died in 1946, in childbirth according to some sources, or of an illness brought on by malnutrition, according to others. De Staël met Françoise Chapouton in the spring of 1946, and they married in May.

Back in Paris, de Staël acquired a studio near to Georges Braque's and the two painters became close friends. In 1950 he had a one-man exhibition in the capital and sold well to influential collectors. Success followed in Britain and the USA. Soon de Staël had a top New York dealer on his side.

He was evolving a distinctive style using thick impasto. Although he was painting non-figurative pictures, he did not consider himself an abstract painter, saying, "One does not start from nothing, and a painting is always bad if it has not been preceded by contact with nature."

Composition, 1949

                                               Parc des Sceaux, 1952

Agrigente, 1954

Painting directly from nature, de Staël applied brilliant flat colours with a minimum of detail to suggest the essence of a vista. This simplification of a scene that was nevertheless utterly recognisable was one of his biggest contributions to the development of modern painting. It seems to me to encapsulate 1950s modernism.

But however successful he became, the artist was dogged by insomnia, exhaustion and depression. “All my life, I had a need to think painting, to paint in order to liberate myself from all the impressions, all the feelings, and all the anxieties of which the only solution I know is painting,” he said.

Nu Couché Bleu, 1955

In 1953, although he kept his studio in Paris and travelled back regularly, he felt he could work best in isolation in the south of France. In what was then the run-down village of Ménerbes, he found Le Castellet up for sale. It seemed to offer the light and privacy he was searching for. But he was always drawn back to the Mediterranean, and soon found yet another studio within a stone’s throw of the harbour at Antibes. The brightness and colour of the Côte d'Azur was just beyond his fourth-floor eyrie: the harbour, beaches, Fort Carré and its constant marine traffic that featured prominently in his later works.

Sailboats at Antibes, 1954

In March 1955 he attended a symphony concert in Paris. Inspired by the music he left town immediately afterwards and raced back through the night to his studio overlooking the ramparts of the old town of Antibes, desperate to capture the images stirred in his mind by the music.

As soon as he arrived in Antibes he began work on the painting. He worked without food or sleep, like a man possessed as the paint took shape on the vast canvas. As the light failed, and further work became impossible, he walked away from the unfinished painting. He grabbed some paper and dashed off three letters, then burned his sketches for all future projects. At the window of his studio he looked out for the last time, then jumped into the rue de Revely, several floors below. Late that evening, a neighbour walking her dog found his twisted body. He had died instantly, at the age of 41.

Had the balance of his mind been disturbed by a recent meeting with a disparaging art critic? This became the accepted and enduring legend. Yet there was no question that he was commercially and critically successful, with a steady demand for new works. He had suffered much in his personal life, though, from exile to the early loss of his parents and then Jeannine. Perhaps it was all too much, and in the end, art could not compensate.

                                                  Nu Couché, 1954

His paintings are still highly desirable – perhaps more so than ever. Nicolas de Staël’s Nu Couché, painted in Ménerbes in 1954, was sold last year in Paris for €7 million, the auction record for any work of art in France in 2011.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Elizabeth David at Ménerbes

I do love a literary puzzle. If it involves a writer I admire and a geographical location, I’m in seventh heaven. Sometimes the mystery can take years to solve and requires a lucky break to provide the answer, and so it was with this conundrum: which was the house where Elizabeth David lived for a few months at Ménerbes?

Of all the British women writers of the 20th century, perhaps it is cookery writer Elizabeth David who brought sensuousness to the widest reading public. When she wrote about aubergines, courgettes, garlic and aromatic herbs, they were not widely available and her descriptions evoked the tastes, aromas and brightness of the Mediterranean in the grey of Britain’s post-war rationing. She was far, far more than a collector of recipes: her writing captured a sense of time and place that was uplifting and inspirational. Many people claim that Elizabeth David began the transformation of the nation’s palate to the kind of food we eat today.

It must have been at least five years ago that I read Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion, Lisa Chaney’s enjoyable biography of this woman whose adventurous life – born into privilege, she abandoned England for a yacht and a rackety lover – included escaping from the South of France in World War II via a Greek island and Egypt, where she worked at the Ministry of Information and socialised with an artistic and literary set that included Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning.

In 1950, shortly after delivering the manuscript of French Country Cooking, Elizabeth and a couple of friends rented a huge draughty house in the Vaucluse at Ménerbes, in her own words, “a crumbling hill village opposite the Luberon mountain”. She was there for some months from late winter to early summer.

“How you would laugh your head off if you could see me in this tumbledown old Castle of Otranto,” she wrote to her sister, “with Romney (Summers) stacking logs on a great open fireplace as large as the town hall, and carrying his little khaki bag down to the village every day for the shopping. The weather has been a disgrace, the place as cold and wet as Charity. A fog comes up from the valley (or down from the hills) every night and in the morning you can’t see out of the windows.”

It wasn’t a particularly happy time. Even in May, the weather was terrible. Rain lashed at the old fortified manor, a constant stream of visitors arrived expecting to eat and stay over, and everyone drank far too much cheap wine, exacerbating bad tempers. On top of that, the “relentless screaming” of the Mistral drove her and her many guests “perilously close to losing our reason”.

Although there was one guest who remained popular. “Hamish doesn’t get up till lunchtime and most of his working hours are occupied fetching wood for the fire and doing the flowers.” For those who like literary asides as much as I do, Hamish was Hamish Erskine, bright young thing of the 1920s and son of the Earl of Rosslyn, known by everyone to be homosexual with no interest in marriage for form’s sake – everyone, it seems, except Nancy Mitford who, in their youth, stubbornly persisted for several years in her belief that they were engaged.

When the sun eventually reappeared in June, Elizabeth was exhausted, shattered by the sheer hard work (there had been some local help but not nearly enough) of having so many people around, catering for them and trying to work. In addition to research – including taking buses to Avignon’s markets - and writing, there had been the proofs of French Country Cooking to deal with.

I was hooked. I wanted to see the house where all this drama took place. There is a picture in Lisa Chaney’s book, captioned ‘The Provençal “Castle of Otranto” where Elizabeth stayed in 1950’. It does indeed look bleak, higher than the valley floor of fields. Obviously the first thing to do was to do an internet search, but google drew a blank with “Ménerbes + Otranto”.

Of course, I should have paid attention to the inverted commas. Otranto, it transpired, was Elizabeth David’s allusion to the title of a novel by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. Published in 1764, it is generally accepted to be the first gothic novel, and the opening salvo in a genre that would become wildly popular in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. Perhaps it was her way of saying it had been a house of horrors.

In the present, it seemed to me that it was the kind of place that might well be a chic boutique hotel now but more searches brought no match. From the photograph, I imagined the house was set on a small hill on the plain a little apart from the village. I scoured a large-scale map, wondering if I could find the pattern of roads and so pin down the precise location that way, but that didn’t work.

During various visits to Ménerbes and the surrounding countryside, I had the picture of “Otranto” in my mind but never saw a building like it. There wasn’t much point in asking anyone in the village about Elizabeth David – she had been there for such a short time and wasn’t well known in France. At one point I did think about taking the picture to a local estate agent and asking, but that seemed...well, a little obsessive. And so the mystery remained.

Until, quite by chance, I found it – or rather, I found a drawing in a book. I had bought Patrick Ollivier-Elliott’s Luberon Pays d’Apt: Carnet d’un voyager attentive (Trans: An observant traveller’s notebook) and there it was. In fact, I had to bring it back to England to check it against the picture in Lisa Chaney’s book before I could be sure, but it was the right house. And it had a name: Le Castellet.

From then on it was easy to discover that Le Castellet stands on the western spur of Ménerbes, a village that sits like a ship on a long rocky outcrop. The ‘little castle’ has a long history of its own, including a honourable part in the religious wars of the 16th century when the villagers withstood a force of 12,000 Catholic troops for 14 months, much of the action focusing on Le Castellet.

It’s reached by walking up through the medieval part of the village on the narrow streets towards the church and the cemetery. There are lovely views all around, of the Luberon hills and the orchards and vineyards below, and finally there is a view down to Le Castellet from the walls surrounding the church: still completely recognisable from the picture in the biography.  

A few years after Elizabeth David’s stay, the property was sold to abstract artist Nicolas de Staël (1914-55), an associate of Braque and Picasso. In the early 1950s, Pablo Picasso too lived for a while in Ménerbes, as did his muse, the photographer Dora Maar. Le Castellet remains in the ownership of the de Staël family. It is not open to the public. The painting below is Ménerbes (1954) by Nicolas de Staël.


Thursday 7 June 2012

Bluebird Hill Farm

The lavender is only just beginning to blossom in Provence - all being well, it will be harvested at the end of July. But over in the southern states of the USA, the lavender is already at its peak.

As all bloggers know, one of the joys of putting words out into cyberspace is that you never know what connections are about to be made, and once they are, getting in touch is easy. Libby at An Eye for Detail (a great blog for style and interiors with a French twist) ran a piece about Bluebird Hill Farm in North Carolina, and a few clicks later, I was there.

Clearly, the proprietor Norma Burns is an inspirational woman. Lavender is only one of the speciality crops she has brought to Bennett, NC: her small organic farm grows herbs, vegetables and fruit too. "We are always experimenting with new crops, trying to figure out how to make them grow here - things like lavender, ginger, hops, kiwi, highbush cranberries, and others not often seen in our area," she says.

"The 500 “Grosso” lavender plants were selected after research as being best suited to our climate in the Southeast. We sited the field with attention to slope, prevailing winds and plant ventilation, site orientation, irrigation, and soil composition. (...)

"Over the years, our lavender has grown. We are adding more plants, replacing aging ones, and introducing equipment to facilitate the harvest. Last year, we purchased a walk-behind Lavender Harvester from New Zealand and an 85 gallon biomass Distiller for making Lavender Essential Oil which are fun to watch in operation."

June will be busy as some of the harvest is made into dried lavender flowers for craft use, lavender sachets for drawers and closets, sleep pillows, linen and room spray, eye masks and eye goggles, teas, herbal mixes and spice rubs and culinary grade dried flowers for use in cooking. For the full range and details, visit the Bluebell Hill Farm website.

While you're there, you might well find yourself lost in admiration for the vast and imaginative array of salad leaves grown there too (here), which include garden purslane, hyssop, lemon thyme and flowers, chocolate mint and spearmint - and I'd never even heard of cinnamon basil before, but I certainly want to try some now! 

Monday 4 June 2012

Lavande de Nuit II

Lavande de Nuit starts as a winter white scent, and turns into summer on the skin. The first burst of powdery sweet heliotrope and white iris develops a sharper note of wild cherry, drying down to a milky almond base with a signature flourish of the unexpected, in this case a bracing dash of hawthorn. After a few hours of warmth it pulsates with wild herbs and lavender in sunlight. A faint mist of caramelised hazelnut and vanilla emerges, and finally a deep smoky lavender. It is one of those scents that seem alive on the skin, subtly incubating, insinuating its personality and leaving a mesmerising trail.

Ever since The Lantern was published I’ve been getting inquiries through my website about the fictional Lavande de Nuit perfume. Then I wrote a Lavande de Nuit post on this blog and it began to get a surprising number of hits through google searches.

I too have been intrigued by the possibility of finding a fragrance that matches some of these imaginary elements and the same spirit. So far the closest is Absinthe Vert in Kilian’s A Taste of Heaven range. But then my old friend Josine (who has always been passionate and very knowledgeable about perfume) wrote a blog post about perfume and I knew that I had to have some Agua Lavanda, a Spanish cologne created in 1940 by Antonio Puig. “A drier Mediterranean scorching countryside smell…with very dry lavender and aromatic herbs such as thyme,” she wrote here.

Styles and tastes in perfume change over time, so it is an added fascination that Agua Lavanda is the right era for Marthe Lincel’s Lavande de Nuit. As I wait for my order to be processed and posted, and I am travelling very hopefully indeed towards the moment I open the parcel.

Perhaps it will be the case, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it originally (and the words rang so true that a simple allusion to them now suffices): “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

But meanwhile, I’m enjoying the pleasure of the wait, the possibility that this might contain that delicious je ne sais quoi that would make this special. Along with top notes of lavender, rosemary, bergamot and petitgrain (made from citrus leaves and twigs) there are promised middle notes of clary sage and geranium, followed by musk, cedarwood, tonka and moss.

I’ve been reading various online reviews of Agua Lavanda and letting the senses expand in the imagination. Wouldn’t you, reading these from

‘…the perfect fragrance. Agua Lavanda is the smell of daydreams. A lovely breeze of soapy lavender that will magically make you look more elegant in the perception of those who cross your path. One shouldn't overanalyze but simply enjoy spells like these.’

Agua Lavanda tells its story calmly…What is remarkable to me about this scent is the return of middle and even top notes that never really vanished but are again seemingly renewed. This accounts for the surprising longevity of this cologne.’

There are many more reviews that you can read in their entirety here. And if anyone knows it well already, please do tell me what you think.
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