Miserere Paraphrase

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was a truly bizarre and disturbing film. I saw it in the cinema when it first came out, in 1989.  I’d hazard a guess that this film has left a lasting impression on most people who have seen it, and I’m no exception. I’m grateful for one thing: it introduced me to the music of Michael Nyman. (EDITED: Two days after writing this post, I spotted that Film4 will screen this film on Tuesday 5th of March. If you haven’t seen it and live in the UK, here’s your chance).

Scent, safety and seduction

Burlington House, Royal Society of Chemistry

Burlington House, Royal Society of Chemistry

I attended the “Scentsory Question Time” organised by the British Society of Perfumers in January. Many people might not be aware that these events are open to the general public, so if you are interested in perfumery or chemistry, it’s worth keeping an eye on the event calendars of the BSP and RSC. The evening covered many topics around scent and perfumery; from our reptilian brains to fragrance safety and the controversial role of IFRA in the industry. If you want to read what happened, head over to Basenotes to read the report.

“The discussion inevitably turned into whether it’s possible to design a scent to attract the opposite sex.

Lisa Hipgrave (IFRA UK) mentioned some interesting immunology studies that have shown correlation between scent preferences and types of immunity genes expressed in the individual, leading us to seek out a partner whose own smell we find most appealing. It is therefore better for us to seek fragrances which gently enhance our natural odour fingerprint – if we’re on the pull, that is.”

Actually, the first time I learned about these immunology studies was at a BSP annual symposium, where Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool gave an engaging and surprising talk to us about the so-called “Lynx Effect”. He had conducted research which showed that the way in which female participants rated the sexual attractivemess of men was affected by how confident the scent made the man feel. The women could only see visual images. They couldn’t smell the men.

This goes to show that in some ways, the “Lynx Effect” is real – alas, not necessarily because of the way the product smells, but because of the incredibly successful brand image and advertising campaigns. If you feel confident and sexy, your appearance and body language matches this and the potential partners out there will rate you as more attractive.

Craig also told us about the immunology studies where his team had analysed body odour fingerprints (we all have a unique one) and compared these to the way in which the genes of our immune system are expressed. If you find someone’s personal body odour very attractive, it’s likely that their immune system is compatible with yours and you would produce a healthier offspring.

The Economist ran a good article on this:

As long ago as the 1950s, a perfumer called Paul Jellinek noted that several ingredients of incense resembled scents of the human body. It was not until 2001, however, that Manfred Milinski and Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern wondered whether there was a correlation between the perfume a woman preferred and her own natural scent. They found that there is.

The correlation is with the genes of what is known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This region of the genome encodes part of the immune system. It turns out that one of the most important aspects of mate choice in mammals, humans included, is to make sure that your mate’s MHC is different from your own. Mixing up MHCs makes the immune system more effective. The MHC is also thought to act as a proxy for general outbreeding, with all the hybrid vigour that can bring. Fortunately, then, evolution has equipped mammals with the ability to detect by smell chemicals whose concentrations vary with differences in the MHC of the producer.

That means people are able to sniff out suitable MHC genomes in prospective partners. A woman, for instance, will prefer the smell of T-shirts that have been worn by men whose MHC genes are appropriately different from her own. Dr Milinski and Dr Wedekind also found an association between a woman’s MHC genes and some of her preferences for perfume. Perception of musk, rose and cardamom is correlated with the MHC. Perception of castoreum and cedar is not.

Women, it seems, choose not the kind of smell they would like on a partner, or even one that might mask a nasty odour of their own, but rather something that matches their MHC. In other words, they are advertising their own scent.

We should all look for scents that enhance our natural odour in a good way. This is one of the many reasons why trying perfume on the skin and wearing it for a while is the best way to find the right scent for you.

Of course this raises one worry from a commercial point of view: is it ever a good idea to buy someone perfume as a present if they don’t already know and love the scent?

Horrible Howler

When I first heard about the recent comments made by Terry Deary, the author of Horrible Histories, I honestly thought it was satire.  Nope. Turns out that this popular children’s author really doesn’t appear to understand what libraries are for. His statements weren’t satirical. They were criminally neglectful. He says that libraries are no longer relevant. He thinks that libraries are the reason book stores are closing and he isn’t earning what he feels entitled to.

Horrible_idiocyThere are so many wrongheaded opinions in the Guardian article that you almost don’t know where to start. You could list rebuttals all night. Libraries are still completely relevant. Libraries are where children learn to love books and later become buying customers of his. Not everyone can afford to buy books – and denying access to culture and knowledge to those less well off is just wrong. Libraries offer free social services and act as a community hub for elderly, disabled and unemployed people. Students need free acess to reference materials (some text books cost hundreds of pounds). Small business owners might need to research trade publications that they can’t afford to subscribe to. All this and more is available for free at your local library and that’s the civilised way to go about things.

I was left almost gasping for breath at the sheer ignorance of Terry’s statements and would probably have written a rant to argue him point by point, had I not already written a piece for Public Libraries News about my local library which clearly illustrates what modern libraries are all about.

Let’s end this on the over-used but necessary quote: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Please support your local library and challenge those who would spout arrogant nonsense about this vital service. You don’t want to live in a world where everything is commercial.

A Banana Bread Interlude

Here’s what I baked last night (and had a slice of for breakfast): delicious, moist banana and walnut bread flavoured with cardamom, vanilla and caramel. The flavourings are an optional flourish (in fact, so are the walnuts) so if you just want the simplest possible version of this recipe, omit those.

Banana Bread Recipe

200g plain flour, 50g strong white bread flour
115g butter
115g soft, brown sugar
2 medium eggs
500g mashed, ripe bananas
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of saltBanana bread
Optional flourish:
100g of walnuts
Two pinches of cardamom seeds
2 teaspoons of vanilla sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon of caramel flavoured syrup (I used Evilbucks Caramel Syrup)
Oven temperature: 180 Celsius
1. Combine flour, bicarb, salt, cardamom seeds and vanilla sugar in one bowl
2. Whisk the two eggs and set aside.
3. Mash the bananas and if you’re using the vanilla essence and flavoured syrup, stir these into the banana mix. Set aside.
4. Cream softened butter and brown sugar. Stir in the banana mixture and the beaten eggs. Don’t over-mix.
5. Pour the butter, sugar, banana and egg mixture into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir gently to combine. Don’t over-mix.
6. Add the walnuts, if using.
7. Spoon the dough into a loaf tin (I used a silicone loaf mold) and bake for approximately 50 minutes. Check after 40 minutes and when you think it’s ready, stick a knife in the middle and if it comes out clean, the bread is ready.
8. Leave to cool in the dish it was baked in for about half an hour and then tip it out to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy!

My French Love Affair

A French beauty product love affair, part oneWhat better time than spring to have a French love affair! In this case, my love affair is with French cosmetics. Many of the effective and beautiful products I love happen to be French. We’re spoilt for choice these days. The cosmetic market is over-saturated. There is something very indulgent about French beauty products. They are for pleasure-seekers and not just focused on utilitarian necessity, or the Birkenstock-wearing earnestness of many natural brands. Using them feels like flirting and giving into something a little frivolous but ultimately good for you.

1. Obviously I am going to start with the ultimate frivolity of a fleeting but beautiful spring perfume. Le Chevrefeuille by Annick Goutal focuses on the green flower-stem accord typical of “honeysuckle”-type scents. It’s a wonderful, uplifting fragrance but does not last very long on the skin.

2. Cheap and cheerful Chevrefeuille from Yves Rocher to the rescue! There’s an affordable cologne spray, shower gel, deodorant and a body lotion to get a bit more of this fresh, green smell into your life.

3. Klorane is a wonderful botanical beauty brand. The blue cornflower eye-make-up remover is a cult product and so is their dry shampoo. I’ve been growing out my over-bleached ends and using the Chamomile hair products to bring some life back in. The product scents are very well done and convey nature and nurture. If you’ve never tried any Klorane products, I urge you to correct this oversight sooner rather than later.

4. Decleor is one of my favourite skin care brands of all time. I’ve stayed loyal to the facial oils and the cleansing water for years – they also do a beautiful range of soothing face creams and luxurious body products. Not the cheapest of lines to love, but when you can afford it, it’s worth treating yourself. I use the neroli facial oil a couple of times a week instead of night cream or serum.

5. Vichy is affordable, easy to find and has a few star products. The Liftactiv Serum 10 is one of them. A watery, hyaluronic-acid-rich texture that sinks in beautifully; a delicate inoffensive floral scent. Unlike many other serums, Liftactiv 10 causes no breakouts or irritation. The serum will boost your skin’s hydration levels and make you look well rested and fresh. It’s not a miracle product (nothing is), but it’s one of the best basic hydrating serums out there and performs as well, if not better, than some competitors at nearly twice the price. I use this underneath a day cream or a night cream when needed.

6. What do you turn to when you’re getting older but still suffer from spots? This. Vichy Normaderm Anti-Age is the Holy Grail of treating ageing combination skin. Why? Because the ingredients in it have been designed to stimulate your skin to look fresher and younger and to dry out spots at the same time. It’s a lightweight, green lotion that you can use day or night when needed. I alternate between this and a different day cream. You will need to use SPF when treating your skin with any product like this, so do remember to add a sun screen. I’ll do A French Love Affair Part Deux soon, in which I’ll tell you about the best everyday sun screen product I’ve found.

7. We started with perfume, so let’s finish with one, too. Melvita’s Orange Zest Eau de Toilette is not exactly a perfume in the truest sense; it’s a fresh orange water that makes you smell as though you’ve just peeled a hundred oranges, lingers for an hour or so and then disappears. It is, however, a wonderful travel companion; a breath of fresh air when you don’t feel like using perfume but want to refresh yourself – and completely natural to boot if you worry about that sort of thing. Spraying some on a scarf will let you enjoy the zesty scent for a little longer. Melvita is generally a brand that’s worth exploring and you can shop for it online or find it at the Wholefoods Supermarket in London.

Awful book covers

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Only most of us do. I present to you two sources of car-crash book jacket design:

Lousy book covers is a Tumblr blog that scours the depths of self-publishing and e-books for baffling examples of cover design. Some of the covers on the site are actually quite effective, and convey the contents well, but many display a desperate need for some professional help. Just because you can write a book doesn’t mean you can design its cover.

Are these the 10 Worst Book Covers In The History Of Literature as the writer of this blog would have us believe? Take a look and judge for yourself. I think some of the covers from the first site are strong contenders.

The Story of Scent

There are many stories behind perfumes and how they’re made. Who they are made by has remained a matter of myth and marketing until fairly recently. The stories themselves have often been embellished at best, or completely made up at worst. The perfumista movement and the general public’s increasing interest in finding out what goes on behind the scenes is getting even the mainstream industry to respond, albeit in somewhat edited form.

The industry is still very secretive and slow to adapt to the new world of inquisitive, information-hungry consumers. Perfume manufacturers have traditionally viewed each other as competitors and still do, to a large extent. So how much you actually show can make even the bravest executive a little paranoid. There are some things you show because they can make good modern marketing stories and there are some things you’d rather not talk about because you fear the consumers will misunderstand the information or your competitors will be making notes. It’s also part of the service for a traditional perfume manufacturer to keep their client relationships in strictest confidence. It allows the creation of definitive  brands (rather than tracing all the  juice in the world to a handful of companies). I think this makes business sense in many cases, but on the other hand, some brands have cashed in on the fame of the perfumers who have become well known and well loved. This makes many perfumers “brands” in their own right, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the situation.

Still, I think this video produced by IFRA North America is great, not just because it manages to capture some of the love and geekery from the perfumers themselves towards their craft, but because it allows a little peek behind the scenes for us all. Clearly this can only cover a small aspect of the traditional mainstream industry and doesn’t explore what is happening in the world of indie perfumery. I believe that regardless of employer, there are certain things common to all perfumers.