The Fragrance of Fog

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI adore fog.

Dewy droplets veiling the ghostly shapes of an urban landscape. Drowsy summer meadows waking to a rising mist. Coverlets of cloud over a slow-running river. Dark roads wrapped in a silent shroud.

I love fog’s various names – dew, wisp, brume, murk, vapour, miasma, mist, smoke – and its colours and textures – pearly grey, cotton-white, a bank of slate or a silvery shimmer. I relish the sight of a glassy lake kissed by early-morning swirls, and – although it can be rather perilous – driving in a dense fog. I love how it softens the view and blankets sound and makes me feel as if I’m the only living thing around.

It’s deeply primal, this damp, ephemeral stuff, and whenever it appears, my imagination rises with it in a shiver. Recently, I stepped out the door on a quiet December evening to find the night completely “socked in” by a thick blanket which hung like a pall for miles around. I stood for a while breathing it in, letting the chill air sting my nostrils and enter my lungs in a cool flood. Suddenly, I became aware that this fog had its own peculiar scent.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI inhaled some more, testing the mist on my tongue, trying to parse out its components, and quickly realized that not all of them were what we’d typically call smells or aromas. There was dampness, of course: the scent of rain. There was also an organic hint of earth and evergreen, probably due to the grass and pines growing nearby. And an elusive, moist sharpness that I could only describe as a cool pungency – something along the lines of peppermint. There and then, I resolved to try to capture these atmospheric elements – and the magic of that foggy night – in a perfume.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the past few months, I’ve been attempting to formulate a series of natural perfumes for my shop, blending essential and fragrance oils with a carrier such as fractionated coconut oil. I know what I want the perfumes to be (I’ve even got labels for the bottles ready to go), but the process isn’t as easy as one might think: top, middle and base notes must be mixed in the correct proportions so that they work together and unfold over time in a pleasing, wearable “story”. They must be strong enough to last, yet not so overpowering as to clear a room or give the wearer – or anyone else – a headache. And, in keeping with the theme of my shop, they need to invoke nature: wood, water, flowers, herbs … and, now, fog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI already had some ideas as to what should go into this misty blend, but I’ve also researched what other people’s interpretations are. (Not to steal their ideas, natch, but just to get a general idea!) I’ve found some products which claim to invoke a London fog or the heathery mist on a Scottish moor, containing such elements as bergamot or Earl Grey tea, ylang-ylang, birch, and even ozone, leather and smoke. I do wish the internet had Smell-o-vision! So far I haven’t quite settled on my own perfect combination, but I’m getting close.

If you could describe mist or fog in a few words – what it looks, feels, tastes or smells like – what would they be?

That’s my last post for 2016. The past six months have been a blast! See you in January, when my theme will be Things that are white. Have a wonderful, safe, healthy and happy New Year!

Lady Mary’s Swell Novella

20161222_101055-4If you’ve read my book reviews or lists, you’ll have caught on to the fact that I’m an avid Mary Stewart fan. My mother introduced me to Stewart’s work when I was a teen, and I fell in love with her five Arthurian novels (The Crystal Cave through The Prince and the Pilgrim) as well as the delightful series of romantic travel thrillers at which this British author excelled.

I love them all, but my favourites include The Ivy Tree (1961, superbly-written and one of her more complicated plots), The Gabriel Hounds (1967), Touch Not the Cat (1976), Stormy Petrel (1991) and Rose Cottage (1997, her last published work). These tightly-written suspense tales feature smart, adventurous women who set off to exotic locales in which nefarious criminals menace, mysteries need solving, and dashing heroes, well, dash — all amidst ancient Provençal ruins, Greek islands, or crumbling palaces in the Lebanon. The stories are well-researched, swiftly-paced and always end happily. Just what the gothic romance-minded armchair traveller ordered!

I still remember the year I received Thornyhold (1988), my all-time favourite, for Christmas. That evening, after the merrymaking was over and comfy pj’s were donned, I snuggled into our plush wing chair and lost myself in the magical world of English country cottages, white witches and herb-filled stillrooms. The next day, I read it again. Every year or so, when the moment is quiet and I can’t face the stack of unread new novels which sit mockingly beside my bed, I open one of Stewart’s well-thumbed paperbacks and travel down those dusty, lavender-strewn paths once again.

Sadly, there will never be another new work from this beloved author. Lady Mary Stewart, who was born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow in 1916 and whose husband was a knight, died in 2014. But, as I was thrilled to recently discover, there was yet one book in Stewart’s romantic suspense canon that I’d never heard of, let alone read!

20161221_122901-4The Wind Off the Small Isles is a novella first published in 1968. At under 100 pages, this slim work has long been out of print and was never published in North America, which accounts for why I didn’t know of its existence. To celebrate what would have been the author’s 100th birthday, her longtime publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, reissued the novella earlier this year in a new hardcover edition. I ordered a copy at once; it’s available here. In no time flat, this little novel flew with the wind across The Pond and landed on my doorstep as an early Yuletide gift to myself.

I read the book yesterday in one sitting (whilst enjoying tea and a few coconut-covered “snowballs”) and was not disappointed. The story features another of Stewart’s signature settings – this time, the Canary Islands, where lava fields stretch barrenly to azure seas and dragon trees ooze red sap. (Walnut Whips strike again! I read this book just a few days after writing about these trees and their dragon’s blood resin.) A century-old tragedy, a perilous disaster, pirates and a new love all play out in the story’s compact but efficiently-told arc; Stewart even references a character I recognized from a previous novel. The author’s adept descriptive skill transported me to the tropical island, and I could taste the salt air and feel the gritty volcanic ash on my skin.

The Wind Off the Small Isles, which can also (rarely) be found in used paperback, is a masterful little story that any fan will want to own. I’m so grateful that the publisher decided to give this work another go. Should you read it, however, I offer two words of caution:

1. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the back cover. Perplexingly, it gives everything away.
2. Once you start reading Lady Mary’s works, you won’t be able to stop.

Speaking of Stewart’s canon, there are also three children’s novels and a collection of poetry which I have yet to track down:  The Little Broomstick (1971), Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980) and Frost on the Window: Poems (1990).

Happy Travelling, Happy Reading!

The Holly King

A good Winter Solstice to all! On the longest night of the year, we celebrate the time of the Holly King!the-holly-king

At Midsummer (June 21), the Oak King, who represents the waxing of the year when all is full, green and ripe, is at the height of his power. His counterpart and adversary, the Holly King, is at his weakest, and the two engage year-round in an eternal battle – two parts of a whole, yin and yang, darkness and light.

But, as the autumnal equinox approaches, the tables turn and the Holly King begins to regain his strength. At Midwinter (December 21), when the year wanes and the days are shortest, his powers peak and he reigns over a world of frosted fields, snow-dusted evergreens and the dark half of the year.

The same struggle is represented in the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain (“Hawk of May”), one of King Arthur’s knights, is challenged on New Year’s Day to a beheading contest by the Green Knight, who bears a bough of holly as his insignia. Gawain defeats the Green Knight, who magically arises and makes the victor promise to return the following year to do battle once again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe winter king’s symbol is English or European holly (Ilex aquifolium) which represents truth and reincarnation and was worn by druids as protection against evil spirits. The Romans used the plant as decoration during their winter festival of Saturnalia. The fact that this evergreen plant is found amongst the undergrowth in oak forests may have contributed to the legend of the two battling kings. Dense holly stands, with their spiny leaves, provide much-needed shelter for birds and deer, and the brilliant red fruit, which matures in late fall and becomes softer and more palatable after a frost, is an important food source for many forest creatures. (A profusion of berries was thought to be a portent of a harsh winter — the earth goddess’ way of providing extra food during the hardest months.) During the Middle Ages, I. aquifolium was used as winter fodder for livestock.

Holly’s bright green leaves and vibrant berries remind us that, even when all is cold and quietly sleeping, the world – and hope – still lives. It is a promise, even in the darkest of days, that light will return, and Spring is just around the corner. As Midwinter night comes to a close, here’s a merry little ditty from another king, Henry VIII of England:

Green groweth the holly,
So doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

Royal Resins

20161217_103013-3Gold, frankincense and myrrh. We know all about the first, but have you ever wanted to know more about the second and third kingly gifts, what they are, where they come from, and what they smell like?

Frankincense, myrrh and other aromatic resins such as amber, copal and dragon’s blood are the soft, viscous saps exuded by woody plants in response to injury. When dried and hardened (polymerized) into “tears”, they are used in perfumery, aromatherapy and medicine. There are three main types: oleoresin (sticky, semi-soft), hard (brittle, tasteless and odourless until burned) and gum (gum or tree sap). A resin’s fragrance is due to the presence of terpenes, organic compounds whose strong odour may deter parasites or herbivores which eat or destroy the plant. Except for amber, these resins are harvested two to three times a year by “tapping” the tree: slashing the bark and collecting the resin which oozes out. The final tapping produces the best-quality, opaque resin with the highest terpene content. Amber is “fossilized” (i.e. completely polymerized); copal can be tapped or subfossil (not completely polymerized and much younger than amber). Most resins used as perfume or incense are graded according to colour, purity, scent, age and shape.

Frankincense: “Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a Deity nigh.” Frankincense (from Old French franc encens, meaning “high quality incense”) is a gum resin obtained from four species of Boswellia tree. Also known as olibanum (Arabic for “that which results from milking”, referring to the collection process), frankincense has been traded in western Asia, North Africa and China since ancient times. It is depicted in Egyptian tombs, was known to the ancient Greeks, was introduced to Europe by crusaders and is one of the chief resins used in religious rites. Translucent, impurity-free resin is edible and can be chewed as gum and is used in cosmetics and for a variety of medical complaints. Somalia is the major frankincense producer today. Aroma: Sweet, piney, lemony.

Myrrh: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone cold tomb.” Myrrh resin is the yellowish-brown gum of several small, thorny species of Commiphora trees in Africa and western Asia. Myrrh, which means “bitter” in Arabic and Aramaic, has been used throughout history as a perfume and incense and in medicine for its antiseptic and analgesic properties. The Bible mentions it as a rare, intoxicating perfume, and it was sometimes mixed with wine to drink, or, as the carol reminds us, used with natron to embalm the dead. Aroma: Earthy, smoky, musky-sweet.

Amber: Valued since Neolithic times, amber is hard tree resin that is several million years old. In classical antiquity, it was known to the Romans as electrum and to the Greeks as ēlektron (“beaming sun”); we get the name from the Arabic anbar. Amber is found primarily in the Baltic region, Russia, Africa, and the Americas, although seams of it are distributed worldwide. Amber disturbed from seabed sediments washes up on the shore; seams are mined. The “amber” fragrance used for perfume was once made from ambergris – the waxy substance extracted from the intestines of sperm whales – but is now made from other resins and organic compounds such as labdunum and benzoin, plus synthetics. Raw amber stones can be burned as incense, although true amber is costly. Aroma: Warm, rich, honey-like and woodsy.20161217_110330-4Copal: Harvested from the copal tree (Protium copal), this milky-white hard resin has been used for ceremonial purposes in Mexico and Central America since pre-Columbian times. Copal from several species of Hymanaea tree is found in East Africa, and this variety has been used since the 18th century as incense and an ingredient in varnish. Harder, citrine-coloured subfossil copal (partially-fossilized, several-thousand-year-old roots found beneath living copal trees in Africa, Asia and New Zealand) is a cheaper substitute for gem-quality amber and is sometimes sold as “young amber”. As an incense, copal is mellower than frankincense, myrrh or amber.  Aroma: Subtly spicy, faintly reminiscent of cumin.

Dragon’s Blood: True dragon’s blood, an oleoresin, comes from dragon trees of the Dracaena species from the Canary Islands and Morocco. Another common source is the Indonesian Daemonorops draco rattan palm. Like many fragrant resins and spices, dragon’s blood made its way to Europe during the Middle Ages via the Silk Road. The resin is bright red and, when heated, bubbles like blood, and it was believed to have come from elephants and dragons that had died in combat. Other uses throughout history have been varnish, dye, ink, medicine and even toothpaste. Aroma: Strong herbal-floral, perfumey.

How to Burn Resins:

I recommend burning raw, natural resin rather than incense cones or joss sticks, because the latter can be treated with synthetic fragrance, and their quality varies widely. Also, you need only one or two small pieces of resin to scent a room, and the perfume lingers for some time.

Use a fire- and heat-proof vessel with steep sides, such as a cast iron pot or a bowl designed for burning resin (I use a small cast iron cauldron) • Place on a protected surface, as the container will get hot • Fill halfway with sand and place a small charcoal tablet, sold specifically for burning incense, inside (you can break in half for a shorter burn time) • Use a match to light the charcoal, which will give off sparks for a few seconds • Keep away from any combustible material • When the charcoal starts to glow red, carefully place a piece of resin beside it (tongs, tweezers, spoon or fork work well for this) • The heat will begin to melt and burn the resin, which releases that lovely fragrance.20161217_113056-3

Common-sense Cautions: Use only charcoal disks specifically designed for burning incense • Never leave an active burner unattended • Direct contact of resin with lit charcoal will burn up or scorch the resin more quickly and produce a lot of smoke • Burning charcoal creates carbon monoxide, so use with proper ventilation • Allow charcoal to become cold ash; never throw contents of pot directly into the trash • Store unused charcoal disks in a sealed bag to protect from humidity.

By Silk Road: Cardamom

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Spice shop in Sri Lanka © 2007 McKay Savage / CC BY 2.0

In the 1995 screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (pub. 1811), when young Margaret asks the well-travelled Colonel Brandon what the East Indies are like, he replies mysteriously, “The air is full of spices.”

What an evocative image! Shimmering caravans on sunbaked sand, crowded souqs and narrow alleyways, mint tea poured from a brass samovar, smoky incense curling like cobras under dimly-lit tiled domes. By Austen’s time, the Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes which for centuries had brought precious fabrics and gems, spices, tea and coffee from Asia and Africa to Europe – was already a legend. One can imagine the pleasure of monied Mrs. Jennings (for, surely, only the wealthiest could afford such extravagances as tea and olives) as she opened a new packet of oolong, breathing deeply of its exotic fragrance before locking it safely away in her rosewood caddy.

One of the Silk Road spices, cardamom, has intrigued me as much as Margaret’s wonder of far-flung places. Even the name is mysterious, and I was never quite sure just what it was or how it could be used.

Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of several plants in the ginger family, native to India and other parts of Asia. There are two main types:  true or green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and black cardamom (two species of Amomum). White cardamom is made by bleaching the green variety. The plants were known to the ancient Greeks, and India was the largest producer until their introduction to Guatemala by a coffee grower in the early 20th century. That country is now the spice’s greatest exporter, followed by India, and cardamom is the world’s third-most expensive spice by weight after vanilla and saffron.

dsc_4842-3How to Use:  Cardamom’s strong, aromatic, resinous, often smoky flavour is unlike that of any other spice, although it can impart a coolness similar to mint. It is not bitter, and – if you can bear the intensity – individual pods may be chewed like gum to freshen the breath. A flavour multitasker, cardamom can be either a sweet or savoury additive to food, drinks and seasoning blends such as masala and curries; it works particularly well with cinnamon and cloves. It’s a staple in Indian cookery and is added to coffee, tea and sweets in the Middle East. Scandinavian baking recipes such as the Jule bread, Julekake, often call for cardamom. It’s also an ingredient in gin and herbal teas. A little goes a long way with these seeds! Keep pods whole until you’re ready to use them, as they lose their flavour quickly when ground. To use exotic cardamom for yourself, try this easy-to-make, warming spiced tea:

Traditional Masala Chai

Chai or cha is the word for tea in many Eurasian languages, and masala means “mixed spice”. Originating in India, this aromatic beverage is made by brewing black tea with Karha*, a mixture of fragrant herbs and spices with a base of green cardamom. The original tea was Assam; use whatever strong black tea you have on hand. Thick buffalo milk is used in India, but any type will do (the thicker the better, but don’t use cream). Chai is served in small glasses with cardamom seeds in the bottom as a symbol of esteem for your guests!

2 ¼ cups water
¼ cup loose leaf black tea (or 4 – 5 teabags)
5 green cardamom pods, pressed with the back of a spoon until they crack
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole star anise
¼ cup sugar (I found this overwhelmingly sweet; use less if desired; honey is a good substitute)
2 cups milk (whole works best)

Add tea, cardamom, cinnamon and anise to water and bring to a boil, simmering for at least 5 minutes until the tea is dark and has reduced. Strain out the spices and add the sugar. Stir in the milk. To serve, place a couple of cardamom pods (reuse the ones you brewed) in the bottom of a small glass and pour in the chai. Makes 4 to 12 servings, depending on the size of the glass.

* Customize your karha by adding any of the following:  ginger, allspice, nutmeg, black peppercorns or fennel seeds.

Fun with FX

If you’re anything like me, you’re never quite happy with the results of your latest photographic outing. While many of my shots will certainly do for amateur purposes, I always find myself yearning for those fabulously arty photos that blow the mind. (If you want to see some awesome nature photography, please check out my sister Nancy’s Facebook page or her Flickr account. She’s the real photographer in the family!) But I’m too lazy to learn proper technique, and I can’t afford to upgrade my equipment, so for now I have to stick with what I’ve got.

When I need to satisfy that artistic yen, however, I will sometimes take an okay photo and punch it up a little to increase its aesthetic value – or just to have fun. Well, sure, you say – every single serious photographer out there (especially those whose works get published) manipulates each and every shot! Yes, of course they do. But not everyone admits it. You can usually tell, however, especially when the Photoshopping has gotten a little out of hand: reds that are just a bit too red, that impossibly blue sky, wrinkles which miraculously disappear, etc. Almost all of us do it to some extent; I just wish people would be honest about it when (and if) they give the particulars about their work.

Whether I use my DSLR (a Nikon D5000) or my smartphone camera (which does a better job in certain circumstances than the Nikon), I almost always post-process the results, starting with the simple photo editor that came with my laptop for cropping, colour or contrast adjustment, etc. Another program I use is an app called Pixlr, which is available for Android phones or desktop (I use both; the phone app has more options). I use it to add text to an image, or a special effect overlay or border. And then there’s PicsArt, another phone app. It offers different effects than Pixlr, some of them very cool indeed.

What I’ve never used is … Photoshop! The programs mentioned above are free and do a good enough job; I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay a few hundred bucks for an editor if I don’t have to. No doubt Photoshop has way more to offer, but I’m quite happy with what I use now. (I’ve tried a few other free apps out there, but they were quite disappointing.)

I was looking through my archives for some nice winter- or Christmas-themed images and found one I’d taken a few years ago in Algonquin Provincial Park. While it’s tolerably pretty, it isn’t going to win any awards as it stands. So I decided to have fun and show you some of the really neat effects you can get with just a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. The five shown here were done with PicsArt on my smartphone.

First, the original photo – sort of. “Algonquin Birches” was taken on a dull, cloudy February day, so what you see here has already been cropped and brightened. I also increased the colour saturation a tiny bit so the green would stand out more, and I edited out a distracting branch in the background. (I’d have loved to get rid of the one in the foreground, but that’s where my current software would have let me down; you’d notice!)

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The original: Algonquin Birches

For all five images, I was going for painterly or artistic effects. The first one is called Shear, which makes it looks as if the trees were painted on canvas. (Pixlr has a similar effect called … Canvas.)

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With PicsArt Shear

For the second, I used Cartoonizer. I like the bold strokes of the outlines, and the colouring reminds me of alcohol inks.

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With PicsArt Cartoonizer

Next, I applied the Contour effect. Other apps’ sketch, drawing and pencil effects will yield similar results. I think this would be an awesome tool to create colouring book-style outlines of your own photographs, which you could then, of course, fill in! (I wouldn’t necessarily use such a detailed photo, though. Maybe something with simpler lines. Expect to see an attempt at this in a future post!)

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With PicsArt Contour

For the fourth, vintagey effect, I used Old Paper, then increased the brightness. The beauty of apps like this is that you can tweak a photo or layer effects to your heart’s content until you get the results you want.

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PicsArt Old Paper, with increased brightness

My favourite of these is Watercolor. Most photo editing software will have something called this, with slightly different results. I like the subtle je ne sais quoi it gives the image.

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With PicsArt Watercolor

These are only a very few of the options available. Try running some of your own photos through an editing app to see what delightful digital art you can come up with!

Note: None of the companies mentioned here has paid me to talk about them. Although I bloody well wish they would.