Thursday, 5 September 2013

Rigid rats reeking of Revlon - perfume conversations you never thought you'd have

Three years ago I had a suspect mole removed in hospital, and to my great surprise ended up discussing the work of Sophia Grosjman with the consultant - as I was lying on the trolley in the operating theatre having my wound stitched up!  For anyone who missed this curious tale, the relevant blog posts are here and here.  There are two, because on a whim I sent a link to the first post to the consultant and his response is featured in the second one!

So yes, that was a clear case of a perfume conversation I never thought I'd have in that surgical setting...Then just the other day at Cake Club, my fellow members lobbed another conversational curved ball at me on the theme of perfume.

But to rewind for a moment, you may well wish to know what it is exactly, this Cake Club. Well, of course 'The first rule of cake club is that you don't talk about Cake Club!'  But waiving it for a moment, a group of five women from Staffordshire and Shropshire come together on a Monday evening every six weeks or so at one of our houses.  (It should be six women, but one of our number has yet to put in an appearance, two years on; we still assiduously copy her in on all our emails on the off-chance that she might turn up one day.) We each bring a cake - usually of our own making, though I did get special dispensation once to bring a bought one from a Farmer's Market because I had been working crazy hours the preceding weekend (it was pronounced the best!).  And then at the last meeting one person simply forgot Cake Club was on and rocked up empty-handed, which we generously overlooked.  It's not like there isn't enough cake to go round or anything. 

Prototype 'Pacman cake'

But yes, generally the idea is to bring a cake, eat a bit of everybody's cakes, and go 'Oooh' and 'Aaah' about everybody's cakes unless they are truly inedible - like my first attempt at banana and walnut.  Photos of my friend Clare's hens appeared on Facebook at 8am the next morning showing a flock of her hens fighting over the leftovers (which was the entire cake in fact).  One shot pictured two hens, each holding the end of a piece of my cake in its beak, tug-of-war style.  That was the low point in my club attendance, no question.

A victorious hen making off with her cake spoils

But at the recent session in question I had brought along a low rise but perfectly passable chocolate sponge with orange glaze, so thankfully the night was not memorable on account of one of my culinary misfits.  No, it was an odd night because the conversation turned quite spontaneously to people's scent memories - I am not even sure how - I was certainly not the instigator, as I always assume friends are a bit fed up with my hobby by now.  Before I knew it, each member of the group was sharing a perfume-related experience - some from many years ago - others ongoing.

As a courtesy, I will abbreviate their names to initials only!

Early practice attempt at a cake-like entity

 J: Brought up in the country, J spoke of her attachment to the usual range of rural smells: horses, grass, hay, manure, silage etc.  We asked her to please stop there as we were tucking into M's courgette and lemon icing cake at the time.

M: A policewoman by profession, M declared her abiding love of the smell of Faberge Brut, the signature scent of a fellow copper at her police station.  She admitted to regularly asking him to proffer his arm so she can sniff it - I am assuming a short sleeved scenario here.

C: C kicked off with a typical childhood scent memory of her mother's silk scarves impregnated with perfume, and of her father's old woollen cardigan that smelt just of 'dad', and which she snuggled for some time after his death.  But then her memories took a more avant-garde turn, as she recalled a gift of AnaisAnais from a boyfriend who - as she later found out to her horror - turned out to be married.   Another policeman in fact, but not the current sniffing subject of M.  AnaisAnais had in fact bordered on being C's signature scent during her time with a previous boyfriend, but the policeman's purchase of it was purely fortuitous.  AnaisAnais was very common at the time - the Coco Mademoiselle of its day, if you will.  So as you can imagine, any positive associations with it were now well and truly out the window following the wife revelation, so C set about disposing of the bottle in a psychologically cathartic way. 


With the help of her father (still very much around at the time, and doubtless sporting the favourite cardy), C positioned the family's metal dustbin a challenging distance away and proceeded to throw the bottle at it.  The idea was to get it in the bin, but a lateral smash would have been a perfectly acceptable outcome.  On the first few attempts her aim was wide of the mark, but eventually the bin was moved to a position which was both pleasingly far away and yet within range of her increasingly ferocious underhand bowling, and she was gratified to hear the clunk of the bottle hitting the inside of the bin and shattering. Which nicely exorcised the memory of both scent and associated Lothario.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

K: But in terms of rum stories, the best was yet to come, for K casually revealed that she associated the scent of Revlon Charlie (didn't get the exact colour, but it scarcely matters, as you will see) with third form biology classes, specifically with the lessons where they had to dissect rats.  In order to get full value out of the rats' complex and extensive anatomy, they would dissect one rat and - I don't know - look at its heart or whatever, then the teacher would pop them back in the freezer till the next time.  On retrieving these rigid, semi-mutilated corpses, K and her classmates would recoil at the smell - formaldeyde? freezer coolant? general odour of deceased rat that's been round the block a bit? (she didn't elaborate) - and promptly spray Revlon Charlie all over it before the next round of dissection, which apparently made the 'net pong' half way tolerable.  To this day she hasn't personally worn any variant of Charlie, strange to tell.


And then the conversation got onto rodent droppings and another topic embargo had to be imposed, following which we got on with the business in hand of eating more cake.  C's raspberry streusel was up next!

Do you - or does anyone you know - have any scent memories that are right out of left field, so to speak?  The more bizarre the better.  Do share them in the comments!

And meanwhile here is a photo of a cake I made the other night completely out of synch with club meetings - my first wholly gratuitous bake, you could say. It nicely used up some very elderly and spotty bananas and I must say I am rather pleased with how it turned out.  No pressure to perform, that'll be it...


  1. Another Charlie and dead things memory: I remember trying to sprout a potato for a hippy-type plant in my shared attic bedroom with my sisters in the 70s and the stench was so awful because the potato rotted - and my one sister used to wear Charlie so I sprayed it all over the room (I wouldn't use the scent that I wore at that time because I didn't want to waste it, and of course I don't remember what scent that was, maybe it was the Coty Sweet Earth stuff? And if it was, it would probably have been the solid ones so I couldn't spray it anyway) To this day, I cannot smell Charlie without gagging slightly.

    1. Hi Carol,

      What a fun coincidence that you too had recourse to Charlie as an air freshener! Hmm...a pattern is slowly forming that this is a perfume which lends itself to profligate spraying because nobody thinks it merits its status as 'fine' - or even 'drugstore' fragrance'?

      Now I think of it, my brother used Jasper Conran Mister as bathroom freshener, and I once wasted some Jade Goody Shhh! (there's a clue in the name ;-) ) on a similar mission.

  2. haha this is hilarious. I LOVE that you are part of a cake club (now I'm craving cake). Is it an exercise in practicing cake making or are you pros you love to share?..:)
    "but eventually the bin was moved to a position which was both pleasingly far away and yet within range of her increasingly ferocious underhand bowling"- LOL..or I would have laughed out loud If I wasn't at work..:D

    And a very random aside: Having grown up on an unhealthy overdose of Enid Blyton books, reading your mention of the words 'third form' (instead of the U.S 'third grade' or Indian 'third Std') made me shiver with nostalgia..:)..ok the shiver is bit of an exaggeration but you get the idea..;-)

    1. Hi Lavanya,

      We are a bunch of rank amateurs at Cake Club, so it is very much an exercise in practising baking. That said, in my view the other members are all more accomplished than me. They often incorporate two layers, and at our last meeting, M had fashioned cladding (or 'siding' as you might call it) of actual *piped icing*!

      Enid Blyton - oh yes, lashings of ginger beer under the bridge here too. ;-) Am glad to have struck a nostalgic chord with you - I can never judge what particular Britishisms might have that particular effect...

  3. Normally cake is not my thing, but that's because where I live everyone seems to eat the same kind - very boring cakes made from a box, with a creamy frosting probably gotten from a can. But those loaf cakes that you mention, like banana walnut, mmmm, now that's a different story. Hilarious to hear, though, that your first attempt at one didn't quite make the cut, so to speak. But that it gave Clare's hens something to feel peckish about must have been a form of encouragement, yes? And it looks like you've got quite the hang of it now.

    I don't think I have any left-of-field scent memories, but you did remind me of something, which I'll pose as a question: Is it just me, or can you smell it when there's a mouse in the house? I can pretty much always tell, and it gives me a shiver and makes me set the traps right away. Yes, I swear I can smell when there's even only one!

    1. Hi Suzanne,

      I am not sure I like the sound of cakes made *from a box*, lol! Ah, I bet you mean those packet cake mixes like Betty Crocker where you add an egg? That come *in* a box... ;-) We do have such things over here, but they are far less commonly used. In fact I was thinking the other day that our ingredients lists on baked goods and cereals and bread etc tend to have shorter ingredients lists than they do in America. The reasons for that have always puzzled me. Shelf life requirements, maybe?

      Haha - I am not sure I felt encouraged that the hens enjoyed my failed banana cake first time round - I think I was more crushed than anything - well, 30% crushed and 70% highly amused, maybe. ;-) I remember wondering if they would be able to negotiate the bits of walnut with their beaks. I am not sure I am up to performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on a hen...

      Now I know I have been in houses with the occasional mouse - mostly brought in from outside by one of the furry residents, it must be said - but I don't recall any particular ambient smell associated with that. Maybe the mice in question were not in the house long enough to generate one!

    2. Yes, you read me correctly; what I should have said was "from a boxed mix" (Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker being the main brands here). Having made that comment, I should say that there probably are many women here who do take the time to bake a real, from-scratch cake, and certainly we have some rather good bakeries. But from my days of working in an office, or just going to local get-togethers, it seems that the boxed-mix cake is still wildly popular. I suppose because it saves people what they are most short on -- time, of course.

      OK, probably it's my hatred of mice that makes me think they are olfactorily detectable. By the way, I actually liked Revlon Charlie back in my teeny-bopper days. No doubt because I also loved the way they advertised it on TV: "Kinda hip, kinda wow! Charlie." Kinda lame, too, now that I think about it. :)

    3. Hi Suzanne,

      Got it - never heard of Duncan Hines but Betty Crocker is a well-known name here, even if the amount of shelf space in a British supermarket devoted to boxed mixes is pretty minimal. The nearest equivalent to a cake mix recipe that I have ever used - and which is terribly nostalgic for me, as my mother used to make it routinely for us kids - is Bird's Trifle Mix. ;-) Tasted pretty good too, or maybe only because we liked processed food on principle at that age!

      There are lots of 'bought cakes' from the supermarket's own ranges say that are also quite processed, but which can be tasty - thinking of a carrot cake from my local Coop store, say - but these would be ready made, not made out of a packet, as it were.

      LOL at 'kinda lame'. ;-) I 'kinda missed' the whole Charlie era somehow - I mean I knew the name, but just never smelt it. I guess there's still time...

    4. I have a couple of comments :)

      First - I can't believe how much people in my office like "cakes from the box"! On several occasions one of my co-workers, who's a great baker and usually brings in very elaborate baked goods, would bring in a cake made from the mix in a box (usually when she makes it to practice something else - a form or a frosting) - and would get much more compliments from people in the office than she would normally get - without them knowing about the "box" part.

      Second: mice do smell. Well, not that much animals themselves but their droppings. They have a very characteristic smell.

    5. Hi Undina,

      How interesting about your colleagues' response to what we would quite possibly call 'cakes out of a packet' even though it is technically a box. I know that Mr Bonkers used to enjoy processed cakes as much if not more than homemade, possibly because they had a stronger taste, I don't know. He also prefers Heinz tomato soup to freshly made soup. Could it be that we are a generation reared on processed and convenience foods and that to some people these actually taste better thanks to their early imprinting?? I do still love Butterscotch Angel Delight, it must be said, followed by Chocolate, with Strawberry in third place.

      Re the mice business, my SIL is battling an infestation at the moment - or rather, the infestation is in the flat below and they are troubled with a light visitation. She reported that she didn't know if they smelt, because 'density is low'. My friend Clare is convinced of their odour though:

      'They do smell. Badly. Or well, depending on your understanding of the phrase. I misguidedly agreed to look after some once. A few hours later I had to phone the woman up and say that because of the impact it was having on the cat, she would have to make alternative arrangements. The cat wasn't bothered. I was.'

    6. I'm late in reading this, but thank you Clare (and Undina) for the validation. Now I know I'm not crazy ... well, at least not in that regard.

    7. Hi Suzanne,

      The mice experts have spoken! I am sure Rusty could have corroborated this point too, had we needed him to.

  4. Lovely, fun post, V. Your cake club members have such great scent memories, they sounds like a good bunch. The tale of the Charlie infused rat remains is priceless.

    Nothing quirky comes to mind right now but I'll continue to think on it.

    I must admit I've never made a cake from scratch so I admire you hugely.

    1. Hi Tara,

      The girls are great craic, and I daresay F would be too, if she ever came!

      If you ever get the urge to bake a cake - and I must have made more in the last two years than in my whole life before that - it really is easier than it looks, provided you've got the tools. An electric mixer turned out to be the missing link in my kitchen armoury. I am only trying the most simple and foolproof recipes, mind. They literally have to have 'foolproof' or 'easy peasy' in the title for me to click on them!

  5. A Cake Club! That sounds about nine thousand times more fun than the too-often-fraught book clubs I keep being told about. I only know how to make one kid of cake so I couldn't be a member for very long, sadly.

    No quirky scent memory, but now that fall has returned so swiftly I am thinking nostalgically of the first smell of summer I can remember: warm water from a garden hose....AnnieA

    1. Hi AnnieA,

      Nice to hear from you! I keep being told about book clubs too, but I have deliberately not wanted to get involved with them because my reading rate is so woefully slow, plus I wouldn't wish to have to read a 'set book'. I had enough of that at school and university!

      And I think I have only mastered one style of cake myself - and it is a pretty finely balanced 'mastering' at the best of times. My default output is some variation of a low rise sponge, though my recent gratuitous bake was appreciably taller and technically counts as a loaf. But whether I have made two kinds or several variants on one, if I can do it, I promise you that your inner baker is capable of more where that single cake came from...:-)

      I like your summer scent memory - I'd say that is actually pretty quirky in fact!

  6. Hi Vanessa - Cake Club sounds brilliant - great mouth watering photos of yummy cakes ! Definitely increasing the happiness quotient in your part of the world.

    My weird scent memory - I grew up in Africa. When travelling cross country cars would be required to pull in to an area like a petrol station, and rangers would go round the car spraying tetse fly deterrent spray. Years later I smell this exact smell on a friend - it was Calvin Klein Obsession ! Holly

    1. Hi Holly,

      Perhaps you could form your own Cake Club amongst your circle of friends and spread the buttercream love...;-)

      I love your story of tsetse fly deterrent spray! I must refresh (not quite the word, but still) my memory and smell some Obsession, if it hasn't been discontinued, which would have been the humane thing to do, probably.

    2. And funnily enough, almost everything I used to get Mr Bonkers to sniff from my perfume collection he would dismiss as 'fly spray'. Maybe he was onto something... ;-)

  7. I love banana walnut cakes! I should probably try baking one...

    This is the blog with recipes many of which I tried and liked. She's not blogging any longer but I can wholeheartedly recommend many of those.

    1. Hi Undina,

      This is the recipe I followed to produce that banana cake above. I didn't mention that I lobbed in some pieces of crystallised ginger too, which gave it a nice kick, and by the same token you could easily substitute walnuts, also dotting them on the top.

      That blog you mentioned looks mouthwatering, though as I say I do always look for 'foolproof' in a recipe title...;-0