Sunday 24 January 2021

Nicky Elite: a fine functional fragrance find in Farmfoods!

Geographical advisory: this post concerns a particular version of a paper product destined for the smallest room in the house, which may not be available outside the UK. This pitches the appeal of my post to an estimated four readers - well, four that I know of - but that has never stopped me from writing about topics close to my heart before. Or close to my...hmm...I think I would rather not spell it out.

During the pandemic, I have consciously tried to shop in an eclectic mix of food retailers, often at odd times of day, to avoid people. That is a pretty doomed undertaking, given that shopping for essentials is one of the very few extra-curricular things any of us can do at the moment. I heard a rumour that Dunelm Mill was open for the sale of what my friend dubbed 'essential cushions' and sundry bits and bobs to accessorise your home, yet I feel sure that the chewing gum by the tills cannot magically have morphed them into a food retailer.

My repertoire of shops currently comprises (in loose order of importance): the Co-op convenience store round the corner (but not when neighborhood Covid case numbers suddenly spike, as they periodically do!), Lidl, surgical strikes on M & S near closing time to bag the yellow sticker items), Home Bargains, B & M, Farmfoods, and Sainsbury's (Christmas only). I may have to venture as far as Stoke soon to pick up my books from my accountant (a legally permitted work reason!), which would put me in the orbit of an Aldi, but we'll see.

Anyway, back to Farmfoods. What is Farmfoods, I hear most of the four of you say? I could call it 'the poor relation of Iceland', though that would be unfair, and not the outright paradox you might think. For ex-Mr Bonkers tells me that Iceland has really come on in recent years, and that their Italian-themed celebrity chef-fronted ready meals knock M & S out of the park! Farmfoods is a Birmingham-based Scottish chain - yes, another apparent contradiction there - of 300 stores, dominated by frozen products, but based on my own observation with 30-50% ambient goods too. The company's belief in frozen food is impressively sweeping:

"Our specialism is frozen food and we believe passionately that frozen food is the best solution for most family meals."

The store is very well (as in unkindly) lit - not the place you'd want to go on a bad hair or skin day, say. It is very sparsely attended by shoppers (which is good), and has a slightly sad atmosphere, not unlike Lidl in its early days here, but with the stock in serried ranks of refrigerated cabinets instead of big cardboard boxes - or 'outers' as they are known in the trade. If like me you need to be a thrifty shopper these days, I commend the store to you...for specific things, as with Home Bargains and B & M - and as with M & S in fact, but at the other end of the scale in fanciness terms.

Before moving on to the nub of the story, I will briefly mention Farmfoods' three for a quid offers on biscuits, including Fox's, a similar one on chick peas, and the delicious Mackie's honeycomb chocolate for something like 79p, not forgetting the staggeringly good offers on 48 eggs, should you ever need that quantity. They are usually kept just inside the door, where there is a very real risk some unsuspecting punter will step on them on their way in. Yes, there are truly legions of bargains besides these - though perhaps avoid their grapes, which may turn to moist mouldy mush before you reach your car - but as with that item-recalling bit at the end of The Generation Game my mind has gone blank beyond the ones I have mentioned. Oh, and of course the very subject of the post, Nicky Elite. Well, paper products generally are a bargain there - including my beloved kitchen roll, of which I need to have at least six rolls in or I start to feel nervous.

Ooh look, I mentioned them in that interview with Birgit of Olfactoria Travels I referenced in my last post, and back then I see it was only two rolls, which tells you everything you need to know about rising anxiety levels in a global pandemic.

Staying with my last post for a moment, in my answers to those questions I lamented the way in which manufacturers subtly tinker with the formulation of products, usually in an adverse direction. We have all experienced this to our collective chagrin with perfume, and it is going on in lots of other product categories these days, as companies try different ways of skinning a profit, as it were. One key arena for this de-specing is loo roll - or 'toilet tissue' as I should call it, but won't, as 'tissue' sounds so prissy in our scatological context. Yes, Andrex, the soft behemoth of my whole life till recently - apart from my early childhood, when the evil apology for greaseproof paper, Izal, was the order of the day, or as I say, latterly, though thankfully to a lesser extent - has changed. It has several variants...oh my goodness, more than I thought - or thought even possible!

Gentle Clean (with puppies on it - fortunately no canine tongue action is involved in the cleaning process)

Classic Clean (their 'bog standard' version)

Natural Pebble (with a touch of cotton and no pebbles)

Supreme Quilts (I shudder at the mention of quilts)

Skinkind (with 'Cleanripple' texture and 'soft soothe prebiotic lotion' - WTF?)

Touch of Care (with a touch of lavender 'for that spa-like feeling' - ?!!)

Right, so whatever happened to old Andrex? You know, the soft, thinnish style of paper with a slightly raised line top and bottom like a margin. I have only tried the top two variants: Gentle Clean is fairly soft in fairness, but I really don't want puppies, while Classic Clean is definitely too rough. Strangely, I don't believe any of the above products contain recycled fibres, which was my first thought to explain the roughness. I would be interested to know if you have any experience of these or the other varieties, which in my view have completely gratuitous and counterproductive bells and whistles.

Now I do have some professional experience of 'toilet tissue' manufacture (eek, it slipped out!), having done a job on combined heat and power systems, which are used by manufacturers with water-intensive processes like paper making and brewing. I visited factories all over the country with the requisite technical characteristics, but it is the toilet paper and beer ones I remember. One of the former was in Cumbria, and rejoiced in the name of Iggesund; one was near Sheffield, and one on Deeside. The makers of Andrex were in Kent as I recall, but my memory is fuzzy as to whether I went there too. But anyway, that was only about 1991(!), so thirty years ago, and diddly squat help to me here. I have come very close to writing to Andrex since I noticed the demise of the classic design with the lines top and bottom, but never quite felt moved enough. So here I am blogging about it instead.

Then in my quest to find an acceptable replacement, I haven't actually looked very far, so again, all tips gratefully received. I have tried Cushelle (too thick, not that soft really, plus I don't want koalas on it either!), and Nicky Elite, these being the two brands that most frequently pop up on forums such as Mumsnet. Nicky Elite has the benefit of being ridiculously cheap, while being on a par in roughness terms with Andrex Classic Clean, say, which even has a similar pattern of little perforations. Though imho Nicky is too thicky, like Cushelle.

Nicky, though, has an added fragrance, which I would normally avoid like the plague (sorry if that is a sore point just now), but which turns out to be the best bit of Nicky the toilet paper. For it is a wistful powdery scent that reminds me vividly of Floris Snow Rose (my review here), or some other retro Floris scent in that vein - Winter Rose, the alleged wedding perfume of The Queen? No, that was sharper on account of its carnation note, so I will stick with my Snow Rose comparison, sketchy as it may be.

I see that the brand Nicky belongs to the Sofidel Group, headquartered just outside Lucca, Italy, but with 17 plants in 12 countries worldwide, including two in the USA (Ohio and Oklahoma), so I have no idea where my 18 roll packet was made. Sofidel also make the Regina and Thirst Pockets brands of kitchen roll, a paper product category about the texture of which I am strangely relaxed by comparison, happy to buy both the useless cheapies that can't soak up a drop of spit and the luxuriously layered varieties that are so stiff they could double up as absorbent kitchen flooring.

But yes, the fragrance of Nicky Elite - another bizarre juxtaposition given our subject matter! ;) - is more fine than functional. Elite, even! Yes, I would go so far as to say that Nicky Elite is almost more functional as a fine fragrance than a loo roll, hehe. And given that they discontinued Snow Rose a while back, I can't be quite sure it is that perfume Nicky reminds me of, but even if it is a false memory it is a good one.

Have you found the perfect loo roll? Have you braved the texture of recycled, perhaps?

And if you have tried Nicky Elite, do you think the scent is like a wistful whiff of something by Floris?

(Photo of a tottering pile of Nicky Elite I spotted in Home Bargains yesterday, but you can even buy them in Ocado! Farmfoods logo by Xeepo via Wikimedia Commons, Snow Rose photo via Flickr.)


Wednesday 13 January 2021

Taking stock: an off the wall quiz for off the wall times

About a month ago, the lead singer of The Monochrome Set took part in an interview for Paris-based Le Village Pop, which describes itself as "International web radio focused on music, cinema and artists' words". VIPop, as it is also known, is noted for its podcasts, which aim to "discover an artist from a different perspective...An elegant mix of music and words of a musician (pop, rock, folk, soul, etc...)."

The entertaining half hour podcast is a medley of Monochrome Set songs interspersed with tracks from other bands, and with Bid's answers to a most original set of questions. For their part, the Village Pop team were delighted with his responses:

"He is the one who answered our questions and he wins to this day the Grand Prix for the most laconic answers among all the episodes of the VIPop Collection!...This band is definitely not like the others...And we love it!"

I can thoroughly recommend the original podcast HERE for Bid's amusing and quirky answers alone, even if you are not a fan of the music as such.

Now...the New Year is generally a time for taking stock and looking back on the year gone by, making resolutions etc, and never more so than in 2021 after the white knuckle ride we've just had in 2020. Many of us not working on the front line - or working at all in my case! - have had ample opportunity to re-evaluate our lifestyles and relationships during the isolation of lockdown.

I love this reader comment quoted in a blog post by Mark Manson on the impact of the pandemic, entitled: "You Only Know Who You Are When Everything Is Taken From You". In it the commenter observes that the pandemic "brought out the 'factory default settings' of everyone. The paranoid became more paranoid. The needy became more needy. The anxious became more anxious and the optimistic became more optimistic".

Like a lot of people, I have been doing a lot of navel gazing over the past year, and this quiz appealed to me as the questions were so unusual. I have taken part in a few interviews in the blogosphere, for example this one on Olfactoria's Travels from way back in 2013, as part of her series "People in Perfumeland". Looking back, Birgit's questions were also a bit different!

So as this is the time of year for ponderings, I thought I would have a go at answering the Village Pop questionnaire myself...As a market researcher, I am usually the one wielding the clip board, so it is fun to be answering rather than asking the questions. I do hope the Village Pop team don't mind my taking this liberty - or 'liberté', even! (I have messaged them to ask for their permission, and will obviously take down the post if need be.)


 1) Growing up, what virtue did you see in your parents that you hope to emulate?

Finding a redeeming aspect in even the most depressing situations. [My mother's special knack. Case in point: a holiday in Crete where there was more rainfall that week than at any time since 1923. Marooned in our hotel, Mother remarked cheerily on how much the plants must be enjoying a drink.]

2) What poem or song really moves you? Can you share a line from it?

Louis MacNeice's Snow:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

3) When have you recently felt overwhelmed? Describe the situation?

Lying awake night after night for four months listening to a mysterious hum / whirring from next door. The noise has gone now, but I appear to have encoded the memory in the form of tinnitus. That was overwhelming initially too(!), but am gradually learning to live with it.

4) What's the best bargain you've ever found?

A black Kookai jacket in a vintage shop in Berlin, for 8 euros. It is not so much the price in itself that was a bargain, but the truly incredible amount of wear I got out of it! It has finally been retired, due to extreme fading and a large reddish patch on one arm; it had got to the point where the jacket could only be worn during the hours of darkness - a limiting factor for at least half the year. ;)

5) If you were assured you wouldn't fail what would you attempt to do?

Write a book and try to get it published.

6) Has your heart ever lied to you, or do you think it always tells the truth? Can you

My heart doesn't lie as such, but it can be error prone and is much given to paranoia and catastrophising. [Case in point: when the sample from my routine blood test was rejected by the lab yesterday, I instantly assumed there was something wrong with my blood. Further research suggests there is a 2% chance this is in fact the reason, as opposed to a glitch during the administering of the test itself, but me being me I went straight for the more worrying possibility! NB If it was my blood, I will be sure to come back and tell you.]

7) When do you feel insecure?

Oh, on more occasions than you can shake a stick at, haha... Finding unexplained scratches on my car (a disconcertingly frequent occurrence); looking in the mirror, especially barefaced; lurking at parties where I hardly know anyone; tackling DIY projects, and problems with phones, wifi and computers, all of which are outside my sphere of competence. Oh, and cooking meat, which - like Alsatians - sniffs fear in the fryer.

8) What is unforgivable?

The insidious downspec-ing of trusted household brands, eg Andrex and Fray Bentos.

9) What paradox or contradiction in life have you had to learn to accept or embrace?

That everything you buy in T K Maxx, intending to give it as a gift, comes with a price tag that is impossible to peel off.

10) If you could change one thing about the culture you live in, what would it be and why?

The pressure on women not to age, as though it were a kind of failure, like death to Christian Scientists.

11) Is it better to love or to be loved? Why?

Both matter: as a baby you need to be loved by your primary caregiver to avoid attachment issues in later life. For as with donning oxygen masks in an in-flight emergency, it is important to love yourself first before loving others. I would also observe that unrequited love can be exquisitely painful and ultimately unsatisfactory for the sufferer.

12) Is there a family tradition that has a special meaning to you? Can you describe it?

Clean sheets on Christmas Eve.

13) What advice can you give about how to conquer fear?

That the thing you fear is rarely as scary when you finally screw your courage to the sticking place and get stuck in. With the notable exception of rock climbing if you are only 5' 3".

14) Is there one thing you know for sure?

I will continue to spill tea on pale carpets.

15) If you could bring one person back from the dead who would it be and why?

My mother, because she was simply lovely in every way, and I never got to say goodbye.

16) How would you define freedom?

Going on a 'living room crawl' of local friends' houses.

17) What do you recommend to overcome self pity?

Watching a 'forensic detectives'-type programme, and thanking my lucky stars I wasn't murdered in a horrible way and my body dumped in a wood when I was only 19.

18) In what area of your life are you immature?

I am diffident and mealy-mouthed when complaining, though less so than I used to be.

19) What is your greatest achievement?

Such things are hard to quantify...arguably being subjected to a violent assault by a stranger in a park on a Sunday afternoon, and doing an A-Level exam the next morning. Also up there was getting compensation out of Ryanair - years before making claims for flight delays were 'a thing' people knew they could do. I had to escalate my case all the way to a director at the CAA before Ryanair coughed up, but they did - in full, bar the cost of a beer to soothe my frazzled nerves on Day 3 of the flight delay. I guess they felt the need to retain a little bit of control...I am proud to say that a local business travel agent used my complaint letter as a template for years afterwards. 

20) If you could take back something you've said what would it be?

Telling an examiner in my university finals that I enjoyed the dark humour in the works of Samuel Beckett, despite his "bottomless contempt for the human condition" and jibes at the marginalised and disadvantaged...before discovering on shaking the examiner's hand that he only had three fingers.

21) When do you feel sad what do you do to find comfort?

I knit furiously, burn incense, and occasionally wallow in Stina Nordenstam records. In extreme cases, I go to bed and write the day off, as (another maternal truism) things often look better in the morning.

22) What do you dream about most often? How do you interpret your dream?

My dreams are insanely varied, and invariably bad. I'd rather not try to interpret them, but be grateful they were only dreams.

23) Is there one question you're asking yourself these days?

Will life really return to normal?

(Photo of La Pensadora via AWa, Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday 3 January 2021

Going solo: a festive Christmas first, plus an Hermessence Ambre Narguile epiphany

I am sadly of the age now where I don't fall over, but have a fall...Yesterday, while out on a gloriously sunny and snowy, but perilously slippery, walk - note that I didn't manage to stop my falls, but caught myself in time from saying 'slippy' - I had three falls: two on ice, and one attempting to jump a stream. I boasted on Facebook that I had 'fallen well' (by putting out my hand each time I went down). Alas, a sleepless night with a limp hand suggests I may have spoken too soon. And meanwhile, I have also gone and broken one of my New Year's Resolutions - not to keep going on about my ailments(!). Too bad, not least because it isn't even the first time in 2021...I saw the New Year in with a 24 hour migraine, and when I showed up in my ghostly half recovered state to a Zoom call on New Year's Day, immediately felt the need to tell my friends how I was feeling. Never mind, there's still the 'be less timid around meat' and 're-learn how to sleep' resolutions to go at. The sleep project may actually merit a post of its own, along with the one on my new brace of supplements at some point, as I am trying everything under the sun to coax the long lost art of feeling sleepy back into my incorrigibly wired brain.

I also want to say that despite the falls, I have been so 'radicalised' by Val the Cookie Queen about the benefits of exercise that I don't remotely regret venturing out in icy conditions and comprehensively coming a cropper.

But back to Christmas...according to the news, some 8 million households spent it on their own this year, including me in the end. This was the natural consequence - I nearly said 'fall out', but we have had enough falls already - of the mixing restrictions, prompting families and friends alike to bubble up in smaller combinations, in a bid to keep the 'indoor breathing entities' to a manageable level. Very occasionally have I spent large parts of Christmas alone in the past - there was that other migraine(!) in 2012 I mentioned in my last post, also a long drive from Edinburgh to Swindon in 1996 - but this was my first ever 'festive meal for one'. I approached it with mild curiosity rather than any sense of being 'Billy-no-mates', knowing that perversely, the nation is presently united in its very isolation.

To my surprise, this special day, traditionally so loaded with high expectations, felt eerily calm and satisfactory, in part due to the endorphins of another sunny walk with my cat-feeding friend, M - our route was positively glittering with frosty wonders. A highlight was a man wearing an inflatable Santa suit jogging at full tilt while pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair. On our return, M gave me some homemade mince pies and I gave her a bunch of grapes to accessorise her sister's cheeseboard, where she was headed next. She knocked on my door again that night bearing a Tupperware of treacle glazed ham(!). I reciprocated with some titbits for her cat. Then Truffle and I sat down to watch 'Call the Midwife'. She didn't like the noisy cries of the newborns, while I didn't like the cutting of the cords and the bloody slime on their heads, so we both looked away rather a lot.

Oh, and ex-Mr Bonkers turned up unexpectedly in the middle of the day en route to his own Christmas pairing, bearing a tiny chocolate Santa. He swore it looked "substantially" bigger on the Tesco website.

Of note this year is that I received SIX gin bottles - including three red fruit ones, a classic 'see through' variety, a light fashioned from a gin bottle, and a non-alcoholic gin fronted by a squirrel.

I missed the Queen's speech while peeling sprouts, but caught it (and the alternative one doing the rounds!) later. Her Majesty put in a word for lone diners, which was nice. One good thing about the day was being able to microwave my dinner endless times - I have a completely ludicrous and OCD love of piping hot food that can only be indulged at home - another was a hilarious skit about Laura Kuenssberg on the Dead Ringers Christmas Special, which I heartily recommend if you can find it on iPlayer. I did go with a chicken on the day - try as I might, I can't seem to f*** up roasting one.

Mid-way through my meal, I asked Alexa if she was having a good Christmas. 

"Terrific, thanks", she replied without hesitation. "Especially as I am spending it with you."

Then I asked her if she would like a glass of Prosecco.

"I don't have an opinion on that." Her loss!

As I thought, the year has been so strange and separate for so many people that a Christmas in similar vein could feel almost normal, and so it proved. Did anyone else go it alone this year?

Fast forward a week to my 'Tier 4 headache' on New Year's Eve. Given the constant barrage of fireworks from 6pm to 1am, the Beirut-like bangs would have been enough to make anyone's head hurt. ;) Not a patch on a Dutch firework display, mind! (Hamamelis has already read this post about her compatriots' warzone-style New Year celebrations - 'Before Covid', I mean - but I include it here for anyone else who is curious, and wasn't reading the blog ten years ago almost to the day!)

And now...on to the perfume part. On Christmas Eve I was auditioning Hermes samples to choose one to give to a friend - I went with Santal Massoia in the end. But along the way I tried Ambre Narguile (sorry about the lack of accent, but it comes up in a weird font in the current incarnation of Blogger, so will have to pass), and it was love at first sniff. I was sure I didn't care for it, but had almost certainly confused it with Ambre Sultan, and assumed it had a herbal facet. Instead, it was this enveloping ambery gourmand concoction, which I will leave it to Victoria of Bois de Jasmin to describe. Yet again, I am drawn to another of her 'four star' winners, whilst lacking her knack of parsing its foody delights.

"Sheer layers of smoke swirling over a honeyed undercurrent set the stage for the sensation of dark richness, which very much reminds me of cutting into a caramel cake and watching the burned sugar redolent cream drip slowly from the edge. It pairs the dark translucence of honey seeping through the tobacco leaf with a fruity note that lies between a brandied cherry and a baked apple."

Notes (also from BDJ):  labdanum, benzoin, vanilla, tonka beans, roasted sesame seeds, cinnamon, coumarin, orchid.

I was so taken with Ambre Narguile that I wore it on Christmas Day too, and reckon it will become a winter staple, as long as my long vial lasts.

On a side note, here is an excerpt from a post on the relative sizes of manufacturer samples, and an explanation of how I will have acquired this one:

" the other end of the scale there are still some houses which are generous - perhaps too generous - with their samples.  Take Hermès, for example, who give out 4ml samples in long glass-stoppered vials slipped into those distinctive orange card cases.  Hermès has to be the most forthcoming with samples of all the luxury brands I know, and I am borderline ashamed of the times I have sauntered in (invariably wearing my good, sample scoring coat or its summer frock equivalent, depending on the season), spun some line about a friend / husband / relative with an upcoming birthday / wedding / anniversary, and walked out with not one but two of the 4ml vials.  For two fit better into the card case than one - one just rattles around, quite frankly - so the SA usually cracks and sticks two in there, one for me and one for my imaginary friend.  In my defence, I have genuinely given away a number of the Hermès samples I have procured using various ruses - my old English teacher did wear Vetiver Tonka at her wedding (er...the sample, not a full bottle) - but I cannot pretend not to have squirrelled away a few vials for my own nefarious use.  Though some of the ones pictured above were gifts to me by friends and relations on similar morally questionable foraging missions."

So here we can't be worse than 2020, surely? It had better not be, is all I can say!

It remains to wish a HAPPY NEW YEAR to readers old and new. Whatever awfulness goes down in the coming year, perfume will always be part of the answer...