by Simone Sekers
THE first shrimping trip of the season is always a triumph of expectation over fulfilment, but the glittering May sunshine on the waves is so enticing that we can never resist. The very fact that there are waves is an indication that shrimping isn’t going to work – that chilly spring breeze isn’t what you want. Nevertheless, we take the long journey down to Sidmouth armed with the nets, the cool bag expectantly filled with ice blocks, the catch bag with any holes carefully repaired.
We trail behind tractors and trailers laden with silage, trying to be patient, but it’s a delight to travel along narrow roads where burgeoning branches meet overhead and verges are jam-packed with bluebells and campion and stitchwort.
I dish out a snack lunch and we eat it while watching the tide recede to a point where the shrimper judges it’s time to brave the ripples at the sea’s edge. I have other things to do in Sidmouth, both as eagerly looked forward to as the shrimping and I pick my way through the crowds enjoying the sun, and past the workmen painting and hammering and generally fettling up in time for summer.
At Hayman’s the butchers in Church Street I stock up on their famous brawn, and add a few slices of their equally famous ox tongue. The shop is always busy; they do a roaring trade in traditional picnic food to take down to the beach. Then I walk on up towards the church to my other favourite shop – Woodforde’s Perfumery. It’s difficult to know in which order to do my shopping, but on the whole I think it better to trail in to the fragrant interior of Jon and Jane Brewer’s small emporium smelling faintly of roasting chicken than to march into Hayman’s wafting Annick Goutal’s latest fragrance all over the pork pies.
I spend a very happy half hour buying my scent of the season. Today it is Jon who takes care of my demands. I want something citrussy, fresh but with base notes of enough spice to make it interesting. I no longer want girly stuff, and I’m past wanting anything that’ll make a man pass out with desire. Jon introduces me to several new, tea-based fragrances, and one blended for the Empress Eugenie, the recipe for which hasn’t changed for over 160 years. They are all lovely – first a few precious drops are sprayed on a tester card and I sniff appreciatively, detecting notes of blackcurrant in one, the whole of a fresh green vegetable garden after rain in another.
I’m not really interested in what they are going to say about me – this is just a truly sensual experience in a general way. Jon is amazingly patient but eventually I risk a wrist test, so that the warmth of actual flesh will bring out even more subtleties. This is the crunch moment – does the original fragrance last, or does it deteriorate to base notes of something like warm plastic, or slightly rancid oil?
I plump for a mixture of bergamot, pink peppercorns, star anise and fork out a huge amount of money for a tiny bottle. Never mind, it’s cheaper than shoes, or a cashmere sweater, doesn’t give you blisters or need de-bobbling, a quick rapturous sniff during the day lifts the spirits and, hopefully, will please those who get within wafting distance.
Then Jane comes in to serve another customer and when he has gone we have a lovely discussion about the tonka bean I had sent her the last time I was in. Analysing scent is like talking about food – there’s a great deal in common of course between scent and flavour, and Jane was interested in my craze for tonka beans a year ago as it is an ingredient in perfume. But this time we talked about black garlic, my new passion. We skirted around the doubtful success of it in any fragrance, but there’s no doubt that a base note of black garlic in a casserole, or added to a tomato sauce, adds that umami flavour to cooking, that secretive boost that the bergamot gives to my bottle of scent. As I leave I consider the unlikelihood of have a conversation like this at the fragrance counter of a department store.
Back up the hill to meet the shrimper, who has caught only half a dozen but who has had a wonderful time, and we go home via the final treat of the day, an ice cream from the Otter Valley summerhouse, as they call it, overlooking green May fields amongst the Blackdown Hills. The shrimper has rhubarb and custard, I have lemon and lime meringue. The delights of spring indeed.
Pictured: Sidmouth, Hayman’s butchers shop, and the interior of Woodforde’s Perfumery.