Jeux de Peau (Serge Lutens)

In a 1938 photograph taken by Roger Schall, the great French novelist Colette sits at a rustic dining table buttering a slice of bread. To be more precise, she's solidly paving it with thick shingles of fresh butter-- and quite a job she has ahead of her, too, since the slice she holds is itself the length of a house brick. An expression of intense concentration dominates her face; she caresses the rough-textured surface of the bread with both her eyes and the rounded point of the knife, seeming to note with rapacious delight each place where she might first choose to sink her teeth.

Yes, Colette surely knew on which side her bread was buttered... because she wouldn't dream of delegating that task to anyone else. But Colette did not just eat her good buttered bread. She also thought about it-- and wrote on the subject at length.
La mère et le fils venaient de prendre ensemble leur petit déjeuner et Chéri avait daigné saluer de quelques blasphèmes flatteurs son “café au lait de concierge”, un café au lait gras, blond et sucré que l’on confiait une seconde fois à un feu doux de braise, après y avoir rompu des tartines grillées et beurrées qui recuisaient à loisir et masquaient le café d’une croûte succulente.  (Mother and son had just finished breakfasting together, and Chéri had condescended to praise with an oath his cup of 'housemaid's coffee', made with creamy milk, well-sugared, with buttered toast crumbled into it and browned till it formed a succulent crust.)

--CHÉRI (1920); translated from the French by Roger Senhouse (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1951)

There is in Chéri a reference to a “café au lait de concierge” that has aroused -- and I choose my words advisedly -- a hungry curiosity, which I have until now left unsatisfied. A concierge once gave me this recipe for a breakfast guaranteed to dispel the shivers on winter mornings.

Take a small soup tureen -- the individual soup tureen you would use for a
soupe gratinée -- or a sturdy bowl in fire-proof china. Pour in your milky coffee, prepared and sugared according to taste. Cut some hearty slices of bread -- use household bread, refined white will not do -- butter them lavishly and lay them on the coffee, ensuring that they are not submerged. Then all you have to do is place the whole thing in the oven and leave it there until your breakfast is browned and crusty, with fat, buttery bubbles sizzling here and there on the surface.

Before breaking your raft of roasted bread, sprinkle on some salt. Salt counteracting the sugar, sugar with a faint taste of salt, that is one of the great principles of cooking that is neglected in a number of Parisian puddings and pastries, which taste bland simply because they lack a pinch of salt.


--Article authored by Colette for Marie-Claire, January 27, 1939; excerpted in Colette: A Passion For Life by Genevieve Dormann (Abbeville Press, 1985); translated from the French by David Macey
Serge Lutens has also thought about bread a good deal-- not to mention the lait gras that best accompanies it. In Jeux de Peau ("skin games"), he and Christopher Sheldrake have wedded together notes of creamy comfort and roasted warmth to recreate Colette's café au lait de concierge for the wrists rather than for the breakfast table.

Though a yeasty, sweet quickbread loaded with toasted pecans is the main dish here, I can't overemphasize how great an effect this fragrance's milky element has on me. If the first thing you learned as a child in the kitchen was to properly scald milk for béchamel, then you know well the curiously maternal aspects of this process-- tending the flame with an anxious eye, taking the milk's temperature as solicitously as one would a child's (except that in this case, a fever of 180°F is considered no cause for alarm).

Then, of course, there is the skin-- a thin film of protein which collects on the surface of heated milk. Known as kajmak throughout Eurasia, paneer or malai in Southeast Asia, Devonshire or clotted cream in Great Britain, and natas de leche among the Basques of Spain*, it possesses an intriguing texture and sweet, creamy flavor worthy of its round-the-world following. "Skin games", you say? Serge Lutens surely is teasing us with his knowledge of this unique treat.

In fact, amongst the children of the above cultures, it's agreed the best destination for it is -- what else? -- a slice of toasted bread.

If you are looking for spiritual nourishment (or simply a barrier against winter's chills and ills), I suggest you avail yourself of some Jeux de Peau.  Spray it on your wrists and wear your sleeves long.  When needed, lower your nose into the protected warmth of your cuff and breathe in the golden scent of succor.

*Read this wonderful blog post for cultural reminiscences and recipes.

Scent Elements: Milk notes, coconut, licorice, osmanthus, apricot