Tuesday, May 30, 2017


“You should pay more attention to the provenance,” the resolutely responsible mother of our daughter urges. She means the ecological provenance of the foodstuffs and suchlike that I consume on a daily basis, advocating tirelessly products with impeccably ‘green’ credentials. And yet I find myself more interested in the cultural provenances, the back-stories we too often ignore.

This comes to mind at a time when I am reviewing my smoking habit. The plain fact is that cigarettes are taking too large a chunk of the money available to me when there are hardly any translation assignments coming in and I must rely almost exclusively on my state pension and benefits.

I must admit that there was for my generation a cultural component to our use of tobacco. Now that we are to face shelves showing only off-putting ‘plain packaging’, the elegance and panache of earlier times will never return. It was almost forty years ago that I decided I no longer needed a lighter crafted by ST Dupont but could be content with a chrome-plated ‘bean’ sleeve for my disposable Mini-Bic. But that, too, perpetuated an aspirational component associated with the ritual of smoking.

Interesting that going from a pack-per-day to a pack-per-week has not involved any horrible withdrawal side-effects. What I miss most is the way a smoke break away from my computer can provide punctuation in the everyday narrative. For that I needed to find a substitute… elevenses followed the breakfast coffee and could be the excuse for spending time lounging in my armchair rather than at my desk. Then I made a couple of discoveries in my kitchenette. The little bottle of Ricqlès Alcool de Menthe I bought on one of my trips to Cannes for its decorative character. The tube of Crème de marrons de l’Ardèche was a souvenir that Jessi brought back years ago from Paris, I think. A few drops of the peppermint schnapps in water, a dollop of chestnut cream on a couple of crackers, both of these justified breaks in my daily routine not involving the ingestion of expensive nicotine.

The cultural provenances? It was in 1882 that Clément Faugier started turning chestnuts into a spread. A good bit earlier, in 1838, a young Dutch botanist who had moved to Lyon obtained an exceptional essential oil as a result of distilling fresh peppermint. Mint alcohol was born and has thrived as a popular cure-all until today. Ricqlès soda, a soft drink without alcohol, was introduced in 1958. From 1996 the production was in the hands of Pernod-Ricard and the drink was produced alongside Orangina. Then Cadbury-Schweppes stepped in and Ricqlès joined a portfolio of brands including Dr. Pepper (my soda of preference when I lived in Texas where the drink originated). Another product category was added when in 1970 the peppermint specialist merged with the French liquorice brand Zan. That company was purchased in 1987 by the Gummibär giant, Haribo!

Thank you, Messieurs Faugier and Ricqlès. And Philip Morris? Another mid-nineteenth century European merits a mention. In 1847 Philip Morris Esq., tobacconist, opened a shop on Bond Street in London. Forty years later, in 1887, the Philip Morris brands included Blues, Cambridge, Derby, Unis and Marlborough (‘the ladies' favourite’, and with the English spelling).

My Marlboro Gold days may not be completely over, although it remains to be seen how ugly the promised ‘plain packaging’ will be.

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