Hana can hear the voices in the English patient’s room and stands in the hall trying to catch what they are saying.
How is it?
Now it’s my turn.
Ahh! Splendid, splendid.
This is the greatest of inventions.
A remarkable find, young man.
When she enters she sees Kip and the English patient passing a can of condensed milk back and forth. The Englishman sucks at the can, then moves the tin away from his face to chew the thick fluid. He beams at Kip, who seems irritated that he does not have possession of it. The sapper glances at Hana and hovers by the bedside, snapping his fingers a couple of times, managing finally to pull the tin away from the dark face.
“We have discovered a shared pleasure. The boy and I. For me on my journeys in Egypt, for him in India.”
“Have you ever had condensed-milk sandwiches?” the sapper asks.
Hana glances back and forth between the two of them.
Kip peers into the can. “I’ll get another one,” he says, and leaves the room. †
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Jo Malone Sweet Milk Cologne:
Like the Real Thing, a Shared Pleasure
It’s funny how some of the things that we think of as being utterly prosaic have a beauty and a secret life of their own that is far greater than we could imagine. Andy Warhol catapulted himself into the Pop Art limelight with his portrait of Campbell’s soup cans, but I can’t help thinking he would have shown a greater leap of genius and insight if he had placed a can of Borden’s Eagle Brand condensed milk on that pedestal. Has any canned food product crossed as many international boundaries, making its way into hearts, homes and food cultures the world over, the way that the lowly can of condensed milk has? True, its popularity has declined over the past five decades, now that the world has better access to refrigeration and milk products have been rendered practically sterile due to methods of ultra-pasteurization, but for years, sweetened condensed milk has been a star ingredient in the desserts of Central and South America (flan, dulce de leche, tres flans cake, and the Brazilian brigadeiros), as well as certain Eastern Bloc countries, where during the Communism era it was commonly boiled in the can for two hours until a similar dulce de leche-style of treat remained. In India (particularly southern India) and the countries of Southeast Asia, it has been a staple, creamy sweetener for tea and even coffee, which is how I first became aware of its popularity; in the mid-nineties my husband and I took a cooking course from a beautiful young Sri-Lankan woman who had us making Masala chai with it, and who said it was still the preferred milk to take with tea even when fresh milk became more widely available in her homeland. (Is that why, when I first read The English Patient by Sri Lankan-born, Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, the above excerpt stuck in my head?)
Though I can’t claim a deep affection towards condensed milk—having grown up on a dairy farm, I was spoiled by the taste of fresh, raw (unpasteurized) milk—I do love thinking about it in romantic terms, as a symbol of human ingenuity and a refusal to cave into a feeling of lack. No matter what conditions we find ourselves living in—deprivations caused by climate, war, lack of industrialization or whatever the case may be—we find inventive ways to squeeze the sweet marrow out of life and take our desserts wherever we can find them, even out of a humble can.
And if, in my opinion, Andy Warhol somewhat missed the mark by elevating tinned soup rather than tinned milk, the Jo Malone Fragrance company has not. Earlier this year, they came out with a limited-edition fragrance called Sweet Milk cologne which is every bit as straight-forward and direct in its olfactory depiction of condensed milk as Warhol was in his visual depiction of Campbell’s tomato. In other words, Sweet Milk does not pay homage to this confectionery beverage in nuanced, poetic terms by setting a milky-note within a more complex fragrance; no indeed, it goes straight for the real deal. From first spritz and for at least an hour into its long wear, Sweet Milk smells milky in that odd, vitamin-enriched way that condensed milk does; it smells sweet and caramel-tinged and slightly buttery, like something high in milk fat—and it makes no apologies for all of this. A vague whiff of coconut sometimes issues forth as the scent dries down, but is such a trace part of the scent, I almost hesitate to mention it. Unlike many fragrances in the Jo Malone line, Sweet Milk cologne is neither thin nor cologne-like; the creamy nature of its notes give it some heft (just the right amount), and only after a good amount of wear time does it dry down to a light amber skin scent, drained now of anything milky, and smelling like a whispery custard of musk, wood and light amber.
I almost can’t think of Sweet Milk as a perfume; I think of it more as an olfactory icon or avatar. “I am happiness,” Sweet Milk says to me; the simple, everyday kind of happiness that anyone can own, that is sweet the whole world over.
(Except that while everyone can own this type of happiness, not everyone can own a bottle of Jo Malone Sweet Milk. Whether olfactory or visual, art, it seems, has a different shelf life from the thing it portrays, and already this limited-edition fragrance is sold out. Given its popularity, let’s hope the company reissues it at some point. In the meantime, while we’re collectively hoping, you can head over to Undina’s Looking Glass and read [or re-read] her beautifully personal review of Sweet Milk; it’s thanks to her generosity that I got to sample it. Thanks, Undina!)
Created by perfumer Christine Nagel in 2011, Jo Malone Sweet Milk cologne is composed around fragrance notes of anise, bergamot, heliotrope, caramel, milk, almond, musk and vanilla.
Images: photo of condensed milk is from thevillagecook.com, whose recipe for Tres Leches cake can be found here; photo of tea service and the Jo Malone tea collection of fragrances is from JoMalone.com.
†The English Patient, copyright © 1992 by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1992, p. 176)