Whatever way you look at it, Christmas will be toasted and the new year rung in somewhat differently this year.
From the sound of carols in a candle-lit church, to gluhwein-fuelled catch-ups with friends by a fire and the eye candy of fireworks, some of the sensory cues that tell us the season of merriment is upon us might be missing this yuletide.
Our homes have already given winning performances as classrooms, offices, playgrounds and infirmaries in 2020, but can they now distil all the sensory stimulations of the winter holiday season within their four walls and save us from sinking into a festive funk?
Given the symptoms of Covid-19 include a diminished sense of smell and taste, ramping up the triggers to our taste buds and olfactory receptors is more important than ever, and can be one way to transport us to a different place.
When perfumer Barnabé Fillion was developing ‘Aromatique’, a collection of candles for Aesop, lockdown happened. The resulting scents are designed to take us on journeys in a time of travel bans. ‘They are meant to share landscapes of inspiration in the home. They are not intrusive – it makes you escape, but doesn’t take away the spirit of the house,’ explains Fillion. ‘Ptolemy’ has a resinous, earthy and woody scent that references the forests of Japan, while ‘Aganice’ transports you to Morocco’s Cape Spartel in late winter via clove, cardamom, tobacco and mimosa. Fusing the olfactory stimulation with the visual, the flickering quality of candles are as much a part of the deal – they are inspired by stars and named after astronomers through the ages.
Taste tutorials from the raft of new cookbooks, meanwhile, all point to an umami tsunami this season. We are used to all the tips for getting the most out of a turkey, but with the ever-increasing veneration of vegetables, professionals are arming us with ways to amplify taste, even when staring down a plate of rice or a turnip.
Ixta Belfrage, co-author with Yotam Ottolenghi of new plant-based recipe tome Flavour, advocates bud-tickling seasonings as a diversion within the home. She signposts the back of the book where there are ‘sub recipes’ for herb- and spice-infused oils, butters and marinades that can be bottled and stored, to be called upon whenever we are faced with anaemic noodles or leftovers in need of oomph. ‘There’s “Numbing oil”, a Szechuan-inspired oil with a mix of chillis, to spice up noodles or rice, “Date BBQ sauce”, which is fantastic with chips, “Curry leaf and cardamom mayonnaise” for sandwiches and “Charred chilli salsa” to go with roasted veg,’ she recommends.
Joining the mission to ratchet up umami in meat-free cooking is chef Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory, who is something of a flavour tsar. This season, he says, since we are increasingly flexitarian, is all about tempeh – fermented soybeans with a deeply savoury flavour.
Plant life also gets the vote from Frieda Gormley, co-founder of House of Hackney, the interior brand known for its uninhibited use of pattern and colour. ‘My plan is to bring a lot of the outdoors into the home,’ she says. ‘A connection with nature is needed more than ever. I’m filling my mantelpiece with thick, green vegetation, making big garlands from laurel leaves, hydrangeas, rosemary and lavender. And I’ll be burning sage, frankincense and myrrh candles.’
With this, Gormley leads us to another mood of the moment: sensorial layering. In Gormley’s plan, it is a fusing of the visually stimulating abundance of plants with fragrance. Youssef’s work revolves around research – much of which has been conducted with Oxford professor Charles Spence – into the close relationship between the senses. ‘What make us say it feels like Christmas?’ he questions. ‘Snow-covered landscapes, bells, radio jingles, the aroma of chestnuts roasting, the smell of mulled wine, a warm jumper. Put them together and that’s what makes us feel festive. It ties into nostalgia.’ And nostalgia, he affirms, brings the positive memories that are important in uncertain times.
Youssef suggests dialing up the sensory cues in the home, layering experiences as a way to be more mindful. A cinnamon scent diffuser, he cites, can engage the sense of smell while eating an apple dessert. Listen to a seasonal soundscape – the bustle of a Christmas market, for example – while being mindful of the texture and weight of the crockery.
For Charlie Hedin, founder of Tekla, which makes texturally refined organic bedding and sleepwear, the festive period is also about nostalgia. Touch, he believes, has the power, just like smell, to invoke memories. ‘You can curate your feelings by tapping into textures you have felt in your past – at your grandparents’ home or a holiday house you used to visit – everyone has different memories they escape to for comfort,’ he says. ‘Cosy could be cashmere for some, but linen for others. Our different experiences guide how we connect to different stimuli.’ Hedin advocates textural layering – something Tekla’s output – from flannel pyjamas and terry towelling robes to percale duvet covers and merino wool blankets – facilitates. In different combinations, he says, they can incite different moods: ‘If I want to read but not sleep, I lie on top of my duvet, under a blanket.’
Zoning the home is perhaps a way to have it all: quieter, mindful moments, alongside bursts of adventure. ‘You could create a place to curl up with a book, and a games corner and a little bar,’ says Gormley, who has moved her kitchen table to the drawing room. ‘Giving the home a declutter and fresh perspective changes the energies. Even just moving a chair can do it.’
More than ever, the holiday season this year seems to be a moment to embrace and enjoy for what it is. By making little upgrades to what we see, touch, smell, taste and hear can bring a sense of wellbeing– and, crucially, allow our receptors out for a festive fling or two.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration January 2020
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