The Perfumes of France

The Smells of France

Scratch ‘n’ sniff travel pages are still a thing of the future – but what better way to evoke the true essence of a place. “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make the heart strings crack,” observed Kipling. Remember wandering round a small French village in a vain search for lunch, the tantalising aroma of garlic and roasting chicken snaking out of closed shutters, accompanied by the murmur of serious eating, the clatter of knives and forks, later perhaps the snores of contented gourmands.

France is a country easily evoked by smells. Consider the potent mix of perfumes and chocolate in Charles de Gaulle airport, the ripe apples of Calvados, woodsmoke in the air at dusk in an alpine village, the yellow freshness of laburnum overhanging a country road in Chablis, the buzzing warmth of the herb garden at Villandry, the salty sea odour of Brittany’s oysters, the caves of Roquefort and their mouldy bouquet, the flowery exhalation of a Beaujolais cru, the gun-flint aroma of a Pouilly Fumé.
Or summon the scent of wild lavender on a Luberon hillside, the delicate fragrance of limeflowers dropping over a cafe table in a quiet Provencal village square, the herb-scented maquis of Napoleon’s native Corsica, so powerful Napoleon always swore he could smell it from the sea. Most evocative of all the familiar pungent combination of fresh brewed coffee and new warm bread, cut through with a blue ribbon of Gauloises to start the day.

The idea of smell as a powerful memory trigger developed in France at the end of the 18th century, in the final days of the ancien regime . The passion for heavy musky perfumes had given way to a desire for escape to fresh air and delicate scents, and the philosophers focussed on the emotional and nostalgic powers of smell, what Rousseau termed the “memorative sign” the smell which triggers a nostalgic existential moment of pure reminiscence; the Proustian madeleine, George Sand’s convolvulus flowers, which she first smelled with her mother and which ever after evoked “the place in the Spanish mountains where I first plucked them.”

Smell was considered to stimulate a more immediate and unreflective sensation than sight or hearing, a connection between past and present resulting in “the contraction of the whole self around one single point, the experience of “I”.” Wine tasters rely on the first sniff to trigger their memory, and smell is often used to counter memory loss; vanilla is particularly favoured as a stimuli for old people, because it’s the smell closest to mothers’ milk.

According to a French textbook on the social history of smell in France, The Foul and the Fragrant. Odour and the French Social Imagination, the scent of fresh cut hay was much praised at the time for its refreshing subtlety, (a new perfume appeared called New Mown Hay) and mountainsides in particular were favoured for the “memorative sign”; the calm and silence, and the proximity of the sun were considered propitious to the reliving of childhood.

What better way then to sample the perfumes of France than to follow in the footsteps of the monstrous Grenouille, Patrick Suskind’s infamous perfumer, ( Perfume) down to the gentle fragrant hills of Grasse, still reputed to be the perfume capital of the world.

Grasse is only about half an hours drive from the Côte d’Azur but its airy sheltered position makes a delicious change from the body heat of the coast. You leave behind the pervasive odour of pizza and Ambre Solaire and ascend through cypresses and shocking pink bougainvillea, until the unmistakeable scent of pine penetrates the nostrils. It is a good way to clear the nose for the experience to come. An alternative route would be equally instructive, descending from upper Provence through the celebrated lavender terraces of the Luberon.

At any time of year the hills surrounding Grasse are heady with fragrance; in early spring golden mimosa streaks like forest fire across the landscape, and jonquils scent the air; by early summer roses are in bloom. Later the tiny white flowers of jasmine appear, picked at first light to capture their seductive perfume.

There are perfume factories on the outskirts of Grasse, and large scale enterprises like Gallimard and Fragonard welcome visitors for factory tours; then it is possible to see and sniff vast mountains of harvested rose petals, spadefuls of violets and vats of orange blossom, along with mosses, thyme, and mysterious roots and powders all waiting to be processed.

Here the famous “noses” of Grasse, highly trained perfumers, classify and select hundreds of fragrances, blending chords of scents rather like a musician to create a harmonious combination. The latest development for these virtuosos is “head-space analysis”, analysing the air above a flower while it is still growing, and breaking it down into its chemical components. It is now possible to imitate the smells of flowers like magnolia and frangipani which have never been grown commercially before, and headspace analysis has also revealed the authentic scent of sweet peas for the first time, an elusive scent which has never been successfully extracted.

Grenouille’s “Rome of scents, the promised land of perfumers,” is a town of tall, narrow houses, winding streets, remnants of grand medieval mansions, deep shadowed alleys hung with laundry, Arab music and slinking cats. Although perfume shops abound Grasse feels like a proper working town, the main square full of real shops selling cheese, buckets and washing machines, though there are plenty of Provencal lavender bags to be had.

Market days in the 14th century arcading of the Place aux Aires are best, the air a rich melange of smells; peaches, figs and miniature fraises des bois; earthy mushrooms, pungent blue cheeses and redolent fish, cut flowers stacked by the fountain, and a vast selection of exotic ingredients, verveine, papery rose petals, orris root, peppercorns of green, white, black and red, ginger, cumin, cinnamon.

The key to it all for the scent sleuth is Grasse’s International Museum of Perfumery, with its rooftop greenhouse of perfumed plants. Here you can smell and identify varieties of verbena, thyme, rosemary, honeysuckle, orange blossom, mint, lavender and broom, as well as exotic succulents like ylang ylang, patchouli and vetiver in their own temperature controlled hothouse. Also on display are jars of base ingredients and perfume fixatives like oak moss, myrrh, ambergris, castrum, civet, arnica and angelica.

The basic processes of perfume extraction are demonstrated with all the equipment and ingredients required. Two of the oldest methods are still used; steam distillation used mainly for orange blossom, in which flowers and water are boiled in a still and the essential oils extracted by steam. Enfleurage (favoured by Grenouille for his murderous purposes) is mainly used for jasmine and tuberose; the flowers are layered with lard which becomes impregnated with the scent and is then washed out with alcohol. More modern methods include extraction by volatile solvents.

The museum has a magnificent collection of perfume bottles and containers; ancient smoky green Roman glass, delicate18th century cut glass in jewel colours, tiny enamel flacons, and bergamots, a tradition peculiar to the region, using the rind of the bergamot fruit to make boxes which are then painstakingly painted. They also have the entire contents of Marie Antoinette’s travelling case; a lady who took her personal odour very seriously indeed.

A great prize is the Japanese Kodo set, a fragrance game of exquisite design, with tiny ivory counters and carved wooden spills to sniff and identify a huge number of fragrances. The Japanese used to hold incense parties when they would discuss the merits of various scents, and one of their great pleasures still is “forest basking”, breathing fresh air among trees.

Recently the museum staged a curious exhibition of the smells of Europe; each country was illustrated by characteristic items and a little dish with a particular identifying smell; Portugal had fishing nets and the smell of the sea; England had golf clubs, English jelly and the smell of new mown grass, Spain was bullfights and the smell of leather; Italy designer coffee pots and the unmistakeable aroma of capuccino; Greece was copper jewellery, sandals and ouzo; the Netherlands, tulips and cheese; Denmark, smoked salmon…Scratch ‘n’ sniff travel after all.

For perfume tours in Grasse contact the Grasse Tourist Office. The International Museum of Perfumery, 8 Place du Cours, 06130 Grasse. Tel 93 36 80 20. Open 1st June-30 September 10-7 every day. 1st October-31 May 10-12, 2-5, closed Monday and Tuesday. Closed November and first week of December.