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The medieval French town of Grasse, near Nice, is the perfume capital of the world. Karen Bowerman visited the town to learn more about its heritage
The medieval French town of Grasse, near Nice, is the perfume capital of the world. Its also home to Fragonard, one of Frances leading fragrance manufacturers. Karen Bowerman visited the town to learn more about its heritage and to try blending an eau de toilette of her own.
What perplexed me the most was how, with just 25 millilitres to go Id made such a mess of it. But it was obvious I had; every whiff made me wince.
It reminded me of the time I dumped my car at the airport and raced abroad on a breaking story, totally forgetting Id just bought fish for supper. I drove round for weeks afterwards, breathing in a mixture of pine disinfectant, damp upholstery and cod. That, uncannily, was exactly what the 100 ml of eau de toilette sitting in front of me (the eau de toilette Id just created) smelt like.
I consoled myself that at least this time I could pour the smell away. But for now I decanted it, as instructed, into a pretty gold-topped bottle and handed it to the Nose - a highly qualified expert in perfume making.
I was at a fragrance workshop run by the Fragonard Perfumery in Grasse, a small, medieval town 17 miles from Nice. Its the perfume capital of the world and Id come to try my hand at fragrance blending.
I had an apron marked Apprenti Perfumeur, a small, white cabinet of essential oils, and numerous bottles, tiny strips of litmus paper and pipettes. But despite all the paraphernalia I wasnt exactly excelling.
Luckily the session wasnt entirely practical; it covered the history of perfume making too.
Grasses association with fragrance dates back to the 16th century when local tanneries, taking advantage of a trend in fashion, began making scented leather gloves. With the mild Riviera climate conducive to growing flowers and aromatic plants, it wasnt long before perfume production grew out of the towns thriving tanning industry.
By the 18th century Grasses tanneries had been replaced by perfumeries; essences were being distilled in rooms once strung with animal hides. Fields surrounding the town were a mass of colour: planted with orange trees, mimosa, jasmine and roses.
At the former Fragonard factory (now a museum) our group sits among sacks of dried rose petals, fragrance bottles blown from opaque, brown glass and giant copper distillation vats. Our tutor, the Nose, introduces us to a selection of essential oils used in perfume blending.
We start with Tunisian neroli. 'It smells like cinnamon,' someone pipes up. 'Or jasmine,' says another.
The Nose nods enthusiastically and unscrews a tiny bottle of Italian lemon oil.
'When you smell this one, listen to your tongue,' she suggests. 'Tell me where the lemon makes you salivate. It should be right in the centre of your mouth; your whole mouth should feel as if its full of creamy lemon.' There are murmurs of agreement.
While Im still trying to work out exactly where Im salivating (if at all), we move on to Paraguayan petit-grain. The aroma analysis moves up a gear.
The Nose encourages us to associate the smell (which apparently develops on different levels or faces) with a colour. She explains we will be hit by an initial aroma, then additional ones, as the scent takes hold. We dip our litmus paper into our bottles of petit-grain and breathe in.
Fellow pupils respond enthusiastically. My neighbour senses fluorescent lime. The guy opposite smells blood red. (I wonder how, and why). Another talks of cool, mint blue.
Before Ive managed to identify any colour at all, the descriptions become more elaborate: theres mention of waterfalls and 'woods teaming with mushrooms,' and then lo and behold, theyre sharing full-blown experiences: 'The smell reminds me of the time I entered the coolness of a mosque on holiday', 'I think its more like a smoky bonfire, after its rained.'
I sniff again, keen to participate. But no smell or colour or personal experience comes to mind.
I glance instead at the 100 ml of eau de toilette Ive done my best to blend, and realise, given my olfactory inadequacy, why its such a failure. I wish, at the very least, that it provoked the same passive response as Paraguayan petit-grain.
Instead Im hit by an indisputably recognisable pong: pine (of the stringent, disinfectant kind) followed by mustiness and rotting fish (I guess those are its 'faces').
I screw the gold lid on tightly (it wouldnt do to spill any) and pop the bottle it into its pretty drawstring pouch.
In the street outside, beneath a statue of a 17th century perfume maker, members of the group break into laughter, like students emerging from the strained, imposed silence of an exam. They spritz themselves with their creations (theyve named them Drama, Ego and Unique) and raise their wrists to share their success. Theres a burst of self-congratulatory chatter as the air exudes a zesty fruitiness, with hints of lemon, orange and spice.
The sky is clouding over. A deep, roasted smell cuts through the drizzle. I suggest we head towards it.
We huddle outside, under a tarpaulin, as the rain turns the cobbles terracotta and deep pink.
I breathe in deeply; I smell Brazil; I see apron-clad waiters dancing with trays above their heads, handing out espressos in the warm Rio sun.
Suddenly its easy; its the first aroma Ive identified all day.
20 Boulevard Fragonard, 06130 Grasse, France.
Perfume workshop: 59 euros per person.
Trips to Fragonard Perfumery can also be arranged by Le Mas Candille hotel, in nearby Mougins. Le Mas Candille, Boulevard Clement Rebuffel, 06250 Mougins. www.lemascandille.com Prices from 295 euros per night.