In the field of lavender
Provence – Long Read

World capital of perfume

Photo by Maria Pavlova

Provence – Long Read World capital of perfume

Hello Provence, the southern region of France where the smell of lavender, jasmine and pine hang in the air and the town of Grasse is the “World Capital of Perfume”. Owing more to the Mediterranean than to Paris, half mountain and half sun-warmed seaside, it is famed for its wine, food and beautiful scenery as much as its heavenly scents.

Dan Hayes
Dan Hayes Travel Writer

Rio de Janeiro has come to the south of France. A troop of scantily clad dancers dressed, just about, as sunflowers, passes by, twisting and gyrating, huge yellow and black fabric blooms attached to their backs. They are followed by a quintet of drummers in white shirts and purple waistcoats. Next comes a large, ornate carnival float from which a teenage girl hurls handfuls of white and pink petals into the massed crowds. On a nearby street corner a jazz band belts out tunes, the music echoing along narrow streets and passageways.

It is early August in Grasse and the southern French town is in the midst of its annual Jasmine Festival. For three days, locals and visitors alike take to the streets to celebrate the flowers that have put the town on the map and made fortunes for some of its perfumers. As I watch the parade from the terrace of the Croissant Rouge brasserie, I am joined by local businessman Paul Laroche, who proudly suggests his town’s importance to the perfume industry can hardly be overstated.

“This region has the perfect climate for growing flowers,” he says. “People knew that as long ago as the 17th century. There was plenty of sunshine, because we’re in the south, but also plenty of water because we’re near the mountains. Just outside the town you’ll find fields of jasmine flowers that are still used by the perfume companies in their fragrances, just as they would have been hundreds of years ago.” Their demand is considerable. It takes around 1,000 jasmine blooms to make 30ml of Chanel No5.

But Grasse’s riches initially came from an altogether less sweet-smelling direction, Paul says. The town initially focused its attention on leatherwork and with considerable success, selling its wares to royalty and nobility across Europe. But there was a problem: the gloves, bags and belts may have looked good, but they smelt pretty bad – and that was nothing to the odor of the town – as the tanning process used such nose-turning ingredients as human urine and dog excrement. Couple that with a generally warm climate – the mercury rarely drops below 25˚C in summer – and all too often the stench must have been bordering on the overpowering.

Royal approval helped to make his name

But the entrepreneurial citizens had a cunning plan. They began to treat their leather with scent derived from the flowers that grew so well in the region, with the fringe benefit that the town itself started to smell considerably more pleasant. Among the first to perfect the art of perfuming his leatherwear was a tanner called Jean de Galimard, who is reputed to have given a pair of scented gloves to the 18th-century French queen Catherine de’ Medici as a clever marketing ploy. She was pleased with the gift and that seal of royal approval helped to make his name, and to secure a sweet-smelling future for Grasse.

The innovative Galimard would undoubtedly still recognize much of his home-town today. In the centre, yellow and orange houses cluster around small squares, while steps worn down by the feet of many generations lead up to shady passageways overhung with washing and overlooked by shuttered windows painted in shades of pink, green and blue. Galimard also puts in an appearance at the town’s International Perfume Museum. Set in a recently restored and extended 18th-century town house, this tells the tale of perfume over the past 4,000 years. Its collection is wide-ranging and eclectic and amid the myriad vials and jars there are some truly intriguing objects.

Laurent Pouppeville, an expert both in Grasse and its perfume industry, joins me for a tour of the museum. We begin with three rooms dedicated to the ancient world. “Most visitors are intrigued by these displays about antiquity,” he says, “There is a room each for Rome, Greece and Egypt and they show that perfume’s first use was not about making people feel better or smell better, but was as part of religious rituals.” Indeed, he adds, the word “perfume” itself has its origins in Latin’s per fumum (through smoke).

In the Egyptian room we pause before two items that are strangely compelling, if rather ghoulish: the mummified hand and foot of a human body. What do these relics add to the story of perfume? “The Egyptians used scents as part of their funeral ceremonies,” says Laurent. “Substances like resins, incense and spices would all have been part of the mummification process, partly to help with preservation, partly to mask any smells should the body start to decay.”

There are three or four definitive fragrances for each year

Another item drawing the crowds is a traveling case that once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette. On loan from the Louvre in Paris, it weighs in at 40 kg when fully laden with all the queen’s essentials – including a chocolate warmer and a less than ladylike-sounding spittoon, alongside the more predictable brushes and bottles. Of more direct relevance to most of today’s visitors is a large and shapely display of 20th-century perfume bottles, each linked to the year in which they were first produced.

“There are three or four definitive fragrances for each year,” says Laurent. “So Chanel No5 is there for 1921, Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps in 1948 and Dior’s Eau Sauvage in 1966. That one was very important for the evolution of men’s fragrance and led the way as a combination of masculine scents such as citrus, oak moss and amber. Visitors see these products they use or they’ve used in the past and they can link them to different episodes in their life.”

After a visit to the museum one option is to follow the stream of visitors making the climb through the old town to the solid, Romanesque church of Notre Dame de Puy, whose rectangular tower is a dominant feature of the Grasse skyline. Inside it is predictably cool and shaded, massive supporting columns evidence of its 12th-century origins. More unusual, though, is an 18th-century religious painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, depicting a youthful, red-robed Christ washing the feet of a group of grey-bearded, gnarled apostles who look rather appalled at the prospect. The artist was not known for his religious works – locals swear this is one and only foray into the genre – and he certainly preferred depicting dashing chaps and jolly ladies in various gently flirtatious scenarios.

Fragonard is a name that it is hard to escape in Grasse. The artist’s statue stands, or to be exact sits, a suitably merry-looking muse looking over his shoulder, in the old town and his crinolined ladies and tricorned gents are an enduring feature of the souvenir stalls. More than that, though, Fragonard has given his name to one of Grasse’s big three perfumeries (the others are Galimard – after you-know-who – and Molinard).

This nosing process is very entertaining

This trio of companies are well geared up to cater for visitors, with each offering small museums dedicated to their history, extensive gift shops and master-classes where you can create your own fragrance under the guidance of an expert perfumer, also known as a “nose”, in deference to the appendage with which they make their living.

It is a memorable experience and involves being ushered away into a room whose walls are stacked with bottles and jars, conjuring up an image of a particular sweet-smelling alchemist’s laboratory. Labels carry names such as vetiver, rose, musk and bitter orange and tabletops look as though they have seen many a potion prepared. Slender strips of card are used to sample the scents before any final decisions about ingredients are made. This nosing process is very entertaining, as I try and reconcile a liquid’s smell with the name on its label.

Creating your own fragrance can also be more difficult than it sounds. The nose’s explanations about top notes, middle notes and base notes all make perfect sense, but it is a challenge to ensure your creation retains its finesse, especially when your own nose may have been dulled by the barrage of scents. After a few hours spent experimenting in one of the perfume houses, I feel somewhat overcome in the olfactory department and eager to feel the wind in my face and to experience a slightly less concentrated assault on the nasal receptors.

With that in mind it is time to depart Grasse, self-created perfume in hand, and head inland, deep into the heart of Provence, following the A8 motorway past Aix towards Avignon. A few kilometers short of the one-time papal stronghold I leave the main road and follow the winding D99. This weaves through one of the most picturesque areas in France, its pale-stone farms and sharp escarpments surrounded by purple and blue lavender fields. Close by are some of the most famous stretches of the Tour de France and the prospect of a brightly clad peloton whizzing past a field of flowers in full bloom is one to set many a photographer’s pulse racing.

Fine lavender is very difficult to grow

In the village of Coustellet, the Musée de la Lavande is a mine of information for anyone with an interest in perfume, horticulture or Provençal culture. Its operations manager, Audrey Delesalle, shows me around the former farmhouse and tells its story: “What we do here is explain all about how lavender is grown and the distillation process that turns it into fragrance,” she says. “We also tell people about the evolution of the perfume industry through the centuries. Something else they find interesting is learning about the botanical difference between lavender and lavandine – a hybrid of fine lavender and spike lavender.”

This distinction is important, she adds: “Fine lavender is very difficult to grow. It’s a plant that’s endemic to Provence and it flourishes at high altitude – in excess of 800 metres. It needs a very specific soil to thrive and for its seeds to take root. And every plant is unique – different in terms of color, size and shape – you’ll never find two identical plants in one field.’

I cannot help feeling slightly short-changed that it was merely the hybrid lavandine that so impressed me during the drive earlier. But the plant has its advantages, Audrey assures me: “It takes around 40kg of lavandine flowers to produce one liter of essential oil. That may seem a lot, but it would take 130kg of fine lavender to provide the same amount.”

Used for distilling the flowers into perfume

As we walk through the echoing precincts of the museum, she explains the building’s former role at the heart of a lavender-producing estate. We stop in front of one of several copper stills, this one bearing the marks and patina of advanced age and decades of use. “This would have been something peasant farmers would have used for distilling the flowers into perfume,” she says.

“It’s a wonderful piece, not only because of its history, but because it provides proof that people can do anything; if they put their mind to it. In medieval times, lavender was used primarily as a remedy in herbal medicine. It was cultivated by women and children in addition to the normal work they did in the fields and wasn’t seen as a particularly important crop.”

But that all changed as the perfume market began to expand. “The maitres parfumeurs in towns such as Grasse sent people out to the countryside to look for the best blooms and to buy them up. Soon more flower fields started to appear, demand increased and trade developed. Today, if you want to buy the best in lavender products – and there are plenty to choose from – you should look for the AOC label (appellation d’origine controlée). That classification guarantees the origin and quality of the product.”

Delesalle suggests that, now I have heard the theory, I should see some of the cultivation in practice, recommending three places that are both renowned for the colorful blooms that surround them in summer and for their ages-old Provençal charm. First stop is the Abbey of Senanque, 15km from Coustellet. Even today this is a remote spot and it may have felt almost at the edge of the known world when it was founded by Cistercian monks in 1148. This Christian order, who wore – and still wear – distinctive white robes with a black cowl, were of the opinion that hard work and the cultivation of crops were as good for the soul as was reading sacred texts or spending months perfecting the artwork of an illuminated manuscript.

Shafts of light enlivened by swirling motes of dust

Now as then, though, the monks live a life of dedicated religious commitment, rising around 4am for the first service of the day, then taking part in several more before their final activity – compline – at 8pm. In between they can occasionally be spotted going about their wordly tasks, either gliding quietly among the cloisters or occasionally amid the lavender blooms. Some areas of the monastery are open to visitors: church, chapter house, former monks’ dormitory. All are distinguished by their dramatic medieval architecture, with pointed arches holding up massive stone walls whose small windows let in shafts of light enlivened by swirling motes of dust. It does not take a particularly religious person to feel a weighty sense of spirituality about the place.

On a hot Provençal day, emerging from the shady precincts of the monastery into the full sunlight of the fields outside can feel akin to opening an oven door. Those who feel they need to earn their earthly rewards can then follow a hiking tour into the nearby village of Gourdes. Alternatively, a short drive along a winding, climbing road will cover the five kilometers in a matter of minutes. Gourdes is well worthy of a detour, despite being something of a tourist hotspot. It rises on a high limestone escarpment, its houses seeming to meld seamlessly with the rock itself. As a consequence of all those visitors, the village is well supplied with restaurants, many of them rather good.

For those looking to blow the budget one recommendation is the Michelin-starred restaurant at the five-star Hotel les Bories. Overseen by chef Pascal Ginoux, it focuses on locally sourced Provençal dishes and offers such a la carte options as pigeon stuffed with foie gras, roast venison and rack of lamb infused with local thyme.

This is a typical Provençal village

The third place on my list of recommendations is Sault, a town that calls itself the lavender capital of Provence partly on account of its festival every August. “In many ways, this is a typical Provençal village and it’s particularly impressive when the lavandine is in bloom in the fields nearby,” Audrey had told me back at Coustellet.

With that kind of expert endorsement it is with some excitement that I drive north-east for half an hour or so. Away to my left the pale grey peak of Mont Ventoux, famed as a challenge for cyclists, gets gradually closer. Sault itself stretches out across a hilltop, the Alps providing a distant backdrop, the promised blue and purple lines stretching out before it. Strolling the streets on an August afternoon, their clean, almost medicinal, fragrance is carried up on the breeze from the fields below.

I am fortunate to visit on a Wednesday, Sault’s market day since the 16th century. The stalls carry an array of local honeys and cheeses, gleaming fruits and vegetables as well as a wide selection of lavender-derived products, from bunches of the dried herb, to brightly colored cloth bags stuffed with blooms, to colognes and perfumes. The array of appetizing smells is remarkable, but perhaps even more impressive is to take a stroll along the village’s raised terrace as the afternoon slips towards evening. The scent of flowers hangs in the air, cicadas attempt to reach fever pitch and sparrows chirp amid centuries-old stonework. Far below, a patchwork of fields shimmers in the heat.

Now, all I need to do is to capture this fragrant moment in a bottle and I might just have something to impress the perfume experts back in Grasse.


Other stories about Provence