Sweet smell of suc­cess

A novel’s plot gives clues to the se­crets of per­fume

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - IAN GIL­BERT

In the closing stages of Pa­trick Suskind’s novel Per­fume, the French town of Grasse is the set­ting for a macabre con­clu­sion to the lead char­ac­ter’s quest for the ul­ti­mate scent: that of a hu­man. Just the place for a hol­i­day, then.

In truth, a touch of no­to­ri­ety, real or imag­i­nary, sel­dom does any harm to tourism, and Grasse is pros­per­ing while pre­serv­ing its rai­son d’etre: the pro­duc­tion and pro­mo­tion of per­fume. Sit­ting high in the for­bid­ding hills stretch­ing north from the French Riviera, Grasse, 15km from Cannes, is sugar and spice and all things nice: pretty soap shops, well-man­i­cured gar­dens and well-heeled vis­i­tors clutch­ing colour­ful Frag­o­nard bags.

Could the Grasse of lit­er­ary leg­end be lurk­ing here? Not so much the di­a­bolic quest of the book’s cen­tral char­ac­ter, but the dark arts of per­fume mak­ing, har­ness­ing the pu­rity of del­i­cate raw ma­te­ri­als. (If you haven’t read Per­fume, the lead char­ac­ter, Gre­nouille, is a so­ciopath with an un­can­nily good sense of smell who rises to mas­ter per­fumer; his ap­petite for cre­at­ing scent, how­ever, is matched by his lust for killing vir­gins to add to his eau de horreur.)

To delve deeper, my wife en­rols in a per­fume course with the Grasse In­sti­tute of Per­fumery while I ex­plore the town’s labyrinthine al­ley­ways, keep­ing an eye out for any weird-look­ing French blokes with a twitch­ing nose and mur­der­ous in­tent. Spoiler alert: read­ing on could se­ri­ously dam­age your fond­ness for fragrance. Stop for a mo­ment and con­sider what goes in your favourite scent. Yes, sum­mer mead­ows, fresh linen and an­gel’s tears are what it says on the ad­vert, but the ac­tual in­gre­di­ents? Jas­mine flow­ers, gera­nium leaves, a bit of san­dal­wood, per­haps. How about a dust­ing of tonka beans, a sprin­kle of black pep­per and, for good mea­sure, a squirt of cat’s anal glands? That is more like it. This is the thread run­ning from Suskind’s 18th-cen­tury lit­er­ary set­ting to lat­ter-day Grasse — the warts-and-all in­gre­di­ents.

Grasse is the ac­knowl­edged cen­tre of the world per­fume trade, even if that ti­tle is now more down to rep­u­ta­tion than pro­duc­tion. Syn­thetic fra­grances mean mod­ern perfumes can be de­vel­oped in a lab­o­ra­tory, rather than a Proven­cal hill­side, although Grasse pos­sesses a mi­cro­cli­mate that of­fers per­fect grow­ing con­di­tions for sev­eral of the world’s most sought-af­ter raw in­gre­di­ents. (Chanel is a ma­jor cus­tomer, sourc­ing roses, gera­ni­ums, mi­mosa, tuberose and eu­ca­lyp­tus trees to en­sure its blends are con­sis­tent.)

But as a per­fume cen­tre of learn­ing, Grasse’s ap­pel­la­tion is an in­dus­try stan­dard, a fin­ish­ing school for any­one with de­signs on be­com­ing mas­ter per­fumer. It takes years to be­come a nose and most train here. They don’t just cre­ate perfumes; their knowl­edge is used for the likes of wash­ing-up liq­uids, sham­poos and fab­ric soften­ers.

A week-long per­fume course in Grasse is eye-open­ing and eye-wa­ter­ing, as par­tic­i­pants work with up to 20 raw ma­te­ri­als a day, learn­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics, “notes” (per­fumers talk about top, mid­dle and base notes) and clas­si­fi­ca­tion (flo­ral, cit­rus and so on) be­fore be­ing tested. Lemon, for in­stance, is a top note (fleet­ing), used in “fresh” prod­ucts such as sham­poo; longer last­ing san­dal­wood is a base note.

From its lofty po­si­tion in the Alpes-Mar­itimes, Grasse can take the moral high ground over cheaper per­fume cre­ation; to cap­ture a fragrance prop­erly takes love — and an army of pick­ers. To get just 500g of jas­mine “ab­so­lute” (the purest form, more so than es­sen­tial oil) re- quires 350kg of jas­mine pe­tals. One jas­mine petal weighs about the same as air. You do the maths.

That lovely minty, rosy gera­nium smell of Yves Saint Lau­rent’s Paris range comes from the leaves, not the scent-less flow­ers; again, it’s in­cred­i­bly labour in­ten­sive, re­quir­ing 800kg to pro­duce a mea­gre 800g of es­sen­tial oil. Th­ese raw ma­te­ri­als take some per­suad­ing to of­fer up their scent on the al­tar of beauty, us­ing steam dis­til­la­tion, ex­pres­sion and en­fleurage, whereby flow­ers are pressed into oil or fat to cap­ture the essence.

Now, about those cats. This scent is taken by scrap­ing the anal glands of the civet, a wild cat found in Asia and Africa. Ac­cord­ing to my wife and most of the class, it was “the sin­gle most dis­gust­ing thing I’ve smelled”. Not one to dab be­hind your ears, then, but in a blend it brings out flo­ral notes of other in­gre­di­ents. (Many mod­ern perfumes also con­tain musk — deer anal glands — but for­tu­nately for civets and Bambi, th­ese “an­i­mal­ics” are now made syn­thet­i­cally.) So this was the earthy alchemy of Gre­nouille’s non-homi­ci­dal ex­per­i­ments, the ge­nius that turns earth­ily in­tense scents into some­thing won­der­ful.

Away from the big per­fume houses, shops and tours, I fol­low that thread of old Grasse, find­ing per­fumer Di­dier Ga­glewski down an al­ley I couldn’t find the way to twice. His sparse show­room is a shrine to the nose rather than the eye, and his sig­na­ture cre­ation Cam­bouis (grease) at­tempts to cap­ture the spirit of a me­chanic cov­ered in grime af­ter a hard day’s work on the tools. Ga­glewski says he wanted to make some­thing un­apolo­get­i­cally mas­cu­line, a tongue-in-cheek chal­lenge to a per­ceived lack of man­li­ness in French males.

We com­pare (base) notes: he re­veals the spe­cial blend (cedar, ju­niper, basil, birch); I claim I can de­tect civet, and warmly pro­nounce this les knack­ers de chien.

Here’s a tip: birch is trend­ing in af­ter­shave. And here’s an­other: this pretty, prim per­fume town will keep pulling the hordes long af­ter its whiff of no­to­ri­ety has worn off. • grasse.fr • pro­darom.fr • au.ren­dezvousen­france.com

Grasse, top; gera­nium leaves are piled for dis­til­la­tion, left; dried flow­ers on dis­play in the town, above

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