‘The scent of pine trees evokes my childhood’
Nothing quite prepares you for the olfactory shock of arriving in India. Thirty years later, I still remember the first time I landed and the plane door opened. Back then, there were no bridges directly into the terminal and I remember being hit by a whiff of damp. Smell – more so than our other senses – evokes powerful emotions and helps define our sense of a place.
Many places inspire me. I have a small house in Normandy that smells of grass and is an immense source of happiness; I dream of visiting Africa to find the tree that bears a berry called miracle fruit, which has a strange, mysterious smell said to sweeten anything that is bitter or acidic… even one’s character. Perhaps I should make a perfume from that.
As a perfumer, there are no good or bad smells – all scents are interesting. It is my nose that guides me on my travels or when out walking. You can close your eyes but you can’t switch off your nose. People ask me if I smell things differently because of my job. It’s true that my nose is sensitive and I probably smell more things than most. And, generally, one’s nose is not as developed as our other senses. But you can learn to smell – it’s like learning to see colours better. I’ve worked hard on my olfactory memory. When my nose becomes overwhelmed and I need to give it a rest, the way I calm it down is by smelling my own smell. I bury my nose into a shirt or sweater and that neutralises it.
I never thought of becoming a perfumer growing up in Geneva, partly because I didn’t realise that job existed. I don’t have a typical perfumer’s background: I started out as a chemist at fragrance company Firmenich, and later worked as a chromatographer, a job that entails deciphering fragrances and their ingredients.
The scent of my childhood was growing up by Lake Geneva. A lake is not the same as the sea – there’s a smoothness to its scent that distinguishes it from the sea because there’s no salt in it. It’s also the smell of pine trees and hiking in the mountains. It’s also mist and the smell of gruyère cream – make that gruyère double cream. You can smell the calories a mile off!
One smell that really does stand out for me is that of Borotalco, the Italian equivalent of Johnson & Johnson baby powder (my mother was Italian). As soon as I smell it, it’s like being transported to cherished moments with my family, snapshots in time growing up.
But there are so many more: what follows are 10 of my favourite places with smells to sigh for.
Christine Nagel, pictured above, is the first female head perfumer at Hermès. Mexico City, or specifically Frida Kahlo’s Garden, is where I encountered magnificent lantana bushes. This small bush has red and white flowers or sometimes yellow and white ones. When you crush the flowers between your fingers, they give off a scent that is like that of passion fruit. It’s an acidic yet fruity and sulphuric aroma, a bit like a blackcurrant that tastes of sunshine. You also find it along the edge of the Mediterranean. I’ve used it in the Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate cologne. The house of Frida Khalo (museofrida kahlo.org.mx) is worth a visit. If you get the chance, visit during the Day of the Dead, a festival that is celebrated in a very lively and colourful way. If you like meat, head to La Mansion Marriott Reforma (marriott.co.uk) and try the bread rolls with chili spices, and the tuna with chorizo.
A seven-day Art of Mexico tour from Journey Latin America ( journeylatinamerica.co.uk; 020 3811 5828) starts from £1,847 per person, including accommodation, some meals and local transport. Excludes international flights. made up Ayurveda massage oils from unknown herbs and coconut oil. Later, I met an Indian journalist in London who had this oil in her hair and it took me back to Kerala immediately. I would love to use this smell in a perfume. If you like Ayurvedic treatments, I advise visiting Matt India (mattindia.com).
Transindus (transindus.co.uk; 020 8566 3739) offers a 16-day Kerala with a Difference tailormade tour, which costs from £3,114 per person, including B&B accommodation, all meals on the rice boat cruise, entrance fees, local transport, transfers and international flights. The smallest of the aeolian islands is where, during an evening passeggiata, I came across the most incredible smell – both milky and earthy. I looked up and there, above me, was the most enormous fig tree – its large leaves covering the path only steps away from the Boutique Raya (hotelraya.it/en-boutiques. php). Years later, I was chatting to another perfumer who had been struck by the exact same fig tree. Among all the little streets there, I also discovered the most wonderful restaurant, which serves up a delicious and original aubergine gnocchi, the Da Pina (Via San Pietro, 98050 Panarea ME, Italy).
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk; 020 3883 6117) offers an eight-day Aeolian Islands Sailing trip from £2,250 per person, including accommodation, most meals, transfers, entrance fees and flights.
The Frida Kahlo Museum, left, is also known as the Blue House; relaxing on a backwater houseboat in Kerala, below
The smell of the fig tree on Panarea was incredible