Sunday, May 13, 2007

Perfume Lessons in Grasse

The abundance of flowers in Provence -- especially in the area around Grasse -- led to its development as a perfume center several centuries ago. In the Middle Ages the town of Grasse was centered on leather-tanning, but that process made the town pretty stinky. Catherine de Medici gets credit for coming up with the solution -- de Medici, who came to France from Italy in the 1500s to marry Henry II, got the idea to perfume leather gloves to cover up the smell. A perfume industry eventually developed, and it remained long after the leather industry faded away.

Our group visited one of the three major perfumeries in Grasse: Fragonard, which has been around since 1926. We learned that although the flowers for the Grasse perfume factories once came from the surrounding countryside (lavender, for example, is especially big in Provence), nowadays development has eaten up that countryside, and today it’s cheaper to import the flowers from Egypt, India, and other countries. The job of the perfumeries in Grasse is to process the blossoms here and extract the essence, or what they call the “absolut.” It takes on ton of flowers to get a about a quart of absolut. Each perfumery has a head honcho who creates the perfumes and has an especially well-cultivated sense of smell; he or she is called “the nose.”

At Fragonard we attended a class where we sniffed little sticks scented with perfumes, trying to name the components. We learned that perfumes are classified into categories like woody, oriental, spicy, flowery, and so on. We also learned (or tried to learn) to distinguish a perfume’s “top,” “middle,” and “base” notes. Top notes are scents like citrus and fresh-cut grass; middle notes evoke flowers and spices; and bass notes include amber and wood. It felt a little like the wine tasting of a week earlier: The instructor described Shalimar, for example, as “vanilla with a powdery note.”

One of the Penn Staters, Marilynne Stout, proved to be especially good at picking up on all of these nuances, so we took to calling her “the nose.”

After our tour of the factory -- and some time in the gift shop -- the Penn Staters in the group had a very special treat. A bus took us to the town of Valbonne, where a Penn State alumna and her husband hosted a reception for us at their home. Aimee Rusinko Kakos ’69 H&HD and husband Michael Kakos live in the U.S. most of the year but have a summer home in the south of France, and when they heard that a Penn State tour group would be in the area, they offered to have the travelers over for wine and snacks. It was a lovely late-afternoon gathering, and the alumni from Cornell (the other school represented on this trip) were a little envious of our bonus excursion. Later, many of the Penn State travelers said that the Kakos’ generosity and the chance to meet Penn Staters living in France was one of the highlights of the trip.

Tomorrow we’ll spend a day in Nice, visiting the Chagall Museum and a picturesque Russian Orthodox church, and taking in the beauty of the Mediterranean. I’ll write about Nice next.


Members of our group took in a class on perfume-making at the Fragonard perfumery in Grasse.

The Penn Staters learned how to distinguish the various components of perfumes during their visit to the Fragonard perfumery.

A tile painting at the Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse captures the long tradition of perfume-making.

A special treat on the trip was a reception at the home of Penn State alumna Aimee Kakos and her husband, Michael (at right), who own a summer home in Valbonne, not far from Nice.

The Penn State travelers posed for a group shot at the Kakos home. Standing in the front row, from left: Jerry and Joady Gorelick, Pat Levin, Dot Kracht, Marilynne Stout, Jackie and Jerry Grossman. Second row: Jan Meyer, Alvin Levin, Aimee Kakos, Bob and Donna Nicely. Back row: Michael Kakos, Bill Kracht, Ned and Relda Newlin. Seated in front: Tina Hay.

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