Grasse is another town in southern France with buildings washed in pastel orange and pink under roofs of terracotta tiles. Streets are narrow and winding. Mountains loom in the distance beyond the bell towers. It looks a bit like Menerbes or Roussillon or many of the other small towns, but we sensed it was a bit different.
At one time Grasse had a large number of leather-makers, their tanning creating a stench across the town. As early as the 16th century, innovative residents began to create floral perfumes to clear the smell. Now Grasse is the “World Capital of Perfume,” a fairly large city of over 50,000 people. More than a quarter of the people here work in jobs related to perfume, providing almost half of the perfumes and raw materials for the very large French production for world consumption.
The town is known as the city of flowers and perfumes. With warm weather, plentiful water, and tender loving care, flowers thrive. Jasmine, with a delightful aroma, is prominent later in the summer. In early April, we’re already seeing blooms throughout the city.
We remembered the lavender-colored wisteria from our visit to Grasse in 2001. It’s still here!
Three main parfumeries dominate the city: Galimard and Fragonard developed here in the 1700s and Molinard 100 years later. Each has a manufacturing facility, a small museum, and of course, a sales boutique! The city also has the International Perfume Museum, which explains the history of perfume and displays bottles from ancient civilizations to the present. Hands-on exhibits let you push buttons to get whiffs of different scents.
Just like vineyards rely on winemakers and tasters to ensure that they create the best vintages, parfumeries have sensory specialists. The perfume creator/sniffer is called “le nez” (the nose). He or she may be able to distinguish thousands of different scents. Nicolas Maillebiau and more recently his daughter Isabelle have created perfumes for Nina Ricci, Dior, Guerlain, Lalique, and many others. They capture essences of flowers, fruits, musks, and now synthetics and blend them to make unique beautiful fragrances.
We read an interesting story about a specific (fictional) “nez” Grenouille in the book, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Born without any personal smell, as in body odor, Grenouille has an outstanding and insatiable sense of smell. He seeks to create the perfect perfume and finds raw materials in the natural body scents of people he meets. Just as musk from an animal can be obtained only by killing it, Grenouille must murder to build his perfume. Sounds gruesome, but it’s worth reading.
In the 20th century, perfume companies started using synthetic chemicals to reproduce some of the perfumes making up their blends and create new scents that don’t occur naturally. That’s why all the Hollywood starlets can create something new as their signature perfumes. Musk in particular is largely synthetic now, which is good for the animals that were giving up their glands (and lives) to create perfumes.
And the production is no longer French women patiently gathering flower petals by hand and their husbands cooking and filtering to make essential oils. Perfumes come from factories, with large distillation columns and big stainless steel tanks.
During our days in Grasse we came upon a car race, fittingly, the 56th annual Rally of Flowers and Perfumes. We were moving slowly on a one-way street to our apartment and assumed there was an accident. No. Just race cars revving their engines and driving fast along the same streets we were using.
This was right in the heart of Grasse, using narrow city streets with buses, cars, and pedestrians doing their normal thing while race cars made loud noises and zipped past slower drivers.
We stayed in Grasse as the base for visiting the French Riviera. It is less than 15 miles from the Cote d’Azur, meaning an hour’s drive from Nice, Antibes, and Cannes with traffic. On many days we took a morning walk to the old town for delicious French pastries for breakfast before we went exploring.
French chefs are frequently identified as artists. Their food tastes delicious and it often looks like works of art.
The baker from La Belle Epoque, Yannick Tavolaro, is not only creative, but also controversial. For 15 years he has been making the pastry called La Deesse (the goddess, like Miro’s Deesse we saw in the Picasso Museum in Antibes). He also makes Le Dieu (the god) to go with his goddess.
In recent times this tasty little pastry has been identified as racist, perhaps like Aunt Jemima in the US. Opponents wanted the pastries banned. The resolution was that Tavolaro could make these pastries but not display them in his shop window. Somehow we found them…and loved them. In late-breaking news, we just learned that the top French court has overturned the ban.
We had a great meal at la Licorne, the Unicorn, with one of the best desserts ever!
We have moved on from Grasse, but we will stop back on our return to Provence. We have to get more pastries!