In the garden of scents [1]

I introduced not very long ago a new range of perfumes that we also called the collection of scents from the time of Louis XV knowing a sensual perfume which Madame de Maintenon wore, a crowned perfume which was a perfume which reminded you of fruit, citrus fruit, because at the time, the citrus fruits had just come to the orangeries in the gardens at that time, that time then was one of great fineness, the perfume of Louis XIX was still a perfume relatively heavy based on animal substances, dyed with ambergris, civet cat, musk cat with odours which were very powerful, tenacious, while it was a contrast, the biggest contrast which we can know because with Louis XV came the light perfumes, fragrances became more refined, that is to say that the perfumers were just about to understand, finally the perfumer who had the sensitivity of taste there were just to find the very beautiful harmonies, a little like the music of Mozart, you see, the music of Mozart is not complex, you have a music which is admirably well made, which appears simple, which appears light, which appears sublime, so well, it is that, it is exactly that. I believe that that was a time that you cannot copy, you had heritage in decline, that is to say that the people very about to look less to their parents, about to look less at their customs, about to look less at what they had done, and there was a spirit of creativity a spirit of novelty and of looking for making things lighter, then there were the ladies, there were the ladies, there were the ladies, we cannot understand the perfumes of Louis XV without understanding this competitive spirit that there was in the court to please, to charm, to find an elegance, but you had still the lady who was there, it was the engine of all that happened in the 18th century at the time of Louis XV in any case.

We are in the garden of scents with the honour of talking with André Chauvière, a historian and even an archaeologist of perfume. A nose in the high society of perfume in Geneva, M Chauvière has developed a passion for researching and remaking the scents of other times.

During my work I developed a spirit of collecting the works, the old works which dealt with perfumery as well as from the historical point of view, the technical point of view, in order to be able to master a little of their legacy and to return to the footsteps of former times.

There are some hand written documents of which some are for example in the British Museum which are quite precise and you proceed by recover ring, that is to say that we are going to take the first treatises of French perfumery which appeared in the 17th century, the first treatises of Italian perfumery appeared in the end of the 14th Century to the end of the 15th century. We have the first treatises with the Experimenti de Catherine Sforza, who was the grand mother of Medicis and so we have then quite a collection of things which we can put in comparison one of another and we can detect the truth from the false. We know that it is right and what is not right. And there are other sources, I possess a very large library of perfumery, I possess from the ‘Experimenti de Catherine Sforza whose manuscript is in Bologna, I possess most of the treatises of the Italian perfumers of the Renaissance, that is to say from the 16th century and from English documents, and there you are then, from that point of view we have quite enough grounds in documentation for introducing something quite solid, quite correct.

As for the primary materials?

The alchemists in the Middle Ages developed techniques for the distillation of alcohol from vines and we know very well the qualities of wine spirit , the quality of the alcohol that our ancestors had at that time, their names, and we can work in their steps making their liqueurs, the marinades of aromatized plants in the same alcohol and we arrive at the same results, the best quality benzoin is found in Siam and at the time of Louis XIV in France the quality of Siam benzoin which had been given as a present in the exchanges between the king of Siam and the embassy of the Jesuits of Louis XIV to convert the king of Siam to Catholicism, well, to return to its qualities, the qualities which we have today are exactly the same, it’s an exude, that is to say, that is a resin gum which flows from the tree.

André Chauvière has made all of his research available to the Garden of Scents of which he is the historical advisor. Céline Tessier is the director of it.

The garden in fact has belonged to the little town of Coëx for 60 years; it had been handed down by the mayor of the time in 42 and on condition that it be open to the public. So, that is what happened for 50 years. What was happening was that it was getting bigger because it was not so big at that time, and then the population of Coëx is only 2500 so it was necessary even to install a system so that the people may have the pleasure of seeing it, but it became a paid attraction. So, bit by bit, it got bigger and they chose this theme to have a theme around which things could develop.

Today it is a garden of 4 hectares with a program of lectures and rich and varied shows all around the sense of smell. If you have the chance, you can for example find a demonstration of distillation by Armel Bureau specialist in the use of perfumes in cooking.

The techniques are much more, following the development of chemistry and especially some processes of extraction, are much more modernized so we have the advantage is that people succeeded in having much more purity and much more concentration of products.

Elsewhere, if you were to walk in La Drôme, where they distil a lot of lavender you see that it is harvested and distilled right away, it is truly, well the more quickly you can go, the more quickly you have a quality product. Well then, I advise you to go in July in these regions, here or in the Drôme you will see that these distilleries because what’s more they cut the stems, they use them to make fire, the stems that, it is the smells of the mint smoke which are impressive.

People prefer pure products and natural products. So it is true that the essential oil of the products is one of the most natural products possible and so it is true that today that it be at a medical quality or that it be at another quality, that it be at a quality for eating, people prefer largely this type of product. You can make a good barbeque with lavender stems for example in your garden that smells very very good. Moreover, you have over there a recipe for lavender chicken on display, very easy to make. I believe that you have then you must have some sole filets in rose water, in rose milk, different cocktails also if you wish, you have whatever already to amuse you next Sunday for lunch.

All the quality of the cooking of people will be the quality of the produce which they make or which they buy, the ideal is to have a garden and to make for yourself your very own products, nevertheless we find today more and more herbalist food shops and even basic products which can be served like floral water for example, like essential oil, which can allow you to make simple quality products at the same time. It is not the trouble of wanting to do things too sophisticated. The flower is pure and simple and it is necessary to make it, and to let it especially, be fresh and pure.

This year for the pleasure of the visitors, M Chauvière has succeeded in an original feat in modern times, by recreating the perfume of Queen Elizabeth I of England. He has explained that the tastes of the 16th century were defined by the arrival of tobacco in Europe.

Tobacco, in any case, even before the Europeans reached the American continent, tobacco had always been perfumed by the Indians with amber, of liquids bars, even for different very old techniques, well tobacco was perfume and the techniques of perfumery of tobacco were quite similar to the techniques, the same techniques as the techniques for the perfumery of leather. I am going to give you a very simple example; the struggle of corporations in French since the middle ages when the people were very, how do you say, very concerned to protect their domain of knowledge, of work, of industry, so well the people were arguing at the end of the 16th century about the title of perfumer. The word perfumer did not exist in the middle ages. It is a term which did not exist. The people who were arguing about the title of perfumer at the end of the Renaissance were the haberdashers, the glove makers, who were working gloves, leathers, spices. The grocers, spices, hardware stores. Then there were the glove makers who had obtained in 1614 in the reign of Louis XIII the patent letters, that is to say the official letters to be recognized as glove makers, perfumers, powderers, for the wigs. And do you see that tobacco, tobacco, it is the merchandise of the perfumer in France until Colbert, who was a minister of finance of Louis XIV, withdrew tobacco from the free marker, from the hands of the perfumers in any case, to put it in state control, that is to day, a single product which belongs to the state, and that is how France has lived since Colbert, that is to say, tobacco is considered as a state controlled product, from that time then, starting from Colbert, tobacco is no longer an object for a technique of perfumery quick would have changed, and so it was that principally in Europe, the Dutch and English developed techniques for perfumery, from fashion, from tastes, that we still know today.

The perfumery of the body is relatively recent. The first use of perfume was more medical.

Then you have the disease prevention against the plague. To protect yourself from bad air, you do not know where it comes from, you think that with good scents, when you address yourself to God, you have good scents which you must burn and good scents rise. It is a prayer to God, that. So, well, in another way, you give off good scents to chase away evil spirits. And so there you are a general example of Europe since the Middle Ages. The perfume of the body directly, it is some thing very recent, in antiquity, the Roman antiquity or the Greek antiquity there was but not taken in the aesthetic sense of saying ‘I smell good’ but taken in the sense of supporting the body. Ancient times had techniques to care for the body with oils perfumed with flowers. And these oils, with flowers soaking in the oils serve to clean finally in a ritual, with the bath you see all these stages that were practiced by the Romans in their thermal baths, the bath that is something that we have not really found. In modern times what has happened for the body is extremely recent. It is the 20th century, it is the 20th century, yes because in the 19th century, 19th century, 18th century, 17th century, perfumery is a perfumery indirect. You perfume the fans, the gloves, the shoes. Elizabeth I of England had leather shoes delivered from Spain perfumed with orange blossom or with the odour of beautiful flowers. So the perfume is indirect, you had what one calls cushions, that’s to say bags, little sachets, which contain perfume in powder which one carries on oneself, but it is not really body perfume. The body was made up and with some cosmetics like for example the products a bit of alchemy to remove stains, spots, or even to lighten the skin. The criteria of beauty during these centuries, in any case in the 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, the criteria of beauty is a criteria of whiteness. The skin was white.

If the knowledge of Mr Chauvière seems inexhaustible there must have been work before. The training of the nose is longer than that of a doctor.

It is a very long apprenticeship even if one has a good capacity for the odours and for identifying the products, it is extremely long work to be able to memorise and know all the different facets of the odours, of the first materials, that they be for the naturals or for all the range of materials first synthetic, yes it’s very very long, yes. You mush have more than twelve years to have more mastery, a master interested in the perfume products.

But the pleasure of smelling remains happily at the door of everyone. Mrs Tessier is our guide:

So either you let yourself be led by the end of your nose, there are people who are going to be very rational who are going to follow the plan, who are going to look at all the plants and then others who are going to follow what attracts them, according to the colour, the themes. So the best however is to come at 4 o’clock with a gardener and make a visit with him because he is going to show you things for sure that you won’t see on your own if you are not a specialist in horticulture.

The odorous substances are either in the fruits or in the flowers or the leaves and sometimes perhaps in the roots, as in the case of the Iris. The odour of the iris is through the root, but that which there is, is so that one hasn’t dug it up one cannot smell it, that’s the case. So, what do you have here then? The richness, then from all the fruit plants, that’s what you have, these three notes. That is what is not so evident in all plants. And even in the leaf if you touch, you are going to have a note of green fruit tree that we call the little seed which is used a lot in perfumery. So in the garden you have a pile of vegetables like that, we have nearly three thousand of them and the people make use like that of the vegetables. There is the pelargonium, all the aromatic plants with the leaves, oh well the people make use of them. Here we have the fight to touch, not to make cuttings, but to touch.

[1] Le Jardin des Olfacties – The Garden of Scents. This is in the west of France in the Department of Vendée close to the Atlantic coast and about half way between La Rochelle and Nantes. There are more details on the web site: http://www.lejardindesolfacties.com

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