By Ashley Davies
“These are the sexual sacks of the beaver,” says a prim lady who has just tricked us into breathing in the powerfully musky smell of a dark and shrivelled pair of what we had thought were some sort of exotic fruit. Poor old beaver.
We’re being shown around the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, France’s fragrance capital, and learning about the strange and wonderful components of scents over the ages. Fortunately, it has been more than 60 years since perfumers were allowed to use the toothy rodents’ crown jewels to make humans smell irresistible; the techniques of extracting scent from nature have become more sophisticated, and modern chemistry has made it possible for abstract smells to be developed, and synthetic ones to mimic expensive or cruelly mined ones.
This area of France (the inland region of the Cote D’Azure, which is a carnival for the senses in so many ways), of course, prides itself on its vast resource of natural scents, namely orange blossom (neroli, which is very on trend in the perfume world right now), jasmine (an important component of Channel No 5), lavender, roses and violets. Beside the museum, which shows and explains production methods and displays an intoxicating array of vintage perfumes, is Univers Fragonard (www.fragonard.com), which runs workshops at which you can blend your own perfume from a choice of nine essences.
Ours is run by a stylish and vivacious perfume expert whose training included having to memorise 500 scents a year – she really knows her stuff. If I’d done this course years ago, I might not have wasted so much money on perfumes that didn’t suit me. While I was aware of top, middle and base notes, I didn’t realise what their actual purposes were. It was all new to me that the top note is the dominant scent you smell when first spraying a perfume, and after that disappears you’re left with the key base note. This explains, for instance, why I am mesmerised by Guerlain’s Shalimar when it’s first sprayed but go right off it after an hour. I adore the top note, bergamot, but am less keen on the base note, vanilla, on my skin.
gThis is good to know when creating my own perfume. After much blending of all nine essences, I go heavy on bergamot top notes and use a lot of neroli for the base, and am delighted with the results. More than delighted, actually, I am in love.
Another little treat on the floral front comes at the nearby Atelier Cuisine des Fleurs, where chef Yves Terrillon teaches us how to cook with flowers. Rather than putting together a flamboyantly dentritic dish, we prepare guinea fowl with a smidgen of jasmine, and soft goat’s cheese with a hint of rose, and the results are delicately pleasing.
A short drive from Grasse presents another sensory treat in the shape of Domaine de le Royrie, a picturesque little farmstead run by Lionel and Monique Brault, a couple of high-flyers from Paris who gave up the rat race to devote their lives to olive oil. Lionel teaches us all about olive growing and production, while Monique prepares a lunch using only what she has grown on her land. Then we have an oil tasting session – very much like a wine tasting, only less likely to impair your judgment – which highlights a whole new world of flavours I hadn’t considered before. The Braults run group tastings and I can’t recommend these highly enough. It’s a lifestyle one could very easily slip into, particularly when their genial golden retriever bounds in to greet us all individually.
It’s a far cry from the slick world of Cannes, half an hour’s drive away, where the dogs are designed to fit in handbags and appear to know exactly who’s not even worth a sniff. In fact, when we’re treated to champagne in the mind-bogglingly luxurious suite of the Majestic, where we spend a couple of nights, our host seems genuinely surprised when we ask whether dogs are allowed. “Mais, naturellement!” He goes on to tell us about how the butler who comes with the suite made a photo album for a famous guest of their dogs’ activities at the hotel.
We have a lunch I am unlikely ever to forget at the Palme d’Or, the two Michelin-starred restaurant of the Hotel Martinez, facing the dazzling blue sea and watching the beautiful people. If you ever get a chance to come here and anyone is interested in purchasing one of your organs, do it. The Palme d’Or is a heavenly place to eat. There is truly nothing to fault.
There’s probably not a lot that you can’t get in Cannes if you have the money. La Croisette – from where all the famous film festival images are beamed – is lined with some ridiculously pricey hotels, all of which are dripping with cinematic history and glamour.
We have a nose around some of the other high-end hotels, including the Grand and the Martinez – two big, expensive favourites among superstars – and the Radisson Blu, where we take a few hours to get some extravagant spa treatments and soak in the salty pool facing the sea.
A wander around the town is eye-opening: while the Croisette is all shiny and moneyed, the areas just a few metres inland are old and pretty and more classically French. The Forville food market is packed with all manner of mouth-watering fresh produce from Tuesday to Sunday, but is given over to antiques on Mondays.
If staying in Cannes itself seems a bit trop, I highly recommend Hotel du Clos in nearby Le Rouret, which is stylishly rural, quiet and very pretty – and within walking distance of yet another wonderful restaurant, Le Clos St Pierre.
Take a car, take a little dog, take your best clothes, and take a lot of money.
• Rooms from €200 a night, Hotel Majestic Barriere, 10 La Croisette (www.lucienbarriere.com)
• Rooms from €123 a night, Hotel du Clos, 3 Chemin de Ecoles, Le Rouret (www.hotel-du-clos.com)
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 5 May, 2013