Grasse - At the Heart of the World of Perfume

Feted as the heart of the world of perfume and bestowed a ‘Ville d Art et d’ Histoire’ (town of art and history) in its own right, its population of just over 50,000 is devoted to its love of art history and perfume.

Grasse, Provence - France – where the sense of smell is revered, worshipped coming alive tantalising long embedded memories. Of all the senses – smell is perhaps the least acknowledged though no less powerful.

The elusive charms of Grasse trigger senses we’ve all experienced from time to time, a subtle scent drifting by casts us back through time .. it may be wild roses, lilac, jonquils, jasmine or violets. In Grasse those memories bottled and distilled unveil, releasing the essence and mystique of perfume.

The town itself against a background of fields of flowers is a breath of fresh air, elevated from the bustle of the coastal Riviera, with its elegant shops, houses and narrow laneways is steeped in history. The three major perfume houses of Grasse, Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard still very much in evidence, each offer glimpses into the origins and processes of perfume production with their own museums and tours.

On tour we visit the House of Fragonard, a unique experience to whet your appetite and tempt your nose to discover a little more of origins of perfume. Fragonard celebrate four generations and their 90th anniversary this year. The current heads of the family business, granddaughters Ann and Agnes and Francoise Costa enthusiastically continue the tradition of maintaining the history of the area, much of its heritage perhaps otherwise would surely have been lost. The Costas have established several museums showcasing the rich cultural history of the region including thousands of artefacts belonging to their family, ‘we were born into a family of collectors’ explains Agnes of the vast collections of paintings, fine artworks, costumes, ancient bottles, perfume paraphernalia and copper stills spanning years, displayed throughout the family’s museums, housed in nearby landmark buildings in Grasse and Paris. The most famous, the Musee de Parfums on the first floor of the original Fragonard perfume factory in Grasse.  Each year Fragonard feature one bloom of their signature range of fragrances – this year, 2016 being the year of the Iris.

Of particular interest for Australians is the use of ‘Mimosa’ what we call wattle, the trees first arrived from Australia in the mid 19th century, originally as a decorative plant for gardens though it wasn’t long before the unique fragrance of their distinctive blooms excited the ‘nose’s’ potential and  have become a perfumers mainstay – highly prized and a key ingredient in many high end fragrances produced today.  (Mimosa featured as Fragonard’s 2010 fragrance).

The beginnings – back in the 12th century the main trade of the town was leather and tanning, developed on the banks of the small canal running through the town, producing a strong unpleasant odour.

During the Renaissance period the production of gloves acquired a reputation for high quality as well as leather handbags and belts to meet the new fashion demands from Italy. The strong smell of the gloves was off putting.  Galimard, a tanner in Grasse came up with the idea of scented leather gloves offering Catherine de Medici a pair. She was smitten. The product spread through the Royal Court and society, thus securing a reputation and demand from Grasse.  The surrounding countryside’s micro climate, away from the sea with a reliable water supply was ideal for increasing production, masking somewhat the overpowering smell emanating from the tanneries. Trade with commercial interests in Genoa and Pisa intensified production of flowers. 

High taxes and competition from Nice later brought about a decline in the leather industry of Grasse and production of leather fragrance ceased making way for the now more lucrative commercial production of flowers and thus the perfume industry blossomed.

Jasmine the key ingredient of many renowned perfumes was originally brought to the town by the Moors in the 16th century and now harvests 27 tonnes annually.

Each spring Grasse pays tribute to its roses with a four day festival, this year May 5 to 8 bringing 50,000 roses from across France and Italy for the Rose Expo. During the six-week harvest lasting through mid-June, the roses in Grasse’s gardens are picked the same day they open to fully capture the signature scent.  August is the month for Jasmine harvest and the annual 2 day Fete du Jasmin attracts travellers from near and far to immerse themselves in the heady scent.

Not to be missed before you leave town is a visit to the Cathedral which features two works by Rubens and one by Jean-Honore Fragonard.

Other little facts of interest - the iconic Channel No 5 was developed from the fields of Grasse.

Today Grasse produces 2/3 of France’s natural aromas locally.

Visit Grasse on Day 11 on tour with TIKI TOURS Elegant Italy and France at Leisure tour. Departs Australia Wednesday, 28 September 2016  as well as 27 September 2017. 





Secrets of a Tuscan Kitchen

POLLO ARROSTO AL VIN SANTO –  (Roasted chicken with Vin Santo Sauce)

Vin Santo is a Tuscan dessert wine made from dried grapes.  Marsala makes a good substitute or use a good dry white wine if your local wine provider doesn’t stock it.

Erbe Aromatiche Al Sale is a fundamental seasoning for Tuscan cooks, made by blending aromatic herbs with salt. This handy blend usually sits by most Tuscan stoves ready to be sprinkled over a roast or grilled vegetables or to season a sauce.  Each cook has his or her own combination of flavours: rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage are some favourites. Mince a handful of fresh herbs with a teaspoon of salt. The salt adds flavour drawing out the essential oils back into the mixture. The salt also preserves the herbs, drying them and concentrating the flavours. (keeps for several days)


1 chicken

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tblsp extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tblsp Erbe Aromatiche  (see recipe above)

2 cups Vin Santo or substitute



Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Lightly oil a small roasting pan or heatproof casserole dish.

In a small bowl, combine the herb mixture with the garlic.

Loosen the skin of the breast of the chicken and spread the herb mixture under the skin. Rub the chicken all over with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the chicken on its side in the prepared pan and roast for 15 mins, then turn and roast the 2nd side for 15 mins.

Turn the chicken onto its back and roast for 30 mins or until the chicken is cooked.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and keep warm.

Set the roasting pan over medium heat and add the wine, stirring with a wooden spoon. Increase the heat to high and cook to reduce the liquid by half.

Add any juices from the resting chicken.

Drizzle the pan sauce over the roasted chicken and serve.

Serve with seasonal roasted vegetables or salad to suit the occasion.

Adjust cooking time according to the size of the chicken.

Tip: Chicken is cooked when the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced with a knife.

Now you may well have some Vin Santo left over, so what could be better than putting it to good use to finish off a delicious Tuscan meal with another delightful Tuscan treat.  Simply pour a small glass of Vin Santo and dip the biscotti in. The rule of thumb here is to dip and count to 5 for the best note.


By the way... if you just happen to be in Florence, perhaps, on the Elegant Italy and France at Leisure tour in September, we ought to let you know that on the city centre side bank of the Arno river just 100m left from the Ponte Vecchio lies a very well stocked bottle and gift shop, perfect for a bottle of Vin Santo and biscotti for yourself or a gift.  



They are a famously luxurious and expensive culinary indulgence and this years unusually wet summer in Italy has been beneficial for the pungent truffle which grow hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees.

Whilst certainly nothing to look at, the white truffles of Italy are highly prized and the most valuable in the market.  The aroma will set your tastebuds tingling. The first harvest has been decidedly better than those of the past few years following the warm autumn making Italy's prized white truffles more affordable this year according to the market stall vendors.

Specially-trained dogs have been digging up a record haul of the elusive fungi, emerging from the damp leaf litter of the forest floor, with the most dedicated truffle hunters keeping their best spots a closely guarded secret and looking forward to celebrating what could be one of the best harvests in recent years.

White truffles are rarer and more expensive than black truffles, this season selling for around €2,000 a kilogram, down from €3,500 last year and an eye-watering €5,000 in 2012.

The white variety or "tartufo bianco" to give it its Italian name, are mostly found in the woods and fields of the Piedmont region in the north of Italy with the towns of Alba and Asti particularly famous for the delicacy. Areas within the hills of Tuscany also produce large quantities of the aromatic tuber which were celebrated by Plutarch and Cicero in Roman times and have been much sought after by gourmands ever since. While the white truffles of Piedmont are particularly prized, black truffles are found in most parts of the country with the central region of Umbria accounting for around 30 per cent of total production.

The bumper harvest this year will be celebrated at the International Truffle Fair in Alba which starts in autumn, continuing until mid November where visitors can take part in tastings and cooking demonstrations. Many other towns and villages also hold their own truffle fairs and festivals. There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year. The record price for a single white truffle was set in 2007 for a specimen weighing in at 1.5kg discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. One of the largest truffles found in decades it was unearthed near Pisa and sold at auction held simultaneously in Macau and Florence. 

Pigs have been banned since 1985 in Italy for sniffing out truffles due to the environmental damage they cause.  The Lagotto Romagnolo is currently the only dog breed recognised for sniffing out truffles (although any breed could be trained for this purpose).

Make your own truffle oil.  Select a good tasting olive oil and simply add a small sliced truffle.  The aroma and flavor will infuse the oil and enhance many simple dishes, or brush slices of bread and lightly toast to accompany tasty dips for a special treat. 

Truffle shavers may be found in speciality kitchen stores for the finest of slicing.

White truffles are generally served raw or shaved over steaming buttered pasta and salads.  White or black paper thin truffle slices may be inserted into meats under the skins of roasted chicken, in foie gras preparations, pates and stuffings and will add an entirely new dimension to your festive season celebrations.

Whilst truffles fruit throughout the year, depending on the species, the prime time for harvesting is from September to November. Consider next year adding some extra time in Italy before returning home from Classic Italy Coast to Coast tour (1-22 September 2016) or Elegant Italy & France at Leisure (28 Sept to 19 October 2016) and be sure to make time to attend one of the many truffle fairs held throughout the country.


How to prepare fresh truffles

First be gentle with them, no hot water or harsh scrubbing, just wipe any remaining dirt off with a moist cloth. If not planning to use them for several days (once dry) they may be stored in a container of rice which allows the aroma to permeate the rice (perfect for risotto). This is the classic Italian way of storing them and they can then be used for any dish.  Black truffles may be used to cook with however many consider the white truffles best shaved or shredded and can be sprinkled over a bland dish e.g. pasta, scrambled eggs or for a special occasion refer to the article and recipe for Tournedos Rossini. Simply delicious!