There is something about travel in Europe that makes me go soft in the heart. Maybe it’s about the lush green countryside areas away from the cities or the quaint tucked away local cafes that serve espressos and hot chocolate or the fresh produce serving local farmers markets that never fail at winning my heart and making me sad that I don’t actually have a kitchen on my travels where I can pick up the good stuff from the markets and cook something with it.
I travelled to Grasse, a quaint town in the Provence region of France a couple of weeks back. Located in the South of France, the town is better known as “The Perfume town”, attributed to the wide number of Perfumery companies based in the region. Some of the worlds largest and best fragrance manufacturing companies are set up in this region.
One of the reasons is the weather of this place. The cool climate combined with the Mediterranean influence makes it conducive for the cultivation for some of the high value fragrance crops such as the Rose, Lavender, Pelargonium, Immortelle, Iris or better known to Perfumer’s & Flavorists” as Orris”. Believe it or not, but the Orris root actually takes 3 years to mature and then another 3 years of drying out before it can be processed to distill the extract out. No surprises as to why it is one of the priciest Aromatic extracts available globally.
While work took me to Grasse, it would be absolutely ridiculous on my part if I didn’t take time out to visit the wonderful “Perfume” town. Backpack in tow, I set out on a Drizzly Saturday morning with a limited time frame of 3 hours to explore the local area (I was to head to Nice after that).
The taxi left me to the town square from where I began my walkathon. The first thing that hits you when you enter the town square is the view. The mountains hidden between tiled roofs of houses makes you actually want to stand there and drink the view in. On the left, there is the famous “Parfumiere Fragonard”. Now, any travel book, any guide or any tourist would tell you that this perfumery is the first place you should go to when in Grasse. There are a couple of others that have been pretty well known too such as “Gallimard” and another which unfortunately I miss the name at the moment.
I started my trip absorbing every tiny detail of the view of Grasse before me. The clear skies, the green mountains and the slight chill in the air – enough to make me wish to stay there a few more days but sense struck back and I trudged along the fairy-tale like cobbled paths to the interiors of the town. My first stop – no surpises “The Parfumiere Fragonard”.
Frankly, being from the fragrance industry, it wasn’t really something that I absolutely wanted to see and explore but I did though..out of curiosity – mainly to understand what was it that made it so famous and appreciated globally. There are chains of Fragonard stores all over France I believe – at least I know about Nice and Paris.
After my exploration of this store and buying some interesting Cologne for my dad, I walked ahead – no specific direction in mind. I love it when I get to travel this way..No agendas, no routes but just walking where my heart feels like and instinct tells me to.
I opted for a steep cobbled path and all I could ever see were stores and stores selling Lavender flowers, Herbs de Provence (which is basically a mix of all herbs local to the Provence region and widely used in Provencal cuisine) and lots and lots of soaps, fragrances and natural oils.
It was as if every store was a Perfumer in its own right. I must have entered at least 10 different stores (just to explore) and every store had the same stuff – soaps, lavender related stuff – yes, a lot of Lavender products such as Lavender flowers, essential oil, soaps, flower pillows etc. I did pick up a small pack of flowers too and I did get a friendly tip from the store lady that these flowers could be used in making desserts and ice cream. Lavender ice cream?? Well, there’s always a first time experiment.
Moving further, there were the usual small café’s selling morning coffee and croissant – French breakfast staples. Another interesting shop that caught my fancy was a Nougat shop. This young chap was slicing slabs of Nougat – a lot of variants such as Apricot, Cranberry and Nuts to name a few. I actually never thought Nougat was French but I guess it is. I still have a Cranberry slab that I picked from there in my fridge.
Oh did I mention, Provence and especially this region is home to cuisine that includes edible flowers. I learnt it the first morning at the hotel where I was staying. They served Preserves and jams made using flowers such as Hibiscus, Lavender, Violets, Jasmine and Rose. There was even a Poppy flower jam. I mentioned this to my French hosts at the company and they went all out to help me find a store in Grasse where I could buy these preserves. Turns out, these are mainly made in Mount Sartoux –a place about a half hour away from Grasse. And I did get my stash of these wonderful preserves. Now to find a recipe where I can use them.
Coming back to the cobbled streets of Grasse – I walked ahead and an interesting set up outside a shop took my fancy. In fact, not just mine, there were a few others looking at this stand – decorated beautifully with bite size desserts – covered with a glistening glass dome and inviting people inside the store. It actually looked so beautiful that people were wondering whether it was actually real.
A Tunisian man owned the store. When I entered, he was happily talking to a family with a kid – answering their questions about the varieties of desserts, getting them to taste small bits. The happy feeling was replicated in his desserts which I guess were mainly sugar and marzipan based ones. The vivid colours, the happy flowers won my heart. There were also some other interesting creations such as a Rose and sesame Filo roll and an almond – orange flower cookie like thing. I tried speaking to him in broken French and he tried broken English…He made me sample his creations and even made me wear his toque for a picture. Quite a fun person and that is what matters ultimately when you are behind the counters selling interesting stuff. You need to be people-appealing and happy…only then can you sell well. People come by the happy vibes.
Moving ahead, a short turn and I heard the church bongs…Prettily dressed small girls and ladies in beautiful gowns scurried hurriedly along the paths towards the sounds..I followed quietly and lo behold, I come across a wedding in the happening. Ladies in beautiful dresses and gentlemen in suits – the setting was lovely. Clear skies, sunny day and a slight chill – I guess they planned the wedding well. I wandered around taking in the happy vibe and then left leaving the group to their party.
A short turn round and I landed at a street hosting the weekend farmers market. Made my day, this. Most of you all who know me would know of my love for farmers markets.
Local specialities, vegetables, honey, soaps (specially lavender ones)– everything was sold here. As I mentioned earlier, this region does showcase a Mediterranean influence in its culture and the same is reflected in its food too. Being in very close proximity to Italy, the food specially has been influenced considerably. It isn’t unusual to find Olives, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and similar stuff in the local food here. Tomato paste with garlic, Olive tapenades is some of the local foods that are must-trys.
I managed to cover this part in a couple of hours with a hot chocolate break at a local café but then it was time to head back..By the way, one must always take breaks at local cafes. Give’s you a chance to look around, observe and understand the people around you.
I would ideally have loved a day to spend more time wandering around the town, eating the local cuisine and also, possibly taking a class in the local cuisine..I had been told that there was a chef there who specialised only in cooking with edible flowers. I did try to contact him but being a weekend, I guess – it wouldn’t have been possible. Anyhow, it is important to always leave something incomplete in a place. Gives you a reason and an incentive to visit it again.
My Grasse sojourn was limited to this one day but it has definitely made me want to visit it again. Hopefully, next time, I will be able to take up the cooking class.