Sunday, July 26, 2009
On Friday afternoon I sat at a table outside of a bistro in the hills above Grasse, France. The pale blue sea was visible in the distance. The air smelled of salt.
Ten of us were there together to eat lunch. An international group, hailing from places like India and Argentina, we are all in the midst of an intensive course on scent at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Grasse itself, speckled with fields of jasmine and firms of fragrance, is the birthplace of the perfume industry and remains vibrant and involved today. We spend long days in class sniffing thin paper strips, the tips of which have been dipped into bottles of raw materials like bergamot, lavender, and galbanum. I’m deep into work on my book and on my nose, and thus far I can smell them all. The scent of cistus, an aromatic and woody flowering plant from Spain, brings me straight to the The New England Spring Flower Show, an annual event that filled cavernous rooms in the Bayside Expo Center with the scent of earth and smoke and pine, and where my father brought me every year when I was small.
As we sat around the table on Friday, speaking of little else than smell, a portly man with a shock of white hair tied back in a ponytail brought out a massive steaming plate and plunked it down in front of us all. Paella: a rice dish rich with paprika and saffron, with chicken and mussels and squid. Though originally from Spain, it is the specialty of this coastal French chef. It glowed in orange and red, punctuated with the pink of prawns. Everyone leaned in to sniff before taking the first bite.
Later, we finished with pie. The tarte au citron smelled of lemon and brown sugar. It was light and sweet and tasted of summer.