Learn to make perfume in Provence - an idea not to be sniffed at

Patchouli, vanilla, gardenia ... With so many smells to choose from, there's a risk of creating a stink. Louise Roddon concocts her personal scent
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The Independent Travel

'I bet they take one look at me and think, 'Aha! Old lady. Jasmine essence for her!'" muttered elegant white-haired Anne with a rueful chuckle. A spring morning in Provence and we were about to attend a perfume-making workshop. Grasse, the famous centre of French fragrances, lay an hour's drive to the east, but we were in the countryside, at a comfortable auberge on the wine-producing Château de Berne estate. An expert "nose" from Grasse's renowned House of Molinard was due at any moment.

'I bet they take one look at me and think, 'Aha! Old lady. Jasmine essence for her!'" muttered elegant white-haired Anne with a rueful chuckle. A spring morning in Provence and we were about to attend a perfume-making workshop. Grasse, the famous centre of French fragrances, lay an hour's drive to the east, but we were in the countryside, at a comfortable auberge on the wine-producing Château de Berne estate. An expert "nose" from Grasse's renowned House of Molinard was due at any moment.

This workshop - a refreshing take on the ever-burgeoning fashion for holiday courses - comprised a mixed bunch of amateur enthusiasts. Two English and three French, ranging in age from late twenties to seventysomething Anne. And trying to imagine the strange alchemy that a bunch of greenhorns might create within the confines of just one day's session was already proving great fun.

There was Sejolene, a sparky French businesswoman in her forties, who favoured something orangey. "But that smell never stays," she reflected, with a resigned Gallic shrug of her tailored shoulders. Sonia, a young oenologist, sounded as if she knew exactly what she wanted, describing her ideal smell in the lingua franca of a budding Jilly Goolden as "citrusy, with grassy-green grapefruity notes".

The rest of us struggled to describe our perfect smell. Anne was after something "zingy". Antoine wanted to be reminded of his grandmother's garden. And I aspired to something entirely me - a perfume that would stop people in their tracks to ask, "Hey! what is that you're wearing?" rather than, "Oh yes. Lancôme's latest, isn't it?"

We all admitted to being promiscuous about perfume, buying on whim - and then, often as not, abandoning the bottle a third of the way through. So the idea of a workshop dedicated to creating one's own signature perfume sounded ideal.

Outside the Ecole des Parfums, a converted room off the Château de Berne's old chapel, an unseasonal mistral lashed the cypresses and sent a delicate wrought iron chair skittering across the gravel. "Think I'll change zingy for something warm and woody," shivered Anne, clutching a stole about her slender frame. Soon, however, we were distracted by the sight of dozens of old-fashioned glass bottles filled with different essences, arranged in tiers on a Lazy Susan turntable.

Dominique, Molinard's vibrant perfume tutor, began by explaining the raw materials that make up a perfume, sketching a brief history of Grasse en route, and how the region's timeless supplies of jasmine, tuberose, violets and mimosa now get mixed with essences made from woods, leaves, gums, roots and beans.

Anne winced at the mention of jasmine, but soon brightened when Dominique elaborated. Beans refer to essences such as vanilla. Leaves mean patchouli and gums, frankincense. Perfume-making, it seemed, was much more complicated than merely mixing sandalwood and rose essence with a few drops of patchouli oil.

"Bien sûr!" laughed Dominique. "Every perfume in the world, has a pyramid structure. A top note - the volatile smell you first like, that stays on the skin for five to 15 minutes. Then the flower-based 'heart note' that stays for up to seven hours. And most important," she added solemnly, "your base note, because this represents 50 per cent of your perfume. It's the heady smell that remains on your clothes for a few days - the ambers, musks, patchoulis and vanillas."

In no time we were off, following Dominique's advice to use at least three essences for each note. "The more you have, the better the perfume, like a full-bodied wine," she explained. We dipped our paper testers into bottles of tuberose, musk, churchy-smelling cistus and spicy cinnamon. My nostrils reeled from the heady confusion of so many aromas. "Oooh, not tuberose!" advised Dominique, wrinkling her nose as she waved a fan of my testers in front of her.

Though the process felt a bit random, in theory at least, this signature perfume was acquiring a personal profile. There was patchouli - an evocative remnant of my quasi-hippy past. Vanilla, apricot and cinnamon, representing my love of food and cooking. Coconut to bring back memories of the Caribbean. Gardenia because these blooms were in my wedding bouquet. And frankincense, because the smell reminded me of my artist father's studio - a bit paint-strippery if I'm honest. "Ah yes! Much better!" commented Dominique, and I basked in her praise.

I admired Antoine's charming, rather Proustian decision to evoke a childhood in his grandmother's garden through a mix of blackberries, pear and cedar wood. And we all envied the speed and efficiency with which Sonia chose and sorted her final smells and mixed up her concoction without spilling a drop.

Anne was moaning that her choices smelled worryingly of rotting marrow but Dominique reassured us that the requisite 15-day "rest period" would change and mature the end result.

And then came the science bit. Measuring tiny amounts of essences into plastic pipettes proved incredibly difficult. But soon, with a final shake to the bottle, our workshop was finished.

Over lunch at the auberge, Dominique explained how heat, light and humidity are the enemies of perfume (bathrooms are probably the worst places to keep bottles) and advised us to have one smell for summer and something warmer for winter, discarding all perfumes after a year. Rather cheeringly, she confessed to that same perfume promiscuity as her students. The House of Molinard, she added, would keep our secret recipes, allowing us to re-order in the future.

We divided the rest of our time in Provence between lazy days at the chateau - enjoying walks past the vineyards and through the forests of this thriving, 650-hectare estate - and exploring the area. There was Lorgues, the neighbouring town, whose first-rate market boasted local olive oils and soaps and a stand devoted to exotic spices from lumps of waxy-looking fragrant amber to rose petals and dried ginger.

We took a trip to Grasse, tracing a route through the winding lanes of the gentle Vars countryside, past farmsteads advertising honey and nougat and through sizeable villages such as Taradeau, set against a backdrop of hills that still bore the scorch marks from last summer's fires.

Grasse is a town close to the English sensibility. Queen Victoria would buy eau de Cologne here, but despite the romantic evocation of its past glory in the filming of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume, little remains of the town's former elegance. Even so, it is worth a trip. And the organised tour of the old Molinard factory, with its antique bottles and labels, its soap-making rooms and old-fashioned distillation chambers, is great fun. The house still makes its famous Habanita perfume - a favourite with Twenties flappers.

Back in England, I eagerly awaited the grand opening of my fragrance. Dominique had warned us that all perfumes are affected by the skin's pH balance, which is why a fragrance you may admire on a friend can end up smelling closer to cat's pee on you, so I knew it was touch and go whether the concoction on the paper testers would translate well on the flesh.

My son says it smells "really real, not at all made up", and I guess it is pretty acceptable in a musky cinnamon sort of way. But the aroma doesn't last. And despite the fun involved in making the perfume, that's the biggest disappointment.

The lack of professional fixing agent means I'm constantly re-applying the stuff and thrusting my wrist under friends' noses with demands for a reaction.

I have also struggled to find a name for it. When I tried out my rather feeble working title, "Rêve d'Eté", my husband joked: "What's the French for 'armpit'?"

But then - though thankfully not as extreme as Napoleon who sent a message to Josephine from the battlefield commanding her "not to take a bath or his homecoming would be spoilt" - my husband's preference has always been for the pure smell of a "real woman".

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

EasyJet (0871 7500100; www.easyjet.com) offers daily flights from London Gatwick to Marseille from around £40 return.

The Château de Berne (01932 870915; www.berneauberge.co.uk) is about 90 minutes' drive from Marseille.

A morning course at the Ecole des Parfums at the Château de Berne costs €60 (£43) per person, based on a group of eight.

Three-day Discovery Stays at the auberge cost from €270 (£193) per person, based on two sharing, including bed and breakfast accommodation, one gastronomic dinner, beverages, and a visit to the cellar with wine-tasting. The course costs extra, as above.

A week's car hire in July from Marseille airport starts at £125 through www.carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845).

For more information

Contact The French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

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