La Vie En Rose
Standing in a field at sunrise below the 16th-century French hill town near Grasse, there’s a stillness to the scene – the old church, the vineyards, the tall, bearded irises littering the path and an early mist disappearing in the heat. Yet on the rapidly warming thermals, something is on the move – a dewy, honeyed scent envelops you, spins and thins in the air before evaporating into the bright blue sky leaving you to focus on the vivid pink Centifolia roses that surround you. The size of this famous scented rose is inversely proportionate to the fragrant punch it packs. It’s much smaller than you’d imagine – a potent reminder that something so tiny and fragile can at the same time, be so powerful.
‘The power is in its petals,’ explains Xavier Brochet, global head of natural product innovation and technological director at Firmenich, the world’s largest privately owned perfume and flavour company. ‘Different parts of the plant contain different scents: the sepal [which protects the flower in bud], the ovary [which forms the seeds] and the receptacle [where the flower attaches to the stalk] contain the vegetal notes (“artichokes and fresh green”) that gives the rose its unique pepperiness.’
In addition, all sorts of geographical factors can affect a rose’s fragrance. ‘The rich alluvial soils and microclimate – mild temperatures, humidity and the sheltered valleys between the Alpes-Maritimes and the Côte D’Azur – produce the perfect terroir for growing roses,’ says Brochet. ‘The Centifolia has adapted to the area and it’s now the local rose. And how is climate change affecting the roses’ scent? ‘Every year you find subtle variations in a rose’s fragrance – millésime. But to keep the quality the same, the daily batches are blended,’ he adds.
If your idea of a scented rose comes from sidling up and sniffing a garden bloom or two, then think again. Among the thousands of varieties of roses, perfumers only really use two – the Centifolia (literally meaning ‘a hundred leaves’) and the Damascena (or Damask) rose. With their complex and long-lasting scents, both varieties are used in many of Creed’s fragrances.
The Centifolia Rose
The Centifolia rose has been grown around Grasse for many centuries and celebrating the town’s Rose de Mai harvest is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Sometimes called the Provence rose, the Centifolia is thought to have been developed by Dutch flower breeders in the 17th and 18th centuries and is a hybrid of three parents. ‘There are no official historical documents but modern genetic analysis shows that it is probably the offspring of Rosa damascena from the Middle East – thought to have been brought to Europe by the Crusaders – Rosa gallica (or French rose) and a third rose, possibly the Chinese tea rose,’ Brochet explains.
In the late 18th century, Grasse, with its perfect microclimate for cultivating flowers, became the hub of the French fragrance industry. In the 1930s, when the demand for natural perfume ingredients was at its peak, some 2,000 tonnes of rose petals were harvested from this area. As fashions in fragrances changed, the number of rose farms fell as the flower farmers turned to more lucrative crops and perfumers to new ingredients. However, in the last 10 years, the resurgence of interest in all things natural has meant the production of rose absolute (the aromatic oil derived from the fresh petals) has doubled.
Centifolia roses are gathered around 7am before the sun’s heat can evaporate the flowers’ precious oils. Their scent changes according to the time of day they are picked, and early morning is when the flowers are richest in their fragrant components – smelling sweet but transparent. The scent is a mix of hundreds of different molecules released from different parts of the plant.
A trained nose can detect many different accords within a rose’s scent – from vanilla to citrus (lemongrass), from raspberry, plum and peach to green tea, spicy clove and pepper, to musk, amber, mint and even artichoke. The rose’s rich, multi-faceted fragrance means it partners well with other florals, woody and citrus notes.
‘Different parts of the plant give different tonalities – that’s the magic of this rose. If you take just the petals, you get a very floral classical fragrance,’ explains Brochet, handing me a flower. ‘Then if you take the sepals and ovule of the plant, rub them between your fingers and then smell the scent, there is clearly some greenness but also a pepperiness that becomes part of the final extract.’ And he’s right. Here, in the palm of my hand is the sweet, dewy smell of rose overlain with peppery, floral, green notes – conjuring up the scent of my grandfather’s garden.
The rose fields at Domaine du Clos Notre Dame not far from Grasse are owned by the Rebuffel family. Here brother Bastien, his sisters Amandine and Fanny, together with their mother, Beatrice, have recently taken on the family 20-hectare farm. Five generations of their family have cultivated and owned these fields. Small producers like the Rebuffels grow Rosa centifolia for prestigious fragrance houses such as Creed, preserving Grasse’s long-standing tradition of and expertise in flower farming. Here, before picking grapes in September and olives in October, the family harvest their 3.5 hectares of rose bushes in the short window between May and June [hence the flower’s moniker Rose de Mai]. There is no second blooming for this floral crop.
‘Centifolia roses can be planted directly in the soil but at Domaine du Clos Notre Dame the roses are grafted with another variety, Rosa indica, which has a more robust rootstock, making the plants more resistant to drought and disease,’ explains Brochet. ‘A newly grafted rose is kept for one year and then replanted. In the second year, you get the first flowers. The bushes reach their maximum productivity within five years and continue at that rate for about three to four years, then there is a slight drop off. However, with intensive pruning in January and February every year, regular feeding and an absence of drought or frost, each rose bush can last between 20 and 30 years. 'At our farm, the rose bushes are grown organically. and weeding is done using a tractor or manually with the help of a draft horse,’ explains sister Amandine who is serving us a delicious drink of jus de raisin made from the Rebuffels’ grape harvest. Crop rotation is also important to keep the soil fertile.
The size of the Centifolia rose is inversely proportionate to the fragrant punch it packs. It’s a potent reminder that something so tiny and fragile can at the same time, be so powerful
- Erwin Creed -
The Clos Notre Dame rose pickers meet at 7am, with the early rays of the sun warming them. ‘When you begin to pick, you must pinch just below the receptacle with two fingers, twist and pull. You don’t want to pull the axis of the stem or you will lose the other buds,’ explains Bastien, deftly twisting each flower so it comes away easily, and placing them in his sacourette (a kind of apron). These rustic aprons, sewn by Eliane, Bastien’s maternal grandmother, are worn on the pickers’ backs to stop them from getting snagged on thorns and to avoid the pickers damaging tender rosebuds. Multiple buds (up to 20) sit in a cluster at the end of stems, so it takes a quick, slight and experienced hand to pick the open roses without damaging the unopened buds. Pairs of pickers move along the rows of bushes, which are planted with enough room on either side for a picker to work. ‘It’s very convivial and efficient. But it also ensures that the picker on one side isn’t tempted to lean over to the far side and damage the plant,’ says Brochet. Each open flower is picked and the full aprons of harvested flowers are transferred into hessian sacks that allow the rose petals to breathe and stay cool. The harvesting is done so quickly that it’s like watching locusts strip the bushes of their blooms – within the hour, all the pink open flowers are gone. This year, there’s been a bumper crop on the farm and the pickers have sometimes had to carry out two harvests a day to keep up with the opening buds.
The open flower heads must be picked on the day they bloom and the perfume extraction process needs to start directly after the harvest in order for the blooms to retain their quality and fragrance. Some 10 pickers are out in the fields today; daily production here is between 200 and 400kg of rose petals, with an annual production of six tonnes. However, this year’s bumper crop has produced a record- breaking 700kg per day, with a final production of nine tonnes for the Rebuffel family. The need for highly skilled pickers, the sheer quantity of petals required to produce the final product and the risk of bad weather or disease affecting the quality explains why Centifolia rose absolute is one of the most expensive ingredients in perfumery. After all, it takes 200,000 to 250,000 flowers (approximately 600kg) to obtain 1kg of the absolute.
Piled up en masse and stored in the Rebuffels’ cool garage until all the fields are stripped, the roses are then transported in sacks within two hours to the factory in Tourrettes, just 5km from the fields. The bags are weighed at the factory entrance as the pickers are paid by weight. This is the first stage in the process that takes the roses from flower to bottle. ‘The idea is to treat the roses as quickly as possible – deliveries are timed to be unloaded directly into shiny vats or extractors. The flowers are deposited in layers onto metal plates pierced with holes, with 2,500-litre extractors holding some 350kg of flowers. Then we add a liquid solvent and run different cycles of solvent washes. Once the solvent is saturated with the roses’ aromatic molecules, we carry out a very quick, gentle distillation to recollect the solvent for reuse and this results in a ‘concrete’ [a solid or sometimes semi-solid waxy product],’explains Brochet. ‘We then treat the ‘concrete’ with alcohol in a vacuum at lower temperatures to protect the fragile solution, eliminate the wax and create a soluble rose absolute.
With Rosa centifolia, sambac jasmine and tuberose at its heart, this dusky floral scent is offset by a vibrant note of orange blossom and creamy praline offering magical undertones, reminiscent of light woody nougat.
As fragrance extraction evolves, new innovative, greener and more efficient processes offer almost unlimited possibilities for fragrance creation, making it possible to refine the stages of extraction to accentuate or keep only the very best facets.
‘Innovation in naturals – with responsible sourcing and new extraction technology and green chemistry – allows the laboratories to ‘tailor’ extracts to a perfumer’s particular needs,’ says Brochet. Grasse has specialised in the extraction of flower essences for centuries and so it will continue to be a modern player in the fragrance industry. The chapel on the Rebuffels’ farm, where we take refuge after hours in the hot fields, is aptly named Notre-Dame-des-Roses, and speaking to Amandine I can see the passion and love she has for her farm.
It’s clear that this isn’t just about production but about a profound connection between flowers, family, land and the past that has stitched people and place together in a landscape where the Rosa centifolia has made its home.