Roses must have one of the loveliest scents of all flowers. They have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and thousands of varieties now exist. Unfortunately, they don’t do well here in our poor soil and they didn’t like this year’s late summer drought in particular. However, a garden close by once had a roseraie (rose garden) known for its contribution to the perfume industry.
I discovered that snippet when researching the history of the château de l’Astorguié, a delightful small château in the village of Parisot. I mentioned it in that post in my château series. My interest was piqued again when I came across an article that reported on the discovery of a gene that gives scented roses their fragrance. It’s always disappointing when a vividly-coloured, satiny-textured rose has no scent and French researchers found that roses without a perfume don’t carry this gene.
Veg or flowers?
You don’t associate this part of France with flower gardens. This is because the people depended largely on agriculture for their living. It was hard enough to get the unforgiving terrain to produce crops of any kind. In fact, they generally call a vegetable patch a jardin down here, and not a potager, which is the word I learned for a vegetable garden. In past times, people might have had a climbing rose over the door and perhaps a lavender bush or two, but the concept of a decorative garden was largely unknown.
It was surprising, therefore, to come across an industry here that depended on the gathering of fragile rose petals. The park below the château de l’Astorguié once had an extensive rose garden. It was planted mostly with Rosa centifolia, the Cabbage or Provence Rose, which is noted for its clear, sweet scent. This hybrid was cultivated by Dutch growers in the 17th-18th centuries and is distinguished by the many-petalled flower heads. These grow on delicate arching stems that are often bowed by the weight.
The petals of Rosa centifolia were traditionally used in the production of rosewater and rose oil, especially in Grasse, the capital of French perfumery. However, the petals from the Parisot roseraie were also gathered for this purpose, early in the morning with the dew still on them. This provided work for some of the women of Parisot.
Distilling the essence
It takes around 5 tonnes of petals to obtain a kilo of rose oil. The process of distilling using an alembic was discovered by an Arabic alchemist centuries ago. Prior to that, rosewater was obtained simply by macerating the petals in water.
I have been unable to discover if the distilling process actually took place in or near Parisot. I assume it must have done, since the petals would have been too fragile to transport for any distance and they would have rapidly lost their scent. It’s also not clear how long ago this took place, although I would guess it was probably during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
If anyone does know more about this particular local industry, please let me know.
Incidentally, François Coty, who founded the perfume and cosmetics giant that is now worth billions, based his fortune on a rose scent. He was born in Corsica and took his mother’s maiden name, before moving to France and learning about perfumery. His early efforts were not a success, until he accidentally-on-purpose dropped a bottle of his Rose Jacqueminot perfume in a Paris department store. Attracted by the scent, shoppers crowded to buy it and he sold out on the spot.
The last rose of summer has bloomed and withered in our garden now. Perhaps next year will be a better one for them.
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