Grasse

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Grasse

Grasse is, of course, the perfume city. About 30 large factories around Grasse process the flowers collected from all parts of the world. About 500 tons of orange blossom, about 450 tons of rose petals, and 350 tons of jasmine blossom and quantities of other aromatic plants grown in Provence or Alp Maritime or imported, are processed here each year.

The first step is distillation, which means that water and flowers (or petals) are brought to a boiling point in a still. The condensed water and essence are tapped into a decanting apparatus, where they separate naturally due to differences of density and insolubility.

Grasse has a seductive charm and much to please the visitor as it stretches out over the foothills of the high limestone plateaux and looks over the perfumed plains which have brought it fame and riches. There are wide views from the modern town with its terraced houses with split level gardens, while below in the old Provencal town narrow alleys are linked by steep ramps or steps which wind between houses four or even five stories tall.

Grasse is not only a perfume town, it is also famous for its crystalized fruit and flowers and preserves. A high grade olive oil is also produced.

Historical Sketch: A small republic (12th century). In the Middle Ages, Grasse was a tiny republic, administered by a council whose members called themselves "Consuls by the Grace of God." It based itself on the Italian republics and had diplomatic relations with Pisa. By way of Cannes, it exported soap, oil and tanned skins to Pisa; in exchange it received raw hides and arms. Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, put an end to this independent existence in 1227.

Fragonard, child of Grasse (1732-1806). Fragonard's father, a tanner and glove-maker, tried to make his son a lawyer's clerk rather than an artisan, but the demon of drawing possessed the young man, who soon left for Paris. Winner of the Prix de Rome at the age of 20, he achieved great celebrity. But the Revolution deprived him of his fashionable clientele and dictated a more severe style of painting.

Despite the protection of the artist David, Fragonard preferred to leave Paris and seek refuge in Grasse in the house of his friend, Maubert. As a civic duty, he decorated the staircase of the house with revolutionary emblems; but he took greater pleasure in ornamenting the lintels of doorways with languorous love scenes. Fragonard had brought with him five of his finest canvasses, painted for Mme. du Barry, who in a fit of caprice had refused them. He sold them to his host for a minute sum. They were acquired in 1898 by Pierpont Morgan for 1,250,000 francs.

However, the painter became bored at Grasse and returned to Paris, where he lived economically, without, however, losing his happy-go-lucky airs.

One afternoon in August 1806, being very hot, this now elderly artist entered a cafe to eat an ice when a fatal cerebral congestion suddenly overcame him.

How Grasse Became a Climatic Resort: During the winter of 1807-1808, the gay and impetuous Princess Pauline Bonaparte, separated from her husband, Prince Borghese, and on bad terms with her brother, the Emperor, came to Grasse on the advice of her doctors and in search of relief from family worries, as well as to regain her strength in a warm climate. She lived at No. 2 Boulevard du Jeu-de-Ballon. At once great care was taken to stop all noise in the neighborhood of her house: the bell-ringer no longer tolled his bell, the milk girls no longer cried their wares, and cow-bells were removed from the cattle. Every day she was carried in a sedan chair to a grove of oak trees which she particularly liked and which is now known as "Princess Pauline's Garden."

Later, Queen Victoria spent several winters at Grasse in the Grand Hotel and at the Rothschild property.

Napoleon's Passage (1815): After the cold welcome for him at Cannes, the Emperor wanted to avoid all roads guarded by troops loyal to the king; he decided to take the Alpine Road (Route des Alpes) by way of Grenoble and advanced on Grasse. On March 2, 1815, General Cambronne preceded him with 100 soldiers and four Polish lancers and duly received the provisions he demanded from the municipality. But, perhaps because of fear of a hostile demonstration from the populace, the Emperor went round the town by what is now the boulevard Victor-Hugo and the Boulevard du Jeu-de-Ballon. In the Place de la Foux, he learned that the St-Vallier road was impassable to coaches and there abandoned his two small canons and his traveling coach and requisitioned mules. He camped on what is now known as "Napoleon's Plateau," but stayed scarcely an hour: in fact, just time enough for a lunch of roast chicken, which he ate silently, seated on some soldiers' kitbags. Two cypresses, of which only the trunks remain, were planted to mark the spot. The little troop then set out for St-Vallier and Castellane.

Old Cathedral of Our Lady: Dates back to the late 12th century, but was restored and repaired in the 17th century. The double staircase as the entrance with its wide stone handrail and the two crypts were added in the 18th century. Note the panels of the main door (1721) in the facade.

Inside, above the door to the sacristy is the Washing of the Feet, one of the rare religious canvasses of Fragonard — the artist felt more at home with lighter themes.

It is curious to read again the recommendations made to the monks by the bishops of Grasse in the 17th century: during offices they were forbidden to walk about, to chatter or to curl their mustaches; neither were they allowed to sleep, spit or smoke. Recommendations to the faithful were not to throw nuts or oranges at each other during the services and to leave the cathedral immediately if they felt the call of nature.

Economy  Flowers and Vegetables.

Cut Flowers: Alphonse Karr, a political refugee living in Nice before the annexation, is generally credited with having founded the trade in flowers. Karr, with the help of an associate, began large scale cultivation and had the idea of sending bunches of fresh violets and small packets of mixed seeds to Paris. From this modest start has developed the trade in cut flowers and mimosa, in which 4,000 firms are engaged between Toulon and Menton.

The orange blossom used for perfume is obtained from the bitter fruit tree, known as the bigaradier or Seville orange. Orange-flower water is made from direct distillation.

The cherry laurel, eucalyptus and cypress are distilled both for essence and for toilet water. Mimosa is used for the production of essence by extraction. Sweet basil, clary (sage), tarragon, melissa or balm mint, verbena, mignonette, peppermint and geranium all yield products used in perfumery, confectionery and pharmacy, etc. Scented plants include wild lavender, aspic, thyme, rosemary, sage, etc.

Perfume Industry: Grasse is known all over the world as the home of the French perfume industry.

About 30 large factories around Grasse (not open to the public) process the flowers collected in the region (86 acres - 35 ha). About 500 tons of orange blossom, 400 to 500 tons of roses, 300 to 400 tons of jasmine, and quantities of aromatic plants grown in the mountains, other regions of France and from abroad are consumed. The three manufacturing processes are: distillation, enfleurage (absorption) and extraction.

Distillation is the oldest of these processes. Water and flowers are brought to boiling point in a still. The condensed water and essence are tapped into a decanting apparatus, known as a Florentine Vase, where they separate owing to differences of density and insolubility.

Enfleurage makes use of the tendency of fatty materials to become impregnated with the scent of flowers. Each day fresh flowers are laid on a mixture of fat. At the end of the season the fat is kneaded with alcohol which brings out the perfume. The essence thus obtained is called "the absolute of pure pommade." Extraction, the third process, uses a solvent which extracts the perfume from the flowers with the maximum of concentration and strength. The flowers are mixed with the solvent which is then evaporated. The result, known as concrete, is a mixture of wax and perfume. The wax, like the fat, is eliminated by means of alcohol and pure perfume or absolue de concrete is obtained.

Le Bar-sur-Loup, Golfe-Jean and Vallauris as well as Seillans (Var), are also major centers for the production of aromatic raw materials. This luxury industry, which caters mostly for the export market, is supplemented by the synthetic perfume industry. Exports amount to some 180 million francs the most important customers being the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and West Germany.

The Lavenders of Upper Provence: For many the smell of lavender recalls the hills of Upper Provence. 40 years ago, the gathering of these flowers, which grow wild on the mountains, was only a minor harvest. As the cultivation of cereals declined at the end of the 19th century, the systematic growing of lavender was introduced on the plateaux and the higher slopes above 1,650 feet - 500 metres. Ideally adapted, the plant has given a new lease of life to many private estates; land that had been fallow for nearly 20 years is now covered with the green plants whose mauve flowers scent the July air. Later, lavandin (a hybrid obtained by crossing true lavender and great lavender), which has a more abundant yield than true lavender but produces an essence of inferior quality, was introduced on the lower slopes and in the valleys.

Field after field of sturdy lavender bushes can be seen on the Valensole plateau along the road from Digne to Greoux-les-Bain (piumoisson, Riez, St-Martin-de-Bromes). The annual output of lavender essence for southeast France is about 80 tons for lavender and 700-800 tons for lavandin, of which the Grasse manufacturers are large buyers. The main outlet is exported to the United States.

Early Vegetables: After North Africa, the region of Toulon and Hyeres provides the earliest vegetables and fruit. The Var is noted for the cherries of Sollies-Pont and the peaches of Frejus. In 1967 the Riviera dispatched 21,000 tons of fruits and vegetables of which 140,000 tons left from the railway station of Hyeres to all parts of France and abroad.

In 1967, the production of cut flowers reached some 26,000 tons, of which 80% were dispatched by rail, and 20% by road and air. About 1/3 of the total went to Paris.

Flowers and scented plants of the Grasse region: The May tea-rose is the same as that grown in the Far East, but the Mediterranean variety has a fine scent. Jasmine is of the large flowered variety, which has been grafted onto officinal jasmine. This is a costly and delicate plant which flowers from the end of July to the first winter frosts.

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