Thursday, 17 August 2017

Le Civette & Unicorn, Collonges-La-Rouge: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 2

Collonges-La-Rouge
I so wanted to call this post 'Le Civette, L'Unicorn, et Le (Scent) Wardrobe', but that would have interfered with the integrity of the company name for starters, while the pun is tenuous at best in any case. Where is the witch, I hear you ask? Civet cats and lions may be considered loosely related, and unicorns are in fact mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - and The Last Battle - but they are resolutely absent from those books' titles.

I would also like to have conveyed just how astonished and delighted I was to stumble across this artisanal perfumery - one of only a handful such enterprises in Europe where the perfumer lives on site, creating and making fragrances from start to finish - in the small commune of Collonges-La-Rouge.  This fairytale village is about a hour's drive from my friend L's house - 45 minutes if her navigator had spotted the turn off for Toulouse first time round - and draws visitors on account of its quaint cobbled streets and the deep red sandstone of its buildings. Think Caldy Hill on The Wirral. Er...that is perhaps a rather obscure analogy, but it may mean something to someone!

Caldy Hill: 'Does this house look red to you?'

And when I say touristy, the many gift shops in Collonges-La-Rouge mainly sold what ex-Mr Bonkers would have referred to generically as 'high quality tat'. L bought a charming little bib for a baby that was about to be born to her next door neighbour, and I would have bought a bar of brown soap(!) - which some of my Facebook friends may recall as being a bit of a holy grail quest of mine - had it not cost 5 euros, and not been quite small enough either. I also found a surprise purveyor of scented discs that looked just like guest soaps - some of which were even brown - but which turned out to be pebbles impregnated with fragrance. And you can't wash yourself in those. (Their potential as pumice stones also seemed moot.)




So yes, reverting to the title for a moment, that is a rather lame effort by my standards, but any more would have constituted an unseemly mouthful. To make up for its uncharacteristic terseness, I will be as fulsome as possible in the body of the post about how excited I was to chance upon this scented gem in a surprise twist of serendipity. Stepping into the perfumery's dark and inviting interior - offering shade from the near 30C heat outside - my eye was immediately drawn to two prominent displays of their in-house range of perfumes. Speaking of gems, the shop also sold crystals and incense - and probably soap! - and knick-knacks and ethnic bits and bobs that I must admit to barely clocking, so intent was I on systematically sampling the Civette & Unicorn's perfumes.




I soon got chatting to a young sales assistant - it took all of ten seconds for us to realise we were both English, and promptly drop the old 'when in Rome' routine. She gave us both a quick run down of the range, and I came clean about being a blogger, in the act of asking permission to take photos of the fragrance fixtures and store generally. The SA said she would see if someone could come out and talk to me at more length about the brand. She wasn't hopeful that the perfumer himself would emerge, as he was known for being a bit of a recluse, but soon returned with his wife instead. Then to my surprise her husband joined her after a few minutes, and for the next hour(?) - I lost all track of time! - we were off, shooting the breeze about the industry (including the swapping of mischievous anecdotes over which I shall draw a veil ;) ), hearing about the inspiration behind the scents and their creative ethos, as well as details of the company's supply chain, and the care it takes to invest in sustainable / Fairtrade-type ingredients from round the world.




Before going any further, I should point out that the perfumer behind the Civette & Unicorn range prefers to go incognito. I shall call him 'P', because he was erroneously referred to by a name beginning with 'P' in a feature in a local newspaper. Note that his first name does not begin with 'P', but it will serve us nicely here. I can reveal that he and his wife (whose actual name begins with 'L', but whom I shall dub 'M' to distinguish her from my friend) are both English, and hail from near Bath. P mentioned a son, who has just finished at Bristol University, walking its corridors some 80 years after my father. Trust me, he doesn't look old enough.

Oh, and I should also tip you the wink that P is a Naturally Big - and not Always consistent - Capitaliser. I have reduced almost all of these to lower case, as I initially found them Ever so slightly Distracting, but have left one or two in because they are also Quite Endearing. ;)

"I really want the products to speak for themselves and not let myself get in the way. I dislike the fake celebrity culture that is prevalent in current society and now creeping into branding Perfumers and even Scientists (apparently). My place is out in Nature, gathering some wild plants for a small alembic distillation, which happens from time to time, and more in the future."


Source: Wikimedia Commons (grassrootsgroundswell)


A key point to note about the Civette & Unicorn line is its extensive use of essential oils:

"I'd estimate twice the amount of naturals by type used than the bigger companies would use...and they are mixed with Organic plant-derived alcohol, some filtered water, chilled and filtered - all at the EDT level."

"To sum up, I have my feet in both worlds: I appreciate the energetics and what naturals can bring, but there is also a place for traditional perfumery, albeit with a little bit of Unicorn magic added, and I try and bring that to both of those fragrant disciplines**."




Another noteworthy point is the affordability of the range, which starts at just 21.60 euros for 100ml of the men's fragrance 19500, (named after the postcode of Corrèze), while the most expensive scent and latest release, Lune de Turenne, is 58 euros. Not that that in any sense marks a progression, I don't suppose. No, I imagine the prices reflect the particular mix of ingredients - and in the case of 19500, an overriding wish to keep the product as affordable as possible for the local market, where the wages of a farm labourer (the typical local punter) are around 13-14,000 euros. The model in this promotional photo is in fact a waiter known to P. But notwithstanding its keen pricing, there are 35 natural oils in 19500! Or was it 32? A lot, anyway.

"I have always believed in making prices fair rather than going for the maximum price point based on how much hype and USPs you can tag around it. I like to remember the saying: 'a good deal is when buyer and seller are both happy'."

I was also curious to learn about P's past career. He has worked in the essential oil trade for 25 years - at different levels - from supplying some of the 'big manufacturers' to selling into the retail trade. When he was just 19 he landed a job in Cairo with an Egyptian manufacturer of essential oils and absolutes, herbs and spices, which served as an important grounding in the nuts and bolts of the fragrance business. (Please ignore any apparent reference to ground nuts.)




P's love of fragrance can in fact be traced back to his boyhood:

"I first created a fragrance at 8, when pipettes were glass with Black Rubber ends you swapped over, and I was allowed into a perfumer's laboratory alone on occasional Saturdays to sniff all the bottles and jars (Grenouille-style), and replicate the amber/chypre soap smell I loved from family holidays in the Balearics. As a teenager I contemplated training as a perfumer, but didn't want to get lost in a big company. Thatcherism was high and so I took another direction for a while until the trade called me back."


Source: Wikimedia Commons 

I also wanted to know how the shop came by its name.

"I had imagined a small shop in Collonges-La-Rouge for a few years, when the time was right. Being descended from a London family I always admired the name and logo of the 18th century shop 'Ye Olde Civette Cat', in the same way William Blake pulls me more than other Poets. That name has been used by a blogger, I believe, and when exploring names with my wife last year it just popped in, or revealed itself...The unicorn represents that touch of magic for the brand, and hopefully is needed back in perfumery, as much of it is just too commercial. I hope I can bring a touch of Alchemy back with the use of lots of natural and other things....It was the Alchemists gave the name of 'essential' to the oils from plants, the Quinta Essentia component - think 5th Element (not the film with Bruce Willis) but the Philosopher's Stone, no less!"

I had to google Quinta Essentia, and as well as its core meaning of 'Fifth Essence' or element, came up with this impressive superyacht.


Source: Wikimedia Commons (Tony Hisgett)

Hmm, it just struck me that the French word for 'unicorn' is 'licorne', so the name is a mix of French and English - like P and M and their adopted home, indeed - was that perhaps by design?




Going back to the notion of ingredient sourcing, here is the entertaining background to P's source of vetiver, used in Vetyver Coeur. It would be even more entertaining if I were to disclose every amusing detail...!

"Did I mention the Vetyver Coeur fragrance is the First Vetiver fragrance in the world to use Malawian vetiver? I was personally involved in quite a few visits there with smuggling in glass alembic equipment (import taxes are so high), and digging and distilling root stock from many different villages until the best one was found. It turned out the local village farmer was [....mischievous anecdote...], so some of his vetiver rootstock was purchased not by money, but with giving him Corrugated Iron Sheets for his roof, which is a big statement that you have made it. Forget that White Range Rover, personal plate and Tinted Glass, an iron roof is enough out there. The project is to supplement the income of smallholders, ethically harvest (part harvest), and importantly reduce soil erosion and the dependency on tobacco companies who pay less than peanuts for tobacco."

Which begs the question how much people might pay for peanuts? I interviewed a peanut farmer once - about his tractor lubricant, admittedly, rather than crop remuneration. Hold on, it might have been almonds (or even raisins), but the same principle applies.

I also couldn't help but notice a framed photo of Prince Charles on the wall, so of course I had to winkle out the story behind that.




"Prince Charles I met as a Photographer (and trustee of a UK-based African charity) in Sierra Leone, as the Charity I gave my time to had sponsored an organic vegetable garden at a High School there 5 years previously - it had been kept alive in a self-sufficient way by the teachers, supplementing the kids' diet - so important in Africa - hence me giving my time to this charity. Prince Charles was visiting the school (everything smelt of cheap fresh paint - it's probably the same wherever he goes!), and the organic garden (which also had some animals in it) was of interest to him. Charles was relaxed at that point, as he was away from the pack of press photographers that reminded me of the Hyena puppets used in Spitting Image years ago, and he could be himself albeit for a moment, gazing with a pig."

P was a captivating raconteur, and it didn't get much better than this tale of royalty and livestock in perfect harmony. ;)

Now in all our animated chat I had all but forgotten that it was L's birthday, and had been letting this fascinating fragrant find ride rough shod over her festivities! At one point she thoughtfully offered to go away and have a bit more of a wander round the village and come back again. On her return, P and I wrapped up our discussion, as it would have been seriously bad manners to have hijacked any more of L's special day.

And I think that is probably enough for this post. Part 3 will cover the scents themselves, my own favourites from the line, the special 'fig rubbing test'(!), and L's visceral reaction to one perfume in particular....


PS Long term readers may remember that this wasn't in fact the first time I wandered into a shop and chanced upon a perfumer...see this account of how I bumped into Zsolt Zólyomi in Hungary.

**Editor's note - P is also working on a ('long overdue') range of perfumes made entirely from essential oils, absolutes and resins, hence his foot in both creative camps.


Post-prandial photo in the shady garden of a creperie.



Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sun, sage, salamanders and Sisley: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 1

I have just come back from my French trip - to cool temperatures, overcast skies, and fitful rain. I sallied forth yesterday to buy croissants and whole milk in a bid to recreate the holiday experience, but nice as the croissants were, they couldn't cut the mustard - or rather the homemade vat of confiture with which my friend L presented me on the first morning of my stay.  I guess a sense of anticlimax is inevitable after such a lotus-eating idyll, which is pretty much what it was, give or take the lotus-eating. And you may be surprised to learn that there was a big fat, astonishing perfume episode bang in the middle of the trip, which warrants its own post in Part 2, while all the other scented aspects of my visit - of which there was a surprising smattering - will be covered 'en passant' in this post. Quite literally, indeed, for in a general chat about perfume, L's neighbour C happened to remark that she liked the smell of lilac, so I commended 'En Passant' to her in passing.


Jam today, jam tomorrow, jam for the foreseeable future

So here goes with the main part of the 'travelogue with fragrant accents'...

On the day of departure, I had to get up very early, and managed to squirt tinted moisturiser all down my clean T-shirt before 6.15am. It's that Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense cream (sic). I would add that it is 'super-prone to geyser-esque eruptions' at the merest flick of a lid, and urge extreme caution when using it.




Manchester airport was absolutely heaving...the sort of crowds where you'd stand up to peer at the departure board for two seconds, only to turn round and find someone in your seat. Also worthy of mention is how the airport - or certainly Terminal 1 - has a disorientatingly elastic sense of time. The gate was due to open 'in 5 minutes' for what must have been all of half an hour. As my plane was also delayed, I had ample time to browse in the Duty Free, but only took a moment to respray my scent of the journey, Hermes Eau des Merveilles, and tuned out to everything else, including the gigantic Toblerone ingots, which were three for a tenner, and should really have been reclassified as an offensive weapon on the joint grounds of weight and pointiness. I am pleased to report that my knitting needles were not construed as an offensive weapon on this trip. I decided not to attempt to hide them, but rather waved them ostentatiously at security staff. I think the added verisimilitude of my mentioning I was hoping to knit an entire flannel whilst on holiday might have swung things in my favour.




When we eventually landed, the disembarcation at Limoges was slow and torturous, and it took an hour to get through passport control and pick up my hand luggage, which had had to go in the hold. There were 189 people (the capacity of a Boeing 737, as I now know) crowded into an area the size of a convenience store. When I was finally disgorged into the Arrivals hall, I exclaimed to my friend: 'Sorry, it was chaos back there...complete and utter carnage...bedlam...mayhem...a shambles...disarray...did I say "pandemonium"? It was also pandemonium.'


Small child with Lancaster bomber - or rather the A400M

As we walked towards the car park pay station, I noticed that L had surprisingly strong sillage of a perfume I couldn't quite place. It occurred to me that if it was a favourite scent, she might have become anosmic to it and started to apply more and more in a bid to smell it on herself. Later, I tentatively inquired what the perfume was: it turned out not to be one of L's staples, but the remains of a bottle of Issey Miyake that was a cast off from a friend, and which she was trying to finish up, as she wasn't sure she cared for it all that much. Well, I was glad to learn that, and it immediately explained the sillage issue. Issey Miyake may be the 'poster child' for the inoffensive and supposedly anti-perfume trend of the 90s, but it has a monster melon note - a 'monster melon that has freshly exited a shower cubicle', as I am sure I have said somewhere on the blog, but don't ask me where.




On arrival in my friend's village, her ceramicist friend S, with whom we made the excursion to the Bernaudaud Foundation the previous year, popped round with some flowers from her garden for my bedroom. She herself left a discreet trail of La Vie est Belle, which continues to be her signature scent, while the bouquet itself included several sprigs of sage. These had a fabulously pungent aroma - unlike anything I had ever smelt in a Schwartz jar, which is pretty much my acquaintance with the herb up to this point. Oh, also in Paxo Sage & Onion stuffing mix, obviously.

We met up with S and her husband for al fresco coffee the next morning, and I kept stopping in my tracks as I caught whiffs of sage in different spots in their garden. So if walnuts were the plant leitmotiv of last year's holiday in the Limousin, sage was shaping up to be the vegetal theme this time round!




Later that morning, after sponging the jam stains I had incurred at breakfast on both trouser legs - silly spillages were to be another theme of the holiday - L invited me to join her in clearing out her fireplace, something she had omitted to do in the two years she has owned the house. Game for anything, I followed her upstairs to the sitting room and we carefully lowered the glass door protecting the grate to reveal...drum roll!...a carved metal salamander!




Well, we weren't initially sure it was a salamander, but a question on Facebook quickly elicited the confirmation we were after. I also learnt from a post on the blog 'Writing the Renaissance' that these mythical beasts were a common embellishment on the fireplaces of royal palaces, no less, while the chateau at Chambord has over 800 different kinds of salamander carved into the ceiling of the main hall.

And it gets better...!

"Salamanders appear not only on buildings, but on many royal possessions. Salamanders were tooled into the leather covers of books bound for the royal library. A perfume-burner designed by Raphael for the king had salamanders and fleurs-de-lis on the lid."





Thrilled by this discovery in her humble townhouse, L pressed me into service with a brush and a pot of linseed oil. I would never have guessed I'd be spending the start of my holiday oiling a salamander, but there again, I never expected to find a well-appointed table tennis station in my hostess's barn.




In the afternoon we went shopping in the village's bijou and compact Carrefour. It may even be called Carrefour Compact, come to that. And speaking of melons, to lighten L's basketload of shopping, I offered to carry a melon in one hand and a bottle of rose wine in the other, and sneaked in a few bicep curls with them on the way home. We ate in the garden that night (as we did every night we were 'in'!), and I managed to drop courgette carpaccio, which turns out to be 'a thing', really - a thing dripping in oil unfortunately - on my newly swabbed trousers.


We completely forgot to have a game!

The next day I had a major crisis on finding I was unable to access my flight booking for the return leg - I thought it wise to download my boarding pass well in advance of my return, you see. Ryanair seemed to have no record of it under the reference code I was given. I ended up spending an hour locked in a live chat session with a Ryanair customer services representative while he endeavoured to get to the bottom of the puzzle. It turns out that I did have a booking, but it was under CW6I7C, not CW617C. And yes, I had to look twice, especially as the 'I' of my booking print out didn't have a serif on the top and bottom of the 'I'. My eye read the booking number like a car registration, where it is customary to have a block of letters, then a few numbers, then maybe a letter again. You would never find a letter smack in the middle of the numerals. I realised afterwards that the only place that would ever happen is in one of those gobbledy-gook passwords that comes with your broadband. And now, Ryanair booking codes...so be warned!




Crisis over, we ventured forth into the Dordogne, after a picnic in a field, during which I managed to spill L's beer, followed later by my own tea in a cafe in Brantome (insert your own circumflex). I had visited Brantome in 1996 with Mr Bonkers, and in the intervening years it has become a lot busier and more trippery. However, I was pleased to spot that 'mushroom omelette' was still the (somewhat surprising) special on the menu of the riverside restaurant where we had eaten on that holiday. L and I decided that while Brantome was chocolate box picturesque, compared to the peace and quiet of her own village, where the stillness is only broken by the cooing of turtledoves, the chirrup of crickets, and the skitter of a lizard in the undergrowth, the Dordogne was too hectic by far - not to mention awash in those multiple view-type postcards - some with kittens! (Cue group shudder.)

The toilet of the cafe where I spilt my tea was noteworthy, mind, for this big bottle of cologne. It is only by Schwarzkopf (Henkel), a brand I associate with haircare products rather than fine fragrance, but I had a sniff as you do, and was amazed at the more than passing resemblance to Guerlain Sous le Vent. A drugstore cologne that is clearly punching above its price bracket.




That night we ate out with friends of L at a local produce market in a nearby village. The idea was to buy food and drink from the stalls that lined the square - well, more of a rectangle, really - then take your meal and eat it at the long trestle tables placed in the centre. The women in our party all had trout and chips. It never ceases to amuse me that VAT in French means 'vidé avec tête' - 'gutted with head'.




The following day was L's birthday, and I was up betimes on a quest to hunt and gather breakfast ingredients, after first changing my T-shirt due to yet another tinted moisturiser incident. First stop was the boulangerie. I asked the boulanger for his 'most medieval' bread, as L had mentioned that she liked one that was made according to a 'centuries old' recipe. He looked a little askance initially, but after scoping the fixtures with  professional care, settled on a rye cob. I got a couple of croissants with that, and though I quite forgot to ask for 'epitome-shaped' ones, he instinctively knew to proffer his most perfectly puffed up and crescent-shaped specimens, so that was a bit of luck. The fruit tarts had not yet been put out on display, but the boulanger helpfully went out back and fetched them for me, and with that I had the 'morning goods' side of things covered. Next up was Carrefour, to procure the wherewithal to make Bucks Fizz. Cue more weight training on the way back with two bottles of sparkling wine. And because of my wish to retire to the area myself one day, I couldn't help but home in on any little old ladies sitting outside particularly photogenic houses along the route, and surreptitiously try to gauge their likely life expectancy.

L was very pleased with my choice of loaf, which she declared to be 'commensurate with my great age'. I will leave the account of the rest of L's birthday till Part 2, as it was on that day that the big unexpected perfume episode occurred! In my excitement, I may have slightly hijacked her festivities in the process, but she was most gracious about it, certainly.


Does this bread look ancient to you?

Then the day after L's birthday we made an excursion to the hilltop town of Turenne, which boasted a fine selection of échaugettes, complete with inverted walnut whip terminations (see below). The steep ascent to the castle proved excellent for the calves and challenging for the lungs, and we were not sorry it was cooler that day. On the way down, we both made impulse purchases of mugs - two in my case! - even though my kitchen cupboards are already bulging with a 40-strong collection. But sometimes impulse purchases just have to be made, and the one I managed to bring with me on the plane has been in constant use.




That night, there was a street fair in L's village, and we joined some friends and neighbours of hers, including the aforementioned lover of lilac, C. I quizzed C about her taste in perfume, being totally floored by what she was wearing on the night (I am invariably floored by what anyone is wearing, to be fair). It turns out C is pretty much a Sisley loyalist, wearing the new Izia in summer - which I had never smelt before - and Eau du Soir in winter. We discussed our respective stances on Eau de Sisley 1, 2 and 3 (neither of us were big fans), and lamented the ubiquity of certain scents that shall remain nameless, but which may contain 'Mademoiselle' in the name.




There is a parfumerie in L's village, would you believe, that doubles up as an ironmonger's and a toy shop - of course it does. Or it did, rather. Today there is a only a rather forlorn collie in the window, who may or may not be officially guarding the deserted premises.




I also introduced L to Songes edp on the holiday, and we both wore it on her birthday! L's daughter is a fan of Chance, and L had asked me months back to suggest additional scents her daughter might like that had some crossover with it, though I hadn't managed to give the question any thought until the other day. So I have now belatedly given L samples to pass on to her daughter of AG Grand Amour (hyacinth floral), Chanel La Pausa (all about the iris), and Prada Candy - simply because I introduced another Chance lover to that one and she thought it was the bee's knees. ;) And I am very partial to it myself too. So we will see...

Coming up in Part 2 - the extraordinary perfume related episode! I do hope I am not overselling this, haha.