Thursday, 17 August 2017

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

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.


Unknown said...

What a wonderful encounter . And you were the perfect perfume blogger for this discovery. I'm looking forward to the scent reviews now. I'm off to France myself next week but don't expect any secret perfume houses in the Vendee.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

It was exactly that. I was pinching myself when we came away - did that really happen? And P was so entertaining - the bit about Prince Charles and the new paint smell has me chuckling even now.

Have a wonderful time in France and keep your eyes peeled for secret perfumeries, though they probably are a very rare find. By the way, I am still okay for the Petit Marseillais, thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a treat to read your post (part 1 was a great appetizer!) and about your meeting with a remarkable perfumer. Clearly this was meant to be!
My interest in more natural based perfumes and essential oils has grown over the last year, and I am very much looking forward to part 3. Hope Truffle is well and there are no Intruders. Hamamelis

Tara said...

Wow, P really was a captivating raconteur! What an interesting man with a fascinating history and a great attitude to perfumery. I can see why you were fully engrossed in conversation. What a find this perfumery was and what a result that you got to chat with the reclusive perfumer himself. Love the name of the brand too!
BTW I wonder what graphology has to say about people who use random capitalisation?

Vanessa said...

Hi Hamamelis,

Glad you enjoyed both parts! It did feel like amazing luck. Interesting that you are gravitating more towards naturals and essential oils. I think the Civette & Unicorn range could well appeal. I had a good 'strike rate' with it in terms of ones I liked.

About to leave Truffle as am off on another trip. We have a new 'anti-intruder' microchip detecting cat flap installed now, but she hasn't worked out how to use it yet. Training will resume on my return...

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Yes, I could have chatted to him for ages, and if I go back next year we might well go again. Lizzie is genuinely up for another round of sniffing and stories!

Oh gosh, yes, a graphology take on the matter Would be very Interesting.

Undina said...

Loved the story! But I think you should have called the wife "W" not "M" - it would have been very fitting "P" (perfumer) and W (wife) ;)

Do you know that they have a website and a FB page? I think you should link to those in your next post: publicity (even in a private way) does not hurt to a brand.

On the different topic, 5 pounds is a little bit too expensive for a no-name handmade soap (said she who paid $20 for the current Jo Malone soap).

Your vacation sounds better and better with each next installment :)

Vanessa said...

It was a toss up between 'W' and 'M', would you believe?! For the same reason you suggest. Only I thought 'M' was close to 'L' in the alphabet, and also stands for 'Mrs' or 'Madame'.

I do plan to link to the shop in the next post, yes. I would be glad for the word to get out about this delightful brand - in every way.