A new breed of British perfumers are beating the French at their own game, rejecting classical training in favour of fresh, home-grown scents with more than a whiff of the English eccentric about them. Alice du Parcq reports…
Knee-deep in a field of vetiver grass, a waft of lavender in the air, I can’t stop crushing my handful of bergamot mint and inhaling its lemony zing. If this you think this sounds like sunny Provence, think again. I’m in Dorset, 20 minutes from Poole, standing in 50 acres of prime perfumery land. Britain as an upcoming smorgasbord for perfumery ingredients is not far-fetched. Herbs, wild flowers and shrubs with a scented yield fare well here, and Dorset is being hailed as the new Grasse. It’s just a matter of time before more British perfume brands explore the extracts from local cooperatives, and failing farms regenerate their land for fine-fragrance ingredients.
One such British producer is Parterre. When I first heard of the fragrance brand and distillery, I had dismissive visions of a quaint kitchen garden with hobbyists mixing tinctures in the greenhouse to sell at farmers’ markets. Excuse me while I go and eat my words. This game-changing enterprise spearheads a new breed of perfumery, taking on centuries of French tradition and saying non, merci to its rigorous training. British fragrance, home-grown and home-bottled, marks a farming revolution akin to the revolutions in British wine, cheese and gin: sniff at it now, but you will be lured in soon enough.
The Keyneston Mill estate, home to Parterre, grows more than 2,000 aromatic plants and flowers. As if The Crystal Maze designed a garden, it is laid out in graphic compartments with a mixture of cubist experimental zones, sweeping meadows and linear harvesting fields. Behind Parterre are husband and wife David and Julia Bridger, who initially planned a vineyard before a chance visit to Grasse four years ago inspired a new direction. ‘We were looking for a botanics-based venture,’ says Julia. ‘As we walked around the Fragonard Museum gardens, our passion for fragrance got us thinking, “We can try this back home.”’ The couple purchased Keyneston Mill, on the river Stour, with a renewed vision of building a modern perfume playground. Set on a rich chalk and clay soil and with a coastal microclimate, it is run by a collective of experts including Sir Elton John’s ex-gardener Stuart Neilson and former RHS botanist Nanette Wraith. The main production lab is closed to the public, but a visitors’ workshop features active distillation vats and Parterre’s own extracts to smell.
‘The idea is to be experimental, using plants not immediately associated with perfumery, such as yarrow and hyssop,’ says David. ‘And through trial and error, we’ve learnt to grow foreign ones, like vetiver, an Indian grass usually grown in Haiti. We didn’t know if it would work, but it did; now we’ve got fields of the stuff.’ There are plants the team struggle with, such as tall tropical trees (‘until we build a Kew Gardens-style greenhouse’), but the whole premise of Parterre is to come at nature’s hurdles from a lateral angle. ‘It’s impossible to grow tonka beans in this climate,’ explains David. ‘But we learnt that the beans get their chocolatey scent from coumarin, a compound also found in liquorice, hay and sweet vernal grass. So we can derive a similar scent from something grown here.’
What perfume fans will get seriously excited about is the man in charge of concocting Parterre’s scents: the eminent nose Jacques Chabert, who created Guerlain Samsara and Chanel Cristalle. The idea of a classically trained Frenchman dabbling in Brit-made extracts may sound absurd, but with most essences for fine perfumery coming from all over the world (Bulgarian rose, Indian tuberose and Laotian oud for instance), curiosities close to home feel fresh and alluring. ‘When my team and I heard about the concept we were intrigued,’ says Chabert. ‘We’re not used to working with the people behind the production of raw materials, and it inspired us to build fragrances around the oils. We’re proud to have been involved.’
He’s not the only one to have sniffed out Britain’s aromatic potential. Jeanne-Marie Faugier, a Givaudan-trained nose, collaborated with Kent beauty brand Mitchell & Peach to create the English Leaf fragrance. The family farm, run by Jod Mitchell, grows a species of lavender known for its sweet, peachy scent (hence the company name). ‘The oil yield is low but the quality is fantastic,’ says Mitchell, who produces about two tons of oil a year. ‘I have so enjoyed creating this classical cologne with a British twist,’ says Faugier. ‘This particular lavender enlarges its freshness, allowing the mind to wander through the lush English countryside.’
Dig deeper, and it seems our soil bears myriad world-class ingredients that even prestige skincare brands invest in. ‘We buy peppermint essential oil from a farm in Hampshire for our Energising range,’ says Susan Harmsworth, founder of Espa. ‘English peppermint produces the best quality oil because of the moderate climate. It has a much smoother, fuller, more rounded scent than alternatives such as American Mentha x piperita, used for toothpaste and confectionery.’ English camomile is another star, used in the sellout No 1 Nourishing Face Serum by Vanderohe. ‘It took six months’ sampling camomile oils before I found The One,’ says brand founder Olivia Thorpe, whose supplier is a secret. ‘I knew immediately the English variety was the finest of them all by the scent, colour and consistency, plus it’s certified organic.’
A few miles down the coast is the Jurassic chalk reef of Margate, where former advertising director Dom Bridges spends his days harvesting plants such as parsley, lemon balm and myrtle, to distil into fine fragrances for his brand, Haeckels. Tracey Emin aside, this is the coolest thing to come out of the ex-tumbleweed town, now a hotspot of creative cool. Inside his vintage apothecary lab, Bridges and his team create scented snapshots inspired by a specific area of Margate they felt an affinity with. Within the collection, you can smell the charred remains of a wood-and-leather rollercoaster, or a local graveyard overrun by brambles and sea lavender. Each bottle is laser-etched with the details of that specific moment, including the time, weather and GPS coordinates. ‘Everything within reason is locally sourced,’ says Bridges. Even the brass bottle caps are made by Margate craftsmen. ‘It’s important that we represent our country’s aromatic wealth.’
Bridges is part of a refreshing crew of artisanal UK-based perfumers without the exacting (and extortionate) French training, but who are considered skilled noses nevertheless. Perfumer Marina Barcenilla, based in Glastonbury, believes it’s time to shake things up. ‘Perfumery has been dominated by big fashion houses such as Dior and Chanel,’ she says. ‘Only perfumers trained in French schools were creating fragrances. This resulted in an oversaturated mass-produced market with no individuality. Independent perfumers had nowhere to go, so we decided to do away with elitism. We have access to modern chemistry as well as manuscripts going back hundreds of years, plus access to raw materials and the passion to create our own perfumes. And so we did.’
By Alice du Parcq , Stella Magazine, Telegraph, September, 2017
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