FRENCH REPORTAGES

Words & Images: REBECCA MARSHALL

HARVEST OF RED GOLD

Halfway up a steep hillside, the forgotten-looking patch of meadow looked utterly unremarkable. But Agnès stopped. We had reached our destination. Looking more closely, I saw that small, unassuming, lilac flowers were dotted about the patchy grass. “There it is, our crop of red gold,” she announced.

Saffron, or l’or rouge (“red gold”) as it is known, is worth as much per gram as gold. Since medieval times, saffron has been grown and treasured in France as a fabric dye, for its various medicinal properties and for culinary uses — for which it is still valued today. Just a few filaments of saffron are enough to give a potent flavor and rich color to dishes such as risotto and the Provençal fish stew, bouillabaisse. However, over the centuries, saffron growing has all but disappeared in France. Until now. French saffron has recently started to make a comeback. Today there are 90 new producers in Provence alone and they pick and prepare the saffron just as their ancestors did. By hand.

Intrigued, I wanted to photograph the harvest of this unusual crop. I contacted Agnès Papone and her husband, who are organic market gardeners on a little farm an hour north of Nice. They had been given 6,000 saffron bulbs as a wedding gift three years before and, as autumn came, were building up to their third harvest. At last, the call came: “They’re blooming. Come tomorrow. Early.”

Each day’s harvest during the two-week flowering season must be completed in a very short period. The morning dew needs to have dried, but flowers should be picked before the sun has started to wilt them, because the grade of saffron produced declines rapidly with exposure to ultraviolet light. But if Agnès, her baby strapped to her back, and helper Evelyne felt under any pressure of time, they didn’t show it as they slowly and delicately worked their way along the narrow field. In the silence of the new morning, they picked each flower and placed it gently into a wicker basket, where bumblebees stumbled around, drunk and blissed-out in their newly found, scented paradise.

Only one, very small, part of crocus satavia actually counts: the stigma (female part of the flower). Back at the farmhouse, Agnès and Evelyne began the painstaking task of removing them. A stigma is divided into three filaments and each one needs pulling away, one by one, from the rest of the flower. This must be done gently, using the fingertips, without squashing or ripping them apart.

Though misleadingly bright red in color, the stigmas contain carotenoid dye, Crocin, which colors textiles and food the famous golden-yellow saffron hue. (I can attest to the dye’s powers that lingered on my fingertips for some days despite washing.) Once prepared, Agnès put the little red fibers onto a baking tray and placed them in an open oven, where they had to dry for 40 minutes at a temperature of between 40 and 60 degrees Celsius. The saffron would then remain untouched for at least two months for the flavors to fully infuse, before being ready to use.

When Agnès showed me the result of her harvest last year, I was underwhelmed to say the least. The regular household jar that she proudly presented was barely a third full, containing a mere 52 grams of dried saffron. But when she took the lid off, I reeled back in amazement. Nothing like the honey-sweet scent of the crocuses — saffron’s strong, spicy and complex aroma packs a proper punch. And selling for about $30 a gram, a small jar of l’or rouge punches well above its weight too.

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DEADLY INVADERS

Driving around in a car full of beehives wouldn’t be my idea of fun, especially while navigating hairpin bends in snow-covered mountains. But one crisp winter’s morning, I watched beekeeper Amanda Dowd do just that — for a very good reason.

Amanda, who lives on the French Riviera, is worried. Across the globe, honeybees are facing tough times in the form of pesticides, disease and habitat loss; but in France the recent arrival of vespa velutina (the Asian hornet) is posing a new and serious threat to their existence. The first Asian hornets sneaked into southwest France on a ship 14 years ago and were doubtless delighted to discover that they had no natural predators here.

Each nest of Asian hornets can raise up to 300 larvae, each one of which has the potential to be a queen and set up home elsewhere. As a result, the population of Asian hornets in France — and now in neighboring countries too — has expanded at an astonishing rate. They flourish especially in the south, where the climate is warmer. Although initially there weren’t enough of them to be a problem, three summers ago their numbers reached a tipping point. The air around Amanda’s beehives was simply full of Asian hornets and Amanda and her fellow beekeepers were in despair.

Because what Asian hornets like best is eating bees; and what they like second best is eating pollen. When adult hornets find a beehive, they employ the cunning tactic of simply hovering in the air in front of the entrance until a bee comes out, at which point they rip off its head and wings and gobble it down. Or they take the bee back to their nest, where they throw it to the larvae and tell all their mates where they found it.

So Amanda’s honeybees were simply doing what you or I would do in their position — no longer going out. The poor bees that did manage to leave between hornet relays and load themselves up with pollen to bring to the hive, couldn’t get back in the door — and were perfect snacks for hornets. No pollen in a beehive means no honey, and if there isn’t enough honey to feed new baby bees, the queen will stop laying eggs. In these circumstances, the population of a hive can die out in the space of a few weeks. One local survey of beekeepers concluded that, in 2013, over 50 percent of its beehives were lost as a result of Asian hornets.

Amanda placed hornet traps around the hives and, in desperation, put on gloves then bound them up in rolls of electrical tape to kill as many hornets as she could by hand. “I drove myself to distraction in a personal war with the hornets,” she said. But she was fighting a losing battle. Only one solution remained: move her beehives up to higher elevations in the Alps where the hornets hadn’t yet arrived.

The snow arrived early that autumn, so her bees ended up overwintering in the mountains. It wasn’t until February that Amanda could get access to the hives and I photographed her moving them 40 kilometers back down to the valley. Spring flowers were already in bloom at lower altitude, and she wanted her bees to be able to stock up on pollen, before the Asian hornets hatched out later in the summer. Then Amanda would simply have to drive them back into the mountains. One step ahead — but for how much longer?

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THE HOME OF PERFUME

Since the 17th century, the French town of Grasse has proclaimed itself to be the world’s perfume capital. But now overrun by perfume museums, essential-oil traders and souvenir shops, does Grasse still dominate in today’s commercial-perfume industry? I went on a photography assignment to find out….

Visitors certainly can’t miss Grasse’s old parfumeries. Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard, the Big Three, advertise their museums and factory tours on billboards all over the local countryside. Every year, more than a million people “ooh!” and “ahh!” over 18th century copper distillation vats, file through gift shops, and even create their own scents at specially designed showrooms. The Big Three appear to sell the majority of their products to tourists alone.

But there’s more to Grasse than the Big Three. Major perfume players do have a presence here — it’s just that the 60 commercial fragrance businesses in Grasse are much harder to find, and certainly don’t welcome visitors. Industrial units in the town’s suburbs are home to creators of some of the world’s most famous scents. You might not have heard of Robertet or IFF, but you will be familiar with their clients, from Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs to l’Oréal. Word has it that Grasse newcomer Louis Vuitton is currently setting up a new perfume workshop nearby. Together with the makers of scents for lower-end toiletries and cleaning products, all these companies generate a whopping annual revenue of some $700 million.

Carts laden with locally grown roses, jasmine and lavender no longer roll in through their gates though, as they once did. On the hillsides around Grasse, you may still spot occasional fields of flowers (I photographed a breathtakingly beautiful field of blue irises) and some local artisans benefit from Grasse’s reputation to produce and sell home-distilled rosewater; but the mainstream perfume business has changed. Flower oils started to be replaced by synthetic substitutes as early as the 1940s, and most of the cultivation of flowers that made Grasse famous has disappeared. The few real blooms still required in the business are generally sourced from countries such as Bulgaria, where they are much cheaper.

Creating a new signature perfume can take up to 18 months and is definitely not something that just anyone can turn their hand to. The very best master perfumers, or “noses” as they’re known in the trade, can gain something of a godlike status in the inaccessible world of perfumery. Jean-Claude Ellena is one, François Demachy another. They may not be household names, but those in the know refer to these Grasse “noses” only in the most reverential tones.

If you dream of one day joining these luminaries, a good place to start is the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. I can’t imagine that there are many college application forms across the world that ask wannabes to smell 20 scents and describe each one in detail. Inside the school’s elegant Belle Époque villa, I met a group of apprentices lucky enough to have been selected onto the yearlong course. In the classroom, my head reeled — as much from the chemical formulae on the whiteboard as from the proliferation of scent-soaked test strips.

Afterward, in between visits to boutique parfumiers, I wandered the streets of medieval Grasse. Quietly soaking up the ambiance, I realized that everywhere I went, there was a faint but pleasant flowery scent in the air. How many towns can claim that?

www.rebecca-marshall.com

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