how to contact Jessica!

Ok this is a test…..if there is anyone out there besides my Mom reading this blog- I invite you to stop being shy, get off your butts and get involved- write me a note, ask me a question, tell me what you’re up to.  Let’s make this site a bit more interactive.  And, just so you all know, you can write to me (or send care packages) at my home- 4 Rue Marcel Journet, Grasse  06130

I also have a phone number now as well, but I’ll only tell you what it is if you write to me………

doing laundry in the sub-Alps

Yesterday afternoon I made my first visit to a Laverie.  So far, since I’ve been in France (74 days already!), I’ve done all my laundry by hand.  Thankfully there was another customer there who showed me how the system works, otherwise I would have had to haul everything home again, defeated by the puzzle. The method is this- on the wall in the corner of the tiny room is what looks like a typical launderette change machine, only here it is also where you punch in the code of whatever machine you want to activate and put in the money to pay for it. This goes for both washers and dryers. The Laverie is also quite the place for flirting, and after a couple of attempted wooings, I was very happy I hadn’t brought any underwear that could have fallen out of the dryer at the most inopportune moment. Keep in mind this is a very small facility with barely enough elbow room to fold your T-shirts.

Anyway, with a basket full of clean linens, and an unsolicited phone number, I headed out the door into the most dramatic electrical storm I’ve seen here, with a fairly torrential downpour of rain interspersed with slush.  The Alps are very close when the Mistral decides to blow.

Speaking of the Alps, five of us from school went up in to the mountains Friday afternoon.  I had been to Gourdon a few days ago, a tiny stone village perched on the tip of a mountain, but hadn’t been past where the oaks turn to scrubby pine and lentisque and the groundcover is all wild thyme and then further up wild lavandin.  We went all the way to a ski hill where we found snow and had a snowball fight. The landscape up there is very dramatic, rocky and the road is a windy narrow highway. We were high up in the Sub-Alps, and at times, other than the stone farm buildings, it seemed like we could be in Canada. Along the way,  I saw a broken ancient little hamlet that I must go back to for a picnic. (During July, when the lavender is in full bloom).  Perhaps some of you will be able to join me?

olfactory development

Here I sit eating the most robust salad imaginable.  Today is Saturday and with the slow arrival of Spring, the market up in the Place Aux Aires is starting to look more like a market in the south of France should with a number of local small farmers displaying their beautiful produce.  I brought home a huge curly leafed cabbage and a head of lettuce that should really be included in a still-life painting.  This is what I am now munching on, finely sliced and topped with Sicilian lemon juice and organic local olive oil so sweet it barely tastes like olive oil at all. (This I got at the market also, from the farmer, in a one litre wine bottle- price-14 euros)  Top this off with a glass of chilled organic sweet Gewurztraminer from the region of Alsace, and I think my dinner qualifies as gourmet! Actually this is the appetizer, to be followed by lightly blanched baby broccoli and boiled organic eggs, also drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt from Normandy.

And what of the stinky cheeses, you ask?  Well, so far, the most pungent one I’ve had was a ewe pecorino from Corsica which was delicious but challenging in its fragrance.  My favourite so far is still the Manchego from Spain.


I haven’t really spoken much about school lately because every week has essentially been the same since classes began. Three days per week studying the synthetics and two, the naturals. Now however, we are approaching the end of this section, which likely, was the most difficult of the whole year.  We have now studied about 200 raw materials, learned them mostly by heart (the process of memorizing never really ends), and I am feeling quite happy with my memory skills.  Considering I have always struggled to remember place names, people’s names, and the like, I am very relieved that my olfactory memory is good.  That said, I do notice that my memory recall in other areas has improved.  It’s true it seems that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise.  My sense of smell has certainly improved greatly.  It is a skill that can be learned, and this is intellectual, but also biological. At the beginning I could barely smell some of the materials that were unfamiliar to me, especially the synthetics that I had never smelled before, but now, I am registering them much more clearly and I am able to pick up more nuances every day. (especially lately, there seems to have been a sudden breakthrough in my olfactory system)  I have to be careful because it’s like having to deal with a whole new set of materials as my sensitivity increases.   I love the feeling of this sense becoming so much more acute.   From what I understand, more receptors in the olfactory system are being activated through use and exposure to new molecules, perhaps ones that I have never tapped into before.

Synthetic musks offer a very interesting example of this phenomenon.  Musks are quite large molecules and can therefore be difficult to smell.  There were two that I was not able to smell at first (musk ketone and musk T- so I took a tiny vial of each home with me to work on and found that by rubbing a bit into the back of my hand, I could begin to smell it.)  Now, when one appears in a test, I can smell it quite clearly and am able to identify which one it is.  Still, day to day, the sense of smell can come and go and be irritatingly fickle.  It can also depend on the order of the materials that we smell.  Materials can vary in their scent according to what you smell just before them.  Complicated and fascinating!   

Another little bit of information that I love because, to me, it is incredibly interesting- is this-  when you smell a fragrant flower, you are smelling its ‘headspace’.  This is composed of the lightest most volatile molecules that the flower contains.  The chemistry of this scent is quite different from the chemistry of the essential oil (water/steam extraction) or absolute (solvent extraction).  Capturing these light diaphanous molecules is almost impossible and often replications are done with synthetic chemicals to copy the chemistry of this so-called headspace. For some flowers, such as lilac and hyacinth, any extraction is impossible and the only way to achieve their perfume is to copy their headspace with chemical formulations.  (there are sensitive machines that can identify main components of the perfume given off by a respective flower placed within it.)  Well, to somewhat copy their perfume, since the volatile chemistry of plants is so complex that science has yet to identify all the components of any given oil or for that matter, headspace.  The more they identify and can successfully replicate, the more naturals will be replaced with synthetics. Because of their incredible complexity, the eradication of pure naturals is not going to happen any time soon, thankfully! Besides, like I mentioned before, with the work being done in Russia and elsewhere, it is now known that there is a life force (or factor x) within natural molecules that cannot be reproduced in a lab.   

The next section of the course will be chemistry followed by formulation.  Discovering science through a medium that I am already enamored with is fantastic! I am definitely falling in love with chemistry.

Fete des Violettes

Today is Sunday, and I am sitting at my new pine table that I set up this morning.  It is lightly perfumed with the oil that I treated it with- organic local olive oil blended with high altitude lavender (also local and organic), thyme and Italian blood orange oil.  I have papers spread out everywhere as I organize the piles of handouts we have been given from the naturals section of the course. I just looked out my window and saw the most wonderful juxtaposition- through the ancient paned windows of the apartment across the street-(remember, about 8’ away) I can see a television screen with a western movie playing- complete with cowboys and horses and other images of the wild wild west!  Quite surreal I must say!

Fete des Violettes

Yesterday morning we boarded a bus bound for Tourettes sur Loup- a village in the sub-Alps, where the annual Fete Des Violettes was taking place.  It was so incredible to get out of the dirty polluted and populated area of Grasse and head into the mountains.  (it’s in my blood, I realized as the rocky craigs loomed overhead) As we curved along the roads, through ancient villages, we could see Gourdon, a hilltop fortified town perched way way up on top of a mountain.  Pine trees were common mixed with oak and olive groves as well as olives randomly placed.  (the olive is protected inFrance; if one dies on your property, you must replace it and is illegal to cut them down.  There’s a saying around here that an olive tree 100 years old is still a baby)   Here and there an orange or lemon tree, loaded with fruit. The oaks are still bare and I look forward to seeing the area when all the leaves are out.

We arrived and stepped off the bus into what turned out to be an incredible market with heavily laden tables of sausages, cheeses, wines, breads, honey, flowers galore, cakes and chocolates and yes, violettes everywhere- on pottery, candied, in cakes, in preserves, bouquets and perfumes.  The air was clear and warm with the Spring sunshine and the gorgeous little town was packed with locals and a few tourists.  We toured the medieval part of the city that perches on the very edges of cliffs that fall away into the valley below and you can see the
Mediterranean on the horizon.  This is everything that we had hoped Grasse would be. The history of this place is ancient, dating back to the 9th century BC. There is a large hollowed-out stone trough/drinking fountain on the side of the street that is filled by the spring that has provided fresh clean water through the long history of this place.  The town is known as the medieval city of art and violets- my kind of place!

Speaking of the violets; we walked a bit out of town to a violet farm.  Here the main harvest that day was for bouquets, but harvest lasts from October until May with much of the yield going to the perfume industry.  I was surprised how mild the fragrance was compared to our wild violets at home.  I wish I could share that sweet heady powdery fragrance with my classmates, so they could smell what true violet really smells like.  That said, the synthetic violet notes we have just learned (ionone alpha and beta and methylionone) are pretty impressive.  Nothing like the real thing though! 

We’ve been discovering all kinds of violet products lately- soap and perfumes of course, but also candied violets, violet liqueur and ice cream and this one takes the cake- violet yogourt!  I tried it today and I must say it is revolting!  I have always loved violets (though not in yogourt!) and it is wonderful to be in a culture that does too.  I’m glad I brought with me the bottle of violet perfume that I found in Florence a few years ago.  It is a nice one and this is the perfect time of year to wear it! 

In Nelson the violets will appear soon in the sunny aspects of the gardens, and I hope all of you who can, take the time to fully indulge in their exquisite fragrance!

delivering to a medieval city

The complications of setting up in France, hopefully, as of this morning, are over!  Two days ago, with the help of school-mates, we got the fridge home, barely, begrudgingly (sometimes people say yes and mean no).  Then yesterday, the delivery company from Ikea called to ask if I had gone to the police to get the permit required to enter the old city and deliver my furniture!  Unfortunately, I had been told (by someone, no idea who) that that was the responsibility of the delivery company.  After many phone calls and attempts to solve the problem, all in French, by everyone but me, of course, the furniture was dropped off at the school!   So after school yesterday,  phase one took place and we took one load of girls and pillows, bedding and chairs back into town and to my home.

This morning, we loaded the rest in to two small cars- a mattress, sommier (what the mattress rests on), table and coffee table along with 5 people (!) and caravaned into the old city.  Cars can access my street between 7pm and 10am (unless you have a permit), otherwise it is just for pedestrians, which I really appreciate except at times like this!  Keep in mind that the street is only as wide as a small car and although it was before 10 this morning, we still got hassled by the police for stopping and unloading.

Anyway, that’s an update.  As for school, we have now covered over 200 raw materials, and my lexicon of chemical names is large and still growing.  What a learning curve!  Today, as on all Fridays, we covered naturals, including two animalics- castoreum and civet. Very interesting, although somewhat revolting.  Actually I like the smell of castoreum; heavy sweet oily animalic inner bark of a birch tree in Spring. It’s the thought of killing the beaver for this scent that is horrible.

Speaking of Spring, I saw buds unfurling on the tips of a fig tree the other day revealing fresh green perfect baby leaves. A most perfect time of year…………..

By the way,  happy belated Women’s Day- hier Mars 8th  🙂