Saturday 15 September 2012

Herding Sheep with Henri the Shepherd

When asked to define luxury travel, the easiest answer is 5* hotels, chauffeur driven cars, first class transport etc. But the reality is that although those things may be the general framework for a luxury vacation, the travel experiences on offer are what create the memories.
The reason I have written this preamble is because some may find that the following is anything but luxury, but if the experience is unique, unforgettable (in a positive way), and the encounters are rich then I think that it is a luxury to meet a man like Henri the shepherd and his 600 sheep in the foothills of the Montagne de Lure in the heart of La Haute Provence!
Henri the Shepherd
I first met Henri in the bistro in my village, he was introduced to me by another villager, Jean-Philippe, one of the many locals who are on the lookout for me, tracking down interesting encounters and visits.  
Sheep farming is an integral part of life in La Haute Provence and during my years flying hot air balloons I met nearly all the sheep farmers in the Pays de Forcalquier, and became friends with many. At the end of spring the flocks of sheep are transported to the mountain pastures mainly towards the Italian border and also up on the Montagne de Lure and other smaller local areas, this age old activity called La Transhumance was originally undertaken on foot, but now due to the modern world we live in the animals are mostly transported by truck to the bottom of their pastures and the only the last part is on foot. Some do the Transhumance locally taking their flocks to areas which can be reached entirely on foot, others stay in the region with the sheep being taken to different areas every day by their shepherd and his trusty dog Iskra (meaning Spark in Polish). 
The very tame Goat
Another particularity of the flocks here are the presence of a goat or two who apparently help the sheep stay together as the goat follows the shepherd better than the sheep, and the other member of the local flocks is the Patou  or Pyrenean Mountain Dog. 
The not very vicious Patou with my son Louis
 He is there to guard the flocks from wolves who are making quite a comeback on the Italian border, but have also been spotted more locally, usually it is recommended not to approach a flock of sheep, especially in the mountains because the Patou will protect at all costs, so last week when I went to see Henri, the first to greet me was the Patou and I stayed in my car with my 8 year old son. Henri ambled over and shouted over to me “T’en fait pas, il est bon à rien ce con!”  which translates as “Don’t worry he’s a useless S.O.B.”  and he was! 
He name was Costaud, which translates as Strong or Sturdy and was the friendliest Patou I had ever met, and according to Henri, if a wolf ever attacked the flock, he could help himself as the Costaud was usually off elsewhere and rarely doing his job, but he was a nice dog and as Henri said, it’s better to have a friendly Patou who provides a bit of company than one that will rip the arm of anyone who has the misfortune to get too close.
Breakfast of Champions
Our morning started with a typical breakfast of champions French style. Paté, dried ham, saucisson, local goat’s cheese and fresh baguette, all washed down with a glass or two of red wine. During our breakfast the goat was repeatedly demanding to be petted, which was a delicate operation considering her horns, and Costaud sat on my feet. Iskra sat near Henri glancing up to his master waiting…
Henri then opened the pen where the sheep had spent the night and casually said to his remarkable sheepdog Iskra, “Bring them on and keep them right” I was use to very specific commands being given to sheepdogs, but this was the first time I had ever witnessed a casual conversation between man and dog with results!  
The sheep poured out of the pen and were led to the right by the dog and we began our walk.
Sheep on the move
Up the track into the Woods
Each day the sheep are led through the hills and woods where they move like a very coordinated eating machine, when no one is talking all you can hear is munching. Munching of grass, munching of oak leaves and the occasional Baaaa. Once an area is cleared of all living vegetation, Henri would look over to his Iskra and give him a command and the dog would perform the required task without hesitating and move the flock to the next area.  
Delicious Oak Leaves
Meanwhile the Costaud would move to the next shady spot and collapse as if he had actually been doing something, this display of total laziness was commented by Henri but the Patou didn’t seem to care. At one point Henri showed me something else that I never knew existed, a gang of rogue sheep, a group of 5 or 6 who would split from the flock and have to be watched carefully with the sheepdog having to make a separate foray to keep them grouped with the others. Walking through the woods and plains of La Haute Provence is fascinating with several different varieties of Lavender growing wild (see In the Footsteps of The Lavender Pickers) along with Thyme and Sarriette, a herb often seen as decoration on local goat’s cheeses. All these are pointed out by Henri who, although not a botanist, needs to know the different plants as some are not good for his sheep.
In the Woods
Our walk continued through the woods with stunning views over the local lavender filled valleys when we reached clearings. Henri told me about himself and how he came to be a shepherd. His previous job was that of a disk jockey! “Good fun when you’re young” he said, “…but I like to be alone, and the life of a shepherd seemed to fit the bill”   he went on to explain that his family thought he had gone mad when he spent 5 months on a mountainside with 1500 sheep and two dogs for company, sleeping on a straw mattress and having the occasional visitor (often hikers caught in a storm) with whom he could share a meal. But one day members of his family came to visit and he said that they understood at once, “I didn’t need to explain anything “he said “ the mountains did the talking for me” . Ever since Henri is the pride of his family, having chosen a life that keeps him close to nature, and I think he looks like a shepherd not a DJ!
Always on the Move
Our walk lasted two hours, before the sun gets too hot, and the sheep don’t want to eat anymore, but would rather rest in the shade before the evening meal once the sun has lost its power. On our return Henri hooked a few sheep with his shepherds crook. The ones he grabbed were marked with a purple spot on their backs for easy identification, and were in need of treatment, mostly cuts received during the roaming in the woods. The remedies used were lavender essential oil which is a known wound healing product as well as disinfectant, and a sort of tar was used to cover other wounds. Only 4 sheep were in need of treatment, but throughout the day Henri’s eyes were always inspecting the animals as they fed.
A welcome drink at the Sheep bar
Once the treatments were administered, and the sheep had all drank their fill of water, Costaud installed himself in amongst the flock, ready for any trouble from wolves or any other preying beast, as is expected from the guardian, and as we turned our backs to go home he hopped out discretely to go for a rummage in the nearby wood.
Useless dog…

If the idea of meeting a man like Henri or experiencing the way of life and making unique encounters in La Haute Provence interests you, then contact us using the link on the right.

Friday 7 September 2012

Grasse - The Jasmine Harvest - A Unique Provence Exclusivity.

In the Middle Ages Grasse was famed for its tanneries.  The leather that was produced was greatly sought after by the finest manufacturers of leather garments, and notably glove makers. The aristocracy was very fond of the fine texture of the leather that the tanners of Grasse produced, but they were less enamoured with the smell due to the use of horse urine, dog and even human excrement which was used to soften the hides. One of the biggest tanners of Grasse, the Maison Gallimard came up with a solution to this problem which involved soaking the finished product in scented baths of rose water and spices according to an Oriental technique, the result was perfumed gloves and the idea was adopted by all. A pair was offered to Catherine de Medicis who was enchanted and the popularity of the scented glove took the court by storm resulting in Grasse becoming recognised as the perfume capital of the world with different scented gloves with enticing and exotic names being created each year. However an increase in taxes on leather slowed the tanning industry of Grasse to a halt, but the perfume industry remained with tanners quickly trading in their skills and the rest, as they say, is history!
If you go to Grasse today you will be assailed by billboards enticing you into perfume houses to discover the history, and even create your own perfume along with the ten coach loads of visitors with whom you will share your tour. These visits are interesting and informative, especially if you are on a tight tour schedule.  But I am not, and neither are the clients that I create tours for.
Thanks to some fortunate connections, I had the privilege to be invited to visit the Gardens of the Maison Mul on the outskirts of the town of Pégomas. I was told before coming that the access to these gardens is impossible for anyone outside the perfume world, which I took to be a slight exaggeration until I arrived in front of the solid iron gate which effectively only opened to the few. And today I was one of them.
The gardens of the Maison Mul extend over 40 acres, and are home to vast beds of roses (Rosa damascene and Rosa centifolia for the botanists reading this), a lesser bed of Tuber Roses  (Polianthes tuberosa) which are not at all related to to the rose family, but to the Agaves (tequila!) although they bear no resemblance to a cactus like plant. There was also a bed of Rose Geraniums (Pelargonium graveolens) whose scent emanates from the microscopic hairs on the leaves and stems and in this case bore a Citrus odour, although depending on the varieties and hybrids nutmeg, rose and even coconut can be obtained.  
Tuber Rose

Rose Geraniums
But even as we admired and sniffed at all of these delights (except the roses, as they flower in May) the air was thick with a sweet perfume, one that had already encountered my nose before we even arrived at the gardens, and a short distance away the culprit was discovered. Jasmine blossom.
Freshly Picked Jasmine Flowers
In the 1930s thousands of tonnes of Jasmine were grown in Grasse, but today that number has fallen to around 20 due to cheaper alternatives arriving from overseas. But to the “noses” of the perfume world the Jasmine produced in Grasse is like no other. The variety used is Jasminum Grandiflorum whose origins can be found in Asia which is grafted onto the rootstock of Jasminum Officinale  also of Asian origin but introduced to Europe in the 16th century and is more resistant than its host.
Unfortunately to describe it is difficult, because apart from seeing the flowers,  touching the flowers,  watching the deft skill of the pickers and listening to the explanations of our delightful host, Mr Mul himself, the tableau is not complete without the most important ingredient, that of the heady scent of the blossoms that filled the air to a point of  being nearly (but not completely) overpowering.  So go and get a bottle of your favourite fragrance with strong notes of Jasmine, spray it in the air and read on.

The flowering of Jasmine starts in August and continues well into October. The Jasmine plant is referred to locally as a reverse barometer because the state of the plant will tell you what the weather was like two days before, for instance if there are few blossoms today, then the temperature had dropped two days ago. Every winter the plants are pruned right back to the limit of the grafts and are then covered by “hilling” them with soil to protect them from frost. They are uncovered in the Spring and allowed to grow out before being bunched together to form the neat rows that we see in the garden.
Arriving at the rows of Jasmine plants reminded me of being in a tea plantation, the pickers armed with their wicker baskets wore scarves allowing only their faces to be visible and sported hats ranging from straw panamas to extravagant tall pointed ones.
Jasmine Picking in the Mul Gardens
Some have a small stool to sit on as they harvest the precious blossom with speed and skill, ensuring the petals are undamaged and move up the rows like a slow swarm of flower eating locusts leaving nothing in their wake. Every evening new flowers open for the pickers to pick the next day, this remarkable proliferation of blossoms is due to the fact that when a blossom is picked the plant splits and two more grow in its place, this will continue until the climatic conditions decline at the approach of winter.
Jasmine Pickers at work
Our guide, Mr Mul 

Once the plants have been stripped of their pungent treasure, it’s off to the weighing room. They make a run to be first in the queue, as standing around waiting in the sun after toiling under it all morning is no fun. Each basket of flowers is weighed, and the picker is given a receipt for their day’s harvest. The weighing takes place under the watchful eye of Mr Mul, who knows all the pickers by name, as they come back year after year.

Jasmine picker waiting for the weighing of her harvest

Pride in today's harvest

A tired picker 
After the weighing the flowers are taken away for the extraction process which takes place on the property. They are loaded into vats, in several layers separated by metal grilles so they do not get crushed, they are then covered with a solvent which is pumped around them and the oil in the flowers is harnessed by it. Three separate baths of solvent are given to the flowers to extract all the oil. 
The flowers being loaded before being covered with solvent

The final grill before closing the lid
 The solvent is then distilled in a vacuum which lowers the temperature of the boiling point to 40°C thus un-harming the fragile scent molecules.
Distillation of the solvent
Once the solvent has been removed by the distillation an oily mixture made up of oils and waxes which solidifies when cold is left, called the Concrete.  The Concrete can be stored safely until it is needed, without losing its properties. When an order for Jasmine Absolute (the name given to the final product) comes in, the Concrete is mixed with an Alcohol based solvent which harnesses the scent molecules, then it is frozen to -15°C which hardens the wax but not the alcohol, before being filtered through a very fine mesh, and the solvent containing the oil passes through leaving the wax behind.
The concrete mixed with the Alcohol
Then the alcohol is evaporated off leaving the Absolute which is the Essential Oil of Jasmine.
The laboratory for the final evaporation proccess

It’s as simple as that!

One last detail. It takes 350Kg of flowers to produce 1 kilo of Concrete and it takes 2 Kg of concrete to produce 1Kg of Absolute and a single picker harvests about 2Kg a day based on what we saw, so with those figures in mind you can now begin to understand why perfume is not cheap!

If you would like to visit an authentic flower garden around Grasse, then contact Unique Provence here. However, the visits are very difficult to plan and only a few are accorded each year, but no other travel agency is offering such an exclusive experience!

My thanks to Alain Ferro of the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, without whom this unique experience would not have been possible.