The art of enfleurage by Elisabeth de Feydeau
One of the oldest techniques used in perfumery, enfleurage consists in naturally extracting the perfume from flowers by means of absorption carried out by fatty substances, also known as leaf fat. Over the centuries, ben oil from an East Indian tree, olive and sweet almond oils and above all purified animal fat have been used. Today, technical progress permits the use of materials such as Vaseline.
We differentiate between hot and cold enfleurage depending on the plant’s resistance to heat. The Grasse region is the historic center of French enfleurage, a unique skill that is disappearing.
Hot enfleurage (also known as maceration):
It is undoubtedly one of the most primitive techniques used for the least fragile flowers. Noting fragrant substances’ affinity with fat, relatively early on it was decided to macerate flowers in fat or oils heated in a water bath or naturally by the sun. Once the excipient was saturated with perfume, the fatty substance was filtered through fabric – linen first of all and then cotton – and a sort of scented salve was obtained.
This technique, which was extremely well known in Antiquity, was improved over the centuries with the advances made in other extraction methods. During the Bronze Age, the elements were boiled in water and then oil. Fabrication was long, lasting from ten days to three months. The product obtained was filtered by twisting it in wool or linen cloths and then was conserved in jars. The Mycenaeans must have had recourse to alcoholic maceration in wine, with honey and fruit. Olive oil was a favored base, along with safflower oil and others not formally recognized such as almond or poppy oil. The Mycenaeans were also already making use of animal fat.
Enfleurage, which consisted either in putting the flower in contact with a fatty substance or macerating it in an oil that could be heated, was used as early as the Egyptians.
Over the course of time, its technique has been improved and is still used for May Rose, orange blossom, violet and sweet acacia. The flowers are infused in oils or ointments that have been preheated (in a water bath). The flowers are immersed in sheet metal tubs filled with prepared fat that is molten at a temperature of 40/45°C but not above 60°, as this temperature is too high and could mar the aromas and destroy the top notes. After 24 hr., the fat is recovered, drained into large strainers to separate it from the floral residues, and then reheated with a new load of flowers. Hot enfleurage is finished once the total weight of the flowers infused is equal to approximately six to eight times the weight of the fat.
Cold enfleurage: the digestion of delicate flowers
This cold extraction method was developed in Grasse around 1750. In the 18th century, this new process was a specialty of the city of Grasse, which made its fortune with it. Frames of wood and taut canvas known as tiames, jasmine and tuberose flowers and lard (animal fat) that became saturated with the scent of the flowers on contact with them were placed in tin dishes or glazed stoneware. Fat enfleurage using almonds, whose residues were ground at the end of the process, was carried out to obtain a paste known as “pâte de Provence”. These pomades or perfumed salves were also used, as in Antiquity, to manufacture the first cosmetic products. In order to increase the fragrance strength of these pomades, reinforcing elements were added: resins, spices or a few drops of essential oils.
This technique, similar to that of digestion, made it possible to treat the most delicate flowers unable to withstand heat, such as jasmine, tuberose and daffodil. It consisted in obtaining the absolute of a flower by letting the petals macerate in a mixture of animal fat (pork or mutton combined with a virgin oil), used for their ability to absorb and retain the fragrant ingredients. The substance still used today is a mixture of 1/3 pork fat (soft substance) with 2/3 beef fat (hard substance). This mixture is prepared in winter.
Immediately after picking, the petals, which were sorted and winnowed so as to keep only the freshest, were placed on a fine layer of fat spread over a wooden frame with a glass plate: this is “mashing” and “enfleurage”. The frames were hermetically piled up on top of one another so as not to lose any of the fragrant ingredients. These flowers were renewed every one or two days, until the fat was saturated with perfume. Female workers then carried out the “défleurage” to replace the wilted flowers and recover residual impurities by hand before a new enfleurage. The workers carried out the “patage” step, which consisted in turning the partially flower-infused pomade to optimize the reception surface for the flowers’ fragrance. Then “scoring”, which increased the absorption surface by forming grooves on the fat using a comb. The fat gradually became impregnated with the scent of flowers, which were changed regularly until the fat was saturated.
In this way, one kilo of fat can absorb the fragrance of three kilos of flowers. When the fat could no longer absorb the perfume, the fat was removed with a flat wooden spatula. The scented fat or pomade was introduced into a mixer with alcohol. The alcohol/fat mixture was mechanically mixed and then left to sit before recovering the oleaginous substance and the alcohol charged of all scent molecules separately. This operation was repeated several times. The alcohol then became a perfumed extract that was filtered one last time to remove all traces of fat. This overly expensive technique was abandoned in favor of extraction using volatile solvents, a particularly important French invention introduced in 1873, which provided the profession with a new product: the absolute, an extremely pure and very little altered product.
While cold enfleurage is nowadays only practiced to a limited extent in the Grasse region, it represented a significant activity for women in the early 20th century. It took approximately ten women to handle some one hundred frames, bearing in mind that the major houses sometimes owned up to 80,000 frames. In addition, three kg of flowers were required to scent one kg of fat and it took sixty days for each kilo of fat to receive the required amount of flowers. The fat was also difficult to handle; it melted when it became too hot. The cost of a treatment of this kind was therefore exorbitant and we understand it is no longer lavished today on an entire floral campaign.