Cowering Under a Leaf

Although green scents often give the impression of boldness and freshness, there are some that are distinctly…retiring. The violet, to be precise.

I suppose I could go into a long disquisition on violet scents because the public never seems to tire of them.  Famously the violet note is a synthetic developed during the revolution in chemistry of the late nineteenth century, and by 1893 the ionone became one of the common  notes in perfumery and thereby made the violet experience- like the aniline dye mauve before it- one that everyone could afford.  So much so that it became  clichéd : violet perfumes were cheap perfumes.  Violet seems to have been, around 1900, the impoverished governesses’ favorite fragrance.

Eventually violet moved up in the world.  Respectable houses such as Guerlain made it a centerpiece in such perfumes as Voilette de Madame in 1904 ( although that perfume is rumored to be anything but respectable) and Caron devoted a soliflore to the flower in 1913’s Violette Precieuse, which, by the way, is not the post 2004 version Olenska reviewed at Parfumieren, the squared bottle with the woody violet note.  Worth buying if you like it, because the word is that Caron is discontinuing the second version, just as they did the first.

The older Violette Precieuse was a sugary, slightly green perfume that followed the life story of the violets from their arrival at the Paris markets bundled in their own leaves in a flat wicker panier, to the same violets candied and rolled in sugar crystals served on cut glass plates along with  marrons glaces.  Little edible amethysts, that’s what Violette Precieuse alluded to, and as always, it pays to remember that Paris generally sublimates romance to either food or sex, and in this case it was the desert platter that got the better of the violet.

But the violets that frustrated me the most were the ones I tried to grow in a garden bed.  You see I knew the difference between the kind of violet that shows up in your front yard, and the sort that used to be grown for bouquets.  Being a romantic/sucker, I ordered some of them from the venerable firm of Logees’ in Danielson Ct.  What I bought was viola odorata, a slightly darker purple than the little lawn inhabitant, and I dug it in and I waited.

And I waited, because the sad truth of the matter was that my violet did not take to life in my ex-chicken run garden with the same enthusiasm as say, irises.  Life was too cold for them outdoors in a Vermont winter and too warm for them indoors where the house was 68 degrees most of the time, so it took a long while for them to bloom and when they finally did I discovered that the story of ionones anesthetizing your smelling apparatus at intervals of a few minutes is completely true.  OMG, there’s a violet on my plant! I’d better go smell it and… nothing.

Did I ever feel like an idiot.  Well, the takeaway – if there is one – is that if you can coax that shy violet out from under her leaf you’ll only smell her for thirty seconds anyhow, so stick with whichever violet formula you prefer because in this case there really is better living through chemistry.

Oh, and I candied the violets.

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13 thoughts on “Cowering Under a Leaf

  1. “(I)mpoverished governesses’ favorite fragrance”– hee!

    When I was a kid, we had a copy of Virginia Ellison’s “Pooh Party Book”, based on the AA Milne characters. I remember that violets popped up everywhere throughout its pages– as decorations, as ingredients for natural dye, and I believe in a recipe or two (violet sugar comes to mind). All due to a bouquet picked for Eeyore by Piglet, who pondered “how sad it was to be an Animal who had never had a bunch of violets picked for him”.

    • Poor Eeyore, he always did get the sticky end of the lollipop and as you say- no violets. One wonders in this connection of animals for whom no one picks violet bouquets if Mr. Rochester ever presented Jane with one? “Jane! Jane Eyre! Come here! Have some violets! Go on, take them woman!”

    • OOOOH I HAVE THAT BOOK TOO! It was a birthday gift sent to me by a friend in England, and although I hardly ever made anything from it, I loved reading it. Still have it around (what, me get rid of a book?).

  2. Twice now my green-thumb aunt has brought me violets dug from my grandmother’s house, where under her care they thrived and multiplied and put out tiny here-and-gone wafts. Twice now my husband has killed them by thinking they were weeds (and don’t even get me started on the time he killed my favorite clematis, grrrrr).

    I have smelled the newer version of Violette Precieuse and absolutely hated it. Give me Penhaligon’s Violetta or AG La Violette instead, please.

    • Is there a really satisfactory violet perfume on the market? Everyone I know is either too sweet or too green. My daughter has Berdoues Violettes de Toulouse which smells like that violet sugar Meg mentioned.

      • Well, I like me a green violet. Les Nez The Unicorn Spell I thought was nice as well (that green bean note! I love it!), but I prefer Violetta. The Goutal is so girly that it might just spontaneously break out into a pink-and-purple ditsy print.

        • There is always PdN’s Violette in Love, but the bottle I had soured in the topnotes very quickly. Before that it had a nice St. Germain liqueur introduction. But of course that turned into acetone. It was sad.

  3. I haven’t tried violets, but we grow violas, which are something like pansies except prettier. I don’t think they smell, though. Violets need a very acid soil to grow properly, btw. I know the wild ones will take over a lawn here in N. Georgia if you don’t pull them — and we have very acid clay soil.

    Still waiting to see if my two tuberose plants, which somehow survived the icy winter of 2010/11, are going to come up. No telling yet.

    I’m coming round — slowly — to violet. Slowly.

    • Well that explains the trouble with my violets, because the soil was kind of basic, I could grow lilies there- Madonna lilies- and that’s something I haven’t worked up the nerve to try here. Lucky you to be able to grow tuberoses.

      • Well, I’m not supposed to be able to grow them! They’re a tropical flower and we have decidedly non-tropical winters. I never thought they’d grow here. But they did!

        • The best we can do for tender things around here is the rare hardy camellia. Tuberoses are out of the question, but if you can grow them you must get pretty mild winters. Here it’s snow, sleet, a little rain then some more snow…

    • It really is too bad that Caron reformulated V.P. Now that they may be losing the new version as well, it makes you wonder if they will revive any variation of Violette Precieuse?I for one hope they revive to the older formula!

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