Total dedication and back-breaking work describes the cultivation of violets in Tourrettes-sur-Loup.
Like fire-flies that appear in June and herald the start of long hot summer days, so the appearance of violets in February signals the beginning of spring along the Riviera and of course, the now-famous ‘Fête des Violettes‘ in early March.
Nowadays it is the Victoria violet, a magnificent winter flower with a delicate perfume, that’s cultivated by local producers and become the village’s emblem.
Although most of these graceful little flowers are destined for the perfume industry in Grasse, others are set aside for confectionery purposes such as ice cream, jam, crystallized sweets, or syrup. If you’re visiting Tourrettes-sur-Loup and fancy trying a violet flavoured ice-cream you’ll find Tom’s Glacier on Grand’Rue uses local violets and natural ingredients.
To write my article I met with three producers who very kindly showed me around their facilities and explained the cultivation of these plants.
The Coche Family
Located on the heights of Tourrettes-sur-Loup with magnificent views stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea, this family-run business, handed down from father to son, exploit an area of around 2500m². Although specializing in violets, they also grow roses, mint and vervain which they also use to make crystallized sweets.
When ready to pick, the flower heads are plucked by hand and dropped into small buckets. When full, they are gently tipped into a larger basket and taken down to the production room. Here they are washed and then dried in large drums. Once this action is finished the flower heads are sprinkled with Arabic Gum which acts as a fixative.
Les Violettes d’Yvette
My next visit was to Yvette Boselli-Osteng (Les Violettes d’Yvette) located Route des Costes in Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Yvette has been growing violets, originally brought from Hyères in the Var, since 1986 and, although recognizes that it calls for a lot of hard work, enjoys the deep sense of satisfaction each year when the deep-purple scented flowers come into bloom.
Her production site covers an area of 1500m² and is split between open air and polythene tunnels. Those grown outdoors are sent off locally to be turned into jam and crystallized sweets while the ones kept under cover are picked, made into bunches and sent off to Paris and her distributors in Hyères to supply their market and shop outlets.
The flowers and petals are all picked manually requiring not just dexterity in fingers but suppleness in the back and legs. The flowers are picked in the morning to capture them at their best while the leaves are picked in the afternoon. Spending hours bent over double requires a great amount of physical stamina and is not for the faint-hearted.
The flowers are picked between the middle of October and the middle of March in bouquets of 25 flowers. At the end of the season, when flowering is more abundant, the flower is picked without its stem for sweet-making; you need 7,600 flowers to make up a kilo.
At the beginning of May and at the end of July, the leaves are torn out and delivered the same day to the perfume factories in Grasse to be transformed into the essences that are used in the making of numerous famous perfumes. Violet leaf absolute is produced through solvent extraction of the freshly harvested leaves
While Yvette grows her violets on the ground using their natural carpet-forming habit, another producer, GAEC La Violette grows their violets in a new above-the-ground technique using hanging polythene “boudin”(meaning sausages) bags. The bags are filled with a mixture of special soil and gravel to help with drainage. Small holes are then punched through and baby violet plants popped in.
From the middle of the 16th century, the manufacture of alcoholic perfumes became very important as the growing habit of wearing perfume led to a high demand for aromatic ingredients.
Profiting from an exceptional micro climate and a considerable amount of livestock Grasse quickly became an important perfume and tanning centre.
In 1533 Catherine de Medici became Queen of France and introduced scented gloves. This inspired Grasse, already a town of glove makers, to learn the art of distilling perfumes.
Soon noble lords were ordering not just scented gloves but also scented waistcoats, doublets, belts and even scented leather shoes. When fashion for scented leatherware finally died out, Grasse held on to its perfume industry and, in fact, strengthened its supremacy.
Such was its growing requirement for fresh plant extracts that within a few years much of Grasse’s surrounding countryside was set aside to grow perfumed plants.
By 1875, the inhabitants of Tourrettes were cultivating “Rose de Mai”, orange flowers and Parma violet. Such was the success and ease of growing violets that efforts soon concentrated on making these plants the main source of income for the village. Today the Parma violet has been replaced by the Victoria variety – now the only one cultivated by the last remaining eleven Tourrettes violet producers.