Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
The other day I was strolling through South Ken with Mr Wrong, en route to Peter Jones to return a dodgy plug, when I chanced upon this cupboard-cum-perfume shop next door to Stella McCartney’s vast, neon-lit boutique. It’s called Nicolaï and it’s filled with scents made by Patricia de Nicolaï, a descendant of the original Guerlain founders. ‘She doesn’t like to publicise it,’ Arlette, the sales assistant, told me from the doorway.
Intrigued, I stepped inside. Arlette showed me rows of scented candles and spicy perfumes aimed at the Middle Eastern market. When I told her I’d worn Cristalle since the age of 19, she steered me towards the fresh and citrusy Vetyver eau de toilette (delicious!) and A Weekend in Normandy (disappointing). After I’d sniffed a few more perfumes, my sinuses went on strike. Arlette waved a glass of coffee beans under my nose and Mr Wrong, who was waiting outside under a gun-metal sky, gave me that eye-rolling look that means ‘Can we go now?’
And go we did – up Sloane Avenue, past a nasty branch of Sainbury’s, and into red brick terrace land where the Maseratis were purring and pretty Italian girls were parking their Vespas. In the IT department of Peter Jones I came over all swoony. It wasn’t the sight of all those red-blooded hombres gazing at the Samsung flat screens, but the heavenly scent of my own left wrist, which la belle Arlette had spritzed half an hour earlier with a Weekend in Normandy. Vetyver had gone off the boil but Normandy was starting to smell divine. Ooh la la! Even Mr Wrong, who was wandering about in an IT bubble of man bliss, was impressed.
Normandy has top notes of apple, tarragon and basil, but luckily I couldn’t smell them. The notes de coeur include the infinitely more alluring lily of the valley, jasmine and rose, and there are musky base notes that I’m sure must be inspired by pheromones. To smell this fabulous you’ll need to have a spare £169 – the price of a flight to Pamplona – and not mind that a weekend in Normandy doesn’t have the magical ring of a weekend in Provence, say, or Paris. But what’s in a name? If I had the nerve (which I don’t), I’d be dashing back to Nicolaï with Mr Wrong’s wallet.
Back home, I did a little detective work on French Google. It turns out Patricia de Nicolaï is the great granddaughter of Pierre and Jacques Guerlain. She grew up in the Guerlain family home in Paris and has been in the perfume business (after training as a chemist) for twenty years. A mother of four, she plays golf (nobody’s perfect), has a house on the seaside in Brittany and loves Handel, Fauré and Monteverdi, just like I do.
Mitterand used to perfume his office with Nicolaï’s Maharaja candles, which are made with lavender, sandalwood and patchouli, but it’s a Weekend in Normandy that’s on my Christmas list. Why this small and lovingly curated perfume house isn’t better known outside France remains a mystery.