10 Sep 2017 16:19 IST

Eau so special

Tracing the history of Eau de Cologne — in the house it was born

When I was a little girl back in the ’60s, a ribbed, tall bottle of Eau de Cologne was a household staple. My mother used it as perfume, she dabbed it on our heads if we had fever, and its citrusy bouquet of aromas still transports me back in time. When I arrive in Cologne, which is the home of this legendary perfume, one of my first stops is the House of Farina, the showroom of the original owners of Eau de Cologne.

The House of Farina is in the heart of Old Town, lodged in a historic building with a 2,000-year-old history and built on Roman ruins. I am taking a tour of the shop and museum, where the eighth generation of the family is still in business. My guide, dressed in a red period costume with breeches and a wig, plays the role of Johann Farina, the founder of the company. The room is decorated in Rococo style with paintings on walls, and the family tree of the Farinas as well as old correspondence under glass.

My guide takes me back to the era when people travelled long distances to buy perfumes. They tested the fragrant liquids over glasses of wine and candied fruits, and the costs of the perfume were so astronomical that only the very wealthy could afford it. “A bottle of the perfume cost as much as the monthly wage of a lowly civil servant,” he says.

“Long ago, not far from this quarter of Cologne, there was rubbish lying on roads, no toilet facilities, and no adequate drinking water. People did not know that boiling water would purify it, and most bathed once a week because water could be infected,” he explains. Personal hygiene was poor; people wore wigs to hide lice in their hair, and it was against this background that perfumes became a very important way to mask bad odour. Perfume was generally not worn on the skin; people applied it on perfume balls or items such as gloves or handkerchiefs.

All this changed when 24-year-old Farina, arrived from Italy’s Piedmont region. He had learnt the art of perfume making from his grandmother.

“Why Cologne,” I ask.

“It was the centre of Europe, next to France and home to many Italian perfume makers,” he replies.

Farina invented a light citrusy perfume with only five per cent alcohol, and named it after his adopted hometown. Eau de Cologne was more than a fragrance: many believed it to be a “miracle cure’’ for headaches and the plague. In 1708, Farina wrote to his brother that his perfume was “reminiscent of a spring morning in Italy after the rain; of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bergamot, cedar and the blooms and herbs of his home”.

The perfume became a rage. From Beethoven and Mozart to Napoleon, who used one bottle a day. Prince Elector of Cologne Clemens August used 40 bottles a month and Goethe had a cloth dipped in the perfume, placed in a basket by his desk as he wrote. Soon the perfume was shipped across the world, including India in 1776.

The perfume has a secret formula of citrus fruit, flowers and herbs, which are diluted in a mixture of alcohol and water. The scent is characterised by the refreshing smell of bitter oils, pressed from the skins of lemon and bergamot. In the essence room lined with phials, I learn about the art of perfume making — from gathering petals to kneading jasmine petals with pork fat to remove the oil.

The small museum also shows the evolution of perfume bottles. The narrow bottles tended to explode, because of the effect of heat on alcohol. Hence straw was used to cover those. I also see long bottles of blown glass — they say that Napoleon used to have special shoes made so that he stow one of these bottles inside. Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky designed one of the first few bottles which could be stored vertically, with a screw top in red — the design was inspired by the onion-shaped domes of Russian churches. I see Farina’s desk from which he wrote to customers around the world. There are long ledgers with the names of debtors and remarks scribbled on the sidelines. My favourite part of the tour is a smell test, when I was made to identify different scents from vetiver to frankincense.

In the 18th century, there were no registered trademarks or legal protection for an invention. Many imitated the perfume and it was after 80 years of legal battles, in 1881, that it was declared illegal to use the name Farina. The Muehlens, a local family, had produced a similar scent, and named it 4711, after the house number of the factory. Even today, many tourists go for this cheaper Eau de Cologne bottled in turquoise and gold.

But I leave Cologne with bottles of Eau de Cologne from the House of Farina packaged in red corrugated cardboard. Whenever I dab it on, it reminds me of a spring morning in Italy.

(Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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