Tom Robbins’ novel “Jitterbug Perfume” spends part of its narrative following a perfumer named Madame Lily Devalier. She and her assistant V’lu are in New Orleans attempting to craft their comeback perfume as part of a plot that follows a handful competing perfumers (and a couple of immortals, too). They’re looking to create the perfect ingredients, so when Madame Devalier finally gets her hands on some of the finest jasmine flowers this side? of the Mississippi, she knows that she has to be careful. Jasmine flowers are ever so dainty and fragile, and unlike a rose, you can’t get its scent from steam distillation. No, flowers like jasmine and orange blossoms require a special treatment. And when this dawns on Madame Devalier, she exclaims, “So you know how we are going to handle it? Papa’s fat!”
Hmm? you may say. Fat in perfume?
Yes, what this boisterous, sneaky, competitive perfume genius is talking about is enfleurage, a process of extracting essences that’s over a century old. Enfleurage uses animal fats to draw the scent out from the more delicate flowers. These scents are soluble in the fats, so that when the flowers are soaked in lard or tallow long enough, the fat will become saturated with their essence. From there, the scented fat—aka enfleurage pomade—takes a bath in ethyl alcohol, which causes the fragrant molecules to leave the fat in favor of the alcohol.
For centuries enfleurage remained a choice way to get some of the finest essential oils from plants. The process is long and tedious, and for that reason is no longer commercially viable. Since its development, perfumers have found more efficient ways of extracting the scents from flowers that aren’t distillation friendly.
Like many things that are forced to prioritize functionality and practicality, the newer methods sacrifices the romantic, sensual, and beautiful qualities of enfleurage. The process of enfleurage would last for multiple days, the fats taking their time to patiently, gently call forth every molecule of scent from the blossoms. Flowers or petals would be placed by hand between two glass plates, both covered in a layer of fat. A wooden frame was used to press and hold the two plates together with the plants and fat in between. It took anywhere from one to three days for the fats to draw every fragrant molecule out of the plants, at which time the old flowers were replaced with a fresh batch. Another day or two would pass, and they would be replaced again until the enfleurage pomade had become satisfyingly scented.
As was true with perfumers in the non-fiction world, Madame Devalier was well-aware of the effectiveness of this old, traditional method that her father and the perfumers before them would use. It would take hours, but when you’re dedicated to the product, who cares? The long process of enfleurage is as lush and rich as a powerful floral scent itself.
If you’re a curious and driven DIY kind of person, take note that enfleurage is a relatively accessible project. It just takes time, patience, and plenty of flowers. But with spring a ways off on the horizon, you might be able to find generous resources—like violets—that could serve as a perfect ingredient for experimentation. There are a number of instructional tools online, like this one from “The Aromatherapy Book” by Jeanne Rose, which has you using carrier oils rather than fats. If you decided to embrace some form of enfleurage with some of the flowers from your garden or elsewhere, be sure to let us know how it goes!