French perfumer Nicholas de Barry on the art of serving food laced with fragrance

“I’m not spraying spaghetti with Chanel No. 5,” sighs Nicolas de Barry. “I’m creating an experience.” But still. Perfume-scented suppers? “Think of it as art,” he says. “An opportunity to have a new experience.”

The French perfumer continues, “Is perfume necessary? Maybe not. But the best things in life are not. We need to procreate. That is necessary. We don’t need to fall in love. It’s not.” He pauses for an appropriately dramatic time. Then adds, “But love is so much better.”

The setting couldn’t be more appropriate. Prego at the Taj Coromandel has been transformed into a dreamscape, flickering with warm yellow candles and scented with a careful blend of Barry’s signature scents. “Smell the menus,” he smiles, holding one up, “I’ve sprayed each one.”

The meal begins with vetiver-scented sweet potato cake, which makes us gasp with surprise at the power of its perfume. It’s followed by Pan seared scallops, wrapped in the familiar scent of sandalwood. Then comes a cheery pink rose and strawberry sorbet. All three demonstrate that Barry’s premise that essential oils — the building blocks of perfume — behave very differently from spices, pastes and powders. “It’s a peculiar flavour. And of course, much more powerful. With rose oil for instance, the rose in your mouth is not the same as rose water, which in turn is not the same as the rose flower,” he explains.

It can be admittedly overwhelming, as the flavour hits the back of your throat and suffuses your senses. But it’s also dramatic. And — to be honest — this food spiked with sneaky guerrilla scents is fun. By the time we reach dessert, a creamy jasmine ‘frogurt’ (yoghurt gelato) served with a string of fresh jasmine, Barry’s ready to part with some secrets. “Most food has its own fragrance: Rosemary, basil, cinnamon. What I do is add an unexpected layer by pairing ingredients with essential oils,” he says, adding as a warning, “It has to be a perfect balance.” Chef Alok Anand, who created the menu with Barry concurs, and adds, “And we use very little. Just one micro drop...”

A master perfumer, Barry works from his castle near Blois, recreating forgotten scents and designing new ones. “My speciality is creating historical perfumes… For example, I’ve recreated the perfume Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal must have worn,” he says, going on to explain the process. “The Mughals imported roses from West Asia to make attar. Specifically the rose of Damascus, which originally came from Syria, which they loved for its distinctive scent.”  He adds, “Perfume making was simple then. You had a base of sandalwood, and you’d put it in a pan with freshly harvested roses. The quality of the ingredients was excellent, so the perfume was wonderful. Now we complicate things — and use synthetic ingredients…”

In an attempt to break away from commercial perfumes, Barry makes personalised scents. “It’s expensive, yes. But think of it like a tailor-made suit. It’s special. Also, I can use natural ingredients: roots, spices, flowers… I can do whatever the client wants,” adds Barry, adding with a chuckle, “If he wants opium in it, I can do that too.”

Discussing how smells are powerful memory triggers, he says everyone has their own perfect perfume because everyone has different olfactory memories. “I once did a perfume for a Greek woman, and I put in some herbs. She started crying when she smelt it because it reminded her of her grandmother’s garden from 50 years ago.”

As for his favourite perfumes? “Actually, I don’t use perfume every day,” he shrugs, explaining how he needs to approach his work scent free. He does however take some of his vials into the kitchen occasionally.  “I do chicken with a cream sauce with a bit of rose. Sometimes I use the essential oil, but with rose water it’s perfect. I also make fish with a drop of jasmine oil.”

He offers to list his favourite scents. “A field of flowers — there is no perfume that can rival that. Roast chicken — because when I grew up my family ate it every Sunday. And — when I was 20 years old, I was in the North-West of Africa on the day of the first summer rain. One minute it was all dry leaves and herbs. Suddenly, the downpour began and it smelt like a fantastic tea...”