Nicolas de Barry: Of Scent and Taste

Nicolas de Barry at the Orient Express restaurant at Taj Palace, New Delhi
Nicolas de Barry at the Orient Express restaurant at Taj Palace, New Delhi

Ask him where he was born and he asks after a pause, “My first birth or my second birth?” While Nicolas de Barry may have been born in the French capital, he believes he was reborn into perfumery in Brazil. The former diplomat – he served as cultural attaché in Africa and South America – put down the envoy’s hat at the age of 40 and took a year off in Brazil to decide what to do next. A friend, the editor of a national Brazilian daily, asked him to do a feature on the art of perfumery in Grasse, France. So he travelled there, and wrote the feature, after which he decided, “This is what I want to do.” Taking a chance, he wrote to the top three perfumers in the region to ask for a chance to work with them, and to his surprise, two accepted. And so, for the next three months, he trained with the best, and one day, he says, “I decided I was a perfumer.”

Back in Brazil, he set up his own perfume store where he created made-to-order perfumes for the crème de la crème. A store and garden in Paris followed, as did 15 books, including a novel and a play, and one called L’Inde des Parfums (The Perfumes of India), for which he travelled extensively across India. He founded the Prix International du Parfum in 2000, and in 2003, he designed a new collection “Les Parfums Historiques” – in which he recreates the genuine perfumes of the kings and queens of France’s royal past with the utmost fidelity. Today, he counts the upper crust of France, including the Comtesse de Paris, amongst his clients, who flock to him for his EUR 10,000 personalised perfumes. In 2011, Barry was honoured with a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

And his 20-year journey has become only more interesting. He has recently been working on the concept of bringing together fragrance and food, collaborating with the most exclusive eateries in the world. In India for one such collaboration with the award-winning restaurant Orient Express at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, he cannot stop speaking about the excitement of bringing together the East and West on a single plate through two of our most vital senses – taste and smell.

Barry is quick to point out, though, that much of the credit of this unique gastronomical and olfactory marriage goes to the creator of the menu, with Barry acting as ‘assistant’. As part of a month-long ‘Perfume Festival’, the unmatched Orient Express offered an exclusive six-course meal designed by executive chef Rajesh Wadhwa in association with Barry, who used the original journey of the European Orient Express from the 19th century to inspire the scents on the menu, priced INR 6,500 per person plus taxes. It comprised 14 items, each bettering the previous in terms of taste and complexity. Starting with Madagascar vanilla bean-scented baby-leeks soup, hors d’oeuvres included sandalwood-smoked Balik salmon served with bergamot dust and oil, or (for the vegetarians) braised artichoke santorini and heirloom tomato melon rosette served with thyme vinaigrette. The entrée offered a choice of four intriguing items: Scallop and

baby oyster with carrot emulsion and lemon oil; agar wood-scented pan-seared fresh duck foie gras with marigold and fig relish; porcini soufflé with Perigord cream; and angel hair pasta with Spanish saffron and micro greens. After a brief, delicious rose-petal sorbet, came the main course with a choice of lavender honey-glazed chicken with kumquat relish; lamb steak and ratte potato with heirloom carrot and glandiflora jus; aubergine and sweet pepper tian served with tomato-olive salsa; and an impeccable rhubarb pansotti served with walnut cream. The dessert was the piece de resistance: Berry frangipani tart fine with salted butter caramel ice cream – the perfect combination of sweet, salty, juicy and tangy, and a choice of chamomile tea parfait with morello cherries and peach compote.

Contrary to expectation, the scent of plants and flowers did not overpower the flavour of the food. “Using the scent of perfumes to flavour food in a particular fashion was a first for us,” says Wadhwa, adding, “What you get is the final result after several rounds of experimentation.” As testimonial to the popularity of the restaurant and the appeal of the concept, the gala dinner for this meal was sold out.

Back at our table, Barry contemplates the flavours on his plate while we bite into the berry frangipani tart. As the French would put it, c’est magnifique.

First published in the May 2013 issue of Atelier

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