Which smells do you associate with France? What does France smell like?!

This question popped into my head when I was writing the post Scent . Having come up with a list of some of my favourite smells, I realised that several of them were linked to France.

When I was a teacher, I organised more trips to France than I care to remember! These included day trips – what a nightmare, they were – five day ‘taster’ trips and full-on two week exchanges. The age group varied too, from primary up to secondary. Bearing in mind that these were South London students, many of whom had never been to France or abroad, one of the first things they often remarked when stepping onto French soil, was ‘Ugh. what’s that smell?’

Admittedly, many countries do have a certain smell. If I think of trips to Morocco and Tunisia, for example, I think of spices, mint, orange blossom, leather and souks.

Here are some of the smells I do associate with France.

  • Coffee
  • Bread
  • Lavender
  • Perfume
  • Garlic
  • Cheese
  • Oysters
  • Tobacco
  • Wine
  • Pastis

But there are so many more and a list doesn’t do justice to any of these scents.

Anfisa Eremina

When I think of coffee, in France, I’m not thinking instant coffee but strong, black coffee drunk in a tiny cup at the end of a delicious meal.

When I think of bread, I’m imagining a bite of a fresh, crusty baguette, straight from the oven.

Perfume and France are synonymous to me. You can read more here: https://fancyingfrance.com/2017/08/01/fragrance

The smell of tobacco is far less apparent now that smoking is banned in restaurants and cafés. Sit on a terrace, watching the world go by, and you will still catch a whiff of Gitanes or Gauloises. At least, in my head, that’s what they are.

Then there are the ‘odours’ of France, as mentioned by my former students. The first one that comes to mind is sewers and/or drains, especially in cities. Admittedly, they are less pungent then they used to be but there is still that overriding ‘whiff’ in certain places, particularly on hot days.

I did a lot of research asked a few people which smells they associate with France and the majority agreed with my list. At least two people suggested the smell of Calvados, the apple brandy. I always think of Pastis. I love that strong aniseed scent. I remember travelling back from a course in Grenoble with a bottle of Pernod in my bag. The bottle got broken and it seemed to take months to get the smell of the drink out of my clothes.

Without doubt there are particular buildings that have a certain smell. French supermarkets can be challenging to the uninitiated, olfactory wise. I think it must be that heady smell of the fish counter mixed with the pungency of the cheese counter!

Churches, cathedrals and châteaux, all have their own particular smell, as do French collèges. The school I taught in, when working in France, had a distinctly different odour to the one in which I worked in London.

French markets, of which I am a massive fan, also have a distinct smell. Its a melange of fresh fruit, veg and flowers, mingled with cheese and overladen with the enticing scent of takeaway meals. Definitely not the type that we might be familiar with in the UK , rather those of rotisserie chicken, North African tagines and paella.

Are there any smells that you associate with France or any other country? I’ve never been to India but I can imagine that it is somewhere that would be an assault on all the senses but particularly on one’s sense of smell. I’d be very interested to know what you think!