There I was in my white lab coat, examining 40 vials and trying to determine which combinations to mix to get the best outcome. Admittedly, I wasn’t performing some important scientific discovery or creating a medical breakthrough, but it felt almost that significant. What if I screwed up, made ridiculous choices as to the most effective ingredients and came away with an awful smelling product. Yup, I was making perfume at the Tijon Parfumerie & Boutique on the French side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin. The other half, St. Maarten, is the Dutch side, and the two together form the smallest land mass in the whole world to be shared by two countries, France and the Netherlands.
Tijon is a study in sensory overload: a cologne colony. There are more than 300 individual oils to choose from in the making of your own personal perfume. As an amateur “nose” – someone who uses oils to create new fragrances – I learned to combine top notes, middle notes and base notes to fashion “an accord” that will constitute a pleasing perfume.
Becoming a chemist is no easy task. There are a whole series of intricate steps to follow in the search for perfection First, I chose three bottles from a series of 12 pre-mixed oils. Then nine other oils – for three perfume creations -- from that selection of 300. I randomly – because really, how else can you do it? – chose "Beach," "Cashmere," "Grass," "April Rain," "Vanilla Oak," "Sunflower," "Amber Musk," "Aqua Spa, and "Rose." After a while, I didn’t know whether I wanted to eat the flavors, bathe in them, or plant them in a garden.
Then, using beakers and droppers – because yes, this is a lab experiment of sorts – I diligently combined the different options into three potential bottles of perfume. Once I determined which of the final prospects I liked the best, I added a number of other chemical properties to solidify the process. Upon completion, my creation was beautifully bottled and placed in a classy cloth carrying case. And of course, it all ends with a champagne toast because, remember, you’re still in France. Voila! You are a perfume-maker. And every time you use the perfume -- which by the way, you have also named so that it is uniquely yours – you will remember St. Martin.
But will you remember St. Maarten? Of course, thanks to the Amsterdam Cheese & Liquor Store, a very fine representative of all things Dutch, with souvenirs from Dutch shoe key rings to windmill earrings; Dutch cookies and candies to soft clog slippers; tulip candle holders to Delph Christmas ornaments, and wooden shoes, large and small, in every iteration! And we haven’t even gotten to the cheese, yet – 50 varieties of them, all imported from the Netherlands – as well as every kind of cheese-related item from slicers and skewers to cutting boards and serving dishes.
Owner Étienne Rogers is happy to share his knowledge of which cheeses complement which rums with which crackers. Forget about your cheddar and Camembert – there’s coconut, pepper, pumpkin, truffle, jalapeño, cumin and asparagus – to name a few. But Etienne heartily defends the Gouda. He says that people come in and say they don’t like Gouda. His response: “You don’t like American Gouda; Dutch Gouda you will love.”
So there’s French culture and Dutch culture but the island itself is Caribbean and what better way to celebrate that than with rum. On to the family-owned Topper’s Rhum is a distillery which turns out as many different flavors of rum as there are fragrances and wooden shoes. And then there’s the rum cake! But before we got to that, there was a lot to learn about the craft itself. A small price to pay.
Topper’s has been winning medals in international rum tasting competitions for years – quite a testament to a liquor whose origins began in Melanie Daboul’s own kitchen. She went from serving family and friends to making over 100 flavors of rum in a few short years. And a tour of the factory takes you on a rum adventure spanning more than 20 samples, ranging from the recognizable to the exotic. From your basic coconut and spiced to white chocolate raspberry and banana vanilla cinnamon. And oh yes, of course, there’s also your bacon maple syrup and buttered popcorn varieties.
You can drink as much or as little as you want – no judgment. Eventually I stopped taking notes so just know that the 17 rums I tasted were really, really good. Okay, maybe a little judgment - but admittedly, at this point, my eyes were glazing over on the history of rum-making.
And if you need some diversion in between tastes, there are always the t-shirts: “Girls Just Want to Have Rum,” “All for Rum, Rum for All.” “I’m on a rum diet – I’ve already lost 3 days.” This is a very hands-on operation from brewing to bottling. Nothing is automated. And did I mention the rum cake?
So two chemists - John at the Parfumerie, a cultural product of the French side of the island, and Melanie at the rum factory, a very Caribbean creation – both invent hundreds of products from scratch. Plus the hundreds of products directly imported from the Netherlands. The island abounds in distinctive cultures -- and oh yes, there are also beautiful beaches! For more information, visit St-Martin.org and VacationStMaarten.com.