The Mediterranean, you say? The Mediterranean region is where the rest of the western world was born.
Greece, Italy, the coast of France; the coast of Spain (as far as Gibraltar, technically) -- North Africa, too. What unites all these regions besides their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea? The sun. All of them bake in unrelenting sun and the arid air it produces. That dry air concentrates aroma and flavor in just about everything. The heat forces you to slow down and notice.
I haven’t been to Greece or Italy in a long time, but spent many months traveling around the Mediterranean area as a student. I felt instantly comfortable there, much more so than in the damp Northern countries, and remember the foods most of all -- feta cheese, soft fat olives and their green oil, crimson blood oranges -- that we would buy at the street markets, as we didn’t have enough money for restaurants. I realize now that we were fortunate, going from one stall to another selecting culinary jewels. Just-baked breads, a hundred cheeses from which to choose, perfectly cured meats -- this taught me, an American raised on white bread, how to eat. How to love inky local wine and coffee you could stand a spoon in. I do it to this day, shunning supermarkets for farmers’ markets.
The smells I experienced in those travels were those of the streets -- not always pleasant but certainly memorable. Old sewers, diesel exhaust and dust in the cities; wild herbs and aromatic plants while walking in the hills in Greece. I realize now that these herbs and resins form a basis of modern perfumery; labdanum, opopanax, lavender, thyme. Serge Lutens “Ambre Sultan” reminds me of those walks, as it combines the resins with the herbs and is sweet but a little sharp, too, like thorns. I’m also a fan of are “Labdanum 18,” from Le Labo, and Anyas Garden’s “Pan,” a natural perfume of unsweetened resins, tincture of goat hair -- the original labdanum gathering method was by combing the hair of billy goats to obtain the sticky resin -- patchouli, and lavender from Seville.
A.k.a. Sevilla. (Spain is the one Mediterranean country I know well. My parents lived there for a long time, and I would go and live with them, and have been back since then.) You might think, Seville, oranges, but not just those. One of my favorite foods there was the traditional “Espinacas con Garbanzos,” served as a tapa or a ración (larger than a tapa, smaller than dinner) in the tascas, the cafe-bars. Like perfume, it contains much history. It’s spinach (my guess is that the earliest versions used bitter wild greens) combined with fried chickpeas, originally from North Africa, along with a paste made of toasted bread crumbs, garlic, vinegar and salt -- straight from the Romans. Vinegar, crushed bread, garlic and almonds formed the first gazpachos, too. (Tomatoes, a new world vegetable, came later.) You can still get almond-based white gazpacho at a few places in southern Spain.
Spain has it’s Myurgia, but what I remember most about daily life scents was simply known as “limón.” In the sweltering Madrid summers, it was everywhere. The subway reeked of limón and old sweat. Limón was sweeter and cheaper than 4711, which I still use to cool off. My current favorite citrus, O de Lancome, adds herbs and clean musk. (My favorite after-dinner digestif, by the way, is the Italian cure-all, Limoncello, the bottle kept in the freezer for warm summer nights. It’s like drinking citrus cologne.)
“Femme,” especially the current version, reminds me of Oloroso sherry. That’s the sweetest, darkest kind, drunk after dinner. It’s most definitely not the fortified “Cream Sherry” Spain exports by the ton. It’s hard to find sometimes, but the good ones have a plum/prune note, like Femme, as though they share some kind of history.
As for saffron, that’s a whole other post. I have some saffron attar, which I plan to write about. Even mixed 10:1 with Jojoba oil, it’s hugely strong and, well, not all that pleasant; mix it with jasmine, or rose, though, and it blooms. Rosine’s “Rose Kashmire” expresses that idea in a high register, “Agent Provocateur” in a lower one, Donna Karan’s “Black Cashmere” in an even lower one.
Food, too. Paella, really, is no big deal. In Spain, it’s what you eat at the beach. Here is my paella base: 1 red bell pepper, 1 sweet onion, chopped and sauteed in (lots of) olive oil; chicken broth and rice (3 cups broth to one and a half cups rice) and ground saffron threads, about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. Add the uncooked dry rice to the vegetable and oil mixture after the vegetables have softened; saute until it is browning and smells nutty. Add the saffton to the broth, and pour over it and stir. Then you can put in whatever meats or seafoods (add those at the end) make you happy. Or nothing -- this is good as a special side dish.
Finally, opopanax. Many of the amber based fragrances feature this tree resin, also known as sweet myrrh. Diptyque makes a room spray called -- you guessed it -- “Opopanax.” It comes in a great big relatively inexpensive bottle and, sure, you can use it to scent a room, but also to scent your clothing, bed linens and you. (Thank you Elena!)
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of Mediterranean scents. Maybe a 50-volume encyclopedia? Yeah. That might do it.
Good thing all these other fine bloggers are involved!
Thanks to Ines and Elena for putting this together. Be sure to visit the other participating blogs, which are: