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:
What wonderful memories you have of the Med! And you've visited so many places.
And now I have some new things to try as well (and thank you for the paella recipe, I love it and now I can make it myself).
P.S. Word verification is iness. :)
I am drooling over your lyrical descriptions of Mediterranean food - I think the Andalucian Tourist Board will definitely want to hire you if it gets to read this post. : - )
I own Rose Kashmirie and Black Cashmere and was interested to learn that BC also has saffron, as it was below my radar. Though my radar is a blunt instrument at the best of times!
Oh, thanks for all the food/drink/scent pairings--one of my favorite ways to think about fragrance!
So much treasure here.
First of all, Spain has been but a vision (hallucination?) in my imagination for many years, an oyster started by the grain of knowledge that was the notion that Spanish Spanish was different from Mexican Spanish. Literature, art, food, architecture...it all gathered on top of that. Thank you for one of the most tangible, visceral experiences I've been virtually given.
I'm totally with you on Femme and the Oloroso. I enjoy the O de Lancome, but have so thoroughly associated a limoncello with Bond Little Italy, I will have to scrub my brain before considering. Kind of chuckling at the "even lower" register of Black Cashmere...that one can reach very low, no? An interesting thing for something with sharp spices.
Opopanax; funny, as I cede figs to Ines, you shall always be my Queen of Opopanax. I still have the L'Aromarine version you turned me on to a while back; potent, dilutable, but oh so pleasant in its way. The Diptyque room spray, you say? Duly noted, but of course.
Today, I attempt the chickpeas.
Hi Ines -- Thanks! I'd love to live in the Med again some day.
Hi FS -- Thanks! I think it's saffron that gives Black Cashmere its slight bitter edge.
Hi LBV - Well, my mind rarely strays far from food!
Hi SS -- Heavens, I'd forgotten all about the L'Aeromarine Opopanax! (I keep it upstairs with my perfume chemistry set now.) Should've mentioned it, as it is also strong, and inexpensive. Thanks for the reminder...
I recently bought L'Aromatheque Opopanax Perfume Extract, rather wonderful for $10, and great in this cold summer here in southern Cali...
Fun memories to read! I hadn't thought of saffron but I love it as a perfume note!
P., I'm such a foodie, and you've left me feeling both incredibly hungry and yet, somehow, wonderfully content and sated at the same time.
These posts have stirred a fantasy: I think that a bunch of us perfumistas should get together and rent a vacation house in Spain (or Greece or Tuscany or wherever we can all agree upon!) sometime. Wouldn't that be fun?
Yum-- all your food memories are inspiring. I'm American who was NOT raised on white bread; growing up in San Francisco and vicinity ensured early exposure to a wide variety of wonderful cuisines and foodstuffs. Perhaps it's not coincidental that the California coast is also a Meditteranean climate! My favorite "reminds me of home" scent, btw, is Parfums Delrae's Eau Illuminee.
Love Suzanne's idea for a perfumista vacation.
Oops, typo above-- that should be "Mediterranean".
What great scent memories. The food associations like the Espinacas con Garbanzos have me salivating.
Hah - everyone's commenting about how your post has made them hungry, but I'm thinking I'd quite like one of those digestifs you mentioned.
MMMmmm...saffron perfumes. I'm actually wearing Agent P right this very instant, and I do enjoy my bottles of Rose Kashmerie and Black Cashmere.
I've never tried Opopanax but think I must now!
Hi D -- I used to live in LA -- what is it, June Gloom? I wish we had a little of that here this summer! Thanks for the comment.
Hi L -- That most noble and ancient form of the crocus flower has many uses -- as a dye, too. It's expensive, but a little goes a long way.
Hi Suzanne -- Sounds like a great idea! I'd be up for it. Late September, maybe, late harvest, when there's lots of good food and cool nights...how wonderful that would be!
Hi G -- I feel a little guilty about the white bread thing. My family was quasi-military and we lived all over. White bread was what they sold at the base exchange stores so that's what we ate. Wonder bread -- I used to squash it and make little sculptures with it.
Hi Roxana -- I have a recipe for the spinach dish in one of my cookbooks, so if you, or anyone, would like a copy of it just email me and I'll send it. Thanks!
Hi Katie -- Yes, that is a wonderful elixir indeed. A friend once brought us a bottle of it from the Amalfi area, where they make it. It was a little more bitter than the export versions. I liked it better. But hey, the one in the freezer isn't bad!
Hi Rose -- L'Aeromarine makes a version called "parfum extrait", around a half-ounce, which is inexpensive and powerful. Some of the online perfume shops carry the line. Thanks for commenting!
Coffee you can stand a spoon in. So true!
You were lucky to have spent a good deal of time in the Meditterean. Traveling is one of the most important and enjoyable pursuits of my life. I traveled a great deal as a teenager and in my 20's. Not so much now and I do need to remedy this.
your memories are so vivid they jump off the page!
I love, love, love Spain, could easily live there myself (they're so very close to our own temperament I guess).
And LOL, Limoncello, it's indeed in our fridge box waiting to be tasted iced after dinner. Feels great in the heat.
Thanks for playing! (and glad you like Diptyque's Opoponax enough to include it)
Being Spanish myself, and having lived all my life by the Mediterranean sea, I'm enjoying a lot these posts you all are writing.
It's very interesting to know how my country is seen, tasted and smelt.
In the eastern regions, like Catalonia, Valencia, Balears, Murcia or Andalusia, the weather is too wet and hot in summer to wear heavy, warm fragrances. That's why we enjoy citrusy smells and love to drink "granizado de limón" (iced-lemon drink).
Hi A -- Me too. Aging parents/family commitments hav e restricted our travel greatly in the last ten years or so.
Suzanne had a great idea with the rent-a-house-near-the Med -- sounds fabulous.
Hi E -- thanks! Opopanax seems to be a great bargain, and I guess my bargain-hunting gene is -- someone in my family must have had one -- is beginning to express itself now. That room spray makes such a great sleep scent.
Hi Isa -- Welcome! I don't think I've seen you here before. And I hope I got it right. I haven't experienced Andalusia in the summer, or the Med coast -- just winter and spring. (My parents lived in Zaragoza.) Being in the American South now, "hot" and "wet" describes our climate about 24 hours a day, June through September. And so my collection includes quite a few citrus-based scents for summer. We make iced tea as you do granizado -- I've been scenting it with dried jasmine.
Thanks for commenting!
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