Greece 16 August 1990
"We’re exploring the country from top to bottom, by car, bus, boat and foot! The landscapes are like nothing we’ve seen before. The mountains resemble wild animals like lions, or tigers, with their long, uninterrupted, muscular lines. Sometimes, the world of myths and all-powerful gods seems to loom up before us, like at the Acropolis. This country is totally fascinating!!
After all that sightseeing, we’ve finally found our favourite spot, mount Pelion! Here, in a remote village called Milies, surrounded by countryside that is barren in parts, lush and fertile in others, dotted with huge waterfalls, we’ve decided to stay for the rest of the summer, and let time stand still. I’ve sketched the village square for you, to give you an idea of where we are.
Every day, to reach the sea, we walk through groves where wild fig trees grow. Heated by the sun, they give off an intense fragrance. I’ve made you a box of souvenirs from this wonderful trip that is coming to an end, so you can share it with us. I’ve put in it a dried leaf from one of the magnificent fig trees, as well as a piece of marble from the Acropolis, a bit of pottery from Mycenae."
Yves Coueslant and Desmond Knox-Leet, two of Diptyque's three founders, were keen travelers. After countless expeditions, they found at last their favorite spot, what Desmond called "the landscape of the soul": Mount Pelion.
On this Mount Pelion, at Melies in Thessalia, they rented a holiday house four years in succession. To reach the sea every day they would walk through a grove of wild fig trees, heated by the burning sun…And thus Diptyque Philosykos and Figuier scented candle came to be.
If I showed you pictures of my younger days as a carefree student you'd be hard to miss one with me showing my teeth and claws in a mock threatening mood under a shrubby fig tree that almost engulfed me in its tentacles. This isn't unusual; we're talking Greece, the land of chaotic vegetation where vegetable patch borders and garden beds are almost unheard of and you'd be hard pressed to find something reminiscent of the ultra-artificial structure of a French style formal garden by André Le Nôtre. The philosophical clash of order over nature and of classical creation myths which place value in the spermatic possibilities ad infinitum is reflected in this small issue.
But the fig itself is antithetical to the northern climes which bred Schopenhauer and Le Spleen de Paris. Dusty or glossy, bitter or sweetish and hazy or succulent, the varied universe of fig scents is winking at us to impart of the joys of the here and now before more sinister thoughts detach us from sensual pleasures. And sensual pleasures are everywhere under the Mediterranean sun where figs are consumed by the kilo, routinely ending a meal with the accompaniment of many savory and creamy cheeses or cooked alongside pork or lamb or even…fish!
|fish wrapped in fig leaves by Penny de los Santos for Saveur, borrowed for educational purposes from here|
Dried, candied figs are still sold throughout the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean as a delicacy that harkens back to antiquity. Such was the importance placed on them that in classical Athens (a significant trade center for figs) the term sycophant/συκοφάντης (literally “revealer of figs”) was coined for those who snitched on the poachers of figs. As the practice of stealing the fruit was both illegal and highly frowned upon~fig groves being sacred as well as a trade vantage point for city-state Athens~ the practice soon took on a more sinister nuance: If someone had a vendetta against their neighbor they often resorted to blaming them for fig poaching! Thus the word “sycophant” earned a negative and more generalized meaning, that of "lying snitch," a meaning it still retains in Greek! Centuries later the word acquired a different meaning in English (that of "lowly flatterer"), but its etymology reminds us that the natural world surrounding us is not without importance even in such prosaic things as words.
The sharp, bitter green of the leaf contrasts with the milky, creamy touch of the sap of the fruit and the wood of the bark in Philosykos. The coconut note is an important part, not because it imparts a tropical feel (figs grow in the temperate zone) but because the young fruit sap contains a sensitizing "milk," a lactonic note. Coconut is also lactonic, i.e. milky-smelling in nature, hence the inclusion more realistically brings to mind the fig tree burdened with its succulent-to-be load. The milky note isn't a random thing, nor has it escaped attention through the ages. The classical Greek writer Athenaeus of Naucratis writes in Deipnosophistae how rural populations were making cheese out of milk by curdling it using the twigs and leaves of the fig tree. It is even described in Homer's Iliad!
See the presentation/sketches/photos on this link .
|Desmond Knox Leet sketch for Diptyque Philosykos|