Sunday, February 22, 2009

Travel Memoirs: On the Bergamot Trail

Sailing on the Mediterranean Sea under the sweltering sun of late summer on a wooden built gulet, rubber-soled feet on parquet decks, scarf on salty-sprayed hair, and the guarantee of sunshine and clear blue waters, is almost an unbearable reminiscence in the heart of winter. Relaxing on deck, wining and dining under the stars in eno-gastronomical matchings to threaten even the toughest dieter’s plan and hopping off to catch couleur locale wherever interesting is the nomadic life I would love to be able to live in full 12 months of the year, if only I could. But snippets will suffice and trailing the route where bergamot ~this prized material for both perfumery and aromatherapy~ abounds, has its own rewards to last throughout the year into the months of cold and dreary.
Bergamot is inextricably tied to Sicily (the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea), the Calabria coast of Italy and the Ionian islands at the west of Greece.
And indeed despite current cultivation on the Ivory Coast in Africa which produced a cheaper product, it is still Sicilian bergamot (and lemon too)which is considered the highest quality in the world ~although it's sad to see the groves now seem erratic and neglected. It's the kind of rich joyous aroma that scents the finest morning Earl Grey cup of tea and gives it its delightful flavour. The fruit of the bergamot is inedible but the peel can be candied into a highly scented preserve which is very popular along the breadth of the Mediterranean; an exquisitely bittersweet marmalade, yummy on rye bread and butter, is painstainkely made by housewives.

Trekking over the villages my heart aches a bit from the echo of Grecanic (Griko or Katoitaliótika), linguistic remnants of the time when Sicily and Calabria were called Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) because of the numerous villages that survived from the colonization of the Greeks in the 5th century BC. So many relics, so many conquests have left their indelible mark on this austere place…
The history of Sicily has frequently seen the island controlled by greater powers—Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Hohenstaufen, Catalan, Spanish; yet periods of independence, as under the Greeks and later as the Emirate- then Kingdom of Sicily- are also part of its multi-hued fabric. Since antiquity, the Sicilian landscape has hosted the cultivation of groves of Hesperidia trees, specializing in growing the sweetest lemons in the Mediterranean; cultivations interwoven in many facets of the Sicilian lifestyle.
The Garden of Hesperides according to classic Greek mythology belonged to Hera, Zeus’s wife and the Hesperides (Ἑσπερίδες) were nymphs, the daughters of Hesperus (God of the Evening Star, from whose name Vesper derives), who tended a blissful orchard in the far western corner of the world.

The peaceful place was either located near the Atlas Mountains in Libya, or on a distant island at the edge of the encircling Oceanus, the world-ocean, while Sicilian Greek poet Stesichorus and Greek geographer Strabo state that the orchard lies in Tartessos, at the southern edge of Iberia. In that garden a grove of immortality-giving “golden apples” grew. Those were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia (mother Earth) gave to her as a wedding gift when Hera married Zeus and the nymphs were given the task of tending to the grove, but occasionally plucked from it themselves. Hera also placed in the garden a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon named Ladon, as an additional safeguard. The eleventh labour of Hercules consisted of being ordered to steal the golden apples and bring them to Argos, Greece, although Athena later returned the apples to their rightful place. But in a strange course of events the mythological name Hesperide came to be applied to the golden fruits that came from the east, oranges, and ultimately to the entire citrus family!

Native to China and Southeast Asia (with mentions in the Nan-Fang Ts’ao Mu from the 4th century BC) and encompassing hundreds of variations, citruses were brought to the west by the Arabs through the Spice Route during the Middle Ages.
Sicily (and Spain, to a greater extent due to the longer Arab conquest) thus became centers for the cultivation of hesperidia. During the 14th century, the spice and precious metals trade was the origin of wealth for the city-states of Italy, Venice and Genoa, until the battle at Chioggia in 1380, when defeated Genoa succumbed to a new reality: monopoly of the trade by the Venicians. Often Venetian galleys intercepted easterm caravans carrying wares at Aleppo, Handax or Alexandria, transporting the loot to European artisans. Among them, citrus fruits, only much later prized on board for their ability to fight scurvy.

One version of bergamot’s etymology attributes the root to a Turkish word meaning “Princess Pear”; another, after a small town in Italy where the oil was first sold. But it is Christopher Columbus who is said to have brought bergamot oil from the Canary Islands back to Spain and Italy. The bergamot tree (citrus bergamia) is the result of cross-breeding a lemon (citrus limonia) and a bitter orange tree (citrus aurantium). Classified as a citrus, the plant originated in tropical Asia but found an excellent breeding place in Sicily, Italy and the Ionian islands. Bergamot trees grow up to 16 feet tall, producing an almost pear-shaped, yellow fruit that is highly aromatic, similar to lemon, smaller than an orange. It was once called the Bergamot Pear Tree, not be confused with "false bergamot" used to aromatize Oswego-tea and derived from the plant Monarda didyma, a type of mint indigenous to the New World. Italian-conducted research indicates that bergamot oil relieves fear and anxiety, lifts the spirits, combating depression and calms anger by balancing the activity of the hypothalamus. Bergamot oil with its optimistic ambience evokes feelings of joy and acts as a confidence booster. Bergamot essence is easy to render, as are most citruses. I still recall how transfixed I was as a child scraping my nails on a bergamot or a lemon and being left with hands that almost dribbled with the bitter-tasting sour oil which scented them for hours on end. Cold-pressed /expressed from the rinds of the sour green fruit, a pale emerald-hued oil results, bergamot essential oil, possessing a refreshing lemony-orange smell, complex and with flower accents, yet also a subtly sweet balsamic undertone that makes it pliable to numerous uses in perfumery. The main chemical constituents in bergamot oil are limonene, linalyl acetate, nerol, and linalool; all are substances antiseptic and astringent with a fresh facet. The one constituent which might be possing a certain problem is bergaptene, a photosensitising agent, which has been under the radar of recent IFRA restrictions, although since forever the advice on putting fragrance on is not to use it on parts about to be exposed to the sun.

Bergamot and its uplifting aroma is traditionally paired with materials with citrusy nuances, such as lemon, coriander or orange blossom; rosey shades such as geranium or palmarosa; aromatic herbs/trees such as lavender, cypress or juniper; and flowers such as jasmine, ylang ylang and violet. Its alliance to erotic labdanum and darkish oakmoss (often with some inclusion of patchouli) creates the classic chypre accord, to which we have devoted a whole Series. But its wondrously influential use in simpler fragrance-waters hailing from Europe cannot be ignored!

To be continued...

The joyous spirit of hesperides matches the uplifting mood of this lovely Italian song which will surely brighten your day!

Song "Vanità di Vanità", written by Angelo Branduardi from the 1983 picture "State Buoni, Se Potete" directed by Luigi Magni. This film depicts the time and life of Filippo Neri.
All pictures © copyright by Elena Vosnaki/Perfumeshrine


  1. Seasonal and always encyclopedic in its ability to inform.
    You amaze me.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, dearest I! Imagine if we organised a perfumista sailing!

  3. Sniffapalooza tour of the Greek Islands, anyone?

  4. Anonymous12:01

    I would love a walk in the garden of hesperides, since that is not possible, follow you on the bergamot trail is a good alternative! :)

  5. Anonymous14:23

    Beautiful and informative piece and yes, Jarvis, what a good idea!

    Thank you so much E sweetie.

  6. J,

    I think lots of hands would be raised on that idea :-)

  7. S,

    thanks honey! Glad you liked the post.

  8. D,

    isn't it a good idea? I bet lots of people would actually love to do some Med cruise with perfume sniffing in the mix. It could even have a historical tinge! (now there's an idea!)

    Hugs to you!

  9. Surely we might find a historian/archeologist to take us on a tour of Cyprus and the ruins of the perfume factories of the ancient world?

  10. Hehehehe...I'm pretending I didn't hear this ;-)

    Hope you're having a great day!


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