When you talk with a perfumer – a proper perfumer, not a sort of perfumer – among the terms that occur most often, memory and its cognates have the lion share. Now, I have chosen a profession in which a fair degree of good memory helps, and I have done so in spite being definitely affected by the Goldfish Memory Syndrome. Be it as it may, when I started to deal with perfumery, I wondered if that was a good idea in the first place: I am almost exhausting the whole of my already overstretched memory on recollecting work-related information: should I really be venturing into something equally challenging for my wits? Given that I practice combat-sports, I thought that I’d devote myself to illegal mma fights instead. Gioia was exhilarated when I told her: she was about to kill two birds with one stone. However, her enthusiasm vanished as soon as she realised that my life insurance does not cover death as a result of a me fighting with a thug on steroids in an abandoned underground station.
This aside, what I wanted to say is that olfactive memory is vital not only for the perfumer, but even just for our daily processing of the data gathered by our sense of smell. Olfaction is easily overlooked, if you think that our school system regards some musical and artistic education as necessary, but totally fail to acknowledge the role of olfactive education. Yet olfaction is crucial in a number of situations: it signals danger, transmits affinity, alerts of illness, potential problems, opportunities etc.
Olea fragrans (literally ‘fragrant olive’), or Osmanthus fragrans, is an evergreen shrub that has been grown in China for over two thousand years. It was the Portuguese Jesuit João de Loureiro that first described the plant, in the 18th century, that is at the time when the ships from throughout the globe crowded the ports of Macau and Canton. Most of the ships moored along the Pearl River delta were owned by Western companies that setting sails from Calcutta, traded Indian opium into China. At the turn of 19th century, opium, mainly produced in Patna and Benares, was the only good whose trade was effective in fixing the imbalance caused by the high demand of Chinese porcelain and tea. One of the effect of Western trade was the establishment of the Canton System, which supported European companies in China while at the same time kept them under Chinese control. Rubbing shoulders with opium traffickers, however, in the maritime enclaves of the System were a plethora of other appealing types: artist, rascals, mercenaries, but also botanists, scholars and naturalists: the colorful and protean humanity portrayed by Amitav Ghosh in the second installment of his masterful Ibis Trilogy. Amongst sailors who were averagely fluent in two or three languages, and who conducted their business in pidgin English, there must have been someone who fell for the luxurious scent of Osmanthus, which was so popular as to give its name to a town: Guilin, ‘the forest of sweet osmanthus’. And it was the British who first introduced it in Europe: it was brought to Kew Gardens in the year of the French Revolution. For some time, they even attempted to grow in in England, but the plant, unsurprisingly, did not thrive (I suspect my plans to make money on growing mango trees here are bound to fail).
Oh, but my point was: the name of this blog is connected to an olfactory memory that dates back to the first time I have matched an unknown smell to its source. When went to high school, I would walk through a tiny, dim and rather derelict park. The first days of the academic year, up to late September, in the morning the park was pervaded with an extremely sweet smell. It was as if every household was busy making fresh apricot jam and baking apricot pies. Yet the smell of apricot was made subtler and softer by a note of lemon and tropical fruits. I was lost: I had no clue what that beautiful smell actually was, and to me would remain ‘my-high-school-in-September’s smell’ for years to come. As such, it was inseparable from Friuli and its early Autumn matutine air, Latin and ancient Greek grammar.
Years later, my father planted some dark green leafed shrubs in his yard. He told me the shrub’s name was Olea fragrans, and that they flowered twice a year. He also said that its minuscule and unimpressive flowers smelled beautifully. ‘When do they flower?’ I asked him. ‘In June and September’, he replied. Beautiful smell – September flowering. I knew that ‘my-high-school-in-September’s smell’ was the smell of Olea’s second bloom, the most luxurious, the bloom that is able to fill the air of a town with a smell of ripe apricots. Or a ‘smell of sweet olives’.