A Postcard from Italy - 1 June 2018
Tuscany, June 1, 2018
The roses are blooming beautifully in the sunshine here, so my thoughts are concentrated on making pot pourri. The real thing that is. This is the authentic stuff the Medici family would have used to perfume their many houses and its base is simply rough salt and pure alcohol. It's nothing like a modern dry, dusty pot pourri. This is a damp, dark and highly perfumed mixture. You can't go wrong and it's so, so good. If you haven't got roses, use fresh lavender. Failing lavender, go for a refreshing mix of rosemary, thyme, nutmeg and cloves. The trick is to keep it simple - as with everything from Italian jewels to pasta dishes, you should tend to restrict your ingredients for a truly Italian style.
I recently dropped into that perfumer's heaven, the "Officina" in Florence ( Via della Scala 16, just round the corner from Santa Maria Novella train station). Simply to stand and gaze at the stunning decor, inhaling the intoxicating scents is almost glory enough. But oh, their perfumed products are irresistible, so leave space in your suitcase! I was there to stock up on Florentine orris root to "set" the perfume of my pot pourri - though fear not, you can manage perfectly well without it. I also bought a little bottle of bergamot oil too - in honour of the perfume the Officina created for Caterina de' Medici in 1533. She took it to France when she married King Henri II and it became known as "the Queen's water". I don't have the Officina's perfume recipe, but I'll add the bergamot oil to my rose pot pourri, just for fun. So, if you're sitting comfortably, let's begin!
Choose your flowers or herbs - picked or bought - whatever's to hand is just fine. Quantities are pretty irrelevant, so revel in what you have. Take a packet of rough rock salt - large or small depending how much pot pourri you want to make. Put your flower petals and/or snipped herbs into a large mixing bowl and add lots of salt. The salt soaks up the essential oils and preserves their perfume. Cover your bowl with cling film and hide it in a dark-ish place to "mature". Uncover and stir your mix once a day for a week, covering it up again to leave it to its magical self. You can add extra flowers or herbs as you go along. At the end of a week (or two, or three if you prefer!), your mix will be damp and dark. If you have orris root (a sweetly scented powder made from the dried bulbs of Florentine irises), add a generous sprinkling at this final stage. Round off the mixture with a generous slosh of pure alcohol - it's inexpensive and readily available here in Italy, but if it's a problem to find, add a hefty dash of cheapest vodka instead.
Pile your sloshy mix into a pretty pot with a lid. Keep it covered until you want to relax into your perfume, and when you've done put the lid back. A wetter mix is better to release the perfume, however, if the mixture seems too wet, you can dry it off by adding ground cinnamon, or ground cloves - or even ground pepper! If it's too dry, tipple in more alcohol. They didn't mess about 500 years ago: they used what they had and weights and measures weren't important. Dive into creating your pot pourri with June's bountiful flowerings and you'll be able to revel in summer's perfumes all winter in best Medici style!
Ciao for now from sunny Italy