“Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement’s…”

Portrait of Mary Denton by George Gower – 1573. She is dangling a jewelled pomander on a chain. They might have been fabulously wealthy but in 16th century Europe things were still pretty stinky.

In the children’s nursery rhyme and song Oranges and Lemons, which dates from about 1744, the first line goes “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement’s”. It ends with “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” People think that the song refers to the outbreak of plague of Black Death in England, which lasted for from the fourteenth century until the Second Pandemic which ended in 1750. The “oranges and lemons” is a reference to the oranges and lemons people kept close to themselves to breathe in, as a way of escaping the “poisonous humours” in the air. They thought the plague was primarily transferred through the air and that a citrus pomander would chase away the disease. Today, the sharp, sweet fragrances of oranges and lemons is still associated with cleanliness, freshness and consequently, wellness.

Pomanders were first mentioned in literature in the mid-thirteenth century, as a decorative ball filled with sweet-smelling spices and worn as jewellery. It was used right up to the eighteenth century,  but after that pomanders became mostly an orange studded with cloves used for decoration at Christmas or as a room freshener.

The orange oil produced from the peel of citrus fruits is composed of mostly (greater than 90%) of D-Limonene. D-Limonene is used as an ingredient in dietary supplements, in medicine as a flavouring, in cosmetic products, as a botanical insecticide, and in cleansers and solvents. And of course the oil from citrus fruits like oranges and lemons are common ingredients in fragrances and cosmetics products. D-Limonene is the primary ingredient of fragrances in the “fresh” and “floral/oriental” categories of fragrances, which are fragrances with dominant “orange blossom” and “citrus oil” notes.

Sweet orange oil and delicate orange flower water

The oil from orange (or citrus) peel can be described as follows:

“Orange peel has a few things going for it: it’s aromatic, it’s bitter, it’s sour. But there’s also that quality that seems to only be there in all citrus fruits: it’s got a brightness to it. If you peel open an orange, that brightness is like a break in the clouds on an overcast day: it lets the light in, dispels the dampness, shining light into the dark shadows.” (Source: Rebecca Altman, Orange and orange blossom, Kings Road Apothecary, rtvd. 2018-12-08)

A wide variety of citrus fruits can produce essential oils for those notse, and include chinotto, bergamot, kumquat, lime, citruses (oranges and lemons), bitter orange, grapefruit, pomelo, mandarin orange and tangerine. The petals of orange blossom, as opposed to the peels, can be distilled or pressed into delicately scented orange flower water, which is also used in fragrances. This smells lighter, sweeter and more pleasant than the oil from the peel.

The sweetest, sunniest lemons in the world

Despite the reputation for smelling somewhat like a hospital, not all oranges and lemons are bitter and sharp. There is a place where, supposedly, the sweetest oranges in the world are grown: – Amalfi, on the coast of Italy. In Monty Don’s TV program, Italian Gardens, (episode The South) he wanders through Italy to demonstrate the development of Italian gardens from classical, formal, patterned designs in the Baroque period, to small, hand-tended plots hidden from the encroaching cities and madding crowds. One place he went to was on the Amalfi coast:

“In the early years of the 20th century, the trickle of foreigners buying homes here became a full flow, as Europe’s rail network made the Amalfi Coast, just south of the Bay of Naples, a popular holiday destination. These holiday-makers found an area that was a very poor with the only living to be had from the sea or the ravishingly beautiful but harsh land. The hillsides above the sea are still cultivated in a thousand layered terraces – growing vegetables and fruit, but principally lemons, and the locals proudly claim that the lemons of Amalfi are the best in the world. I made a detour to visit Giovanni Ciuffi, who’s been growing them here for 50 years. As you walk into the groves, every breath is zesty with lemon. That smells so good.” (Extract from the script of the episode)

The delightful thing is that Monty’s fine nose led him to the place where the world’s sweetest, most fragrant lemons are grown, lemons so big and yellow they look more like oval oranges than like lemons. And it is these lemons that are used in the Amalfi region to make fine fragrances and perfumed cosmetics. This is beautifully illustrated by Dave Lackie in Italy’s Lemon Perfumery, June 26, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-11-08)

“’The best lemons in the world are grown in Southern Italy,” explains Gennaro Barba, a fourth generation perfumer who operates one of Italy’s most interesting niche perfumeries. ‘The climate and the soil are ideal for growing lemon, bergamot and oranges and you’ll see groves that hug the mountain in terrace gardens.’ It was these lemons that inspired his great grandfather Giuseppeto open a tiny perfume shop in 1922 called Profumi di Positano that began by making soap and then citrus-based scents. You can still buy the original soap formula from 1922 that is incredibly moisturizing thanks to olive oil produced nearby. ‘We have just recently reformulated the original soap keeping the same scent and qualities but using sustainable ingredients. As you can imagine, many of the ingredients used in 1922 are no longer appropriate for this generation.’”

Lackie explains that Gennaro and his wife Filomena sees the perfumery as a tradition as well as a passion: “This is a passion for our family and we work to make the very finest fragrances. There are ten to choose from that range from pure lemon citrus to florientals and woody greens.” The perfumes include “Aqva Avrea” , “Incanto”, and “i Galli”.

“I think the biggest mistake I see when people buy perfume is they rush too fast. They come in and buy the first one they smell. Perfume shouldn’t be rushed and the experience should be pleasurable. Take the time to try a fragrance on your skin. Close your eyes and see what images the fragrance brings up in your mind. I recommend you buy what you love, not what may be in style.”  – Perfumer Gennaro Barba, of Profumi di Positano, Positano, Italy


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