Is there such a thing? In considering all things Italian in the scented world, I tend to bump over and over again into the orange blossom. Italians love their orange blossom scents. Anyone who was raised in or near places where oranges are grown tends to love the smell. Italians are no different.
There is hardly a perfume house in Italy that does not offer an orange blossom scent, usually called a Zagara*. Santa Maria Novella does, and so do I Profumi di Firenze and the whole notion of the Aqua di Parma’s is predicated upon the orange flower and back in the day when I had a complete set of the Borsari perfumes and of the (French) Rances , they had their Zagaras too.
My own best experience with orange blossoms didn’t come from a bottle. It came during a hike in Calabria where we ended up walking across the estate of some absentee family and stumbled and stumped our Doc Martens into their crumbling villa.
Below the villa was a valley completely carpeted in orange trees which then were in fruit, only a few were in flower. Some clever dickens of an architect had laid out the grounds so that the orange groves sloped away at the eye level of the wide terrace, bordered with a partially extant balustrade like stone lace, and you could see across this forest of shining green leaves, as though the entire place had been crafted by Faberge instead of gardeners, with every leaf lacquered by hand, and every orange a minutely stippled gold replica of the real thing.
The illusion was so complete, you expected birds to pop out on springs every half hour and sing some mechanical song, but then a sea breeze would shift the branches and the scent would remind you that the whole place, no matter how improbable, was real and not a jeweler’s masterpiece. To this day I don’t remember the name of the town it was nearby, or anything remotely practical about it, just that view, and that tremendous perfume: Mediterranean Breeze and Orange Blossom combined.
That is my mental image whenever I smell zagaras.
That is also my problem whenever I smell zagaras.
You see, most of them are based on neroli oils, or were, when neroli was cheaper and folks worried less about allergic reactions. You can find Orange Blossoms now that don’t smell remotely real.
Take Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino.
Neroli Fakofino is more like it, and although I know it’s popular and no doubt the beloved favorite of many people, I also know what orange blossoms should smell like, and that is just not it.
Actually, I can only think of about three Orange Blossoms I’ve found interesting over the years because in their different ways they expand the repertoire of the OB. The first is the discontinued Fendi Theorema. Now that- even though it was composed by a Frenchwoman is a very Italian smell indeed- and I have a tiny little bottle of it that I allow myself to sniff like a Jane Austen heroine in hysterics would her salts bottle. It smells like orange blossoms and spice and something akin to Cointreau. It sweeps along other associations with every inhalation – Christmas fairs for one ( which see ) – but Theorema is unusual in being an OB you can wear successfully in winter, and it varies the formula of the zagara and brews it into a floral oriental of triple distilled charm. I wish I’d had the common sense to buy a bottle of the perfume when it was still about, but there it is.
The second, a long time favorite of mine is Caron’s Narcisse Blanc. Please do not groan yet about reformulations. I know that the Caron’s are not what they were, but even not at its best, Narcisse Blanc is still such a wonderfully sweet and fleshy smell, like the smell of clean baby skin to me. If its older sibling is the slinky Narcisse Noir slithering past you on the air, Narcisse Blanc is the laughing white wearing younger sister. It also used to have one of the most beautiful iris endings I can think of, these days a bit more metallic and less lovely but still well worth smelling. A marvelous complicated perfume that starts out saying one thing, and ends up saying something else altogether like the most delightful victim of ADHD you ever met.
Finally there is a cologne, Parfums de Nicolai’s Cologne Sologne has been a mainstay of mine for years also. It is as genuine a neroli as you are likely to come by these days rivaling even that very expensive L’Artisan release of a few years ago, and actually preferable to it, as far as I am concerned. Considering that you can buy it for about $US 50 for 100 mls., I’d call that a bargain.
Moreover this fragrance is as lasting on me as an eau de toilette. In other words, for a cologne it acts remarkably like a perfume, and it is almost purely orange blossom. It does have a few moments of myrtle at the beginning but this soon burns off like the clouds on an otherwise fine morning over , yes, indeedy, that neglected orange grove in Calabria.
Not bad for a little bottle of cologne.
* Italian by way of Arabic zahara (“shine, sparkle”) and/or azhar (“flower”). At least, according to my husband, who has a taste for trivia.