Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Scent of Orris from Tuscan feasts and Tuscan friends By Dorothy Nevile Lees

Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Scent of Orris from Tuscan feasts and Tuscan friends By Dorothy Nevile Lees

Although I had spent several springs in the neighbourhood of Florence, this was my first upon that side of the country, and I was therefore unaware that it was the district where most of the irises for the famous Florentine orris root was grown. Had I known this, I should have been prepared and expectant; as it was I stood breathless, silent, before so wonderful a sight.

The irises were all in flower. Up the long slopes and in the rounded hollows of the hills they stood in millions, close-growing; a carpet of pale purple ; an amethystine sea from which the olive-trees raised their silver foliage and twisted, moss-grown trunks. Erect upon its tall stalk each flower stood majestic, springing proudly from its sword-like leaves.

They broke in purple waves against the very walls of the little white farmhouses, and, as the breeze passed over them, it stirred their surface as the wind might ruffle the surface of a lake. They crept into the copses among the young oak-trees. The clusters of stone pines on their straight, slender stems, the groups of cypresses like sombre plumes, the thickets of bay and myrtle breaking the even flow of them, were but as rocks against which the water lapped. Even the patches of corn, usually supreme in a landscape, seemed as a mere embroidery upon this royal robe of purple, or as "the Islands of the Blessed" set in an enchanted sea.

It was a fit hour for such a vision, for all this loveliness lay outstretched beneath a pale blue sky, in the clear quiet air of early morning. This mystical world of lilac and pale silver, beautiful at any time, possessed a more indescribable charm, a more ethereal and appealing loveliness, in the austere light of the unsullied day.

All my life I have loved the scent of orris root. Many a time have I bought it down in the ancient jurinaria of Santa Maria Novella, where, though the picturesque Dominicans no longer, as in former days, distil and sell the perfumes, the old industry is still carried on. But I, like many another, had never traced the connection between final effects and fundamental causes, never speculated as to where the orris root came from, nor under what circumstances and in what surroundings it was grown; never pictured the fairness preceding the fragrance, nor imagined a scene so lovely as that of this shimmering veil of silver olives above the purple fields.

Florence is famous for its orris root perfumes. Indeed it is fitting that, as the giglio is the city's heraldic emblem everywhere blazoned, the essence of the giglio should be the city's characteristic scent. But although I had seen the lines of iris bordering the banks and watercourses in many a podere, or fringing the walls along the country roads; had gathered them, gold and purple, in the olive gardens or beside little rippling streams, these had been but scattered companies. Here they held full sway; dominated the landscape; ruled by the power of numbers and of perfect loveliness.

It was very still at that early hour. The silvery peal of the Ave Maria of dawn floated down from little churches high upon the hills. The only human being in sight was the postman, who passed along the path beneath the terrace on his way to the distant village to fetch the letter-bags. In his shabby uniform he was a prosaic figure in such surroundings, but he greeted me civilly enough, observing, though without enthusiasm, that the weather promised well.

There is nothing of the Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, about our postman. I am sure that the poetical side of his high office has never struck him for a moment. He does not realise that he is the harbinger of joy and sorrow, the bearer of those news from far countries which a wise man has said are as water in a thirsty land. He does not stop to think that hearts beat the faster for his coming, that he is the link between those severed by half the world, and that, in some humble way, he has his share in that benediction, "beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring good news of peace." He is a prosaic and entirely unromantic individual of forty, who tramps the country under an enormous green umbrella, loaded with letter-bags and all kinds of miscellaneous goods. For he is parcel as well as letter carrier, and often appears hung around with packages, bags, and baskets like a veritable Father Christmas. I cannot say that he manifests any burning zeal in the discharge of his high mission, having a provoking habit, if the letters do not seem sufficient in number to justify his making the long circuit to pass by the Villa, of committing them to chance peasants or school children who may be going that way. Of course such conduct is most reprehensible, and any complaint at headquarters would doubtless bring Giovanni into serious trouble. But who would have the heart to make it? Certainly not I, as I sit in a cool, darkened room while the outer world is hushed, save for the ceaseless whirr of the cicale, before the golden pomp of noonday, and think of Giovanni, like a large green mushroom, trudging along the unsheltered roads beneath the blazing sun. down upon the step of a half-ruined shrine which bore the legend—

By-and-by I wearied of being a mere spectator from the terrace. I wanted to be among the irises, to feel them on every side of me; to put out, as it were, from shore into that purple sea; so I left the garden by a side gate, following the invitation of the white road towards the higher slopes.

Presently, as I wandered up the hill, I heard a clear voice singing:—

"Volesse Iddio che fossi un rondino,
Avessi 1' ale e potessi volare,
Vorrei volar sull' uscio del mulino
Dove sta lo mio amore a macinare:
E gli vorrei volare intorno,
E ci vorrei restar la notte e il giorno,"

and came upon a young girl busy gathering sheaves of irises, while she alternately sang her stornelli and took bites at a large hunch of coarse dark bread.

She was a charming little figure in her faded green skirt and blue bodice; her apron was red, and she wore a red and yellow scarf knotted around her neck. Her black curling hair was uncovered, and she looked at me with dusky brown eyes like those of some woodland creature. So picturesque was she that I could not make up my mind to go farther, and sitting "Gesu; Giuseppe, Maria,
Siete sempre in mia compagnia,"

I soon found her willing enough to talk.

She was gathering flowers to sell in the town, she told me. Tonino, her brother, went down every day to take them, and she was up at dawn to pick them, so that they might still be fresh when they reached the shops.

Was it not hard >to get up so early? I questioned; but she shook her head with -a little laugh. "We peasants go to bed early and rise early, Signorina," she answered; "and" (quoting one of the Tuscan proverbs) "the morning has gold in its mouth."

Later on, she explained, when the irises had all flowered, would be the time for getting up and peeling the roots, and that was a long business; but if the Signorina was still at the Villa, then she would see for herself when and how the work was done.

Never having had any experience of this charming industry I was fired with interest at the prospect, and as a kind fate ordained that I should be at the Villa again in August, I was able to see the whole process for myself.

The growing of irises in a good year is a profitable business; but when prices are low it is sometimes hardly worth the labour of getting them up and preparing them for the market, so small are the returns.

As a rule the digging up begins in July, when all the flowers have had plenty of time to dry off. From the principal root of each plant some small suckers are cut off and planted in fresh ground, so as to yield a future crop. As the young plants will not produce good roots until the second year at the earliest, it is of course necessary to have alternate pieces of land in which to take up the plants of one season and set those for two or three years ahead.

The orris root industry is, like all agricultural industries in Tuscany, a picturesque one. Indeed in this blessed land the most common acts of life—so it be in the country, or at least off the track of the tourist—are possessed of some peculiar charm.

Early, very early, in the summer mornings, while the light is still grey and chilly, the men are out in the fields to dig up roots for the day's peeling, and these, after the old leaves have been cut away and the new shoots carefully laid aside for future planting, are carried down on carts to the fattoria to be weighed. They are then given over to the peasant girls of the place—supplemented, if the crop be a large one, by girls hired from neighbouring villages, who come and stay from the Monday till the Saturday of each week until the work is done.

The peasants themselves peel their own small crops at home in their spare time; but the padrone's crops are peeled in some shed or outhouse belonging to the Villa, and dried upon long tables set up on the terrace near the house.

For nearly six weeks the work continued, and every morning a party of eighteen or twenty girls gathered under a roof of fir branches and heather—a cool retreat in those hot, drowsy days of August, when Messer lo frate Sole beats pitilessly down.

There from sunrise till sunset they sat, a gay party, singing choruses and stornelli, telling stories, laughing and chatting blithely, as with sharp sickle-bladed knives they peeled busily, their swift,practisedfingersadding momentarily to the pile of cool, fragrant roots, ready to be carried to the Villa when the sun went down.

Of course Bianca Maria wanted to have her share in all these labours, and—with a blunt knife—achieved the elementary scraping of many roots, which were afterwards (secretly, that her pride might not be wounded) finished off in workman-like manner by sharper blades and more experienced hands.

Evening after evening, as the sun went down in a blaze of glory behind the mountains, writing in symbols of gold and crimson the " finis" of another working day, Orlando used to appear upon the great terrace with a cart drawn by a sage and elderly pony, and unload the sacks full of freshly peeled roots to add to the piles already drying upon the stole or cane mats.

These roots on their arrival were fresh and fat, crisp as young radishes, pure white and fragrant, with a cool dampness which made them very agreeable to clasp in a hot hand, as Bianca Maria and I agreed. Their shapes, too, were eccentric and often comical, especially those of some years' growth, resembling, as they did, stately long-necked geese, grotesque little dwarfs, and all kinds of queer creatures; and each evening it was a fresh excitement for Bianca Maria to look over the new consignment and see what funny figures she could find.

Day and night the roots were left upon the stoie, as the moonlight is supposed by the Tuscan peasant to have some mysteriously beneficial effect upon them, though in reality it is the dew which does the good.

But as the days passed the plump and wellproportioned pieces shrivelled to half their original bulk, lost their scent, and became hard as bits of wood; and each day's consignment, so soon as it attained to this desirable condition, was carried off and stored away, ready to be ground to powder to supply the Florentine and the far - off London and Parisian shops.

All over the world goes the Florentine orris root, but it has other uses besides that to which it is put by the scent and soap makers, and one of these is the supplying of " fingers," which are cut from the roots; these fingers being given to babies to aid them, instead of the old-established coral, in that tedious process of tooth-cutting, through which, though we retain no memory of it, we have all, with tears and tribulation, passed.

But of course the primary object in the growth of orris remains its value as a perfume; and as that, for those who love Tuscany, it must always have a peculiar attraction, make a particular appeal.

Few things quicken memories like perfumes. The sense of smell is one of the most potent in calling up and recreating a vanished past. A wreath of vegetable smoke from a bonfire blows across our path, and we are back in the moorland farm where we spent a long past summer; as by magic a thousand half-forgotten details rise before our mind. Or it is a handful of dried lavender, which recalls to us some quaint old English garden where the hot air quivers above the many coloured flowers, where the fruittrees clothe the mellow-tinted walls and the great bushes of purple-grey flowers fill with their spicy odour all the happy, sheltered place. Or the scent of a violet, a freezia, a lily, steals across to us. We start involuntarily; our hearts beat faster, our faces pale. We had believed that the old wound was quite healed, that the grass of utter forgetfulness grew upon the grave where that old sorrow was buried. But the violets, the lilies, yet remember; they have passed on the secret from one generation to another; they will never cease to remind us of that past of which we would fain be rid until we pass into the land where all things are forgotten—that quiet country where regret shall trouble us no longer, where even remorse shall at last be lulled to sleep.

But from the memories which the fragrance of the orris stirs for me I desire no deliverance—they are too beautiful; for whenever a breath of its perfume blows across my way, I see again these pale purple lakes, wind-ruffled beneath the clinging silver mist of the olives; recall once more those still summer nights when the air was full of the scent of the drying roots, and in the profound silence, while the fire-flies wove their magical embroidery above the cornfields, the rising moon poured its pale gold upon the country, and the stars looked down upon the sleeping land.