Smells accompany us throughout the course of our life, often linking us to very specific memories.
There is the incomparable, unique and special smell of home, welcoming us as an embrace every time we cross the threshold.
There are indissoluble and powerful smells which are linked to our childhood and take us on journeys outside space and time.
We try to keep them in our memory, often with the feeling of having irremediably forgotten them, but if we are lucky enough to smell them once again, we suddenly become certain that actually they’re unforgettable, recorded in our olfactory memory as a safe place to come back to.
The warm June air smelled of dry grass and licorice when I walked uphill with my little baby feet, along the village street leading to the castle. The Stone-man was waiting for me up there, with his frightening mouth that plowed deep into the great rock.
I was sure to die every time I passed by, chewed by his horrible teeth, and then thrown into the cliff like a chewing gum.
With his disgusting mouth, his fern and moss hair and those small, dark eyes that I felt pointed at my back as I ran at breakneck speed on my way home, the Stone-man today is still there… and in the end, after all these years, I can say he is quite harmless.
Now, when I find myself in its presence, I look at it with respect, at least for all the years that it’s been bringing on its great millennial hump, and I consider it like a sort of guardian at the foot of the Medieval castle of Montemassi.
That unmistakable smell of dry grass and licorice – which only many years later I discovered coming from a wild plant called Helicrysum, which is present in the Mediterranean vegetation almost like a weed – always brings me back the memory of the castle and the Stone-man.
It is so rare to smell this scent in Venice, because Helichrysum is a plant that is hardly found in northern Italy. In fact, in my olfactory memory, this smell hovers exclusively on the background of all my summer adventures in Tuscany. It represents to me the smell of freedom, of wild life and of a slow, intensely lived time.
During my solitary creative retreat that I recently granted myself in the house of Montemassi that my family owns for over 30 years now, this smell of Helichrysum accompanied me all the time and catapulted me into a dimension which is closer to dream than to reality.
Lost in the endless time of loneliness, I allowed the deafening silence – which was interrupted only by the chirping of swallows – pervade deeply into my spirit, to the point of making me feel nothing but my thoughts.
I worked a lot following the daylight and I found a clarity of intent that I had lacked for a while.
The dining room window overlooks the world – literally on a landscape where it is easy to get lost, up to where the view extends. I watched so much the small lights on the horizon that light up at night as a sign of distant civilization. During the day, the haze slightly veils the hills and brings gusts of hot and sweet, aromatic air. The air’s thick with Helichrysum and I breathe with my mouth, wishing I could eat that perfume.
It was then when I had a stroke of genius.
When I ran to him, certain of being able to face him as an equal, ‘cause I’m big now, my bones are no longer fragile and appetizing.
His once green and fat hair is now dried up. He wears a crown of fragrant yellow flowers, and he’s majestic. He allows me to pick up a little of his hair, and I notice how his temper has softened over time, just like it has happened to my Grandpa, as well.
It was when I said goodbye, running down the hill, with his stone-eyes pointing at me, just like he always did.
Days of potions in the kitchen followed, to enclose in a bottle the smell of childhood which was studded with fantasies on a stone, when Magic always was a concrete means to realize the craziest dreams, when freedom had the scent of Helichrysum.
- 500 ml water
- 20 g Helichrysum branches
- 10 g Helichrysum flowers
- 250 g granulated sugar
- 300 g 00 flour
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of maple syrup or liquid honey
- 50 g of butter
- 1 glass of almond milk
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon of nutmeg powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Almonds chopped to taste
- ½ glass of homemade Helichrysum syrup
- 500 ml of full-cream fresh milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 50 g cornstarch
- 1 vanilla pod
- The peel of a grated organic lemon
- 1 teaspoon of dried Helichrysum flowers
- 100 g of sugar
- Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, turn off the heat and dip the twigs and Helichrysum flowers.
- Let it infuse for no longer than 10 minutes, otherwise the infusion tends to become bitter.
- Add the sugar and let it boil.
- Bottle in an airtight glass jar and let it cool. Store in the fridge. Considering the low amount of sugar into this potion, actually it is more like a sugary water than an actual syrup, so I suggest using it within 2 weeks from its preparation.
- Begin with the cream that needs a resting and cooling time by placing the milk in a saucepan together with the engraved vanilla pod, from which you have previously extracted (and kept aside) the seeds.
- Add to the milk the grated lemon peel and bring it almost to the boil at medium heat. Remove from the heat and let it rest for 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla pod, filter the milk and let it cool.
- In a bowl beat the egg yolks with sugar, vanilla seeds and dried Helichrysum flowers, then sift the cornstarch into the mixture and mix well with the whisk to dissolve the lumps. Add the flavored milk to the egg and sugar mixture and put it back on the heat, in the saucepan.
- Put the saucepan on medium-low heat and stir well to avoid lumps till the cream thickens. Immediately pour the cream into a glass casserole, cover with plastic wrap and let it cool at room temperature. The cream will thicken further once it has cooled down.
- Preheat the oven at 170 C* and proceed with the cake by melting the butter in a bain-marie saucepan with the honey (or maple syrup).
- In a bowl beat egg and sugar with a whisk, then add the nutmeg powder, the vanilla extract and the pinch of salt. Then add to the mixture the melted butter with the honey. Sift the flour and the baking powder directly on the mixture, mixing well with the whisk and adding the milk little by little. The mixture must be fluid and without lumps.
- Butter the molds, pour the mixture, and bake at 170C * for about 25 minutes, until the cakes appear soft and golden. Let the cakes cool down before extracting them from the molds and proceeding with the filling.
- If the cakes rise by swelling in the center, you can just level them with a knife, cutting off the excess dough to obtain two flat disks.
- Place one of the two cakes on a plate and slightly wet the surface with half of the indicated dose of Helichrysum syrup.
- Fill a piping bag with the cooled pastry cream and use a wide spout to spread the cream evenly (you should use half of the cream you got). Level it with a spatula if necessary.
- Lay the second cake on top, wet it with the Helichrysum syrup left and decorate the surface with the remaining cream.
- Sprinkle the cake with chopped almonds and some Helichrysum flowers, fresh or dried.