Athens is West. And Athens is East. It couldn’t have been otherwise. Historically and culturally Athens is built on layers. Each century has added another one on top of the other and over the centuries the defining line between East and West has been moving left and right of Athens. Depending on were you walk a different layer is exposed with its smells and images. The old Athens centre, around Monastiraki square historically is situated in the late 19th/early 20th century and culturally it still maintains the seediness and mystery of souks. Buildings with dilapidated façades house groceries and basic goods shops in street level and, quite often, cheap hotels in higher floors. The Central Market is nearby with fresh meat, vegetables and cheese shops, creating an olfactory assault of culinary carnality. Greek food does not use many spices. Salt and pepper are always there, cinnamon, clove and cumin are most common, and then there some special spices that characterise specific dishes, like mastic, çemen (fenugreek) and mahlab, and have very specific uses. Hot and sweet pepper spices have a special role in Northern Greece cooking. What gives aromas to Greek food is mostly herbs. Oregano, the king, spearmint, dill, fennel, laurel, parsley, and many vegetables used as herbs, like scallions, garlic, fresh garlic. One can find these herbs everywhere. But if you need to spice up your dishes there is only one place to go: Evripidou street.
A narrow street in Athens historical centre where spice merchants have set up shop from the early 20th century, one next to the other, and they are still thriving. They have catered to Greeks who have come to Athens from the old Ottoman Empire when it collapsed and have carried with them their love for hot, intense spices and their food that has been loved by the Old Greeks that were already living in the mainland. Times have been difficult for spice merchants as the historical city centre became abandoned and marginalised but then again it was revived by immigrants, Arabs, Pakistani, Polish, Russian,Chinese, who opened their groceries in the once abandoned shops to offer their national products to their compatriots and those Athenians who wanted to explore this new population of Athens. Evripidou street has a very special smell, very different from the smell of its neighbouring central market where raw meet and fish, fight with cheese and onions for domination. Evripidou smells sweet and hot, spicy and vanillic at times and very often herbal.
Lorenzo Villoresi Piper Nigrum was my second niche acquisition, right after Route du Vetiver. I fell in love with it because black pepper is my favourite spice but also because Piper Nigrum is so much more than black pepper. It is a trip to Evripidou street. It opens with the earthy, bitter, terpenic singe of black pepper which quickly meets the cool effervescence of peppermint. This phase is very dry and bitter and it captures amazingly the smell of freshly ground pepper. What pepper looses in the process of extraction it regains in the company of peppermint. The Doric recreation of harsh pepper however is only the beginning of our trip. Stacked inside the shops are linen bags with sage, oregano, lavender, cinnamon, which add complexity and take the edge off the aggressive opening. The composition becomes so dense that it is impossible to dissect individual notes. All I know is that it smells exactly like walking into a spice shop on Evripidou street. All the herbs and spices in the world come together in a narcotic blend that remains volatile and fresh. If it weren’t for those herbs I would be talking about about a spicy, earthy perfume. But Piper Nigrum is alive and moving in all directions creating images of people travelling from all over the world to bring these spices to Athens for the use of those who will go out of their way to find them and appreciate them. Next to the most exotic star anise, the humble oregano. Next to the every-day black pepper that comes from the Malabar coast, the precious saffron from Northern Greece that has travelled only a few kilometres. This incredible amalgamation of spices and herbs dries down to a creamy, vanillic sandalwood base with a hint of medicinal saffron. Piper Nigrum is a melting pot of scents, sights and origins.
Of all the scents I have this is the one that represents Athens, my hometown, the most for me. Not only because it resonates the smell of Evripidou street, but mostly because it resonates the history of Athens. It reminds me that the Athenians, and Greeks in general, have been travellers and merchants before they became thinkers and artists. It is travelling and mingling with different cultures that has opened their perspective and allowed them to think. Evripidou street is to this day a narrow street that manages to host Greeks and all the people that have made Greece their home in the past decades. Chinese, Russian, Polish, Pakistani, Arab shops stand side by side with Greek shops creating a tableau vivant of what has been and what should remain in the difficult times we live. Everywhere the eye turns a collage of time and culture put together by millennia of continuous daily living, buzzing, seedy, uncontrollable and fertile. As the Parthenon overlooks the Mosque on Monastiraki square and the multitude of nationalities that strive to make their everyday living in this colourful but unembellished city, I think of the smells that fill the streets and hope to find the harmony that lives inside Piper Nigrum.
I dedicate this post to Simone, my friend who loves Athens as much as I do and has planted the seed for these thoughts in my head.
Notes from Parfumo: Aniseed, Peppermint, Wild fennel, Nutmeg, Oregano, Black pepper, Amber, Myrrh, Storax
Notes from my nose: Black Pepper, Mint, Herbs, Spices, Sandalwood
MemoryOfScent by Christos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.