Italy’s hidden perfume gem: a celebration of Southern Italian lemons
The drive from Naples airport along the Amalfi Coast Highway to picturesque vacation town of Positano is famous for its hairpin bends, zigzags, and breathtaking views of the Mediterranean sea. The road it literally cut into the mountain and you’ll peer over the narrow road straight down over sheer cliffs onto rugged shorelines. The Campania region is a popular vacation destination and by 11 am in the morning, the road is crawling with scooters, buses, produce trucks and rental cars. Much of the traffic comes from mammoth cruise ships who port for the day in Naples.
Thank goodness for the cliffside lemon groves and terraced vineyards. Weary travellers can pull up to little produce stands that offer the most delicious lemon granitas (an icy beverage made of chopped ice, fresh lemon juice and sugar. Thanks for the volcanic ash from nearby Mount Etna, the lemons grow to mammoth proportions. They look more like small melons than the small fruit we see at our local grocery stores. Even better, the aroma of these lemons is unlike anything you’ve ever smelled.
“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.”
Forth generation perfumer Gennaro Barba
Gennaro and his wife Filomena live with their family behind the tiny Profumi store at Via C Colombo, 175, mere steps from one of Italy’s most luxurious hotels: Le Sirenuse. The view of the town is breathtaking and you will often see multi-million dollar yachts moored in the bay below. DSquared designers Dean and Dan Caten can often be spotted on their yacht during the day and at the beachside nightclub into the wee hours. “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.
Aqva Avrea is one of the finest lemon scents I’ve smelled thanks to the quality of the ingredients. “This is the one you buy if you truly love the scent of fresh lemons.” The formula boasts lemon leaf & blooms, lemon essential oil, lemon zest, lemon wood and wood moss. It’s perfect for both men and women and has a clean, fresh effect.
Incanto is a fizzy citrus scent that is meant to evoke summer in the Mediterranean. It contains bergamot, lemon, mandarin, verbena, ginger, myrtle, yellow peach, pomegranate, vetiver and wood moss. There is a gentle aromatic feel that balances the citrus notes nicely.
“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.” He has a jar of coffee beans ready to clear the palette.
Li Galli is the latest creation and it is constructed using a more formal structure of top, middle and base notes. The fresh woody-green scent has notes of lemon, orange, grapefruit, jasmine, fig leaf, cedar and wood moss. “This is one of my favourites,” he says smiling.
In the background I can hear rustling and his son Giuseppe has just returned home from school. “Giuseppe is my son. He’s eleven. And last year, he decided to make perfumes for his classmates. For the girls, he made a perfume that smelled like bubble gum. For the boys, he made one that smelled like lemon. He even created labels with the names of his classmates. They actually sold very well and were so popular we stock both in the store now.”
The influence of this tiny store may be more profound than you could imagine. The Barba family created a scent called Lime Basil Mandarin in the 1970s. A famous British perfumer would launch a very similar scent in 1999 which became a global smash. It isn’t farfetched to imagine she might have come across this store on vacation and found inspiration.
The view of Positano from the Profumi di Positano boutique