Bergamot, an essence indispensable for its sharp freshness and ability to impart a cologne-ish, poetic immediacy to the beginning of all kinds of perfumes, is a fragrant oil derived from a small, pear-shaped citrus fruit native to the city of Bergamo in Italy, and has featured prominently in Italian folk medicine for centuries in various parts of the country, prized for its ability to cure a variety of complaints, according to Paolo Rovesti’s ‘l’aromaterapia dell’essenza di Bergamotta’. With its beautiful smell, something like a marriage of lemon, orange, lime and lavender (the fruit is thought to possibly be a hybrid, in fact, of citrus limetta (sweet lime) and citrus aurantia (bitter orange), bergamot was practically considered a panacea for all kinds of illnesses, both physical and psychological, a potent, refreshing yang citrus essence that is uplifting and lightening to the body and the spirits, yet also calming and relaxing to the senses.
I love bergamot. This was probably the first essential oil that I bought, way back when, possibly for the connection with Earl Grey tea (by far my favourite way to drink black tea), and the fact that, unlike essential oils of lemon, orange and grapefruit, all of which I adore for their sunny, direct simplicity, the smell of bergamot goes one step further somehow – there is something almost mysterious about it.
Perhaps this is why the note is so beloved by Guerlain. Although most perfumes list bergamot essence in their the top notes, for its appealing ability to lift, and scintillate the perfume from within, most Guerlain fragrances feature the essence especially prominently. The spectacular sunlight-on-moss effect of Mitsouko is achieved with the contrast of the sharp bergamot in the top notes with the murkier, chypric forestry beneath; equally, the gourmand, anisic friandise of L’Heure Bleue works because of the startling contraposition between the mouthwatering, irisian, musked thickness of the main body of the perfume and the piquant bergamot opening. Nowhere, however, is bergamot used more prominently than in vintage Shalimar perfume, which is said to contain a staggering 30% of pure bergamot essential oil, the heartmelting ‘cheese cake’ effect that Shalimar achieves so beautifully stemming from the vanilla, opoponax, and balsam base balanced with sensual floral essences, then shot through with that mouthwatering lemon and bergamot in the top.
Beautiful it may be, but bergamot oil can also have quite significant effects on the body, and I should know. It is powerful stuff. And this last week there have been two incidences that have brought this home quite dramatically to me.
This time of year is one of the busiest for me, and I almost always get run down in body and mind, resulting sometimes in cold sores that I loathe for their face-disfiguring qualities, especially when you are standing up in front of Japanese eighteen year olds who are scrutinizing your every move. When it comes to these hateful viruses, you want to get rid of them, and get rid of them fast, and I find essential oils are by far the best way to achieve this. Tea tree is effective (but I can’t abide the smell); lemon is quite good (but it can burn); eucalyptus I have discovered recently gets the job done, as does lavender (probably the second most effective), but I have discovered this week that bergamot is by far the best. It really is. Not only does it smell gorgeous, and can thus be dabbed on during the day without worrying about whether it is wrecking your scent profile (it is probably improving it), but the bastard virus stands no chance in the face of such a potent, citric life force and can offer no resistance. It quickly disappears.
Which is great. Except that I also used bergamot in a very ill-advised manner this week and am now really suffering with the consequences. Like last year, I have had an ear infection these last two weeks (hell when you are teaching), and the antibiotics I was given haven’t been working. To give them a boost, and seeing the success of the bergamot essential oil on my lip I decided to put some (a lot, this is me we are talking about – if only I could learn restraint) behind my ear, on my throat, and all around the painful area to it to prevent it from getting any worse. Which would have been fine, probably, had I not, then, the next day, obliviously gone and sat on our balcony, gorgeous at the moment, and sat in the sun for an hour or two, forgetting, despite all the years of reading aromatherapy books, that bergamot oil is of course phototoxic, meaning of course that it vastly increases the rate at which the skin reacts to UV light……..
Although I did one of those stupid, but addictive, Facebook personality quizzes the other day (‘How much of a redneck are you?’) and proudly only scored 4% ( I think that I would have probably have got 0% had I chosen ‘salsa’ over ‘guacamole’), I am now, to my chagrin, an actual redneck. A huge red patch on my neck, throat and all round my ears, that looks like a burning red birthmark and right now doesn’t seem to be going down.
I should know better. Because, you know, Shalimar also burns me. Every time. It is just something that I have come to accept. Almost a no pain, no gain thing: I burn through the lemon and bergamot stage, then it goes down and I get to the delicious creamy vanilla beneath and it was all somehow worth it. On this occasion, though, despite my great love for the scent of bergamot, I have now realized that I am going to have to treat it with a lot more wariness. It is fierce, powerful stuff.