In China, in Guangxi
Mountains skimming the sky, ancient terraced rice fields, crystal rivers, sleepy villages out of time, hidden caves and bamboo groves.
Welcome to the Guangxi region. Its name, given to it during the Song dynasty (960-1279), means “Broad south, western route”.
A karst landscape, a UNESCO heritage site, with rock figures, caves with unexpected shapes, peaks with exceptional lines, as in the Seven Stars Park where the seven peaks are configured as the constellation of the Great Bear.
And then between the Li river and the river of peach blossoms, the Elephant Trunk Hill, “a masterpiece of the karst landscape, made up of pure limestone deposited on the seabed 360 million years ago”¹.
Here the forests extend for a quarter of the region: between camphor and cedar, rosewood and cassia, anise and orange, there is osmanthus, which also gave its name to the capital Guilin, that is gui “osmanthus” and lin “small forest”.
Throughout China, osmanthus is also called “fragrant olive tree” and is used extensively in the culinary tradition.
With a light but pervasive scent, it is sacred to the Moon: according to fairy tales and legends told by grandmothers, Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, was once – millennia ago – deadly.
She was married to Hou Yi, a mythical warrior and hero, who brought down 9 of the 10 suns that could destroy the earth. For this he was rewarded with the elixir of immortality by one of the most powerful deities in the sky.
But Chang’e, while her husband was hunting, stole the magical gift from him, drank it and flew into the firmament, where she chose the Moon as her residence.
Here, in the Lunar Paradise, she grew an osmanthus tree.
However, remembering the suffering of men, she scattered seeds of the plant on the earth so that its flowers, with their incredible scent, became the basis of a distillate that would allow to soothe the sufferings of mortals.
For this reason, during the Zhong Qiu Jie festival (called Mid-autumn Festival or Mooncake festival), you can admire not only the full moon, but also the flowering of osmanthus, sitting in your garden, in the light of the paper lanterns.
The story continues: in one version, Hou Yi, the abandoned husband, continued to display his wife’s favourite cakes, now divine, in the courtyard, trying to convince her to return. In another version, a magical cake allowed him to fly to the sun and to meet his wife every 15th of the month, during the full moon.
Thus the presence of a cake is essential during the celebrations of Zhong Qiu Jie: you can nibble homemade sweets, yesterday more than today filled with osmanthus flowers, with which, always in the past, wine and tea tasted during the night were flavoured.
Imported to Japan in the seventeenth century and to Europe in the eighteenth century, it is also found in the park of Villa Erba. During Orticolario it spreads its flowery and fruity scent of peach, honey and apricot in the air.
So, special thanks to Chang’e.
“La grammatica dei profumi” (The grammar of perfumes) by Giorgia Martone (Gribaudo, 2019)