Monday, September 15, 2008

Florence Italy Part 6 Wednesday: Santa Maria Novella

A bus waits outside . It has already been a very busy day . Ferragamo , Eau D'Italie at the hotel , lunch and now the bus . None of us know what we are in for . Not really . We are going to board that bus . We are taking it across town , to an industrial area where the new Santa Maria Novella manfacturing plant is . Even before we step inside the plant , we can smell the potpourri : fantastic , herbal and rich . White walls , clean concrete floors , rooms beyond plate glass windows , pipes with nozzles snaking along the ceiling everywhere....but first , waiting on a table piles of inviting-looking gift bags . They are handed out to us and , inside : NOTHING .
Well not nothing , there are two lovely books , one about roses and one about the pharmacy, a full menu printed on beautiful paper in Italian and English : All of the amazing products they have made for centuries are listed there . But none of those things are in our bags .

Trying not to look disappointed , we soldier on . *grin*

First we are led into a small room behind plate glass. A modern stainless-drum scientific looking thingy is simply stirring cream , emulsifying it into a beautiful smooth concoction . This is a relatively new , modern piece of equipment they have incorporated into their production process in order to please health regulations . Next another room adjacent ,where three women sit at a table , methodically filling bottles , applying labels and wrapping gold thread...amazing and quite relaxed . It really smells outrageous in here . Then on to a room where they patiently apply labels and box jars of cream . Our host ,who speaks perfect English ( whose name and rank I do not know , but he was wearing that impeccable White Linen Suit and polished brown loafers and he spoke in tones of silk and velvet...) took us next to the soap making workshop , where flakes of soap and real milk are poured into the mixer , then pressed into bars and aged for three months before being carefully wrapped in paper and boxed . The lovely rose scented bar in heavy green box they gave us is their luxury facial bar , Vellutina .
In the next workshop area a proud man who has worked for the company a long time and speaks very broken English , tries to explain the machine he is tending ( it is his invention !!). He pulls on a chain and a small ferris-wheel type system lifts terra cotta balls up out of thick , wonderfully scented oil . Melograno Room Diffusers ! They are the shape of pomegranates , are soaked in this concoction( Melograno , their best selling fragrance , and my favorite morning scent ) for three months and then boxed in a great round tin , sold for about $30 euros . When we leave the room , our guide asks that we put one of these marvelous objects in our bags...YAY !! Free stuff !!
We visit the candle workshop , where machines dip the pillar candles in smoking wax repeatedly , always tended by human hands . We are given a huge boxed candle , scented with " Summer ". Then we visit the potpourri workshop , where workers sit among clay crocks filled with herbs and flowers . These crocks are filled with potpourri gathered exclusively from the hills around Florence . Then each crock is sealed with plaster and left to age for one year . When it is ready , it is broken open and the herbs bagged in lovely silk pouches in rich colors of red, green and blue . We were given one of these in the color of our choice . That gift bag ?
Gettin' FULL !!
They have an ancient recipe created by the Friars in the Fourteenth century , known by many names but now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella or Elisir or Anti-Hysteria Water . We were served refreshments , and vials of this elixir were poured into pitchers of water . It has a minty , refreshing flavor . The same formula is also used in their mints , sold in charming yellow tins with antique print and pleated paper liners . We were given a tin of these , mine are gone and I can't wait to get more from Lafco !!
Next we are shown the wooden casks full of aging liquors , chocolate , rose and licorice . We taste...we get tipsy...we eat chocolates flavored with roses , 100% cacao . Don't ask me how they do it , I asked them myself and Monsieur White Suit said 100% cacao .
We can barely carry our gift bags .
We are escorted upstairs to meet the man responsible for stepping in ten years ago and saving this company from extinction . We use this as a photo op while drinking cool tea and rose cookies . I am in tears watching grown men in business suits care so much about soap wrapped in tissue....
We board the bus for the short ride back downtown to the Pharmacy's original location , the 13th century monastery and laboratory . The entry foyer is lined with lovely statues , each reposing in their own alcove . The hushed tones and ancient smells take me back to beyond time ....
Tomorrow : Conclusion of Wednesday tour
(L )Our tour guide ,
(C) the man who saved the company
(R)Jon Bresler

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