I went to dinner with my neighbour of Calabrian origin who has returned from India and she showed me a small candle with a small flame in the centre. It looks like a candle but he explains to me that the wick is actually a flower.
So I went to get a vase where she has kept all the dried flowers from her garden with which she makes these flames that have neither smoke nor smells.
‘Each flower lasts about two days and the flame is fed by the small underlying layer of oil. My grandma taught me’.
The small dried flowers have the shape similar to jasmine and, when I touch them, I am surprised by the contact with a surface that feels like velvet.
Then the questions began starting from the name of its town of origin and the history of the plant.
We were in Arena, one of the centres where Calabria’s history was written, and until a few years ago all the families cultivated a very special plant: “Ballota pseudodictamnus” also called ‘Lampa’ which reveals its use over the centuries.
It is a perennial plant that belongs to the Lamiaceae family such as thyme, oregano, basil, sage and so on. Pseudo dictamnus because it vaguely resembles the Dittamo family (similar to ‘burning bush’), the one mentioned by Umberto Eco and Harry Potter.
My friend remembered these candles she had made with her grandmother and so the last time she went to Calabria she got a plant to be able to recreate the tradition here near us in Rome.
How do you prepare the candle?
You take a small glass and half fill it with water, then put a layer of oil of about half a centimetre on which to float an element with a hole that is used to rest the dried flower.
At one time the element was a piece of a cane, one of those that arise in correspondence with damp soils and with which gardens were arranged, but today my friend has a more artistic support.
The light lasts as long as there is oil in the glass or until the flower is completely consumed, in any case it lasts at least a couple of days.
The important thing is that the flower can reach the layer of oil that will feed the flame.
It is worth mentioning that before the arrival of the gas light and electricity, which made Paris known as the Ville Lumiere, much of the lighting came from oil lamps.
For this reason, wherever possible, olive trees were planted and the transport of oil by ship was strategic for the quality of life in ancient Rome.
With imagination and stories we can go through the centuries, from Magna Grecia to the Romans and then to the Normans, to the Spaniards and then to the French before the Piedmontese arrived who astonished us with a different history.
Arena and its mighty castle have been defeated by the earthquake and many of their children have left Calabria to seek fortune in the world. And success has certainly come for them, who perhaps have their hearts divided between Arena and their new home.
But when they light a ‘lampa’ they will be able to gently find a piece of their history and breathe a familiar air.