Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Makes Scents

I've been spending some time up at the mountain property, and may well decide to do another "Herb Camp" this coming spring. The one we did in the Angeles National Forest in 2004 was seemingly successful. I am thinking another one might be a good idea, if only to inventory what is nearby.

Lately, I am particularly interested in plants that are steam distilled for essential oils and hydrosols.

Many years ago, I lived in New York City. Over on the East Side, somewhere in the high eighties or low nineties, there was an interesting firm that specialized in the raw materials for perfumery and cosmetics. No doubt it is long gone.

When you walked in, it was like stepping back in time. There were all sorts of exotic things, presided over by a man who was ninety if he was a day. I liked this place, and I liked him, so I stopped in every day to pester him. He gave me a lovely book, which I still have: George William Askinson's Perfumes and Their Preparation (1900). Thus began a lifelong interest in the subject -- a rather odd hobby of mine, I admit.

Traditional perfumery is a dying art. This seems a strange thing to say when one observes that hundreds of perfumes are available, but these mostly employ synthetics. There is a very close historical relationship between perfume and medicine, so people who fancy the study of traditional medicine often study traditional perfumery, as well.

In places like Grasse, in the old days, they used to have the rather civilized custom of putting alembic stills out in the middle of lavender fields, and steam distilling the fresh lavender right then and there. What a lovely thing to do. In California, which has a substantial commercial lavender industry, they are now trying to revive the practice.

In Grasse they also had huge workrooms dedicated to an extraction technique called enfleurage. If you thoroughly understand enfleurage -- how it works and why it works -- then you have achieved some degree of mastery in certain, subtle aspects of the Unani pharmacy that eventually crept into the Tibetan pharmacy.

In enfleurage, one uses glass trays, called chassis,  of cold fat, called the corps, which consist of one part purified tallow and two parts lard. One next painstakingly inserts fresh flower petals in the fat, and then places another tray on top, so that the delicate scent from the petals permeates the layer of fat above. This would go on for about seventy days, with the flower petals being changed every day, and the trays being rotated. They used this technique for essences of jasmine, or gardenia, or mimosa. This is because distillation of such flowers yields no oils. At the end of the process, the result would be pomades, and these were dissolved into extraits, by means of alcohol.

So, the interesting thing is how the fat captured the scent, you know?

This little mystery is at the heart of some of the world's earliest medicines, which were administered transdermally. This is a secret we really owe to Alexander, with his famous, captured chest of pomades. If you want to delve into it a bit, you can look up in Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, and study the chapters in Book One.

There are other aspects to this story -- chiefly having to do with bees -- but, I will restrain the temptation. I am often criticized for discussing Buddhism that isn't clearly labeled as such. Very highly credentialed people might say, "Oh! Now the old fool is writing about perfume of all things!"

Anyway... I have to go fix the offerings on the altar. I always forget how, you know? Let me think... it starts out water, water, flowers, incense, light... and something else...

It will come to me.


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1 reader comments:

Don said...

Since you are interested in scents, the next time you are in Dubai you should swing by the Perfume Souk, in the Old Town. Some stores here have over two hundred kinds of essential oils. I was there in May and got half a dozen oils, plus frankincense and myrrh and some wood chips—I always forget to ask the name—of a tree which grows in the Arabian Desert. These are burnt on a piece of charcoal for a delightful scent. Oddly, these stores do not carry patchouly, that old standby from the 60s. They say that patchouly is not an Arabian scent. The Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul, just down the street from the Grand Bazaar, also has a fine selection of essential oils., including patchouly. They also have perfumers who will whip up a combination of oils and other ingredients into your own custom scent. I myself used to make essential oil from wild roses, bergamot, and golden rod. There was at one time a language of scents, by which you could convey various sentiments by the scent you were wearing. This is a very interesting subject which should be gone into at more length . . . The ingredient you are forgetting may be saffron. So-called Turkish saffron is usually used in offerings. They even sell it in Lhasa. Iranian saffron, that is to say real saffron, is worth much more than its weight in gold, even at current gold prices. I doubt if too many people use it for offerings.