Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shiso syrup; tincturing and infusing

Back in the early '80's, during my last semester of art school, I took a class which I barely remember except for two things: first, the teacher instructed us to keep a journal which included the phases of the moon .   And second, he asked us what happened to the turpentine everyone, in those days, poured straight down the studio sinks.

The world shifted a little for me, in that class room.  For four years I'd been living in a city, engrossed in my work, often painting in the studio from 8 a.m. until ten or eleven at night.  And although I'd walk from home to school and back-- I didn't have a car in those years--my thoughts seemed more real to me than the physical world through which I walked.  I marked time by the school calendar, not lunar cycles.  Landscape was something I passed through on my way from home to studio while thinking of something else. 

But the class woke me up.  It placed me in a particular place, at a particular time--time as measured by seasons, tides, and migrating birds.  I remember being embarrassed by my sudden awareness, the way I'm always embarressed whenever I finally locate what's right in front of my face.

Red shiso, photo by Kay Pere
All of this came back to me a few days ago when I visited my artist/musican friend Kay Pere.  Kay knew I'd just made a perfume featuring shiso or perilla--a Japanese culinary herb related to mint--and wondered if I'd like some of the shiso she was about to thin from her garden.  "Oh yes, " I said.  I wanted it very much.  So I drove out to her home and saw, for the first time, her herb garden Gaia Luna, which includes a rock she moves around the garden's perimeter to mark the moon's phases.

Cedar buds
Of course, even without a lunar time piece, gardening is one way to ground us in the physical world. Gardeners keep track of frosts and droughts.  We notice insects and clouds. Natural perfumery, I'm finding, grounds me the same way.  More and more often scents stop me in my tracks.  I wonder where they come from.  I go exploring.  Only in the last few weeks did I learn how pervasive and sweet is the scent of blooming milkweeds.  And last year, wondering if it was true that fougeres are only a fantasy and that ferns have no scent, I buried my face in a stand of ferns and discovered that at least one variety smells soft, green, sweet and spicy, sort of like hay and nutmeg.

Some of my infusions and tinctures
And so I've begun trying to preserve some of the scents I love.  Last year I tinctured and/or infused figs, dates and vanilla, as well as some botanicals gifted to me by my perfumer friend Kaitlyn ni Donovan of VireoPerfumes.  But this year I'm infusing some of the botanicals which captured my olfactory attention as I walked through my neighborhood: cedar buds, bayberry (a favorite since childhood), as well as medicinal herbs like Saint John's wort.  Later this week a beekeeping friend is giving me some old hive goo: I'm looking forward to working with that. 

And what about all that shiso?  I've transplanted some, and am tincturing some.  But mainly I've used it in a recipe Kay invented: shiso sugar syrup. 

Kay's Shiso Syrup

Shiso syrup
1 large yoghurt container of red shiso leaves, washed
1 cup sugar
4 cups water

Bring everything to a simmer, turn off the heat, and cool to room temperature.  Strain and refrigerate.  A tiny bit of shiso syrup added to a whole lot of seltzer makes the most intriguing, delicious and refreshing drink you can imagine: a little minty, a little spicy, a little like sarsparilla.   If you use more sugar--one part sugar to one part water--the syrup will keep much longer.  But it will also be much sweeter--too steep a trade off for me.

But as long as I'm thinking about herbal/sugary concoctions, I bet shiso jelly would be divine, too.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How did a humble soapmaker get so obsessed with natural scent?

My story begins here, with my dog-eared copy of Mandy Aftel's Essence and Alchemy.  When I first bought it, several years ago, I read it cover to cover.  Then I read it again.  Then I set it by my bedside table, and read a section every night before going to sleep.  I did this for months.  Sometimes I carried it, like a talisman, to my farmers markets.  Sometimes I carried it into my soap studio.  Sometimes I carried it to my computer, where it was a very bad influence, urging me to buy just a little jasmine grandiflorum, and a little jasmine sambac so I would know the difference.  It told me that balsam fir absolute had a jammy sweetness...really?  I'd have to try that, too.  And guaiacwood...that sounded interesting...cabreuva?

I was--still am--a soapmaker.  I've always used essential oils rather than fragrance oils to scent my soaps.  But back then my scent blends, though pleasant, were uninspired: rose geranium and patchouli; tea tree and lavender.  Yawn.  Essence and Alchemy pushed me to think more like a perfumer, making interesting and unexpected choices in my blends.  Mandy Aftel talks a lot in this book about the pairing of opposites.  One of my soaps offsets a light, grapefruit/spearmint blend with earthy vetiver.  The inspiration came directly from Essence and Alchemy, where Mandy wrote that spearmint blends well with vetiver.  That seemed so counter-intuitive that I had to combine them myself and see if I agreed. 

Then I ordered some samples of Aftelier perfumes.  I was excited, but also cautious.  I didn't think I was a perfume person.  I'm the person who gets a headache from other people's perfumes, who will change seats to escape perfumes in a restaurant or a theater.  When my samples arrived, I was delighted with the tiny bottles in their glorious purple and orange box.  And when I applied them, oh...They were sumptuous and rich and smooth, and not in the least old lady-ish.  They were daring.  They were like eating a strong cheese for the first time.  I was a pig with these perfumes, no control at all.  I'd wear Shiso on one wrist, and Cognac on another, and I'd sniff one, then the other, then back all day.  I'd make other people sniff them, too, relentlessly, through each stage of their drydowns.  I was one step away from knocking on the neighborhood doors, passing out literature.

As I could afford to, I bought samples from other botanical perfumers:  Illuminated Perfumes, Liz Zorn, Vireo Perfumes.  Last summer during my farmers market season-when I work about eighty hours a week-I took a single day off, and I spent it driving to Providence and back so I could sample Charna Ethier's Providence Perfumes.  It was a joy, and also an education. By this time I had aspirations of moving beyond soap into perfume.  Being a perfumer who doesn't smell perfumes would be like being a playwright who doesn't go to the theater, or a poet who doesn't read.  

I think for the most part we're a scent-phobic society.  Can you imagine holding an apple under your armpit until it was saturated with sweat, then giving it to someone you were attracted to, as women commonly did in Shakespeare's time?  Now we rub aluminum under our armpits to halt any hint of odor, and we hang air-fresheners--which are really nose-deadeners--in our cars or closets.  

But these days I walk around sniffing things as unabashedly as our cat Trilby.  I pull cherry blossoms to my nose to inhale. I crush violets and rub them against my skin.  I go to the arboretum and rub the different conifer needles between my fingers, smelling the difference.  I tincture figs and dates, tonka and vanilla beans. I go the the food co-op and bury my face in a jar of myrrh. 

As it turns out, I'm not alone.  Through talking about scent, I've discovered some friends who share my passion.  Some of them are perfumers, some of them are perfume collectors, one is a cook who gets the same blissed out look smelling my scents as I get tasting her pineapple marinade.   Sharing scents, comparing how a perfume smells on each other's skin, feels so intimate.  If we wear a mask of propriety in public, the mask melts away when we're smelling something that moves us.


Monday, May 23, 2011

What is Oud Anyway? And How Do You Pronounce It?

Aquilaria or agarwood trees
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

The first thing most people say
when I tell them I've changed my business name from Urban Eden to Olive and Oud is, "Olive and...what's oud?" And the short answer is that oud is a precious aromatic dating back several thousand years, used in incense, perfume and traditional medicine, better known in Asia than in the U.S and Europe.
But the longer answer begins here, with a stand of aquilaria or agarwood trees.  These trees were native to Asia's tropical rainforests.  I say were because there is very little old growth agarwood left.  This is partly due to over  harvesting, but also partly due to the depletion of the rainforests themselves. 

insect boring hole in agarwood
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

Oud essential oil is distilled from agarwood
trees.  But not every agarwood tree can produce oud.  Actually, less than 10% of wild agarwood trees can produce oud.  And that's because only agarwood trees which have been infected with particular microorganisms develop the resin which leads to the characteristic odor.  In the wild, these microorganisms enter through an insect's bore hole.  You can see such an insect--and above that the insect's boring hole--in the photograph to the right. 

Beneath that is a photo showing the heartwood of an infected agarwood tree.  The dark in the center of the wood comes from a resin the tree produces in response to the microorganisms.  It's from this resin that oud is distilled.


Papua New Guinea villagers learn to cultivate argarwood. 
Photo from: Robert Blanchette, University of Minnesota
Unfortunately, it's usually
impossible to tell from a tree's  appearance whether or not the heartwood contains this resin.  But because oud is incredibly valuable--2 ml of good oud essential oil sells for about $120-- agarwood trees have been indiscriminately cut down,
until there are few old growth trees

agarwood seedling nursery in India
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

Now the harvesting of wild agarwood is prohibited.  However, people can still harvest cultivated agarwood, and have recently learned how to encourage young trees to develop the necessary resin.   
Agarwood cultivation in tandem with the prohibition on cutting wild agarwood is helping to preserve the last wild stands of mature trees while giving people an alternative, sustainable income.  Some programs teach indigenous people to cultivate young agarwood trees on biodiverse forest sites.  However, there is also a down side.  As Trygve Harris has blogged, in Laos there are areas where agarwood trees are common on land that has already been cleared.  She says that agarwood is also fairly common in people's yards.  So, she writes,  "...it is the wild itself that disappears, not the agarwood trees."    However, the cost of being certified to legally sell agarwood is prohibitive for people who were once able to sell just a tree or two from their property.

And what does oud smell like?  It's difficult to describe, partly because it doesn't smell like anything else I'm familiar with, and partly because there are different grades of oud, each with their own scents.  But it's deep, earthy, sensual, tenacious, incensey.  Trygve Harris writes amazing descriptions of oud (she uses an alternate spelling, oudh) in her product descriptions for her store, Enfleurage.  Here is her description of one of the six varieties she offers:

Rich ripe fruity top, with underlying dirty, earthy balsamic, teeth tingling mouth watering characteristic so indicative of lao oud, followed by an ethereal subtly sumptuous, ecstasy fomenting bliss. As this oil evolves, a rooted, deep dark forest sense enters, with an almost vetiver-like (almost) sense of roots, mud and water, further along peppery notes come out, with the sharpness almost immediately ceding to the warm black pepper tones, and a bit of barnyard behind it. By this point, the oudh makes a nest in the back of the throat, creating an entire vibrating orgasmic world between the throat and the top of the head. After this a tobacco note begins to show, and with the road now open, this oudh just opens and flows, like the highway as you drive through the desert at dawn.

Oh My!

Lastly, how the heck do you pronounce oud, anyway?  I asked a Lebanese friend, and he uttered a three-syllable coyote howl.  But I went here to listen to an audio recording.  According to Merriam Webster, it's a simple one-syllable word rhyming with food.