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Ras El Hanout Incense, Three Ways

Ras El Hanout Incense, Three Ways
I ran out of my Ras El Hanout mixture (which I always make myself, using very peculiar spices from my overflowing spice rack). You can see some of them in the images below (how many of them can you guess?).
Ras El Hanout

Ras El Hanout

Ras El Hanout
Most of the grinding is done the old fashioned way using mortar and pestle, as it should be. I believe it is a more direct connection to the material because this way I can smell them as I crrrrrrrush them! Whatever I'm unable to grind fine enough, I will pass on to the electric grinder. I kept most of it for my cooking (nothing beats a homemade couscous topped with a homemade couscous stew spiced with my very own Ras El Hanout!). But some I just felt compelled to burn as incense.
Ras El Hanout Nerikoh Snake
My first idea was making it into nerikoh (kneaded incense, which is not actually burnt but placed on a hot micah plate). Nerikoh traditionally uses honey or plum paste. For this experiment I used a combination of dates and honey. I named these Oasis Nerikoh.
In the picture you are seeing the incense dough shaped as a spiral, and waiting to be hand-rolled into tiny balls.
Ras El Hanout Nerikoh
Ras El Hanout Nerikoh (kneaded incense balls), rolled into a mixture of ras el hanout and sandalwood powder.
Ras El Hanout Incense Sticks
My second attempt at making incense sticks! Practice will eventually make perfect I hope.
 Ras El Hanout Incense, Three Ways
The whole line up, from top to bottom: Ras El Hanout Incense cones, norikoh, incense sticks.
Ras El Hanout Incense, Three Ways
Here they are, all dried up and ready to use! The ornamental brown ceramic dish in the background is my aromatherapy diffuser, which I use to heat up nerikoh.

Local Kyphi

Local Kyphi Ingredients
In preparation for the Kyphi class I'm teaching February 21st, I've decided to experiment with making Kyphi with as many local ingredients as possible. I tried to use mostly plants and materials that I either grow or wild-harvest, or can be found locally theoretically speaking.
Some were included because they were traditionally part of the materials traded Incense Route and therefore have penetrated the local cuisine and pharmacopeia and are almost inseparable from the culture (such as Frankincense and Myrrh), and also I've included them because although the specimens I have are not grown locally - there is now a farm near the Dead Sea that grows them. The same is true for mastic (which although is from Greece, I can harvest my own - just wasn't patient enough to wait till next summer when I can collect enough resin!). And so on, for most of the resins. So this is not a strictly local product, but it carries the spirit of the landscape I now live in, and reflects its plant aromatic profile.

Local Kyphi in the Mortar
I began by soaking organic uncultured grapes in wine from the local vintner, and then set off to pound all the herbs I picked in the mortar and pestle. If you can recognize any of them in the pictures, and post a comment - you will be entered to win a little jar of my local Kyphi once it is made! It ended up very green and balsamic smelling, and with energy that is very vibrant and sweet, not unlike the Venus incense pastilles I made last year.
Local Kyphi in the Drying Basket
Here it is drying in a basket layered with a gauze fabric (okay, more like an antiquated baby diaper, remember those days? If you do then you're either very old or getting there!).

Fig Incense

Maple & Fig

With all the heat waves I've survived in the past couple of years, my Philosykos is beginning to dwindle down. So, I have decided to seek out a new fig fragrance. I love Philosykos, a green fig fragrance that is very refreshing in hot weather. Like wading in a cool pebbled stream, and enjoying the shade of fig trees and towering oleander bushes. It lasts very briefly, and so I thought why not get a stronger fig scent?

Premier Figuier was created in 1994, and was not only the first fig fragrance, but also one of the first by Olivia Giacobetti (the year prior to that she debuted her career with Petit Guerlain and Eau de l'Artisan). I have a sample of this first fig, and always liked it but not enough to purchase a bottle: it's milky, coconut and powdery and lasts even less than Philosykos (which is also by Giacobetti, and very light, which is excellent quality for summertime, but also limits it to this season for me). The latter has an Eau de Parfum version that is wonderful and longer lasting, but simply not available around this part of the world; and so when I stumbled upon Premier Figuier Extrême in the website of the nearest perfume boutique, I decided to purchase it unsniffed (the actual location near me didn't have it, so that's why I didn't smell it first). When it arrived, I immediately had a buyer's regret, because I should have known better than to purchase something with a similar name to something I like and expect it to end up well. I decided to pick up the scent, not open it, and go to the boutique that is a little more far away and sniff them side by side.

But, of course, I couldn't not open a bottle of new perfume sitting on my desk. So I undressed the box from its cellophane wrap, released the bottle from its carton embrace and spritzed just teeny tiny bit on one wrist. Well, this is neither smelling like Premier Figuier; not like fig of any shape for that matter. Instead, I got this exotic whiff of the spice market, a swirl of incense and maybe some crushed fig leaves very far in the backdrop. To replace Philosykos clearly it can't. Nevertheless, I was intrigued.

Hội An, Vietnam

Premier Figuier Extrême begins with a trail of delicate incense smoke, intertwined with spicy-floral undercurrent. It is dry and warm, yet also soft and sweet-balsamic (I am smelling Peru balsam to be more specific). There is a surprising smokiness to it that brings to mind Dzing! or perhaps Tea for Two (also by Giacobetti, who must have some kind of a signature I am yet to decipher), and much less of the powderiness of the original with its coconut note which I found distracting and a bit too soapy and watery-aldehydic. While the two are marketed as different concentrations of the same theme (Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum), and share almost all of the notes (minus the asafoetida note in the original), such as almond milk, coconut, sandalwood, fig leaf, dried fruit and fig wood - I find them to be almost as different as night and day: PF is watery, thin and luminous, with abstracts hints to the milky latex that streams out of the young tree. It is not even quite a tree yet, but a sapling that grows by the water stream, with the cool watery air coming off the wet pebbles.

PFE is rather expansive, surprisingly full-bodied and with a sultry, sulphuric air to it, and I am wondering if this is part of the allusion to the fig fruit. This makes me wonder if the asafoetida note is not wrongly listed and actually belongs to the Extrême. It is mentioned this way on Fragrantica.
It is not so much like ripe figs (and definitely not purple!) as stated in some of the copy writing, but more of a conceptual perfume, an interpretation of an interpretation. I imagine the perfumer revisiting her creation almost a decade later to tweak and upgrade the formulation to make it longer lasting - and gets carried away creating a completely new (and improved!) interpretation of the fig theme. This time the fruit is ripe, rich, full and the tree it grows from has matured to have thick, huggable trunk and more sturdy branches. It has become a home to several song birds and gives enough shade to rest under and cool off, even though it's not even close to any body of water. On the contrary: Maybe someone is burning a fire near it, and roasting some summer fruit on its flames.

There is the aspect of contrasting textures, also, which is what I find most intriguing about this scent. There is the feeling of being surrounded by fine incense smoke, and at the same time a bracing touch of bumpy fresh fig leaf. A delicate, powdery, almost honeyed sweet floral haze and also the pulling apart of fruit to reveal its minuscule slimy tentacles inside. The polished dusty feel of a silvery fig tree trunk, and at the same time the oozing white milky watery sap.

All in all, I'm pleased to say this has turned into an intriguing blind purchase which I'm happy to embrace into my collection and wear in this strange late spring, which keeps jumping from one extreme to the next: thunderstorms and humid cold rainy days, followed by hot dry desert winds, and replaced again by muggy humid days and more showers sprinkled in between. It's light-textured yet rich with nuances and I'm happy to discover different things within it in both cooler and warmer days.

Top notes: Fig Tree Leaves, Gorse Bush Flowers, Smoky & Sulfur Notes 
Heart notes: Almond Milk, Figs, Sandalwood
Base notes: Coconut Milk, Dried Fruit Notes, Stone Pine, Incense

A word about comparative sniffing: When trying something blind for the first time and without any preconceived ideas, you have the advantage of being able to form an impression that is free of opinions, marketing intentions and other biases. If I was to be told "this is a fig fragrance", on the other hand, I would be looking for the fig and finding it thanks to the power of suggestion. It is a bit tricky to compare similar fragrances side by side. It may be an excellent exercise for a professional perfumer or a perfumery student trying to refine their olfactory discerning abilities. But for  a layperson just trying to find a scene they enjoy, this can be utterly confusing and totally ruin the fun. Instead of smelling it for what it is, you smell it in comparison to something else that it is "supposed" to be similar to. And by doing so, what happens is that you find less of what you were expecting to find, and if that was what you're after - and don't find it - this is a sure method to feel disappointed.



Varthemia

כתלה חריפה Chiliadenus iphionoides

Sharp Varthemia (Chiliadenus iphionoides), or in Hebrew Ktela Harifa (כתלה חריפה) likes to grow inside rocks and has the most incredibly resinous, rustic, complex aroma. It truly is like a complete perfume all of its own, exemplifying what Garriague and Chypre are all about.

Sharp Vartehmia

I've stumbled upon this plant by chance, first near Keshet Cave in Park Adamit near the Lebanese border. A beautiful place with gorgeous view. It was one of two aromatic plants i was unable to identify, but intuitively knew they are both of medicinal and aesthetic value. I later found Varthemia on the mountain above my house. But it wasn't until I saw Yonat HaMidbar post about it and rave about its lovely perfume that I was able to identify the plant (it was never in bloom when I saw it, and it's near impossible to ID plants when they are not in bloom).

Vartehmia Incense Cones

Shortly after I was not only inspired to finally make incense cones out of it, but also studied some of the medicinal properties of it. Among others, it is good for heart problems and diabetes - and seems like a very gentle herb to enjoy in tea (as long as it's not overly done). I picked some for a friend who just had a heart attack, and figured my own heart could benefit from it too. So I've been sipping a lot of vartehmia. marrubium and white mint tea. A lovely combination, and feels to be soothing both the heart and the soul.

Heart Soothing Tea

Infusions

My next adventure with vartehmia is infusing it in both alcohol and olive oil. From the olive oil I will make a single-note vartehmia soap (I will also have it brewed into tea for the water component of the soap making process, so that it is as naturally fragrant as possible). From the alcohol infusion, which turned out beautifully resinous and rich, I've created a rustic, garrigue-inspired amber perfume, which I am debating if you launch this fall or not. It's a further development of an old, old, old formula that was almost sickeningly sweet because the amber base in it wasn't my own and I am quite certain contained some artificial molecules. Frankly, that base smelled more like an ambreine accord. The perfume I made with it included a touch oregano that balanced this sweetness to some degree, but not enough. I want the new perfume to be more authentic and local, and use my own herbal infusions in it - but without taking away from the luxurious character of the perfume. It is very different from the original, and surprisingly has a bit of the Espionage DNA to it - even there is nothing smoky about it. Must be the ambreine accord (which, FYI, is the core of Shalimar, Emeraude and the like). 

Inbar


Incense Through the Ages

Smouldering Incense & Perfumes
It's winter. The most glorious season in Canada, where the energy is directed indoors, and focuses on social gatherings large and small. As usual, I'm an outsider peeking into what this is all about from the viewpoint of a traveller passing by. For, like, 17 years.

I am looking forward to the quite and solitude that tomorrow brings. For someone who grew up in Israel, it's funny to see how once a year, Canadians are experiencing the only tight-lid closure of stores and services. The rare sight observed today - of long, hectic lineups at the supermarkets and grocery stores, the traffic congestion, etc. are a weekly sight in Israel, where every Friday families stock up for a full day (gasp!) without shopping... I find it amusing.

One of my favourite things this time of year is walking in the West End (my neighbourhood  and home for my entire Canadian adventure) and coming across a waft of real, wood stove smoke. Am I the only human for whom the smell of pyrolysis stirs up strong emotions? I think not. It is at the same time a signal of danger in the forest, and the safety of the caveman's tribal bonfire.  No other recent can conjure so immediately and powerfully the feeling of freedom, adventure and coziness. It transports me to cozy nights with my family by the fireplace, my home village burning in a bush fire, and more recently - bonfires when camping in my imaginary gypsy tribe or spice caravan.

Come wintertime, and few things please me more than immerse myself in fragrant smoke. And I'm not alone - incense, and in particular - frankincense and myrrh, from the desert trees which grow wild and are cultivated in Southern Arabian peninsula and West Africa is a symbol of the Nativity Scene and is burnt in many Churches. Beginning with some basics, just straight-up burning of substances in their raw form, preferably on hot charcoals: white sage, leaves and twigs of redcedar, frankincense tears and sticks of palo santo (that tend to self-extiniguish repeatedly...). And then to some wonderful Egyptian Kyphi - a concoction that is my own modern spin on the ancient recipe. Although not accurate, it is done according to the technique and the scholarly deciphering of its original 16 ingredients. It may not be accurate, but I can attest to its fragrant heavenliness and ability to banish the worries of the day - which is what Kyphi is all about...

Dabney Rose's modern Kyphi

I've been blessed with wonderful incense friends, who generously send me their incense creations. Above you can see Dabney Rose's version of Kyphi, in 3 different "flavours" (from top to bottom): Soliliguy, Févriér Amour and Winter Sleep (Conifer). They are made very differently from mine, which is granular and is meant to be sprinkled on the hot coal. Rather, after the ingredients have been pounded into a more-or-less uniform level, they've been shaped into little "candies", and one is meant to break off little pieces to place on the hot charcoal, or on a mica plate. Although the shapes are adorable, I am wondering about the extra work required both by the incense maker (who needs to put a ton of effort into each piece!), and the user - who needs to break off the piece from a very hard piece of re-bound resins. Perhaps I am missing something in the process or the technique. It sure would make for an interesting ritual if there was a special knife that would cut through these elegantly.

But what truly matters, more than shape or form, is the scent itself. And in deep winter Winter Sleep is a most befitting incense to burn. It's a wonderful way to celebrate Winter Solstice; and once the celebrations are over -  to rejuvenate and counter the winter blues that tends to follow the over-partying or maybe just feeling left out after
The name is a bit misleading though: it's actually a great way to wake up from winter hibernation! The elegant incense candy smells like juniper, spruce needles and pinon pine, and it reminds me of a crisp winter walk in a snow-covered coniferous forest. When it's burning, I'm smelling primarily myrrh, but also the resinous coniferous notes and a sweet-balsamic after-note.

Another favourite of mine to burn at this time of year is Ross Urrere's "Ocean of Night" loose incense that look like kohl or charcoal with bits of woods and oakmoss strewn in. Ocean of Night is a rich, luxurious, ambery-balsamic yet floral blend that is very perfumey. It reminds me of the floral Russian and Greek Church incense, yet without the unpleasant synthetic aftertaste these have. It's like an incense version of Nuit de Noël!

Curious to explore more incense-themed perfumes - check out my Christmas 2015 Newsletter: Smouldering Incense Gift Guide.

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