As the smoke of joss sticks paints fragrant curlicues in the air, I feel that I am participating in some ancient ritual. I love smoky scents in general and my favorite incense perfumes range from tender like Chanel No 22 to austere like Comme des Garçons Avignon. But the process of lighting incense, watching it smolder and then vanish into scented smoke and ashes is what I enjoy the most. The word “joss” came down to us via Portuguese from the Latin deus, god, and whenever I burn incense—even if only to enjoy its perfume, rather than to please a deity—it feels like a spiritual offering.
Fragrant plants such as frankincense, benzoin, myrrh and styrax may be used as incense on their own, but some of the most beautiful scents result from a careful blend. Japanese incense based on agarwood and sandalwood has such a delicate aroma that I feel like crushing the slender sticks and rubbing them into my skin. High-quality Indian incense is lusciously sweet and opulent, conjuring bejeweled goddesses and jasmine decorated shrines. Russian church incense smells mineral and peppery. It would feel somber if it were not for the vanilla like sweetness tempering the usual basso profondo notes of myrrh and frankincense. As the grey incense smoke turns into perfume, I simultaneously feel transported, inspired and moved. No wonder that aromatics like frankincense and myrrh were prized above gold in antiquity.
If incense was so revered in the past, what did the antique blends smell like? The other day I found an answer to this romantic question as I was engaged in the least glamorous of activities—bookshelf dusting. Deciding that my back needed a break, I tossed the duster aside and pulled out a book at random. It turned out to be a modern reprint of John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary first published in 1723. The nutmeg scented carrot pudding and rosewater laced almond cakes sounded delicious as I was flipping the pages filled with ornate scrolls, but when I spotted a recipe for “perfume to burn,” my dusting was forgotten entirely. Although Nott’s recipe might be a challenge to adapt, it is a wonderful inspiration. Just imagine how iris, rose, sweet balsams and animalic notes might sound together! Would it smell like Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir perhaps?
“76. Perfume To Burn
Take Benjamin [benzoin], liquid Storax [styrax], and Storax Calamita, fine, of each an Ounce; mix and dissolve them as much as you can in two Ounces of damask Rosewater; then add as much Florentine Orris in fine powder as is sufficient to make it up into a paste; also of Civet and Musk in fine powder, of each a Dram; mix all these very well together, and make them up into Cakes about the bignes of a silver two-pence; dry them on a tin Plate, and keep them for use. These cakes are good to perfume abundance of other things, besides that they are good to burn.”
From The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, Or, The Accomplish’d Housewifes Companion, By John Nott, Published by Printed for C. Rivington at the Bible and Crown, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1723. Reprints are available via Amazon.com, and the online version via Archive.org.
Image: Smoke From an Incense Cone by Kyle May via flickr, some rights reserved.