18th Century Incense Recipe and Perfume To Burn

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.



  • Gabrielle: V, I’m sorry to bother you with a petty question, but are storax and styrax that you’ve previously mentioned in your balsams article the same thing? If not, which one is used in perfumery today? I’m only asking because there seems to be a certain conundrum about the terminology. February 29, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

  • Martyn: I love church incense. I’ve never sought to discover what goes into it, merely assuming it’s based upon frankincense, but it is so evocative. (So to are joss-sticks and incense cones, but those are evocative of a period I’d just as soon leave in history, where it belongs!) I’m part of a choir which meets every month in one or other of a group of pre-Reformation churches in the Sussex Downs to sing Benedictine chant (Compline), and more often than not there is an atmosphere redolent of centuries of incense there. It’s a combination that is probably the closest I’ll get to heaven! February 29, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

  • Yulya: Victoria, a wonderful article. I have also loved dusting bookshelves, for the very same reason. Touching each book, opening at random and get lost in it… The time stops, I feel relaxed and able to enjoy the moment. Present day convenience of electronic books takes away from us these precious moments, the feeling of holding a book, and longing for a wonderful scent of an old book and a new one. February 29, 2012 at 10:14am Reply

  • Victoria: It isn’t a bother at all and a good question. Yes, they are the same, just different spelling. February 29, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

  • Anna in Edinburgh: Thank you for answering a question I’ve had at the back of my mind for years: “joss” from “deus” in Portuguese. Wonderful.

    I love articles like this and you’re great at providing them.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh February 29, 2012 at 12:02pm Reply

  • Meg: Wonderful article! It reminded me of a passage from a book I’ve been reading recently– “The Duchess of Jermyn Street”, a biography of the great Edwardian cook Rosa Lewis. It mentions that she liked to burn “Tantivy” by Floris to perfume the dining room before serving, and would bring it with her even when catering dinners in other people’s houses. February 29, 2012 at 12:38pm Reply

  • Victoria: I do too, whether it is the sweet variety like the kind used by the Russian Orthodox church or the peppery and woody Catholic church incense. I wonder if there are specific rules on incense for various churches. I only know that they smell differently. Plus, the traditional Orthodox churches use only the natural beeswax candles, and when they start melting, the scent of honey is very strong. February 29, 2012 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you! I can spend hours cleaning my bookshelves, and since I have almost no furniture other than the bookshelves in my apartment, it is a timeconsuming task. 🙂

    I’m old fashioned, I guess. I love the feel and smell of paper books. Few things make me happier than stopping by a used book store.

    But it is great that people upload and save old books like the one I’m referencing in the post. Archive.org is a great organization. February 29, 2012 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Victoria: Glad that you’ve enjoyed it. I love old books, especially the ones about perfume, book or just the day-to-day life in the past. Maybe, I will not make the incense exactly as Nott describes, but it inspired me enough to try mixing frankincense, benzoin, orris powder and a bit of rosewater. It smelled wonderful as it burned. February 29, 2012 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: Meg, thank you very much for this recommendation! I’ve just added The Duchess of Jermyn Street to my amazon cart. Based on the reviews and your comment, I now know that it is a must read. The Edwardian era is fascinating, and what a great way to get a glimpse into it. February 29, 2012 at 1:50pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: Sounds amazing, how do you burn it? March 1, 2012 at 1:14am Reply

  • hongkongmom: Thanks for a great article from all aspects…and for a great idea:-) March 1, 2012 at 1:15am Reply

  • Victor: To me incense and spirituality go together and are intertwined, as the smoke rises to heaven so do our prayers and highest aspirations. The high quality of Japanese incense always transports me back to Kamakura and the great bronze Buddha where the entire area is perfumed by offerings of incense creating the most holy of intoxications. March 1, 2012 at 10:51am Reply

  • Amer: Great recipe! Some questions
    a) Where do you get these book?
    b) How do the cakes end up solids when everything you add is in powder form and some water? What does “dissolve as much as you can” mean when it comes to adding dried resins in aqueous medium? March 1, 2012 at 11:04am Reply

  • Victoria: If you just sprinkle some rosewater on frankincense and let it dry out, it burns ok. I use a piece of hot charcoal and I sprinkle the ingredients on it. March 1, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

  • Victoria: You are most welcome! I love collecting this kind of information. March 1, 2012 at 11:32am Reply

  • Victoria: Amer, on your first question, please see the post itself! These reprints are easily available (and if you don’t want to pay for a paper copy, you can read them for free online.)

    If I were to do it, I would just mix the melted resins with rosewater and then add enough orris powder (or some of the resins in the powdered form) to bind the mixture. Nott says to add enough orris powder to make the paste, which should work. Orris powder is quite starchy, so it is a good absorbent. March 1, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

  • Victoria: It’s my dream to visit Kamakura, and I hope that I can do it at some point. My Japanese friend sends me the most beautiful incense from an old shop in Tokyo, and every package from her is like a treasure. The scents are like fine perfumes, delicate, refined, complex. March 1, 2012 at 11:41am Reply

  • Amer: On the first question I what I meant is how YOU get informed about this kind of books. How do you come across them in the first place. About the mixing method I don’t think melting the resin would work. It will solidify the moment it comes in contact with water and you can’t heat rosewater either because the essense would evaporate. i am guessing you add the dried resins in powder form and dissolve means just mix them very well. Then I supose orris powder would keep the whole thing together (although I’ve never used it in anything) March 2, 2012 at 8:05am Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, I read about Nott's book in Elizabeth David's Is There Nutmeg in the House? And since I have a strong interest in spices and cooking, I canvass library catalogs, especially their medieval collections. I check bibliographies of anthologies and take it from there. Over time, through such research, you accumulate a lot. Of course, one needs to have a taste for such work, and I happen to enjoy it very much.

    I tried it yesterday on a hot plate, and it worked for me with a small amount. I'm still waiting to burn the cake. Of course, there must be other ways to make it work, so if you try it, please share with all of us. March 2, 2012 at 8:15am Reply

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