Tonka Bean, Chocolate Salt and Three Perfumes

Several years ago, a friend gave me a jar of chocolate and tonka salt from a Viennese outfit called Zum Schwarzen Kameel. It’s a delicatessen and a culinary complex famous for its unique interpretation of classical Austrian specialties. The salt was a mix of coarse salt crystals, black pepper, pieces of cacao beans and tonka. Only a small quantity of the latter was present, but its cherry-almond scent made the salt a heady, fragrant mixture. I’ve used it on grilled meat and fish, but it shone best on winter vegetables like cabbage, turnips, swedes, potatoes, and parsnips. I’ve since made my own version, using equal amounts of black pepper and cacao beans and a smidgen of tonka shavings for perfume. The recipe is at the end of the article.

The reason I was stingy with tonka bean in my blend is because it’s a potent ingredient.  The scent of toasted almonds, amarena cherries, sun-warmed hay and vanilla custard lingers well, and tonka bean’s is one of the most luscious and seductive aromas in a perfumer’s palette. It was also responsible for a revolution in modern perfumery.

In my recent article for the FT magazine, The Scent of Tonka Bean, I describe how this revolution came about. Then I select three perfumes that use tonka bean in different ways and demonstrate how this ingredient can be somewhat of a chameleon.

Tonka beans, the seeds of the Dipteryx Odorata tree native to South America, contain a component called coumarin. It’s present in many herbs and plants, including lavender, figs and cherry leaves, but tonka beans are so rich in this aromatic that it crystallises to the surface of their skin. Indeed, the very name coumarin comes from a French word for the tonka bean, coumarou. Coumarin was first isolated from tonka beans in the 1820s, and in 1882 it became the first synthetic material to be used in a perfume. To create a fantasy accord inspired by ferns, perfumer Paul Parquet added coumarin to the classical eau de cologne blend of citrus, lavender and geranium. Notes of ambermusk and oakmoss filled in the rest of the composition and Houbigant’s legendary Fougère Royale was born. Along with it, came a whole new family of fragrances called fougère, which in French means “fern”. To continue reading, please click here.

Tonka Bean and Chocolate Salt

This salt recipe is inspired by the Tonka Schokolade Salz from Zum Schwarzen Kameel. I ended up changing the recipe by reducing the amount of tonka bean and shaving it instead of leaving the bean in large chunks. I find that it infuses the salt better, but feel free to alter the proportions to taste.

Another great addition to this blend is roasted coriander seeds. Use about 2 Tablespoons for the amount of below.

1/2 cup  coarse sea salt
2 Tablespoons cacao beans, coarsely ground
3 Tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1/8 of a tonka bean, grated

Put into a salt grinder and grind as needed.

Do you use tonka in cooking? And do you have any tonka bean favorites among perfumes?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Annie: Is there a salty tonka bean perfume? April 5, 2019 at 8:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Rosarita mentioned Gris Clair above, and I’d say that it has a salty accent. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it. April 5, 2019 at 8:51am Reply

      • Lorri: Wearing Gris Clair today and I never thought about it as salty until now. I’ve been thinking of it as dusty, but now that you’ve said it there is a touch of salt there. One of my favorites. April 5, 2019 at 9:20am Reply

        • Victoria: Mine too, although it took me a while to appreciate all of its nuances. April 8, 2019 at 7:56am Reply

  • rosarita: I’m always intrigued by your recipes, I’ve never cooked with Tonka. One of my favorite perfumes with tonka bean is Serge Lutens Gris Clair, the mix of warm and cool is unusual and soothing. April 5, 2019 at 8:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Tonka bean is best if used in tiny amounts, since it’s very strong and can overpower everything else. But if you dose it right, it gives a beautiful flavor reminiscent of almond praline and cooked cherries. It’s often used for sweets and baking, but I like it even more with something salty.

      Gris Clair is also a favorite. April 5, 2019 at 8:53am Reply

  • Richard Potter: Sounds amazing!!!🤪 April 5, 2019 at 9:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you can try making this blend. It’s very easy and the scent is fantastic. April 8, 2019 at 7:55am Reply

  • Klaas: Oh, that salt looks superbe! Where does one buy tonka beans? I’d love to try them on some veggies!

    My favorite tonka-perfumes are Vetiver Tonka (I know, another Ellena!), A Taste of Heaven (By Kilian) and Foin Fraichement Coupé (Orriza Legrand). But I’m sure there are many, many more! April 5, 2019 at 10:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Any gourmet store in Brussels seems to carry them, but if I can’t find something, I check via Sous Chef or Meilleur du Chef. They ship all over Europe and Sous Chef even offers free shipping on orders over a certain amount. April 5, 2019 at 10:39am Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Hoi Klaas, the French company Terre Exotique ( carries fève tonka in their wide range. They’re available online, I think. April 6, 2019 at 5:39am Reply

      • Klaas: Hey OnWings, I’ll check them out, thanks! April 6, 2019 at 9:55am Reply

      • Victoria: I’ve ordered from them before, and yes, I also recommend their spices. April 8, 2019 at 7:54am Reply

  • Matty: This sounds interesting XX April 5, 2019 at 2:12pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: As usual, Victoria, very interesting: salt and tonka beans. So far, I used them in sweets like crème brûlée (instead of vanilla seeds) or in biscuits. But this salty version sounds very interesting indeed, and as I have two pork chops marinating with Kerala pepper for Sunday lunch in the fridge, I think I’ll give them tiny grind of tonka! April 6, 2019 at 5:43am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds like a great pairing. Pork and tonka do go well together. April 8, 2019 at 7:54am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Victoria, thanks for calling attention to Tonka beans. I would never have thought of using them in food! In terms of perfumes, it is a note I enjoy (sometimes unwittingly). In my 20s, I loved Cacharel Lou Lou, although interestingly never really liked Coco Chanel. So, surprised to learn both have tonka. Moreover, my favourite Ormonde Jayne is Tolu. And I also like Hermes Vetiver Tonka. April 7, 2019 at 12:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Tonka beans are so versatile, really, but as I mentioned earlier, be careful when adding it. I run a bean twice-three times over a grater, and that’s usually enough to give a suggestion of scent, without overwhelming all else. In cakes or cookies, you can use more, but it’s better to err on the side of too little. April 8, 2019 at 7:43am Reply

  • Aurora: This post is so full of information it makes me want to explore Tonka and coumarin. Hoping to locate Tonka beans in the UK. April 17, 2019 at 11:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: They’re so fragrant, I keep a jar on my desk just to enjoy the aroma. April 18, 2019 at 5:26am Reply

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