Tear bottles or lacrymatories (tears of mourners were kept in a bottle and buried with the deceased), Roman, 2nd -4th century
The word perfume comes from the Latin, per fumum, meaning by or through smoke and derived from the incense used in ancient religious rites. I imagine the first perfume appreciated by our ancestors was that of wood smoke, meat and herbs burning in a campfire… the scent heralded the promise of delicious flavor and a full stomach.
Ancient Greek perfume bottle (This was a very common shape for a perfume bottle… no fooling)
At the dawn of civilization man created perfume –– as incense that wafted the scent of status and luxury through marble halls –– as perfumed oils to anoint the skin and hair and finally, with the discovery of distillation, as essences distilled from flowers and leaves and roots –– the pure, clear soul could be taken from the plant to serve the perfumer.
The recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallim, the perfumeress (*see it at the end of the post)
It makes sense, doesn’t it? With civilization came perfume. Paul Strathern, in his book on chemistry called Medeleyev’s Dream, said that the first named perfumer/chemist was in Mesopotamia ––Tapputi was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from 1200 BC, she (yes she… the original chemists were women!) distilled flowers, oil and calamus with cyperus, myrrh and balsam to make a perfume with early stills.
Although it is believed the first perfumes were in Egypt, the oldest perfumes found to date came from a huge perfume factory in Pyrgos, Cyprus, and were 4000 years old. The bottles contained Lavender, bay, rosemary, pine and coriander. Distillation with steam and alcohol happened 3,000 years later thanks to the genius of polymath Ibn Sīnā or Avicenna in the West (who also invented the refrigerated coil).
Back in early history, perfume and food were not divided disciplines as they are now –– there was a very flexible membrane between them. In fact, many substances were on both sides of the fence. The ancient Egyptian incense Kyphi was made from raisins, cinnamon and honey as well as myrrh, frankincense and sandalwood (**Recipe at end of post). It was found in tombs opened in the 19th century –– its ghostly scent still emanating from the pottery bowls and bottles after 3000 years.
The ancient Greeks favored rose, saffron, frankincense, myrrh, violets, spikenard, cinnamon and cedar said David Pybus in The History of Aroma Chemistry. Many of these were also used in food. The Romans were particularly fond of roses and bathed in the scent as well as using roses in their cuisine. In fact Pybus said, “Rome succumbed to the barbarian hordes, the lights went out in all the incense burners in Europe, and the rose petals went out with the bathwater.”
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the dark ages began and the world contracted as the connection of Empire dissolved into hundreds of unrelated kingdoms without the benefit of shared knowledge and discoveries (until the Catholic church filled the gap). David Rowe in Chemistry and Technology of Flavor and Fragrances said “The end result of this was the loss of raw materials and eventually, the knowledge of what to do with them. The foundations of chemistry were lost into the mysticism of Alchemy. Some techniques remained in use, especially distillation, but this also became a mystical affair.” Alchemy and perfumery were related crafts. The distillation process for perfume –– turning crude material into scent –– was in the alchemist’s arsenal of techniques used in the search for the ever-elusive Philosopher’s Stone (Lapis Philosophorum) that turned metal to gold or provided an elixir for eternal life. Distilling scent was a path from the mundane to the sublime.
Etrusco-Corinthian 590-580 BC Alabastron Perfume bottle
By the late medieval period, spices and perfumes were used with abandon and scented courts and cathedrals with materials from all over the world… bodies, food, floors and even laundry (the word laundress came from lavenderess and their job of putting lavender to work in the clothes and rooms of their royal masters to scent their lives- Elizabeth I kept a dish of sugared lavender next to her at table and munched on them continually!).
I know this is really a massively simplified history of man and fragrance but I wanted to give you a little context for my next statement… food and scent are naturals together and alchemy and cooking are not such distant relatives – they have just been estranged from their formerly close and mutually beneficial relationship for far too long.
Last year I got it into my head that I needed to taste ambergris. I saw it in so many antique recipes and I was so curious. When I read about it, I felt it was a connection to the past through a substance that had been thought of as magic from the beginnings of civilization. First I contacted a brilliant perfume blogger, Elena at Perfume Shrine, to help me understand the properties of this ingredient, then I found the fabled gray stone at Ambergris NZ and fell in love the moment I opened the small black velvet bag.
Elena, being a kind and generous guide to scent society went one step farther and introduced me to Mandy Aftel at Aftelier –– she had a feeling Mandy would be a wonderful resource since she had developed a line of fragrances for food. Elena was so right –– we met at a lecture Mandy was giving at NYC’s Museum of Natural History.
Mandy is a true visionary and has opened a door, long closed, to the world of scent and food and drink. Through her I was able to use incredible roses, jasmine… geranium…so many flowers as well as fantastic herbs and spices in as pure a form as can be found. These essences have rocked my world.
Through Mandy I have met a great group of perfumers, a perfume blogger and another food blogger and we have taken to meeting once a month to share our interests and passions. This group includes Lucy Raubertas of Indie Perfumes, Julianne Zaleta of Herbal Alchemy, Maria McElroy of Aroma M and Rebecca Winzenried of Three Points Kitchen.
This weekend we met and shared sniffs of incredible perfume samples Lucy had brought along and cake… an orange olive oil cake that I had made from a recipe I found at Dennis's great site, More than a Mountful . It seemed like the perfect thing to bring for our gathering after making an Aftelier-inspired addition. Added to the cake was a glaze of Aftelier Neroli essence and some ambergris I’d been brewing in alcohol… the result was sublime… and eating it… well it perfumes your mouth in the best way you can imagine. For a group of scent hounds… this made up for the 1 ½ hour wait for M Wells in Long Island City. We baled and went to Brooklyn and ate at the charming Belleville restaurant in Park Slope.
We then had a dessert course at Julianne’s house consisting of scented prosecco and magical vodkas infused with honey-oatmeal (don't knock it... Dan Barber uses it and it's amazing!), chocolate mint, lemon verbena and angelica. Aside from being a master perfumer, Julianne is a genius with infused vodkas so these were truly spectacular creations.
I can’t say enough about what Aftelier chef’s essences will do for your cooking and your cocktails. I can tell you to vote for her perfumes for the Fifi Awards for her romantic Honey Blossom perfume starting on the 25th to reward her perseverance in hunting out the very best ingredients to enrich her perfumes and your food and drink. The alliance between food and fragrance has been re-established… long may it live and prosper!
Orange-Rosemary Olive oil Cake based on a cake from More than a Mountful
1 ½ c flour
1 cup sugar
1 t baking soda
½ t baking powder
½ t salt
3 large eggs
6 oz buttermilk or yogurt
½ extra virgin olive oil
1 T chopped rosemary
pinch of saffron
½ c powdered sugar, sifted
juice of 1 orange ( I used a blood orange–– but it turns dark on the cake like magic... perhaps stick with regular orange!)
1-3 drops neroli or petitgrain (optional)
a few gratings of ambergris -- from Ambergris Co NZ (optional)
Take 2 T of the olive oil and warm, add the saffron and let soak for ½ an hour. Sift the dry ingredients together. Mix the liquid ingredients together thoroughly, adding the saffron oil and rosemary. Combine the liquid and he dry gently and pour into a 9” olive oiled pan.
Cook at 350º for 25- 35 minutes… check frequently. The cake is ready when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove the cake and let it cool. Remove gently from the pan. Stick it with a toothpick many times. Combine the glaze ingredients and pour over the cake, you can make extra and serve it with each slice… it’s that good… you’ll probably want to.
The texture is insanely good at this point, like an orange cloud. It is best served shortly after cooking although it is great the next day too. It will perfume your mouth in a remarkable way.
*Following is a description of Tapputi-Belatekallim's preparation, from M. Levey's ""Early
"If you prepare flowers, oil, and calamus as a salve, and you have tested
the flowers [of the calamus and its green parts], you set up ... a
distillatory. You put good potable water ... [into a hariu pot]. You heat
tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa (about half a litre) hamimu, 1 qa
iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myrrh into the hariu pot. Your standard in
this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and
the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped. You filter this
solution ... with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of
the sun. You clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You
discard the residue.
You use 3 qa of purified 'Cyperus' [species unknown] in the solution with
the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa
pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics in a
hirsu pot. You measure 40 qa of this solution which remained overnight
with the aromatics ... 1 1/2 pure gullu ... two beakers ... small beakers
... You filter ... kanaktu in a sieve. You decant oil in the hariu pot ...
in the solution.
[You rub that which was with the solution overnight.] [You examine] the
comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution
which [you clarified into a distillatory] ... 3 qa ... [You throw] ...
balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [You kindle a fire]. When the
solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with
[When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise]
the fire... You cover the distillatory on top. [You cool] with [water].
When the sun [rises], [you prepare] a [container for]the oil, solution, and
aromatics. You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You
remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the
When the sun [rises], [if] they continue to dissolve in one another and
[the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You
prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the
flask. You filter the oil with a filter cloth into the flask. You remove
the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.
This is the preparation of flowers, oil, and calamus for [salve] for the
king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallim, the perfumeress.
The twentieth of Muhur-ilani, Limmu of Qatnu-gardu".
(This would be approx 1200 BCE).
Kyphi Recipes, cooked in honey