Friday, April 22, 2011

Food, Fragrance and Friends with Orange Scented Olive Oil Cake

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
Arabic Pharmacology".

"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
a stirrer.

[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
distillatory ...].

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).

Perfume Seller

Kyphi Recipes, cooked in honey

Papyrus Ebers 1500 BC
Frankincense (antiu)
Genen (Sweet Flag)
Pine Kernels
Cyperus Grass
Camel Grass

Edfu Temple 100 BC
Pine Resin
Sweet Flag
Camel Grass
Juniper Berries
Pine Kernels

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!!  


Chef Dennis Littley said... usual you just kick it up to a whole other level, I am learning more about food than I ever dreamed I could!! Thank you so much for making my cake and I am so glad you enjoyed it!
Your pictures are stunning and the essence's you talk about sound amazing!! I can only imagine what they did for the flavor and aroma!
Have a wonderful restful weekend!

Lucy said...

How beautiful! What an encouragement to full enjoyment of the sensuality of two very intertwined senses, smell and taste.

Aftelier Honey put up as the first completely natural perfume to vote for this year in the Fragrance Foundation Awards also reminded me of our nectar/lilac experience on the bread and rolls you brought us that time we tried your lilac jam--nectar is the common thread and theme this year, it seems. Nectar Nectar Nectar! Cheerleading for Nectar. That cake you made was truly amazing. The perfume lingered up from the back of the mouth up through the nose, and that smooth texture....

Unknown said...

I am such a huge fan of olive oil cakes, and I absolutely love the idea of adding scents to cake (I love baking with rose and orange flower waters). I am just always a little unsure about whether oils are edible or not. I can pretty much forget the ambergris, but the neroili is doable--do you think the stuff you get from Neal's Yard is okay?
Have a fabulous Easter weekend.
*kisses* HH

Sarah said...

What a fun day you had! I can see a whole new level to adding flavour to food. I think I will be saving up for a few of those essences. Also thanks for reminding me about Chef Dennis' blog. I have not visited in awhile. And I'll be sure to vote.

La Table De Nana said...

You research everything so beautifully..I think I prefer more decadent perfume bottles you? I forget which movie.. a classic..she had beautiful perfume bottles lining her bedroom I dreaming?

That cake..the photos:) Divine..

Happy Easter to you..
Very always!

Diane said...

I did not know ant of that about perfume so I have learnt a lot today. The cake looks magical. Happy Easter. Diane

Barbara said...

I am devastated to confess I have become completely allergic to nearly all perfumes. I have one out of twenty or so I can use and only if it's not anywhere near my nose. So distressing. Oh well, the annoyances of age are many and varied.
Still, I loved this post and what a fabulous day you had.
Olive oil cakes are divine....I haven't tried Dennis's but I will. I adore rose and orange water...lavender too. And enjoy the infused vodkas. I must become more experimental with the essences.

Lisa Abdul-Quddus said...

What a fascinating post! The history is so interesting that it makes me want to learn more. The cake sounds delicious and I'll be giving this recipe a try soon. But I am wondering about the taste imparted by ambergris. I never would have thought to use that in food.

You have a wonderful blog. :) I read often but believe this is my first time commenting.

mandy said...

Thank you so much for your generous mention of me and my work. I am honored to be on your drop-dead gorgeous blog

Marjie said...

This was a wonderfully engrossing post. All I can say is that I'm glad others can distill my fragrances for me - not that I wear any, but they are delightful in soaps, lotions and shampoos, aren't they?

Happy Easter!

Rattlebridge Farm said...

Teeny would definitely love the food lore and the cake--this was beautifully told!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing history perfume has! I'm with you, food and aroma are definitely linked together :) That's why I can't eat durian-I know people say to hold your nose when eating it but that to me, loses half of the point of eating it! :)

fromBAtoParis said...

Wow! This post is just amazing for its information and beauty...and then, the cake! Thanks!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

This is a connection I really hadn't given much thought to, but it makes such sense. The nose is so closely connected to taste, so food and perfume do go together. Just think of the perfume-like essence of rosemary and herbs like that. Fascinating to discover that there were perfume factories thousands of years ago.

pierre said...

i love so much the tone of your blog !!!I like to cook with different essence even with essential oils !!
Bravo to you !!!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

The bouquet is so important to whether or not we are attracted to a dish or a mate :) Wonderful, interesting post about perfume and your cake sounds wonderful to all the senses!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...


My birthday was filled with more love than I have ever noticed in my now 53 years.....I am barely getting a chance to come here to savor my favorite flavors...oh dear, I have seen a recipe similar to this a while back. O.K., now. ORANGE ANYTHING gets my taste buds rolling their "eyes" back...then coupled with THE NECTAR OF THE GODS? You got me. You have me under the SPELL! I have GOT to sit down, or stand up rather, in my kitchen, and attempt this. What a lovely fragrance this would be? And with the chatter of loved ones and the scent of rosemary wafting in the air, what better paradise could we create in our kitchens that would ooze out into our gardens. Thank you dearest for your visit and bday wishes!!! It was a splendid day and yes, that rendition of Amazing Grace makes me weep...and those TEETH on George the Lad put me in AWE of the wondrous beauty of creatures and creation, majesty and the whimsy of this life that has us in its grip for such a little time, but then offers us so much in the form of one little word:


Enjoy your day, and I have to snatch this recipe right NOW!

Cheers my dear, Anita

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OH! AND YES, I CELEBRATED SHAKESPEARES BDAY TOO! Ruben got me a beautiful copy of his sonnets...ahhhh.....Anita

Fresh Local and Best said...

I enjoy the integration of food and fragrance immensely, especially when it involves the sweet aromas of citrus. I'll have to try sugared lavender, that was something that I grew in abundance when living in California, and sounds like it would work well with fresh strawberries.

Lori said...

That was awesome! It's a very different blog and I love it.


Faith said...

Oh wow, Deana, this post is incredible! (And is exactly the reason I missed your blog so much while on vacation!) The ancient perfumes were truly amazing and I loved how perfume and food items were used interchangeably. Very interesting and lovely post...and your cake looks divine!

Linda said...

Love this post Deana...but I love all of your posts!
Those pics of your cake are amazing!
Hope you had a lovely holiday!

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

That cake looks so hevenly, one might consider it "to die for." Wow. And I never knew perfume was that old...but it makes sense!

El said...

I'm always blown away by your research. The containers are so interesting. The dessert looks wonderful too!

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

Loved reading the history of perfume-- imagining the past with a smell to it takes reading about it to a whole new level! I've never played with these perfumes in cooking but makes so much sense. Thanks for always pushing my food boundaries!

Laura at Silk Road Gourmet said...

Hi Deana:

Once again a lovely post - one worth much further exploration.

Been contemplating Tapputi and I think you have a love potion (perfume) here. Because hairu is a word about lovers and spouses and all things loverly. So a "hairu pot" is either a particular vessel for brewing this or the correct translation would be something more akin to "to enflame a [lost] lover's passions". I cannot know unless I see more of the original. If the latter is correct, the "recipe" is also a spell with that statement repeated over and over.

As to ingredients - and this is really just guesswork - The German classicist Ebeling states that hammimu an Assyrian word for black cardamom. This is believable because by 1200 BCE that would have been available outside the Himalayas and the Northern Subcontinent. The other one is kanaktu, which alternately refers to a tree resin (oil) or to a tree bark. My gut says that it might be cinnamon because one text speaks only of using the tender thin twigs - which is how cinnamon was used in history (i.e. not just the outer bark).

Hope that helps a bit.

Q: is the switch from "hairu" to "hirsu" real or a typo? hirsu means a sliver or a piece or small portion.

Wonderful post!


Taste of Beirut said...

growing up in Lebanon where in my generation everybody's grandmother made (by distillation) rose and orange blossom water to perfume sweets and in many other uses, it seems natural that perfume and food are related; even now, the lebanese folks use herbs and flowers in so many things; I have a hunch it dates back long ago, to Phoenician times even (prior to the Romans); thanks for pointing out resources and I would love to smell this ambergris that you have mentioned so often in your blog.

About Last Weekend said...

What incredible dinner you trio have. Wonderful to get the different scents back into food. I do think garlic is overused everywhere and would like to have some different scents

Tasty Trix said...

Love this ... so much good stuff in this post. I would never knock that vodka - I brought some honey vodka and hazlenut vodka back from Poland and I am kicking myself that I didn't bring more. The honey one is actually made from honey and it's not too sweet ... amazing. Having won that jasmine essence in your giveaway I can attest to its magical powers!!!

Anonymous said...

Neat to read the history of frangrances, and your cake is just gorgeous, I can imagine how aromatic and delicious it is, very nice!

chow and chatter said...

great cake Chef Dennis will be thrilled and what fun to learn all about perfumes

jesmith said...

Wonderful stuff - I am currently writing a piece on natural perfumes (I import a lot of stuff from Egypt and the Middle East)and came across some info on Tapputi's work - your research is brilliant - thankyou - also for your mention of Mandy Aftel (a favourite perfume writer of mine) - best regards to you

Sarah said...

I made this last night for my Moroccan cooking class and they LOVED it! I used 3 drops of petitgrain and probably should have used 2 but they liked it! Thank you for a great recipe.

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