Your house can smell of virtually anything and anywhere these days. In the UK, you can now buy “Sizzling Bacon” room spray. In the US — only in America — you can get “Funeral Home” fragrance, as well as feel-good “Pizzeria” and “Laundromat” room sprays.
Home fragrance is big business. We are lighting up mood-lifting, zen-enhancing, odour-neutralising scented candles and buying atmosphere-transforming, space-enlivening reed diffusers in the millions.
But home fragrance is not a new thing. Oman’s Wadi Dawqah in the Dhofar region in the south of the country, a 90-minute flight from the capital Muscat, is the original fragrance factory. A Unesco World Heritage site, it is the oldest commercial frankincense field in the world. Oman has been shipping frankincense since the fourth century.
The 30-km long, 20-km wide coastal belt and the mountain range not far from the Yemeni border receives the Khareef south-west monsoon winds from June to September. The mists blanket the region in an impenetrable pea-souper, creating perfect conditions for growing frankincense trees. For four months, Dhofar becomes the coldest place in the Arabic world, before becoming the greenest.
The Arabs call African frankincense asli and their own luban. From Hougari or Hojary Superior, to Nejdi or Nagdi, the purest is colourless or with a slight green tinge. The best place to purchase it is Salalah’s Al-Husu market, among the turbans, caps, sandals, ceremonial khanjar daggers and tailor shops offering fittings for thobs, abayas gowns and traditional velvet Dhofari dishdasha dresses.
The habit of perfuming your house with bukhoor (scented chips) is a way of Arab life. Passing around a mabkhara (incense burner) is considered a mark of respect and hospitality. The type of frankincense you use can be seen as a status symbol or at least a symbol of sophistication rather than wealth.
In the Sultanate, the smell of frankincense follows you everywhere. Public places have huge frankincense censers. Frankincense is also chewed to relieve indigestion and freshen the mouth. Ask master perfumer Marie Salamagne, the nose behind Jo Malone’s Incense & Cedrat cologne, which is based on Omani frankincense and she says: “The Middle Eastern sense of ritual is something that’s caught my imagination since I started my life as a perfumer. Fragrance is absolutely at the heart of Omani culture and is approached in a very special way, which really resonated with me.”
The Romans similarly used rose petals to keep nasty niffs at bay. In ancient times, smouldering embers and herb bouquets propitiated the gods. The word “joss” is derived from the Latin “deus”. Resin balls have also been found in Egyptian tombs. To deodorise themselves and their homes, Egyptians used balanos (soapberry), costus (thistle root), amomum (cardamom), spikenard oil and ben oil from the horseradish tree. Fenugreek had many uses and, as well as a room fragrance, was believed to stimulate breast growth in Persian harems. Indians burnt sarsaparilla seeds, powdered mugwort, sandalwood, cinnamon bark and agarwood. Citronella and white sage agarbatti sticks were burnt to repel insects, as well as to accent home ambience.
The Incense Route brought frankincense, camphor, clove, star anise, patchouli, cassia, gugal (resin of the salai-tree) and bdellium (myrrh) from the Far East and the Horn of Africa to Somalia and Eritrea, and onto Egypt, then to Europe. Alexander the Great used an incense clock. The Louvre Museum in Paris displays a first century BC Etruscan censer.
Moses even created his own fragrance range. The consecrated ketoret incense was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Book of Exodus lists its aromatic ingredients as stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense.
Modern home fragrance products are no more than modern twists on the odiferous roots, woods, peels, fruit pits and leaves our ancestors used to summon spirits and purge ulcers in the Middle Ages. Or the aphrodisiacal musks described in the Greek Papyri and Orphic hymns.
Reed diffusers are the modern equivalent of Greek acerras (incense boxes) and church thuribles (censers) used at sacrifices and funerals. Or the bulrush and camel grass Kapel air home fumigators soaked in mastic and date wine, as described on the walls of Egyptian temples. The ancient Chinese had pastille rods, and burnt aromatic bamboo and rattan sticks for ancient veneration and medicinal purpose, believing camphor cured the evil vapours in the heart.
Candles aren’t new either. The Tang Dynasty Chinese made candles from whale fat and insects; the Indians from cinnamon and yak butter; the Japanese from squirrel fat and tree nuts. Native Americans burnt bayberry bushes. By the 13th century, there was a guild of Tallow Candlemakers in the UK. They were called chandlers or smeremongers, who also made vinegar.
The UK’s oldest candle-making company is Price’s Patent Candle, founded in 1830. Their first candles were made from Sri Lankan coconuts. Today, the company’s signature candle scents include “Cognac” and “Ice Pear”.
Thanks to my wife, my own living room smells of Italian vineyards and our bedroom of lily of the valley and tuberose. Ours were the first children in our street to smell of ambergris and the first in their class to smell of pompelmo (grapefruit). The family dog was the first to wear “Florentine Iris” to the park.
Perfumer and fragrance historian, Roja Dove, who produces Neroli, Jasmin De Grasse and Aoud haute luxe candles says: “Home scenting is a lifestyle choice. Your home should smell as personal and inviting as the scent on your skin.”
Fragrances have always been a favourite Christmas present. But unlike us, the biblical magi weren’t spoilt for choice — all they had were frankincense and myrrh as gift options. While things have changed, the true smell of Christmas will always be frankincense.