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Ingredient in the Spotlight: Frankincense

 Frankincense is used extensively in perfumes and incense, and is the odoriferous body of which is most frequently mentioned as holy incense. The ancient Egyptians used it in their religious rituals, cosmetics & mummification. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers detail instructions for the Jews to properly use it in sacrifices. It has been burnt in Greek and Romish churches for two thousand years, and has held such material value historically as to rival that of gold.

Frankincense resin tears

Not much surpasses the incredible fragrance of frankincense turned incense - frankincense resin tears heated by flame. It is a holy experience to inhale the smoke. If you’ve ever smelled pure frankincense incense, then there would be no question why it has been coveted by religious orders the world over. It is a transcendental and spiritual experience. An alchemical potion of boswellic acid, phellandrene and incensole acetate - astringent, heavy and sticky. The opaque white smoke is almost syrupy the way it drips out of the incense vessel, pouring earthbound.

In historical texts, Frankincense is often referred to as simply ‘incense’, and indeed, the resin alone, is ambery like the eponymous namesake - smoky, churchy, and dry. As a resin and as an essential oil, the aroma of frankincense can be considered collectively. Compared to myrrh, frankincense is more peppery, more piquant; sharper, likely owing to its benzoic acid content. Finer frankincense types can be woodier with fruity and even spicy top notes.

Frankincense Tree in Somalia

A tree extract, it’s dominant facet is fresh and resinous, terpenic with somewhat green and citrusy notes. Frankincense’s top note is clearly balsamic and aliphatic, because of it’s benzoic and terpene content. After this, Frankincense radiates much more subtle notes of linalool - heavy green, like that of lavender leaves and bois de rose (rosewood). A little more patience still, Frankincense will reveal it’s hidden floral facet, where salicylates and benzoates manifest a hint of a powdery, rose-like bouquet. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It’s this triptyque of aromatic categories that make Frankincense a favourite of Chypre and Oriental aromatic compositions.

The aroma of frankincense can be transformed when blended with other aromatic ingredients, or when it’s resin is burned. It’s woody facets can be brought out by combining it with citruses, and its spicy potential can be fully realised by blending it with vanilla, cypress or ambergris.

Frankincense essential oil is a powerful ingredient in perfumery - it is not only capable of being transformed by its complimentary ingredients, but it too can transform an entire accord or a finished perfume. 13% of all contemporary usefulness as a fixative. Like Sandalwood, Frankincense also works as a diffuser and can blend with subtler notes without dominating them. 

Boswellic acid

In perfumery, a fixative like Frankincense, equalises the volatility of it’s aromatic components - that is, spaces out air bound fragrance molecules equally. This both serves to even out and blend a perfume’s various notes, as well as provide it with more tenacity. 

The raw, dry resin smells slightly waxy, owing to it’s aldehydic components, which also give it that characteristic tinge of citrus. 

The Frankincense used in perfumery is mainly obtained from the bark of Boswellia sacra, indigenous to South Arabia. There are about 20 more species of Boswellia of which sacra, indigenous Southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa, is the most widely used in perfumery and for incense. Other varieties cultivated for incense are B. serrata in India, B. papyrifera and B. frereana from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan.

The geographic homelands and trade routes of Frankincense have both coloured European and Arabic culture’s conception of incense and it’s cultural significance. The English term ‘frankincense’, derives from old French, ‘franc’ and ‘encens’. Literally translating to ‘high-quality incense’, ‘franc encens’. (In this context ‘franc’ meant noble or pure).

Frankincense resin and myrrh resin

In Eastern languages the ingredient has a different linguistic heritage, taking its name from Mount Lebanon, a key location in an ancient spice route, contemporaneously dubbed the Incense Trade Route. In Koine Greek (Biblical Greek), it is called λίβανος, líbanos, coming from the semetic root ibn (iaban) meaning white - a reference to the titular snow-capped mountains. In medieval Latin, it’s name is olibanum, in Hebrew levona (לבונה), Arabic al-liban (اللبان‎), Somali lubaan and Swahili ubani.

These etymological similarities illustrate the the impact Frankincense had on lands distant from one another in culture and space, as well as it’s historical significance. This was an ancient network (7th century BCE-2nd century AD) of major sea and land trading routes linked Northeastern Africa, the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula.  It served as the main trading route of the most valuable commodities of the time: frankincense, myrrh and gold.

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