Thursday, December 06, 2007
There are so many interesting questions in life. Unfortunately, time doesn't allow us to chase everything. But some of them are worth pursuing.
I own a store specializing in natural aromatics. That's not to say that every item in Enfleurage is 100% natural. But most of them are, I hope. At least we want to know the difference, what is natural, and what exactly does that mean?
And "natural" is a very important word nowadays, as is "organic."
Many people ask if the oils are 100% natural. I always ask too, when I buy them. And everyone always says yes.
Throughout the years I have managed to hook up with some great suppliers, small artisian distillers, farms, mavericks who head up into the mountains for tiny wild harvests....And eventually I'm getting around to visiting everyone.
But there are a few oils that are questionable, still.
One of these is the entire subgroup of attars, which are traditional, slow, hydro distillations into sandalwood, using copper and earthen stills. Roses, jasmines, kewdi (kadi) and henna, are a few of the better known flowers used. There are others, and also mixes of flowers and spices. There is even one made of earth. It's exquisite, and smells like the first rain. It's called Mitti.
The traditional seat of attar making is in Uttar Pradesh, India, specifically in a town called Kannauj. It's somewhere I've always wanted to go, but have kept it on my "back burner" for years.
The problem lies in the sandalwood. There just isn't much available. It's been over-harvested, for sure, and some point fingers at the Indian Government's agricultural polices, but no matter who you want to blame, there still isn't any. So most essential oil companies have brought in South Pacific sandalwood, or Australian, or Indonesian. A few still maintain that they have Mysore, or Tamil sandalwood available and maybe they do. It's very expensive in any case. And the prices shot up (no pun intended) after Veerappan was killed in 2004. He was a famous poacher of sandalwood and ivory (from elephants,) considered both a bandit, and the "Robin Hood" of India. As with everything, there is not much simple black and white. I'll put a link about him at the end of this post.
But back to Kannauj. The attar industry, which is a small cottage industry, has been in trouble for years with many distilleries closing, according to the Indian media. The biggest problem (I think,) is India's newfound romance with synthetics of all types. Instant, plastic, nature-identical, synth-o, they are the new paradigm, and we can argue back and forth about whether this is good or not but it's not really what I find interesting. I think there is probably a lot of good, for a lot of people, in the new synthetic world. But my interest is with these small natural aromatics, and if someone can make a synthetic perfume oil that resembles the smell of a natural one, then great, fine. But it's not the same. You could look at it as something living versus something dead or inert. I'm not interested at all in these non-living oils. They are not worth chasing all over the planet.
We have had attars at Enfleurage for years. The last time I was in India, this past August, I was unable to obtain more from my usual supplier. He said it was all crap (those are my words--he is more polite.) There are supposedly people making attars in Kannauj still. But it depends on who you ask. A simple google search will reveal that the remaining distillers will make them using "sandalwood or sandali," DOP, or liquid paraffin.
So let's explore this.
liquid paraffin is pretty self explanatory. It's supposed to be harmless although I'm sure there are plenty who will argue. But since its melting point is higher than room temperature I'm not convinced that it's a common base. Perhaps they mean mineral oil? In any case, if they are distilling into any petroleum product, shouldn't this be cheap? The attars still cost nearly an unspeakable amount.
DOP this is dioctyl phthalate. It's a plasticizer and in 1982 the International Agency of Research on Cancer desginated DOP as a class 2B carcinogen. The Phthalates Information Centre of Europe denies any link (to DEP, which is also used to extend or adulturate essential oils and attars--there didn't seem to be a listing for DOP but I may have missed it.) You can make up your own mind about any health issues. My point is that I don't have any interest in roses lovingly distilled into phthalate.
Sandalwood is a beautiful exquisite gift from God (or the Universe; again, not the point I want to argue,) but is this really pure and unadulturated Indian sandalwood? I doubt it very much. And I'm not exactly sure what sandalia is, perhaps it's a synthetic sandalwood? My language skills are not up to this one yet, as all I can acertain is that it's cheap. It's sold all over the Arab world. It's another thing I want to find out.
It would be nice to have a real, pure, natural, holy attar. But I am very skeptical it exists. However, I could be wrong. There are plenty of American companies claiming to sell it.
But I think it's time to go to Kannauj and poke around.
I'll be going in January, Inshallah. And to another couple of places as well.
Here are some links
Veerappan--the sandalwood poacher and Robin Hood of India
Phthalates Information Center
US Dept of Energy Health Alert for DOP
Perfume Capital on the Brink July 2006 Lucknow Newsline
Financial Express Story from June 1997--Kannauj Attar makers battle foreign synthetics
Posted by Trygve Harris at 11:49 AM