Conversations with the Artisan: Trygve Harris of Enfleurage

This article is in the series Conversations with the Artisan
Trygve Harris is unusual, even among artisans. She is a woman, but even men in the most culturally closed, patriarchal societies of the world respect her. She's a Westerner, but has freely foregone any expectation of comfort or convenience. She's a natural businesswoman, but doesn't delegate. She's successful, but has no hubris. And, unusually, for someone who is such a doer - personally trekking through jungles and inspecting crops in the most remote regions of the world – she is also a brilliant communicator, with the rare ability to entertain and elucidate under the same breath.

A short bio of Trygve Harris might run like this: an American woman with a passion for essential oils sets up a business, called Enfleurage, in New York, to showcase and sell the oils that she personally sources from all over the world. In 2008, frustrated with the lack of supply of good frankincense oil from Oman, she moves to Salalah and sets up her own frankincense distilling outfit.

She is not only the only American, but the only American woman, to pack up her bags to go distill Boswellia sacra frankincense in Oman. She lives part of the year in Oman, where she now has ten copper stills that can distill oil from 25 kilos of frankincense tears a day, and the rest of the time in New York.

But along the way, she has spent years of her life in the jungles of Assam, Laos, Cambodia, the rose plains of Bulgaria and Ta'if, and the sandalwood factories of Mysore. There's not a precious material in the world that Harris has not handled, distilled, or brokered herself in situ. Her personal passions, which run deep, tug most strongly in the direction of oud, sandalwood, and of course, frankincense. So it makes sense that these are the materials on which she has important (and sometimes controversial) opinions.

Unlike a lot of other people who speculate or bloviate about the status of agarwood, or the supply of sandalwood in Mysore, Trygve actually knows what she's talking about. She's been there, hustling her way past officials into the sandalwood factories, the oud markets, and the resin souks, and seen it all with her own eyes. Which is why when Trygve Harris opens her mouth, even the biggest, baddest boys in the room shut up.

Q.1. Trygve, welcome. First, can you tell us something that many people, especially women, will be curious about, namely, the reaction of men in these very traditional societies like Oman or Assam to you? Did you encounter much resistance in your travels? I am curious as to how you were able to win their respect and make them listen to you, talk to you, show you things, etc.

Hi Claire-Thank you for your questions. It's an honor to be here on Basenotes.

Yes, men certainly have reacted to me a lot, in a multiplicity of ways. But something else comes into play, and that's nationality. Americans are generally perceived as friendly and open but also uneducated and ignorant. So being an American woman…'s even been a bit helpful, as I've been able to go into places or see things that people might have taken more care to hide had I been a man, or an Arab. Or even European. Many times people (usually men) have assumed I'm too stupid to understand something. That can be great.

Here in Oman I used to carry a small bottle of excellent Laotian oud oil. By offering it around to the people I was sitting with; casually, of course, like it's utterly normal I would have it; this stopped and started a lot of conversations. And it helped that it was Laotian. Because so many people here are on intimate terms with Cambodian, or Indian, but not a one ever knew Laos. Suddenly I was less dismissible.


Q.2. People are overawed when they hear that an American woman, alone and without the protection of a husband, decided to just leave America and set up her own frankincense distilling business in Oman. But, in fact, Salalah was just one more episode in a lifetime of travelling around the globe, sometimes to the most remote areas of the world, in search for the best-smelling raw materials. Can you tell us about how the travel bug first bit you?

I always loved smelling things and I always loved traveling. When I was about 12 this looked like Primo Incense, head shop oils, and hitchhiking around Santa Barbara. When I was in my 20s, it smelled a little different but transitioned into heavy rich “oriental” style oils, and I was hitchhiking everywhere. Europe, Mexico, North America, I even did a few small trips in India and Nepal.

I first smelled “oud” in Yemen in 1989. My traveling companion and I had been waiting for Sudanese visas in Cairo and since the embassy said it would take several weeks, we buggered off to Yemen while waiting. I found a Yemeni perfume shop in Tai'iz and the proprietor, Mr. Ghailan (who became my friend over the next 20 years until we could no longer communicate because of the Saudi war on Yemen) told me it was “sandalwood.” He probably didn't want to explain what agarwood was. It wasn't even anything high-quality, just what they call “Dehn-al-oud.” He scraped off the label and gave me the empty bottle, probably because I was such a nuisance.

I carried it around with me like a little pup until 1994 when I showed up in his shop with it, alone, demanding answers. The 1994 Yemen civil war was just winding down and there were very few foreigners in the country. He was quite surprised to see me. That little aluminum bottle was my homing device. It was the beacon of my inspiration. I smelled the residue for 5 years, when I finally realized I had to find it, whatever “it” was.

I should mention that Yemen was a place I visited many times. The first trip, in 1989, was just passing time while we waited for those Sudanese visas. It was a fateful trip for me. Yemen was a time travel. It was difficult to get used to, very challenging, but it smelled incredible. I went back alone with my bottle in 1994, and stayed 5 weeks. I went back a few times after that, as they just have so many ridiculous beautiful ways to permeate one's self and one's home with glorious smells.

Traveling was always obvious to me. I loved hitchhiking. Absolutely loved it. I went everywhere. I met so many people, had so many things happen, went so many random places, and felt so free. There was nothing like the freedom of going out in the road, sticking out your thumb, and riding it wherever it goes. No one can find you. It was lovely. Nowadays the mentality is different—you can still hitchhike, but the vibe is different now. Most everyone is tethered to their phones. Or terrified of everything. Plus, now people will constantly stop and scold you! It's hilarious.

Eventually I realized that travel with a point was going to be more tenable than just aimless wandering, and married it quite naturally to aromatics.

And when I was much younger, I didn't give a damn about comfort, of course. Up until my mid-thirties, I guess, I didn't really care about things like the comfort of a bed, hot water, a private bathroom, and the like. I could take a hellish 36 hour bus ride in India and survive and laugh about it the next day. Now it would probably put me in the hospital!

When I was 30 I was still in love with that dehn-al-oud/sandalwood and Yemeni aromatics. I was really into the local (Yemeni) bakhurs and hair perfumes and such things. Once I started Enfleurage in 1995, my traveling was curtailed. I managed a couple of short trips for the next 8 years but they were focused, usually on agarwood. In 2003 I started spending more time out again.

Q.3. Please tell us more about frankincense. Most people will have heard about the Omani type of frankincense (Boswellia sacra) versus the Somali type (Boswellia carterii). Do the different species really smell all that different from one another, and how important is terroir?

They do smell different. I think Somali is very beautiful too, but Omani has my heart.

I think terroir is at least as important as Latin binominals. To be honest, those Latin names are not always right, especially with wild plants. I mean, really, even botanists can get it wrong and there has been a whole lot of misinformation on frankincense, to say nothing of agarwood. Look at Aquilaria. Malecchensis, Allgolocha, Crassna…….Maybe now with those plantations they have a handle on it, but there were about two scientists I knew who could actually tell you what species a plant was.

If all Omani trees are Sacra, then terroir plays a huge part. Right now we are distilling some ultra-delicious gooey fresh black resin. I think it comes from a high humidity area, although I wouldn't swear my life on it. But generally, there is quite a difference between the resin, and, hence, the oil, depending on the geographical location.

Frankincense trees grow in Northern Oman, but their hearts won't be in it, and even if they grow large, they won't give resin. These trees don't even grow all over Dhofar – they have particular spots they like, and it's not obvious to me why they choose one place over another because altitude isn't consistent, humidity isn't consistent, soil or rock isn't consistent. This is so for most essential oil plants—it's actually the backbone of Enfleurage—we source oils from where they are happiest growing. And can it be a coincidence that the best distillers are often found in the area where the plants are happiest?

Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box.

Regarding the differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary) has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral spice aspect. Interestingly, the black has more Hashinene than the white. I had to look it up on the High Times website. It's a sesquiterpene found only in Moroccan kif, not even in cannabis, just in kif, which is the fuzz from the outside of hash, kind of, and originally another terpene, and turns to hashinene as it degrades in the sun.


Q.4. This quote is attributed to you: "The frankincense tree is the mother of society, the umbrella which shelters her children, and, like a mother, she gives her very blood so her children can use it to live."Could you tell us what this means?

Totally! But I didn't make up the concept. A mother will do anything to care for her children, even opening her veins and feeding them her own blood. The Luban tree is there for the security of the people of Dhofar. No matter what happens, one can always rely on the frankincense resin, to burn, to sell, to provide for her children.

Mothers are really, really respected in Oman. Remember that men often have more than one wife, so love and loyalty to one's mother is even stronger as she may need defending. No matter what her husband does, her kids, specifically her sons, will always have an instant fierce loyalty to their mother. She is exalted as she has sacrificed everything for her children. Also, until recently, Dhofar was the poorest part of Oman. Frankincense provided an ace-in-the-hole for survival, in a land that lacked everything, until the Renaissance, which we are 47 years into now.

Q.5. The smell of frankincense when burned is very different to the smell of frankincense oil. What do you see as the main differences?

Yeah, really different, like they are two separate aromatics.

Just like agarwood, entire countries might love the smoke, and yet never even consider that the oil exists. Oman was like this. There was no tradition of distilling the oil, only using the resin and smoke. Similarly, the Japanese have a long and exquisite history of heating agarwood and listening to the incense yet no interest whatsoever in the oil. And of course the main historical use for frankincense is smoke to the gods- and then Catholic Church mix— incense. Oil is comparatively recent. I don't know exactly how recent, and I think most reports of oil weren't referring to the essential oil anyway but to a macerated oil. But I don't really know too much about this. Comparing the oil and smoke are like comparing tangerines and grapefruit I guess. Or kumquats and pomelos.

Q.6. Do you have a favorite type of frankincense, and if so, why? Conversely, is there a type of frankincense that you don't particularly like? Or, is it a case of what Woody Allen says about pizza and sex, namely that even when it's bad, it's good?

Hahaha, well, I can't say I've ever disliked a frankincense. But certainly some of them are more useful rather than beautiful, like Indian. The Indian serrata frankincense is a huge part of the Ayurvedic Materia Medica. It's well known for internal use for joint pain and the like. I have nothing but respect for it. But the smell is not the most enchanting. It's not bad, it's just not enchanting. It's nothing I would make into oil but I do take it in capsule form.

There is also some kind of frankincense from Soqotra — I have no idea what the Latin name is, but it's for chewing. It has “no” smell, so again, it's great for different reasons. I've tried a few others, the Frereana, the papifera, the rivae, and they are all fine. I don't really know much about them. But I don't live in Ethiopia or Somaliland or Kenya so I have no connection. They smell ok, but I have no heart connection. The carterii I like a lot. It often has a characteristic lemon note. It's quite complex. If we ever have another Boswellia oil at Enfleurage it will be carterii. But again, my heart and eyes were captured by Oman. I was “adopted” here. And I'm all about sacra.


Q.7. In the fragrance community, we often hear the words “Hojari” and “silver” to describe the finest Omani frankincense – are these simply grades of the Boswellia sacra resin (indicating different levels of quality) or are they different types of resin?

They are grades of Boswellia sacra resin. Howjary usually means from the areas east of Salalah, from Samhan mountain, Hasik, Hadbeen…..It might be a little over used, in that technically it might apply to only a certain specific location, but this is not enforceable, as there is usually confusion and obfuscation regarding geographical origin and it becomes a game of telephone. So in the general use of the word means from this area. As opposed to black, which is usually from the western areas towards Yemen. I'm sure people would argue this. And I can't bang around and swear it, because I have no proof.

So technically there are many different types of frankincense. But once you take the real world into account, it simplifies into what is available and what you can find growing and what you can find in the market.

Q.8. You make frankincense ice-cream! Please tell us how the idea for that took shape in your mind, how it all unfolded, and most importantly, what frankincense ice-cream actually tastes like.

My friend and I were playing with condensed milk, some essential oils and a blender. I had made some frankincense hard candy, and thought it might go in ice cream. Her grandmother had made this blender-ice cream out of condensed milk and we did it. It was really good and I started researching it and eventually came up with a viable method between the homemade kilo size and a full batch freezer.

I did the Ice Cream Short course at Penn State and was less than inspired as it was business-centric, and therefore pretty boring. The salvation came quite naturally from the Italians and I wound up attending school in Bologna at Carpigiani. It seems my ice cream actually meets the standards for gelato anyway, so this was fun and inspiring. The cool green pinene notes find a perfect bed in cream and milk, the sweetness counter-balances, and the cold reacts perfectly with the frankincense. It's an unusual flavor, and quite sophisticated and adult — not a children's flavor, but it's really perfect in the heat.

Back in 2011 (before I went to gelato school,) I was invited to sell it at the Haffah souq frankincense market during the monsoon festival. It was a bit chaotic at the beginning but the Baladia of the souq (kind of like a mayor for a section of the city) supported me. My presence there was like a bomb. Lots of people were furious. Why did I have a table? Who told me to make this? Etc etc. The municipality had a meeting about me at 11 pm one night. Two close friends told me I should stop because the police might be called and I might get arrested, and all this time, Abdallah, the Baladia, would sit in the restaurant opposite me and watch, laughing. He told everyone that no one was allowed to speak to me! It was ridiculously fun. Of course Abdallah wanted to draw more visitors to the market, and he did. In fact, I would sell out too fast, and that was actually a pity because I had such a good time. I love feeding Omanis ice cream.

As soon as the season was over, local women rushed my spot, and set up their frankincense and bakhur stands and wouldn't take them down for nearly 3 years. Abdallah shrugged and said “I told them to go. They won't. What can I do?”

I just love making ice cream/gelato. It's way more fun than body care. You get to feed people something good and fun and shocking! They love it and the reactions are very complicated. Plus, the aromatics aren't obvious at first, the way they are with perfumes or lotions. At first you get just a hint. Then the flavor and taste molecules explode together on your tongue as it warms. So much fun!

Q.9. So, it was only after you'd sold all your ice-cream for the season in Salalah, that you studied gelato making at the University of Pennsylvania and in Bologna. Would you say that this “do first, learn later” attitude is something that all artisans have in common?

Ha! Well, I'm sure I don't know if lots of people do it backwards like me. But the thing is time. I mean, how are you supposed to do everything you want to do? And I never knew I loved making ice cream. Not a suspicion. I never really even ate a lot of it. So often I'm surprised by what I really like and want to do more of.

But if there's no precedent for doing something, then it probably never even crosses your mind that you might like it! I found making chocolate (which I also learned in Italy) super fun too, with frankincense, jasmine, and the relatives. But in my normal life, I like cooking but never had any interest in making sweets. So it was all a massive surprise. I had to go to school though because 1, it existed, and 2, I could, and 3, it was in Italy and 4, I loved the gelato mentality. I just love everything about it. I still plot to open my own Gelateria, probably here in Muscat. I don't know how feasible it is, but I'm waiting.

Q.10. Perhaps more so than anybody else on the planet, except for Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics, you've had the opportunity to smell some of the world's rarest and most exquisite oils. What's more, you've been able to smell these materials first hand, where they are produced. Can you tell us what have been the most beautiful essential oils you ever smelled while on your travels, the ones that personally moved you?

Oh hell. My god. I smelled some distilled jasmine ruh that my friend in Mumbai had. It didn't hold together for more than a few days. It was a secret smell, like smelling something impossible. Sandalwood at the Mysore factory the first time I went. Overwhelmingly beautiful. Our own frankincense of course. The Gardenia and Tuberose enfleurages from our Colombian partners are so technicolor beautiful I am shocked every time I open them. The entire essential oil production of a Tunisian guy I met in Nice in 2001. His citronella made me cry. I never found him again. That bottle of Dehn-al-oud I mentioned. I have swooned several times at the Tamil Nadu jasmine market.

A few years ago I was visiting our Jasmine guy and it was my birthday. He did a late night Sambac extraction for me—9 million blossoms. About a ton I think. In the pictures I get lower and lower until I'm lying on the floor in the flowers. I ran around like a baby goat when the sambac truck came rumbling up.

Q.11. Let's talk about sandalwood, another material you are deeply passionate about. You've personally visited the sandalwood factories in Karnataka, Mysore, even when the guards wanted to stop you going in. But as of 2012, you noticed some sad changes, both in the way they process the wood and the purity of the oil sold through the state-run Kauvery Silk Emporium shops. Are we ever going to get to relive the glory days of Mysore sandalwood again?

Oh dear. Yes, the factory was a slap in the face the second time. During my first visit, they were still distilling local sandalwood, albeit minimally. It was becoming difficult to find. They were experimenting with different species, different origins, and some reconstituted ones. I wandered off by myself and was chased a few times by the guards but the visitor talk was really boring—what is sandalwood, etc.

After the talk I managed to slip into the lab room, where three scientists were trying to come up with something to replace the essential oil, on its last legs even then. It was a throwback area. These guys were dressed in seventies style clothes, with haircuts to match, and no computer hum. No computers at all. It was that deep silence we humans used to encounter all the time. They had a huge vat, and only the bottom inch or two had oil in it. I was overwhelmed by it and rather emotional. They asked my opinion about the reconstituted one, and I didn't want to be rude but although technically it was probably ok, it wasn't the same; the warm sweet heart was absent, replaced by mathematical percentages. Those guys agreed. You could see the work was hopeless.

8 two ton stills made up the main units (2 had been removed,) and great thick unusual pieces of heartwood and roots lay about the reception area. The roof was torn off in places and pigeons rested in the rafters but the smell of a hundred years of sandalwood production was exquisite! I couldn't help but wonder what it must have been like with all 10 stills going and the wind bringing the vapor over Mysore city.

The Karnataka Soap and Detergent Factory had an attached store, where, in addition to soaps and detergents (made with real Mysore sandalwood oil — and synthetic perfumes,) 5 ml metal bottles of pure sandalwood essential oil were sold for $25 each. I bought as many as I could, obviously. They told me 5 ml was the only size they were permitted to sell. But the oil was sublime. You know how real Mysore sandalwood smells, that voluptuous warm and delicious balsam of heaven!

When I revisited Mysore a few years later some horrible modernization had invaded the factory. Cameras were everywhere and the chance of getting away from the minder was nil. They were very bossy about what one looked at and forbid pictures. The room where those scientists had been was out of bounds. They closed and locked it when I tried to stick my nose in there. Cameras on the outside. It was horrible.

By this time there was no oil at all being produced from local trees; although this was not actually the case. There was a small amount of harvesting going on, under government auspices, and I was told that the entire essential oil production went to Karnataka Soaps and Detergents and of that, most went into a couple of products like the “rose” soap, which was covered in a rose perfume, and the rest was sold through the Cauvery Silk Emporium.

I went to the Cauvery Silk Emporium. I couldn't try it first so I bought just one bottle, to be prudent. It was 10 ml this time. Once I got back to the hotel I opened it. Complete crap.

It didn't even make an effort to smell like sandalwood — it was some floral-ish perfume. It was hideous, the product of an ill-employed bureaucrat who imagines it's what tourists want to smell. And there was only 7 ml in the bottle as well. Really disappointing. It was an outrage, actually.

Will the days of Mysore Sandalwood come back? Well, Australia is now the biggest album producer—India let it slip due to their rules regarding the growth and harvest of sandalwood trees. That's a whole other issue! The Australian album trees are quite young but are already being harvested and I think the odor profile matches the traditional one for sandalwood grown in Mysore. It's not the same, but if you are enquiring only if Santalum album will once again be available, then yes, I think it is already, and it smells good. And, if they keep up the plantations, then it will probably be better in a few years. But will we ever again smell that magical being from Karnataka? I don't see it. Nature is patient. And nature is magic. And while plantation trees or laboratory Petri dishes might yield an ultimately adequate product, they won't yield an exquisite or magical one.

Q.12. Your blog, Absolute Trygve, was very influential in that it reached out to people wanting to learn about essential oils as well as giving other artisans and distillers the inside story on what was going on out in the field. Although the blog no longer exists, you continued to blog on the Enfleurage site for some years, and then in May, 2015, you stopped. What changed for you?

There were a few reasons. The main one was some creepiness and even ugliness resulting from jealousies, and I had to stop. The Enfleurage blog was not really mine - I tried to be more……..soberingly professional? And I just wasn't into it as much.

Then I had two unpleasant years— I was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2016—so for those two years my mental participation was minimal. It was an appalling experience, but so far so good. Turns out I had the Braca mutation and we caught it early and I'm fine now, thank goodness. But the whole experience was something else, and I didn't want to even smell some of my favorite oils during it.

I'm back now at our new distillery in Muscat and enjoying the cool clear winter weather in Northern Oman. I'm beginning to feel inspired again. I think Absolutetrygve will come back.

Q.13. Your views on the endangerment of agarwood are deeply respected, because you've actually seen what happens on the ground, from Assam, in Northern India, to the plantations of Laos. One thing I found eye-opening in your accounts is the fact that wild agarwood is under threat of extinction because of mass deforestation in general, and not because hunters are cutting down all trees to get at the aquilaria species. Does that mean that all trees, not just the aquilaria, are cash crops for local farmers?

Please remember that my information is now nearly a decade old and things have changed.

In Laos, I am not sure how much local farmers benefit from any of it. The forest was being chopped like crazy in Laos, and lots of it was Chinese or Vietnamese companies. Workers would also come in for agarwood, and they were called “grasshoppers” because they took everything. At that point, Lao's natural raw materials were being sold off in exchange for some roads, a sports stadium, etc. As in, you can mine here, or cut here, but pay X and build your own roads to transport it. I think this is fairly common on our planet these days.

The plantations that arose were for cash crops: rubber, teak, and then agarwood. So many Agarwood farms sprang up; they needed extra income from fishing, or guest houses, and also, people were getting into Agarwood because their cousin knew someone who knew someone who said there was a lot of money to be made. So many people wrote to me asking questions that were frankly alarming, considering they were investing lots of money. But many people had extra money to invest, it seemed.

India is different, in that the government was functioning, and trying to control the agarwood trade. They were not successful, and I have to blame the bureaucracy, which can be idiotic. Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows. Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people's yards. Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc. But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn't legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur. So a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia? They did, and that's all I want to say about that.

It was dumb for both trees. Sandalwood is a slow growing, parasitic tree, increasing in value every year. To make a farmer responsible for his sandalwood trees, (because all Santalum album belongs to the government) is lame. The farmers have to hire security, cameras, alarms, etc, because if someone steals the trees, they are responsible! And still the government sets the price for logs anyway. So what is the point of growing sandalwood? It's a huge expensive hassle, and you will probably go broke trying, or end up in jail if something happens to your trees. It's a “no-win” situation.


Q.14. Wild agarwood is endangered, but not plantation-grown agarwood, which is in plentiful supply. But you've found a great many differences in the way people inoculate and treat the trees from country to country, region to region. Can you speak to these differences, and what lies behind them – different cultures, different ethos, different views on sustainability?

I really don't know anymore. Although Agarwood is an easily cultivated, fast growing tree, the oud comes as a response to the fungi that invades the tree and this was what people were fighting over when I bowed out of agarwood.

Everyone had their own ideas of what they could inject into the trees to stimulate this resin…..some governments made kits and distributed them to VIPs, some scientists and academics developed kits for sale, forest rangers and entrepreneurs made and sold their own agarwood kits, some kits contained added ingredients according to what notes were sought after, like sugar, which makes a sweeter darker oil. Some people thought the trees had to be inoculated once, and others repeatedly injected poison up and down the trees.

I found it revolting, torturing the trees like that. And the CITES certificates were often bought and sold anyway. There are a few people who have managed to corner certain markets and the “green” card is played all the time.

Q.15. What do you think of the scent of these plantation oils compared to the wild oils?

The younger wood can make an oil, and it is still agarwood, but not oud. We called it boyah, and it comes out of the still as “hard and greasy.” This usually happened after the first 6 days of distillation, so now there are fractions, and distillations lasting 6 months, and all kinds of crazy crap in the stills. But the agarwood trees themselves should have been fine. Easy to grow, hardy, happy in NE India. But human intervention messed it up as usual.

So like the sandalwood, the farmed wood is ok. The oil can be adequate. And this is what people want, this farmed agarwood. It's the only possibility now anyway as the wild wood is gone. Here in the Gulf, the quality is also much lower — even some people who can buy what they like have changed their taste, or made do with what is available.

Q.16. When we think about farmed agarwood, we imagine neat little rows of trees and farmers with contracts with the big Emirati, Indian, and French perfume houses, like Ajmal, Abdul Qurashi Al Samad, and even Guerlain. But another thing your blog taught me was that many indigenous farmers are just smallholders with a tree or two in their backyard. How does it work? Do they have collectives, like olive growers in the Mediterranean? Do smallholders have to tithe a percentage of their income from the tree to the local government? Very curious as to what small-scale oud growing looks like.

Well, these smallholders, at least in India in the first years of this century, were effectively made null and void, as soon as the rules for “ethically farmed” agarwood were formed. According to the laws governing Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) in 2000, I think, a set of rules was imposed to ostensibly make sure all harvested Aquilaria met the qualifications to be certified legal. This then became CITES certification.

One of these rules was that all cut agarwood (Aquilaria) must be distilled at certain government overseen facilities in Kanpur or Guwahati. Already it's working against the small holders as, in order to send this valuable wood away to be distilled, it must be accompanied, and so several men would have to accompany it, with the associated expenses and loss of income at home. Plus the security of the wood/oil would not be assured, as the entire process would be far from home and from the security of their own communities.

I believe this in itself was enough to damn the project. Trees traditionally grow in people's yards, in NE India. Aquilaria trees love to grow there, and there was a tradition of cutting the family trees when money was needed for a major life event like a wedding, or university study. This became illegal, and all wood and therefore all oil, also became illegal, and then it was easy for powerful companies or other organizations to step in. And step in they did.

One trick in people do is to use a CITES certificate (which some companies have access to, and others don't, and I think it would be extremely naive to think this is merit based) to export some junk wood from, say, Laos or Cambodia. It doesn't even have to be agarwood, just anything worthless. One might ship 10 tons of “agarwood”, certified under its CITES certification, to the Gulf, from, say, Cambodia. But it's not really agarwood, it's just nothing at all. It will go into a free zone port in India, where a factory to “process and re-export” agarwood legally exists, and the wood simply switched, thrown out, and replaced with good NE Indian wood, and then continues on its way as “Cambodian.” These things are hard both to prove and disprove.

But also, I was in Assam a few years ago, and Ajmal had plenty of trees under cultivation. They said 55 million. I don't know. But I found some areas where agarwood and sandalwood were planted together — sandalwood being parasitic, it could live off the agarwood. I don't know what happened to it. But there were plenty of trees planted in neat rows!

When talking about “farmed” agarwood, it usually is these rows of trees. The small-holders would be illegal. I have these neat rows of farmed treed awaiting inoculation in Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, India and Vietnam.

Q.17. As an artisan, you've gone to great lengths to source and distill the best aromatic materials so that other people could experience them too. Does it ever feel like too much of a personal sacrifice? Is the work still as satisfying as it was when you started this? If you could take the Way Back machine and talk to that young woman about to set off for her first really big adventure, what would you tell her?

Hahaha. I would have probably said enjoy it before Facebook and Instagram slobber all over everything. I can't imagine what else I would do in life. I love these beautiful aromatics. If I didn't do it, I would still do it as a hobby. Or else I'd just think about visiting a sandalwood factory in India or a valley of orange blossoms. Maybe it was a bit more satisfying before the internet age when I really had to sleuth these distillers. But even now, many great distillers don't have an online presence.

Q.18. Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is interested in smelling essential oils and raw materials? Of course, we're not asking for a full-on buying guide, but it would be wonderful to get a few tips on what to look for and what to avoid, how to interpret label language, and which oils are really worth the investment of time and money of tracking down (versus those that are not). Picture someone who wants to build a reference library of 5-10 key essential oils for both personal enjoyment and self-education purposes.

Trust your nose and your heart. If you get obsessed with an oil and you have to follow it to its seed, then go for it. But don't try to force it. Certain oils are perfectly pleasant, GC well, pass all their certifications, and have absolutely nothing wrong with them, but are not exciting. That's the truth. And it depends on the person.

So trust your nose, but don't be too gullible. Personally, I'm turned off by anyone using deities to sell anything; Buddha, Shiva, Christ, have no place shilling for a company. I get suspicious when I see certain objects at a distillery, like blue drums of DOP. Don't believe someone just because they're from India, or Nepal, or Egypt, or wherever. There isn't a country on this earth that is synonymous with truth or purity. And if your gut has something to say, then listen to it.

You may find magic in lemongrass. You may fall in love with Vietnam. You may take on a religion or get married to someone very different from yourself. You may become obsessed with some crazy flower no one has ever extracted before, and figure out a way to do it. Don't be mislead by boasts of ethical this or purity that. These claims may be true, but they often aren't. Or the truth may be more complicated than you think.

The Enfleurage website is at
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About the author
Claire Vukcevic is a Basenotes contributor, two-time Jasmine Award winner, and author of the blog Currently, she is serializing her book, The Attar Guide, on Takeonethingoff – a must-read if you are interested exploring the world of oil-based perfumery, i.e., attars, mukhallats, oud oil, sandalwood oil, or concentrated perfume oils (CPOs).

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