Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wild Alpine Lavender

Long long ago I met a woman at a small essential oil exhibition in Nice, France. She distilled lavender from various altitudes and also juniper, myrtle, savory, and a few other oils. Her oils were so expensive! But they were some of the best, sweetest and had the most hallucinogenic quality I’ve ever smelled.

We had her lavenders, some of them, in the store, and some other oils too. Her lavenders are categorized by altitude, starting at 1200, and every 200 metres thereafter up to 1800. After the 2001 attacks in New York we stopped carrying her oils, as the shipping into New York was a problem. We had a hard time with many of our international suppliers then, with our own twin impacts--the financial one, as so many businesses suffered economically in the aftermath, and also through the freight and shipping laws, which became, and continue to be, hideously expensive, excessively limited, difficult to navigate, and illogically constructed. From her remote location in the Alps above Nice, from her tiny village peaked above the clouds, far above the Tinée, it was too much hassle to ship to New York with the panicked new guidelines. And so the years passed. And we have had other fine lavenders in the store.
One by one, over these years, we have gotten our more remote vendors back. The shipping is still insane, but we have figured ways around it. And now we have finally visited Madam Sylviane and her husband Alain at their farm of stone in the clouds in the mountains above Nice.

It’s so difficult to find! And a huge part of that is that it’s so geographically exquisite that it’s hard to pay attention to everything! Of course, being France, the road is lined with beautiful little towns with inviting brasseries, flowers everywhere, happy dogs and cats, and blossoming trees. FInd the road we eventually did, and then it was up into the snow peaks, and beyond the clouds to the restored farmhouse in the sky. The house and factory was an oil olive mill, abandoned after the first world war. Since 1996 they have restored and refurbished it.

Sylviane now only does the lavenders in large sizes--the other oils are tiny harvests. The lavenders are cut, at their varying altitudes, by hand, and this means by sickle. The area is remote, accessible only by Land Rover Defender! But it is still certified organic! There are two main stills, a 1000 litre, and a 100 litre, both of which were built by Alain. The distillations are steam, and the actual condensing method is their own. All hydrolats and oils are kept in the inner sanctum of the old oil press, where the temperature is consistently cool. 
It’s a relief to not have the latest in computerized technology shoved in my face--old style can be better in many ways, and inventions and improvements needn’t always rely on the electrical grid or the latest software. It’s wonderful that in France, small essential oil distilleries are allowed to exist and even thrive, at their own pace and under their own power. Self confidence and security and pride in one’s skill is an attractive trait indeed.

Wild Alpine Lavender hand picked at 1800 metres of altitude will be available in the store from April 14th.

The Temple of Distillation!

I don’t know how many years I’ve been trying to get to Corsica--plenty. Maybe 15? Our Holy Temple of Distillation is here, tucked adorably along the foothills of the Costa Verde. I was almost afraid to tell them we were coming, as I told them last year, and two years before that, and a couple of years before that, etc. Something always steps in and prevents us. But this time it seems we outfoxed fate, or she took pity on our poor, immortelle-craving souls. And here we are, Tom and me.

After attempting a shortcut (which turned out to be a three hour mountain detour on a one lane road in the drizzle, and dumped us right back where we started,) and arriving at our hotel on the beach only to find it completely closed and overgrown, (a more attentive reading of their email revealed they would only open May 16, and I had missed this because I read their confirmation for the year before,) we found ourselves in the town of Bastia, and this is fine indeed. We are warm, well fed and parked. Our little Peugeot somehow manages to accommodate our constantly engorging luggage, and us, as well.

Corsica is all about Corsica, meaning their local, regional products: their wines, cheese, charcuterie, essential oils, preserves, sweets, liquors, knives, pottery, artists, and music. I’m probably leaving stuff out. But I’m pretty sure you won’t find any Starbucks or American fast food chains here. We are in heaven. Everywhere you drive, every tiny road, no matter how remote, (and this is considerable here in Corsica) has signs for cheese, local wines, all kind of food items, or an announcement that a painter lives here, or there are rooms available with home cooking.

Corsica is probably best known for Immortelle, meaning Helichrysum italicum, or Helichryse corse. Local names (Corsica has its own language) are variations on Murza, Marella, Murella, etc. You are probably already familiar with this bright star of aromatherapy, known for its skin-healing properties. In any case, there are plenty of places you can read about this magnificent creature and his properties, both aromatherapeutic and aromatic, so I will not repeat.

Here’s the point! They were distilling petitgrain clementine. I had no idea that blossoms and even fruit went into that pot! No wonder this petitgrain is so exquisite!! The cuttings used are simply those cut off when the tree is pruned. And the whole kit ‘n kaboodle goes in. The distillation is a bit different than we use with frankincense--it’s steam and there is no water actually in with the plant material; the steam is heated separately and piped in through coils under a screen, and the plant material rests atop that.

Here’s what you will be able to find in the store this summer: Petitgrain clementine, petitgrain lime, green myrtle, laurel, corsican immortelle (after the harvest), and a couple of co-distillations as well. These are plants that wouldn’t ordinarily give up their scent--they don’t actually have essential oils in them, but are tricked and persuaded into giving up their scents. These are co-distilled with copaiba balsam. Copaiba has no scent to speak of, and holds other scents well. It’s a brilliant fixative! The hay and stinging nettle co-distillations are awesome.

We are also getting some alcohol extracts. These are made using organic wheat alcohol, then a device using ultrasonic vibration is used to disperse out the fragrant molecules. Raspberry, iris, cacao, coffee, vanilla, and honey!

The Keyserlingk farm was a pilgrimage for me; for years and years I wanted to see the distillations of these wonderful oils, so bright, so alive, so rapturous! The farm itself is biodynamic and the area around, where the wildcrafting happens, is certified organic. Small productions of farm olive oil and Limoncello are reserved for their use only and not sold!

This year we will be able to offer a small amount of Corsican immortelle--our regular Immortelle (helichrysum) is Bosnian but also exquisite and, as it turns, out, distilled on equipment Herr Keyserlingk made and by one of his students. It seems there are several of our distillers who look to Herr Keyserlingk as their mentor and teacher.
Once the Immortelle is distilled we shall have it, along with the twin petitgrains, both clementine and lime (and lemon as soon as it’s done.) These petitgrains are distilled after the fruit harvest slows down, and the trees are pruned. Still remaining on the tree are some fruits and some blossoms. I consider this an exquisite plus, as the petitgrain bitterness is enflowered and sweetened. So it seems most of our petitgrain, except perhaps the bitter orange one, are actually petitgrain over flowers (petitgrain sur fleurs.) What a happy situation!

Also happily on their way are the Green Myrtle and Corsican Laurel. These are wonderful, fabulous and so useful too! Both of them are head and shoulders lovely, bright and energetic, sparkling with life and robust! As you probably know, myrtle is great for the respiratory system, and very gentle--you can use it right in the shower, on the throat, lymph glands, chest....It’s excellent combined with Laurel, who is also known as the “Tree of Life” in certain parts of Southern France. Laurel is a great lymphatic stimulant and this is the pair to introduce your new day. I start my day with a dry brushing for the lymph, then these two in the shower, and of course then a strong coffee. It’s made me a morning person!

The Keyserlingk farm also makes hydrolats, including rose, and they have their own small rose still. The tiny amount of rose oil stays on the farm!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Most of the last 10 or so posts on this blog are reprints from my other blog, AbsoluteTrygve, which is now on semi-permanent hiatus. And that’s all the reposts there are going to be. I don’t like reposting them. Some of the information is no longer valid anyway, like the availability of sandalwood. And it just feels weird doing it.

But there is plenty more to write about!

But not today!!

It’s Christmas Eve, and even though it’s still the early morning, there is plenty to do!

Merry Christmas!

Exhausted in Hanoi

 This is a reprint of an AbsoluteTrygve blog post from 2009.
I don’t know how these corporate travelers do it. All these flights just kill me. It must be easier if you zip from 5 star to 5 star. But that’s not how I work. After 2 days in Malaysia, and 4 days in Thailand again, it was 3 days in Hanoi, Vietnam.

I went to have a look and a visit with our Vietnamese distiller, who is perhaps Vietnamese in his heart, but French in his distillations. We have been waiting for some months for this entire order to be assembled and ready, and here we are!

Lolo does herbs, and water/steam distillations, and now some alcohol extractions; no absolutes. He and his partner and his partner’s family now have a farm a few hours south of Hanoi, along the Ho Chi Min trail; the trail the North used to supply the South during the American war in the 1960s and 70s.

Although this farm is not certified organic, all farming is not only organically done but done by hand, except perhaps the initial plowing to turn the earth to ready it for sowing. Otherwise all is done with human and buffalo.
Ambrette around water

I had a chance to see fantastic soft and sweet Artemisia, and a whole forest of spicy shiso (Perilla.) Growing nearby is palmarosa, patchouli, verbena basil (Ocimum basilicum v Verbenum,) which is really fresh and verbena like, nothing like lemon basil. I’ve even got a little oil coming from just the flowering tops. It’s difficult to find someone who cares enough to do this sort of harvest: just the flowering tops. I can count these distillers on one hand. Additionally, there are several kinds of herbs that grow mostly for culinary purposes, (one just to serve with dog meat!!!!) and these are all being distilled too. Growing around a pond we find ambrette, and a really delicious little white flower no one knows the name of, that’s found in the forest, and apparently very slow growing. After 10 years you can still put your fingers around the trunk so this is not really a sustainable thing to make. It’s too bad because Lolo has made some alcohol maceration with it and all I can say is Holy Hell. You could rule the world with an oil of that! But we will have to content ourselves with the alcohol…..It’s a fruity flowery little happy sweet one but useless to try and describe at this point.

We drove quite a long time for this, but fortunately I wasn’t driving so I could ignore the terrifying Vietnamese driving habits. I never once saw a person look before they pulled out on to the road on their scooter, which was always precariously balanced with at least two people, and often many kilos of lumber, fodder, flowers, gas (!), or huge bales of something.

One thing about Vietnam, the Vietnamese are so completely industrious. Unlike Laos, for example, where you rarely see even small cultivated areas, in Vietnam it’s continual. It seems there is not one square metre of land that does not do its part to ensure the prosperous future of the Socialist republic of Vietnam. Rice, Bananas. Papayas, Coconuts. And more. The shimmering green rice paddies are the trademark of this country, with people in those excellently designed conical hats bent over toiling in ankle deep water. It’s actually a horrifying way to make your living. Just imagine bending over like that for an hour, never mind day after day, sunrise to sundown. And in the sun. And when the rice is harvested that’s not all. Then you’ve got the winnowing, And it goes on and on. Of all the things to automate, this is one the things that actually should be, I think. But our priorities lie elsewhere.

Land is usually worked with the help of a buffalo. I don’t think I saw a single tractor but I do imagine villages own them collectively. I did see plenty of buffalo wallowing though, That’s always something nice to see: the happy buffalo sink into the mud like heaven, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling. I think, although I may be wrong, that buffalos are one of the only creatures who actually respect women more than men. I have seen buffalos go after men (especially western men) who dared to speak to them. Even Lolo was insulted as we walked past the lovely creature in the mud. But 6 year old girls can boss them around without question. Even I elicited no response from her as I followed Lolo about.

We had a wonderful lunch on the farm, with plenty of vegetarian food for us, and Lolo got his boiled pigs feet, which he apparently looks forward to for months at a time. The huge black spider perched above us eats the mosquitoes, but there are plenty of other, more venomous creatures about, like the nearly foot long centipedes, or maybe they’re millipedes, but they are the reason you should wear big heavy gloves as you stick your hand in places you can’t see. They are even used as their own anti-venom. Somehow they are caught and stuffed into bottles of alcohol, which is then left to macerate, and should you be stung by one of these very scary indeed creatures, then you can apply millipede alcohol as soon as possible to the bite. Perhaps then you will not die. Fortunately we talked more about flowers and herbs.


Basil Verbena
Too bad for us there was no distillation to photograph on the day we were there. It had rained the night before; good for the basil, but not for distillation. But no matter, I have seen plenty of Lolos distillations before. I know he takes a lot of care of and treats every plant as it’s own unique being, getting to know and understand their personalities. He was the first one I know to distill the fresh ginger, and fresh anise. Both of those oils are usually found dried and from China, which probably partly explains why they are not the oils uppermost on people’s mind when they come to Enfleurage. But smelling either of these when distilled fresh and from Vietnam…..well, it becomes another story. Then they become magnificent, desirable essential oils, unlocking creativity and inspiring people to try new blends.

The next day I went to see Lolo at his house, which is also his lab. In the past he has been well known for his liquors made from local fruits: Guava, Passion Fruit, Apricot, Raspberry, Green lemon and the like, but this time the emphasis was more on the essential oils, so I ordered fantastic new oils for the store: One of these is Turmeric, Curcuma. This staple of Indian cooking is sometimes found as an essential oil. It’s not too common, but Lolo had an idea about this particular Curcuma, from a particular guy, and a particular place and it was supposed to be so special we waited for months for it. Well, it is amazing, absolutely delicious and divine, deep earthy, robustly orange and very complex. I also ordered Black pepper, something we always have, and this time also white pepper.

I don’t even know what to say about white pepper, except that it is one of those spices who changes incredibly. My father used to cook with white pepper in the dish, black pepper on the dish, and so I do too. It always smells so different in the jar when I use it but adds a lively sharp excitement to the dish and here as an essential oil it’s the same. Smelled in the bottle, I didn’t even recognize him, but when I tried one of Lolos blends with white pepper featured he was thrilling and unmistakable. Hard to describe now as I’m on a plane.

I’ve got fresh new Litsea Cubeba, distilled from fruits, always an excellent and refreshing oil, and a tiny bit of a new distillation, this time done with the flowers. Shiso leaf is also waiting for his trip to America, as is an incredibly delightful, mouth watering, and utterly complete Cilantro. We have more fresh ginger coming, and the incredible and missing in action for so long lymnophillia, which some people call gingergrass, but this is apparently incorrect.
A lemony note is continuing here, as we’ve got Melissa coming back, and also a really nice and exceptionally sweet and refined Citronella, believe it or not.

There are a few more oils, none of which I can remember the names of at the moment which is no matter. I will get them later and write a newsletter when they come in. They are all wild from Indochina and there are 4 besides the white pepper. I think we might only have the Vietnamese names anyway…

Vietnam, as always, is a challenging place to be, but I got to eat my favorite dish, Cha Ca, which is probably not spelled right. It’s a Hanoi specialty, of small pieces of fried fish, cold noodles, peanuts, and fresh herbs, which seem to vary from place to place although for sure someone will write to me and say which herbs precisely are the ones used to make correct and traditional Cha ca, but they seem like basil, dill, cilantro, and the like, but not exactly these as we know them, but something very like them. I do love my Cha Ca. I even ate a dish of it in the taxi on the way to the airport!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Lotus Harvest

 This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve blog post

I went, yesterday morning, to some lotus ponds where the lotus we buy for Enfleurage comes from. First of all, since I know there will be a few people who are just itching to discuss this, let’s get it over at the beginning. There are lotuses and there are water-lilies. Lotuses are Nelumbos and they come in pink (which are also called red) and white only. They open at night, but don’t necessarily close during the day, I don’t think. Some do. Anyway…. 

Lotuses have those big, extremely edible and fantastic seed pods, and water-lilies don’t. Lotuses can apparently regulate the temperature of its flowers, like warm blooded animals do.
Water lilies are not even related to lotuses. They are Nymphaea. They don’t have the big interesting seed pod but they are delightful anyway and water-lilies come in many colors, like blue. Both lotuses and water lilies smell boldly technicolor, bright and strong and floral in weird ways, and although they smell similar, they do smell different from each other and even color to color.
But, that said, unless we are having this exact discussion, we refer to blue water-lilies as blue lotuses. Sorry, I know it bugs a few people, but that’s the way it is. It’s easier and cuter, a double whammy.
Pink lotuses open at night, as I said, and blue ones and white ones open in the daytime. (White water-lilies I assume open in the say and maybe the white lotuses open at night.) It’s hard to know since they don’t necessarily close at all.

All the lotus ponds I visited were mono-chromatic, at least for the most part. I did spot a couple of pink volunteers in the corner of the blue pond, etc. But the majority are all pink, all blue, all white.
Since the lotuses are picked primarily for drying and eating, pesticides are not used. Instead, catfish troll beneath the surface eating worms, bugs, and any other bottom dwellers.
The lotuses are harvested by guys going out with big floating buckets. The harvesters don’t have to go out in little round boats like they do in India’s lotus harvest because even though there are some snakes, there are “not too many.”
This is winter here in Thailand and that doesn’t mean cold—it means there is a breeze, but the flowers don’t like it so much and so there are not too many lotuses out, compared to the summer.
I have to admit I was skeptical in the past. I had never seen enough blue lotuses (waterlilies) to accept that blue lotus oil could be available on the open commercial market but now I get to eat my words, which would taste better with a crunch of fried lotus root to go with.
We ended the day with an overnight to a remote little rural resort, saturated with incredible night blooming flowers and thousands of orchids. Right outside my window was completely insane Quisqualis, not even creeping but somehow turned into a large bush growing out of an anthill.

Once the sun was gone all hell broke loose. I was dizzy all night as thousands of fat and assertive blossoms exploded in drunken glee. Oh yeah.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Agarwood (and Sandalwood) in Assam

 This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve post.

I am still in India but just left the North Eastern State of Assam, where I went to have a look at Agarwood and what’s up with it. I visited a few distillers, and spoke at great length with a couple of people, Mr. Tajul Islam Bakshi, who owns and operates a small distillery and Syed Abdul Quavi, who can be loosely defined as a spokesman for Assamese agarwood growers. I believe that despite good intentions, the West’s attempt to limit, ban or control the trade in agarwood from India has been less than beneficial for most of the people involved.

Actually, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the whole attempt to control or ban the trade in this supposedly endangered species has been somewhat of a disaster.

Before I go on I should need to clarify a few things, if I can. Agarwood has the perception of being overharvested and endangered and I have argued against its inclusion on ICUN redlist or CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appx 2 based on what I have learned in Laos. The crux of that argument is that in Laos, it is the forests themselves which are endangered, not the agarwood trees, and in fact agarwood, along with rubber and teak make up the majority of trees planted on cleared forest land so they do not now appear to be disappearing from the wild as it is the wild itself that disappears, not the agarwood trees. The addition of agarwood to the international bureaucracy has only served to legalize trade for (usually western) growers who have jumped through the necessary hoops and done the correct paperwork to be awarded with the necessary “eco-friendly” stamp of approval. It goes without saying that the majority of these people are new to agarwood cultivation, recently lured by the promise of big and easy money. So, as usual, the people who have traditionally dealt in agarwood are marginalized, and forced to deal either with intermediaries who can supply the certifications deemed necessary by people who have no connection at all to agarwood.

The last time I was in Laos, last summer, I found that CITES certificates were fairly easy to obtain from a group of Australians now heavily invested in their agarwood project, but when I actually bought my wood and oil, from my usual supplier, we had to scramble to find one, and the one I got was for another company in another country. In other words, it was a fake one.

Here in India, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the situation in Assam is equally bizarre and the CITES implementations that have been imposed do not reflect a logic for the situation on the ground. Perhaps it is that CITES, as most organizations, comes up with plans and solutions based on their hierarchical structure and goals, taking perhaps governmental reluctance into account but not other factors, like the sheer grinding bureaucracy of the governments, in particular the Indian government. If I may put it another way, the Government of India has made mincemeat out of much more formidable organizations than CITES. We had to actually call the person at TRAFFIC responsible for the whole matter, at his home, in another country, to find out what the regulations are for taking a few tolas of oil out. (We’re not allowed to.)

To quote Quavi again, “the actual procedure to export agarwood is a punishment for growing an endangered species in a private plantation. “

In 1995 Agarwood was placed in CITES appendix 2 severely restricting the movement and sale of raw material and products made from it.

In 2000 local Indian legislation (The Assam Wood Based Industries Rules 2000) compelled the agarwood industry, then, as now, a cottage industry, to shift all agarwood distillation away from farms and home distilleries to industrial areas in certain cities; so the industry does not technically exist anymore.

Why? Agarwood is expensive. If you must shift your operation to a place far away from your home, you will have to employ at least three people just to do what the family does normally; to watch the agarwood. Security and price become an immediate and insurmountable problem. It’s not feasible and perhaps one of those things that looks very good on paper, but doesn’t work practically, like communism. It was a typically heavy handed and ill-considered dictum that produced no results at all except to render the agarwood industry invisible, the opposite effect of what was intended.

Since there are no industrial Agarwood farms, there is, following the same logic, no agarwood. So the small growers, and particularly the people who have a few trees in their yards, as is common in Assam, don’t technically exist because they are not in designated industrial agarwood places. Therefore, since they cannot be registered growers, they cannot produce agarwood, so all agarwood produced is thereby assumed to be from the wild. And Cites does not issue permits for this “wild wood.”
Indian CITES says they “are working on it.”
For 10 years now. By way of support they offer this: ”Until the rules are framed by the government you are requested to close down your industry.”

The presence of a real indigenous agarwood industry does not legally exist.

Then how is there legal agarwood and oil exported from India? There are a few industrial distilleries located in export free zones (Mohammed Doud & Bros near Chennai for example) and a few people dealing in oil from places like Kannauj or Kanpur (one the India’s most polluted cites.) Since 1995, if you (legally) import SE Asian wood to India, you can also re-export it. So “Indian” agarwood, if it is legal, is always going to actually be SE Asian agarwood, processed in India. It’s like Sandalwood “from Kerala” that so many people think is really from Kerala. It’s processed in Kerala, but actually from Africa.

Sayed Abdul Quavi continues: “If cites is so good at banning trade in a particular area which can easily be cultivated and replenished in nature, then they should also be proactive in seeing that the passage of cultivated agarwood to the international market is made easy from the range states, for example India, from which not a kilo of agarwood has been exported since 1995 on CITES papers, since it is only a process of marking the paper with an A (artificially propagated) or W (Wild.)


What I found in Upper Assam was a plentitude of agarwood growing. You could say most homes had a few trees in the front yard. They are good insurance for a daughters wedding or a son going away to school. And they will sell, to someone who will render them into chips and distill the rest. I didn’t see any wild forest at all. I know it’s there, but we drove up from Guwahati, all the way to Jorhat, near the Nagaland border and after about midway, once we reached the “upper” part of the State, agarwood was everywhere I looked.

There were also quite a few small distillers, with 3-5 stills processing local (farmed) but illegal-by-default-technicality wood. And with the exception of what I saw in Nagaon, the distilleries I saw used rice paddy husks and already distilled agarwood chips as fuel for the stills, not firewood.

It seems like a pretty clean little industry to me, even when we get to the next part, which is how are these distillers going to sell their oil and to whom? This is where Ajmal comes in.

Whatever you may think of Ajmal, a large perfume/agarwood company based in Hojai, whose name means “Prettier” in Arabic, they clearly have a large presence in the agarwood world. Anyone familiar with the Arabic lands will know them immediately. We have three branches in Salalah! It’s a family business, of course, with its own local language, Sylleti.

I had the pleasure of popping in on them, for lunch, courtesy of Quavi, a close family friend.

While I didn’t get to see any distillation actually going on, I now understand that it’s mainly because whether or not they distill their own oil, they definitely buy it from people throughout the countryside. And then they deal with how to get it out into the world. Ajmal is probably well equipped for this, I have no idea how exactly they do it, but it’s a good thing they do because selling your oil to Ajmal gives you an income.

Assam has plenty of natural resources; it has gold. It has oil. It has agarwood. But this is not obvious when you are traveling through. Most people you see are walking. There are a few bicycles. The cars are all Marutis and smaller. I didn’t see a single Landcruiser, Mercedes or Lexus. Most homes are bamboo and thatch with possibly some brightly painted concrete blocks. No one had flashy cell phones, or expensive sunglasses. These are the normal indicators of money. The homes in general were delightful in appearance, with cleanly swept yards, and fruit (and agarwood) trees. But they were really simple. The towns were simple too. I did not see a lot of jewelry shops, of electronics stores, car dealerships, even petrol stations. There were not a lot of banks. The plowing is done with animals. Water was often brought via hand cranked pumps. Only some villages are electrified. All in all, not a place where there is a huge underground economy. It’s a sustenance economy, dependent on the weather and the crops. In this picture you see agarwood and sandalwood growing side by side. Sandalwood is a parasite and he needs someone to grow with, to feed him like the litle prince he is.

If some of these people cut down their own trees, sell them, cut them up and distill part of them, for a very costly oil that the Arabs love, then what is the problem? It’s necessary for the Western conservationists to come in and run things? But thanks to the helpfulness of the Indian government and organizations like CITES, we can be assured that this small world of agarwood will stay exactly as it is, with oil being smuggled out in small proportions and no more no less. In fact, it may be better this way, as, if CITES permits were actually issued for Indian oil, the government would probably take such a big bite of tax that people would smuggle it anyway.

So this is Upper Assam. All the wood I saw was supposedly farmed, domestically grown, wood. Sometimes it was a natural infection (very good) and sometimes it was infected (ok but inferior.) Yet Mr. Bakshi down in Nagaon said the wood I bought from him was wild from Nagaland. It’s hard to imagine that wood making the trip down through Upper Assam to where he is. Why would it? There is plenty of wood available between the two places. He had a lot of trees under cultivation. He said 30,000. And they were infecting themselves. I saw this. No need to muck about with an inoculation kit. Unlike Ajmals trees near Hojai, which don’t infect themselves at all, the trees both near Nagaon and in Upper Assam will do their own work.

Why would he tell me the wood was wild if it was farmed unless it was due to the perceived preference for wild wood? I don’t know and I don’t have an answer. But all the other wood I saw was supposedly farmed and I don’t know how you can tell for sure. When I saw logs for sale they sure looked like trees out of someone’s yard. They were small, some of them little more than saplings. All of them were infected with some resin. Some had been wounded and others carried the mark of an insect only. These trees were all only a few years old so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that they were planted, grew and harvested.

I think what you look for in the case of Upper Assam trees, if you are not trying to infect them, are the insect bore marks. They are easy to spot, and so is the pile of dust at the bottom of the tree after they’ve been drilling through it.

So the whole thing about farm grown trees now has a common sense and logic that is unquestionable to me. But when people buy oil that is “certified” or something similar as Indian oil, they should be wary. It can’t exist, since there is no agarwood in India, remember?

I was wrong about something that I wrote about long ago. I thought that once the infections were done, and good wood extracted, and distilled, then the price of oudh oil would go down due to the vast amount of oil suddenly on the market. But this doesn’t look like it’s happening. It looks like good Oudh will always command a high price, since it will always be rare and with good oudh becoming rarer, the price going higher, now we can witness the birth of Boyah.

Boyah is fairly new to Agarwood, and it looks as though it’s here to stay. Boyah smells like agarwood (to Western noses,) and it’s distilled from agarwood trees, but it’s distilled from white wood. That’s uninfected wood. Or very minimally infected wood. Boyah is the one that gets hard at room temperature. Most of the agarwood oil you find in the US these days is hard like this. That’s because it’s Boyah. Boyah has a lot of uses: as an addictant in paan, as an agarwood adulterant, etc. Its uses seem to multiply quickly. Years ago there was no Boyah. There was no need as there was plenty of good agarwood. But this Boyah is a good backup. No matter what happens with your infection, you will always have Boyah.

So once again I find myself arguing against CITES and all this control. Although I do have the highest respect for what they, and TRAFFIC do in most cases, particularly when it pertains to animals, agarwood has been a fiasco. As, apparently, have orchids. For more information on that you can read Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever.

And More from Assam

This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve post

This is the nucleus of the agarwood industry, Upper Assam, and it’s an enchanting place that I watch for hours from the car window. Most of the homes that we pass are made of thatch, fronds, perhaps brightly coloured concrete, with swept and spacious yards. Agarwood trees generally grow in front. It seems every house here has agarwood trees. You can always sell an agarwood tree to fund the important milestones in life. So even though there are a few plantations here in the traditional sense, there is also an abundance of trees in people’s yard’s, meaning they are cultivated trees.

We fled after the agarwood market, back to Mr Birren’s distillery, picked up Pinky and Maryam, and shot off into the night for Shyamgaon, a little slice of heaven in the forest. Shyamgaon is a Buddhist village, deep in Hindu/Muslim Assam. It’s way up, or out, right on the Nagaland border. And if the world made sense it’s what you would find when you looked in the dictionary under “adorable.” And we got there at night! The roads are tiny, and every house has a little bamboo picket fence around it. Bamboo, agarwood, eucalyptus…..every variety of tree welcomes you from the shadows. Even though they are Buddhist, their caste is Shyam. I don’t get it, but that’s India for you. I had the utter pleasure of meeting these people, I think they are all related. I didn’t get too far, as Quavi and Pinky had lots to talk about with them and of course they were feeding us, another meal I can’t describe. I feel like the boy who cried wolf. Always I say this meal or that one was indescribable, but this time it’s actually true. The only things I can say is that the rice came in a ball and I have never had that kind of rice before. There were fruits masquerading as vegetables. Things that looked like you should eat, you drank instead. Somehow, a boiled green was addictively salty and pungent—I couldn’t stop eating it. There was a strong sense of relief while eating it, like Ok, thank God, this has finally happened. No idea what it was. None. It was completely plain, no sauce, no spice. Just boiled.

I think innoculated

Slim pickins for resin these days
Anyway, I hit it off immensely with Hasna, who turned out to be the head of the co-op. I had gone outside to wash my hands before eating when I couldn’t help but notice a huge room full of giant looms. They would have probably astonished someone who knew what they were looking at even more than they astonished me but they are huge. And intricate, and I just stopped and stood there with my mouth open. I think there were 6 of these. Well, we were in the main Women’s Assam Silk Weaving Coop. They specialize in golden thread. It’s completely out of control. Wonderful. I snapped a few inadequate pictures.

Our evening came to an end too soon, and we were off to Jorhat, where the Quavis took me to a hotel and raced off to see Pinky’s family, who live there.

The next morning I was in for a terrifying surprise, as Pinky’s family had a huge welcoming breakfast for me. Believe me I had no idea and was so shocked and at sea surrounded by all the friendly and welcoming yet fierce Indian women asking why I wasn’t married that my left eye exploded. Just a broken blood vessel but I look like a monster (still) and Quavi wondered if I needed to go to the hospital. But again, events proceeded, and I ended up sitting in the yard in the sunshine with some of these ladies and eventually things calmed down. They were all waiting to greet me in their very best saris and believe me that is something to see. All the more so when you realize that this is the rest of the women’s weaving cooperative, which weaves silk saris in Assamese traditional style, using gold thread. They are magnificent.

Back we went to Mr Birrin’s so I could pick up my oil—and we stopped off to see another distiller as well who showed us an oudh with a nasty burnt note that lasted for about 5 minutes and then began to morph into the most beautiful classical Indian oudh, rich and delightful, a complete shock for us. There is so much to see in Assam, and Upper Assam in particular is just heaven. If I didn’t live in Oman I would go stick to Shyamgaon immediately.
It was a shock to sit out there, around the fire that previous night, (with a hard bitten pup allowed and proud to share the fire with us,) to think that actually, we were closer to Bangkok than Delhi. It’s a whole part of the world I’ve never given much thought to, as it’s not the “regular” part of India. But India’s Northeast, Burma, Thailand, China even, Bangladesh…..this is a pretty untouched (by the modern world,) spot. I didn’t see another westerner at all. Not one. And no chain stores, obviously. Everything on a small scale, those tiny roads winding through the bamboo forest, full of woven bamboo and frond homes on stilts, clear eyed cows laying in safety and comfort on the ground under the houses, chewing their cuds, gentle eyed in the darkness. I didn’t want to leave that town!

But leave we had to. Thankfully it was Sunday and we had minimal traffic all the way back to Guwahati. I caught a plane the next day and here I am in Bangalore, another world from the quiet of Assam.