Guest Post by Jordan River
Hello APJ Family,
Many of you will be familiar with the smell of synthetic Oud in modern perfumes. This is not what we are talking about. We are talking about oud from nature, from a tree. Most of you would not have come across this smell in daily life unless you have spent some time in an Islamic culture. We will explore this culture today through the prism of scent.
The End of Oudh: An Interview with Ensar Oud
Agarwood, Oud, Aloeswood, Gaharu, and Jinko are all names for the Aquilaria tree which grows in South East Asia. This tree can be invaded by tree eating insects. To self-inoculate the tree produces a fragrant resin to repel the invaders. Not every wild tree produces resin and the older the tree the better the resin. The best resin was found in trees that were 60 to 80 years old. These trees have been over harvested and it is now rare to find a wild resin producing tree. They have all but vanished.
The best agarwood is called sinking wood as the amount of resin causes the wood to sink in water instead of floating. This grade of wood is usually reserved for Japanese incense. Chinese carvers also use this grade of agarwood for making fragrant beads and statues.
Khao Yai Oud wood chip. Private Collection: Jordan River
Portia and I have often spoken about how intense a particular Oud Artisan is. So tonight let’s talk with him. His name is Ensar from Ensar Oud. Ensar Oud specializes in Artisanal Oud oils that are traceable to specific jungle locations. In April 2012 Ensar rang the bell on the end of wild harvested oud by traditional gaharu hunters. He then researched organic Oud sources and re-imagined his business into the 21st century.
Oud Artisan Ensar at work.
Let’s zoom over to Medina now for a chat with Ensar.
Welcome Ensar, Peace.
Peace to you too Jordan.
Outside al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, after morning prayer. Photo: Americophile
What are the smells of Medina?
The copious smoke of Oud wood and burning bukhoor reaches you from all sides as you walk down the street. But to quote one vendor: “Oud is finished. There is no more wood these days. Back in 2004, you had Indian wood that was mumtaz (excellent). You had Malaysian as late as 2006 that used to boggle your mind. Real chips, solid. Now all you get is this stuff… (he points to a drawer of well polished Papuan gyrinops agarwood that feels as light as packing peanuts when you hold it) Nothing is real. Fabricated wood is all you get these days.”
This is known as Black Magic wood because it is impregnanted with synthetic scent and streaked with black paint to give the impression of Oud resin.
Indeed. As for the oils that you smell here, that’s an even bleaker story. I hate to say, none of the stuff you find is natural. Everything (literally) is a scent chemical, whether it be from the so-called ‘big houses’ or the small timers tending the corner shops. The French perfume industry is booming; that is certain; and Medina is one major outlet.
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, The Prophet’s Mosque
How do Muslim men think of fragrance?
As Muslim men, we are taught that to wear perfume is an act of charity towards others around you. Enabling others to smell something pleasant is equal to giving them a gift.
Why is incense burnt in the Middle East? Is this for fumigation or for spiritual reasons?
Incense burning for remembrance and invocation as well as personal scenting is woven into Arab and Muslim culture. Again, an innate love of anything that perfumes one is what drives Muslims to bukhoor and Oud wood. Fumigating the house, scenting clothing, and cleansing an area of evil spirits who abhor beautiful fragrance; spreading an unearthly scent to facilitate remembrance in circles of invocation;these are some of the uses of incense in the Middle East.
Do you scent your beard? Under your chin?
The way I apply Oud oil is by first taking a swipe on the inside of my left wrist. Then I rub the insides of both wrists. Then I apply that sheen to the left and right sides of my neck, right under the beard. I do not apply any Oud to the beard itself as the scent would be too overpowering.
What terroir of Oud are you distilling next?
We have some logs of incense grade wood, of the quality that was offered by Baieido back in the day, going into the boilers this very week. They were harvested in Chanthaburi Province (in Thailand) a few years back, and are the last specimens of wild Thai oud wood of this calibre that I’ve seen in a very long time.
Ensar, thank you for your time and for sharing your fragrant thoughts. Let’s catch up with you soon in Amman. Khuda Hafiz.
The end of wild harvested Oud has become the beginning of organically farmed trees. All over South East Asia there are plantations, many of which need several more years to age the resin.
Ensar on an Organic and Sustainable Oud Plantation
See you soon,
(Ed: This is a much edited version of an incredibly interesting interview. If you’d like to learn how Ensar gets his oils, some of his best selling fragrances and a whole lot more go to TheFragrantMan<<<JUMP)