Thursday, 16 April 2009

Postcard from Syria: Aleppo Pine

A few days ago a friend returned from an exotic trip to Damascus, Syria. She had been swept away by the far-flung desert landscape, colours of the bustling medina, and the charm of the call to prayer ringing out over the rooftops. Before her departure, I asked her to attempt to source some local natural oils, and when she returned I see she did not disappoint. She bought home with her, 13 half-tola bottles of oils she'd sourced from deep in the souq in Damascus. When I explored these concentrated oils, I could see that several of them were synthetically made - disappointing, but not altogether unexpected. My damas rose, violet and yuzu oils seemed just a little too candied and 'perky' when compared against natural oils from an authorised, more reliable source. Nonetheless, there were some wonderful natural treasures amongst the kitsch bejewelled bottles. Most note-worthy... an oil extracted from the Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis).
To be honest, I had never heard of, nor smelled the Aleppo until yesterday. A trusted fellow student of perfumery strongly recommended I hunt down this oil, and swore that I would not regret it.

The Aleppo pine is native across the Mediterranean on both the African and European continents, and extends across asia minor to Lybia and Syria, where in fact historically, it was said to have first been described. Aleppo, the largest Syrian city, is said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, with human habitation extending back to the 11th millennium B.C. Historically, resins from the aleppo pine were said to be used as a component in ancient Egyptian embalming rituals... and its timber for ancient ship-building.

Aleppo has olfactory markers that differ somewhat from "standard" pine oils and resins. As a child living in New Zealand, I would tramp out into the lush green bush with friends and collect discarded cicada skins and chunks of resin from Pinus radiata trees that had been gored by wild animals. Sometimes, the sap had not fully hardened and inevitably we would return home at the end of the day with our hands and clothes covered in a tacky honey-like mess that smelled like sickly-sweet pine. I came to dislike the smell as a result, and even nowadays as an adult, have taken a wide berth around pine-scented air fresheners, colognes and household solvents. But... there is something special about the perfume of aleppo oil. Yes, it opens with a brief characteristic piney-green scent, but one that lacks the über-resinous aroma that I had perhaps first anticipated. There is a very transparent flash of lemon / lime citrus that cuts through the green aroma and is really very refreshing. The predicted "needle" odour is diminished further by a beautiful resinous cloud that is both warm and slightly bitter... not at all sappy and glacé. Perhaps the most remarkable element to this aleppo oil, is its wonderful woody quality. The bark of the Aleppo tree is deeply ridged, firm and very fragrant. The oil transfers that woody characteristic extremely well - it imbues the air with a sophisticated perfume of fragrant wood drilled from the bole, and, astonishingly, the dry rocky earth to which it is rooted.
I am very much enamoured with and appreciative of this recommendation. Diluted to 10 or 15% in perfumers alcohol, I could quite readily wear this as is.

If you, or anyone you know plans to visit a distant land where they might be able to source top quality aleppo pine oil, I extend this recommendation to you. No perfumer's palette should be without it.


Anonymous said...

I've just ordered a bunch of oils like this in my quest to find the ultimate rose frag.


Dimitri said...

It sounds to me like you are looking for a good rose mukhallat HDS; unless of course you prefer to wear a diluted pure rose oil. Mukhallat Al Emirates I can recommend. I've blogged about it here before.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading your descriptions. I have a tiny sample of Aleppo Pine soap, it does smells very fresh and clean like but it's a smooth sweet freshness that...well I couldn't put it into words as perfect as yours and I also can't quite put my finger on what it reminds me of.

Le critique de parfum said...

I bet all these oils are synthetic, arabian perfumers are no different than western perfumers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that ;-)

Dimitri said...

Le critique, I have indeed identified several as being synthetic. The person who sourced these travelled with a local who spoke the dialect and performed a rather extensive search through the medina. The dealer they found admitted that the larger part of his stock were synthetics, but a portion were not. When asking others to collect oils for you, there is always a risk involved, particularly if they are unable to distinguish the obvious synthetics from the naturals. But I am confident in their research and efforts.
One can't forget that some of the middle eastern countries are known for their local distilleries and quality essential oils.

Dimitri said...

Zita... I would have loved a few sticks of Aleppo soap too, but it hadn't crossed my mind whilst she was travelling. They have apparently been making it in Aleppo for millennia... and no-one can tell me its with synthetics. ;)

Anonymous said...

Mediterranean is full perfumes. The perfumes made around from Mediterranean. Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Rome.