I was watching a repeat program of Hestor Blumenthal making a Christmas dinner encompassing essential components of Christmas: gold, frankincense, myrrh, pine and reindeer. It was a fascinating, scientific, culinary experiment. Blumenthal, the owner of The Fat Duck in London, went all the way to Muscat in Oman to source frankincense and myrrh, and all the way to Siberia to get reindeer milk. Well, that’s TV chefs for you.
No, he didn’t serve up reindeer meat, he used the milk to make a very rich kind of scrambled egg dish which he served over caramelised French toast and some kind of molecularly re-organised pancetta. He gave up on using myrrh – even he couldn’t get the bitterness out of the herb so he carved teaspoons from a myrrh branch and used that to serve one of the courses. The frankincense was used in a tea poured over a stock cube wrapped in gold leaf, and the goose used for the main course had been fed on pine needles and apple so the pine and fruit flavour would permeate through to the flesh.
Frankincense is an aromatic resin tapped from the hardy but hardly beautiful Boswellia tree by slashing the bark and allowing the resin to bleed out and then solidify. It’s grown in Yemen and Oman. Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for over 5000 years. The charred resin was ground down and used as kohl, the black eyeliner we associate with the ancient Egyptians. And of course it has been used in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faiths. During the time of Christ, frankincense was believed to have been more valuable than gold.
A few minutes after watching the program, I picked up Stephen Scourfield’s book Connected, and it fell open at the beginning of the chapter titled Frankincense and Memories. Stephen is the travel editor at The West Australian, and a much awarded travel writer and novelist.
“In the souks of Muscat,” Stephen writes, “the low, white capital of the Sultanate of Oman, which sits under starkly beautiful mountains – frankincense said to be of the best quality in the world is sold by the kilo for very little money and myrrh, traditionally used in embalming, is stacked in small plastic tubs.
“They are both resins from the south of Oman, where it is green and forested. In these markets, they are spooned onto smouldering, smokeless charcoal and throw off a heady, purifying smoke. To me it is religious. Add gold, of course (and it hangs in the souks of the Middle East like Christmas decorations) and you have gifts that three wise men might bring.”
The souk in Muscat has a gigantic frankincense burner at one end so the whole market is intensely aromatic.
- Muscat, with a population of about 70,000, is located in northeast Oman on the horn of the Arabian Gulf
- It was once voted the second cleanest city in the world
- It’s a 45-minute flight from Dubai
- The coldest month in January at an average 25 deg C, and the hottest is June at 40 deg C – although it often goes above that
- Islam is the predominant religion in the city, with most followers being Ibadi Muslims. Non-Muslims are allowed to practice their religion.
- Frankincense is grown in the Dhofar province in the south.
- The pale clumps of resin are considered to be the most aromatic, and the dark is of lesser quality.
- Frankincense is thought to have powerful healing properties, including treating people for what was called “melancholia” and is now called depression.
- Barter for what you want, and expect, with a bit of effort, to get the price down to about 35 per cent of what the original price was.