Fragrant Nails. How many sailors and merchants died for you? How many others have made their fortune with your trade? Your overpowering flavor and anesthetic properties made you a valued ingredient for oral hygiene and medicine to cure toothaches. As a spice, you transformed bland meat into tasty gravies and made desserts so delicious. Old Europe could not live any longer without you, and your addiction led the way to modern navigation and other amazing inventions, but also to the sad colonization of the world. Your shape, looking like a small thick nail (in Latin clavus), is at the origin of your name: Clove. Fragrant nails, how many lives have you saved, how many lives have you taken?
The clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum, is indigenous from the Moluccas, an archipelago of Indonesia commonly known as Maluku or Spice Islands. From these paradisaical isles, cloves, nutmegs, and mace were exported since ancient times first to China and then to India and the Arabic Peninsula by Muslim traders. For centuries, Arab merchants resold cloves and other spices to Mediterranean sailors for small fortunes, hiding their true origin. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach India by sea when Vasco da Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa and reached Calicut in 1498. It was the beginning of the Age of Discovery and the creation of maritime spice routes. The Portuguese established a few decades later a Comptoir on the Moluccas from where the famous cloves and nutmegs exclusively originated. Thus, they gained the supremacy of the spice trade, for a while at least, until the Dutch, forming an alliance with local Muslims lords, came to challenge them in the last days of that century.
The Dutch East India Company (abbreviated VOC), chartered in 1602, became so powerful that it eventually controlled the whole trade of cloves and nutmeg from the Spice Islands for many years to come. The French introduced clove in the plantations of their Indian Ocean colonies in 1770. From that point on, the Moluccas lost their monopoly gradually to other countries. Today, Bangladesh, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and few other tropical countries produce the popular spice.
Clove trees have an extremely long growing period as they produce flowers only after twenty years. Cloves are harvested when the flowers turn from green to purple. Cloves are in fact the dried buds of the clove tree flowers. After a drying and fermenting time of 4 to 6 days, the flower buds turns dark brown and are ready for consumption or distillation. Their culinary use is multiple, and cloves are present in Indian, Chinese and Western cuisines, for savory and sweet dishes. Along with cinnamon, cloves are used to produce mulled wines that warm our bodies and mind in cold winters. Interestingly, the spice is also used to flavor Indonesian clove cigarettes called kretek, smoked in the whole South East Asia. I love this smell in the air when visiting these lands of plenty. Since ancient times, ground cloves entered in the composition of sacred incense along with resins, cinnamon and other fragrant leaves and barks.
Clove essential oil is obtained by steam distillation of the buds (sometimes also leaves and stems of the plant) and composed of around 80-90% of eugenol. Other minor constituents are eugenyl acetate (approx 10%) and beta-caryophyllene (approx.5%). For ages, eugenol has been widely used in dentistry to calm toothache pain, and for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. In aromatherapy, clove oil is valued for aiding digestion, stimulating the mind and lifting depression, relieving pain in arthritis and rheumatism, easing respiratory problems and assisting leg ulcers. Clove oil must be used with great care, in concentrations of 1% of less in a carrier oil, as it is also a severe dermal and mucous irritant.
In perfumery, clove oil is also sometimes used directly for its natural and complex blend of aroma chemicals, but more often, perfumers prefer to deal with these substances separately. As eugenol itself is the source of the typical clove smell, this chemical is generally used to produce the clove note in perfumes.
My picks of the week go for fragrances with a beautiful clove note:
COCO by Chanel is the archetype of feminine oriental spicy fragrance with bright clove notes, since 1984. Even if the perfume was reformulated a couple of time to comply with the latest fragrance regulations, it is still a beautiful classic for elegant ladies. COCO opens with citrus notes, followed by floral heart notes of rose, mimosa, jasmine and orange blossoms, and spices, plenty of spices, including cloves, resting on a warm amber and woody base with some animalic civet to add some sexy tone to the juice. A great classic, perhaps less famous than No.5, but surely worth a try.
Comme des Garcons, Series 2 Red Carnation. CdG is one of my favorite fragrance brands, and I could not resist taking this one on my pick list today. Carnations are beautiful flowers with a clove-like undertone, and this fragrance is perhaps one of the best to reproduce their scent. The clove note appears clearly near the skin but blends wonderfully well with the other notes in the moderate sillage. Maybe not for everyone, but unique and sensual, and surely not disappointing if you love carnations.
My son made me once discover CoSTUME NATIONAL, an Italian fashion brand also having their own line of fragrances. I love their EdP called HOMME, crafted by the famous nose Dominique Ropion, also known for his creations for the Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle. In the words of CoSN, this fragrance is composed of fresh top notes of sparkling grapefruit, cardamom and bergamot blend with an unexpected heart of cinnamon, thyme, and cloves. The base notes of patchouli, sandalwood, and labdanum turn the composition into a scented enigma. Ladies can try So Nude from the same House, a very sensual spicy juice for fun evenings with exciting aftermaths.
The great house of Caron entered the legend with their Narcisse Noir in 1911. Lots of olfactory jewels followed like Bellodgia in 1927 and Poivre in 1954 which both are for ladies and have a significant clove note in their composition. Have a look at the limited edition of Poivre, made in 2004 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this successful perfume. The price is as amazing as the beauty of the presentation (click here).
Caron revisited the former Bellodgia in 2013 and renamed it Più Bellodgia. it is available today in Caron boutiques and online. Più Bellodgia is an affordable soft spicy oriental that is worth a sniff; It kept its original character and its clove note as well. From the same house, try Yatagan, a woody oriental and one of my favorite classic fragrances.
I wish you all a very fragrant early-Spring week. Cheers!