Friday, January 15, 2010

Perfume Illuminated: Birch

For today's contribution to the Perfume Illuminated Project my co-creator Beth and I have decided to focus on the flavor and fragrance of Birch. This was brought on by the realization that we are in the Celtic Lunar phase of the Birch. Auspiciously, or perhaps synchronistically, the Ogham letter for the Birch is "B" for Beith/Beth!


Sweet birch, Betula lenta, is an essence that requires mindfulness when used on the skin. The steam distilled essential oil is derived from the macerated wood . The note classification tends to extend between the top to middle range. The aroma of the pale yellow to clear essential oil is categorized as camphorous, minty, sweet and sharp. Although the scent is similar to Wintergreen, please be aware that the later as an essential oil has found to be toxic and should not be utilized in skin preparations.

In the palette of the botanical and natural perfume artist we also have the rectified oil of Birch Tar which imparts a very strong leather, charred wood and smoke note to perfume formulations. Birch Tar is created by a process known as "destructive" distillation. Although related, as essences these two are pretty different. Birch tar is a base note that works best diluted. It is a terrific addition for creating a perfume in the leather fragrance category, known as cuir.

Sweet birch essential oil, in contrast, is fresh and uplifting. In aromatherapy, the pure distilled essential oil is used for the circulatory, muscular and urinary systems of the body. It is considered energizing and thus is also included in psychological blends where lifting of the spirit is needed. In general sweet birch will work with other essential oils in the citrus and wood families.

In contemplating a scented item for today's post I have settled on the re-creation of a Peau d-Espagne, also termed Spanish Hide. Old formulas for Peau d"Espagne perfumes can be found in Perfumes of Yesterday by David G. Williams, Formulary of Perfumery and of Cosmetology by the father of Aromatherapy Rene Gattefosse and Encyclopedia Of Practical Receipts And Processes, by William B. Dick.

I have a leather accord/chord that I use in many of my perfumes which contains five accords within the one accord. Below is an ingredients list or a botanical perfume recreation of the Peau d'Espagne formula in the Perfumes of Yesterday book...

For the base:
  • Birch Tar (diluted to between 1 and 10 percent
  • Labdanum absolute
  • Vanilla absolute
  • Patchouli
  • Myrrh
  • Styrax
  • Tonka
  • Sandalwood
  • Cedarwood
For the heart:
 For the top:
  • Sweet Birch
  • Verbena
  • Petitgrain
  • Neroli
  • Lemon
  • Lavender
  • Citronella
  • Bergamot

For well over 20 years, I was lucky enough to live in Burton, Ohio a gorgeous little town filled with amazing pre civil war history , thousands of maple trees which produce an abundance of delicious syrup every year and the worlds best apple butter festival.  All of these things though as wonderful as they were absolutely pale in comparison to the best part of living there for Burton is also home to the oldest  state fair in Ohio, aptly titled “The Great Geauga County Fair”.  For 5 days every year beginning on the Thursday before Labor day this sleepy little town comes to life and the fairgrounds change almost overnight becoming filled with tractors, farm animals, arcade games and rides filled with loud music and laughter.  I’ve only missed it one year and that was the summer that Alex was born.   I haven’t missed it since and I make a habit of going everyday! My friends and family think that I’m nuts!

My husband teases me and says that maybe in some past life I was a gypsy, traveling from show to show. I think that really it1s because of the gorgeous produce and abundant flowers, huge draft horses and THE FOOD. I haven’t even begun to talk about that yet. For a girl like me, those 5 days are a slice of heaven! Up and down the fairways I walk, deciding what is that I will eat that day! Fair food is truly a strange mixture from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are deep fried oreos and twinkies; a food which has yet to make any sense to me at all. There is so much cotton candy and so many caramel apples and sticky buns that my teeth are beginning to hurt just thinking about it.

Funnel cakes with cheesecake topping, bratwurst of all kinds, reuben sandwiches, triple “big mac” type cheeseburgers, pierogies and cabbage and potato pancakes are proffered by all of the local church groups and my husbands favorite are the chocolate milkshakes offered by the AFS group. All these things tempt me to be sure, but everyday I return for my favorite meal and the one that I can only have for a week out the entire year. That meal is an ear of fire roasted sweet corn salted and fairly dripping with butter, locally produced Swiss cheese on a stick, dipped in corn bread batter and deep fried and slathered with Dijon mustard and a huge glass of homemade Birch beer. There you have it, all of my gourmand tendencies aside, this IS my favorite meal. I don't ever try to replicate this at home because I'm fairly sure that nothing I'd ever make would come close! The Burton Fair was the first place that I ever tasted Birch beer. I like root beer, but I have to say that nothing eclipses the taste of fresh Birch beer for me. Subtle and sweet with an almost piney, herbal and wintergreen taste, Birch beer is simply delicious and screams to me of something authentic in this world. I just love it!

Birch syrup, which is hardly ever available around these parts is an absolutely delicious alternative to maple, which I adore but doesn1t completely agree with me due to its very high sucrose content. Birch syrup is predominantly fructose and I just feel much better when I use it, although as I said it1s pretty hard to come by although there are many little cottage businesses springing up all over New England, Canada and Alaska that are tapping these tree and creating wonderful syrup products from the sap. Xylitol , a sugar substitute sold in many health food stores is a natural sweetener made from a sugar alcohol derived from the Birch. The first time I ever used it I noticed it1s cool clear taste, which was unexpected to me. This same coolness is the taste of Birch beer without its inherent “barkiness”. If you haven’t tried it, do because it1s wonderful and very safe for most diabetics. I’ve baked with it, used it in sauces and most of my everyday cooking. I’ve experienced none of the side effects of sugar yet all of the pleasures! I don't think that you can1t beat that!

The Birch tree in all of it's many varieties is an absolutely beautiful tree and here in Ohio is a wonderful sight to behold when walking through a wintry wood.  I can remember peeling off the papery bark when I was much younger and using it to write down precious spells and secret wishes that I would later hide away in my diaries. I also use Birch essential oil in many of my home remedies because the oil is analgesic and really feels just wonderful when diluted with white vinegar and used as a liniment or mixed with a bit of sweet almond oil and vitamin e and rubbed into any sore places. Sweet Birch essential oil has diuretic qualities which make it a godsend when mixed with that same oil and rubbed into any places that cellulite is a persistent problem. Birch Bark tea is delicious and I use it to help to reduce inflammation and edema. I wouldn't use it however if I were taking  any white willow product , blood thinner or aspirin. Birch Bark is an excellent blood thinner in it's own right, so its important to be very careful!

One of my favorite things to do with Birch bark, is a trick that I learned over 20 years ago from the wonderful herbalist that taught me. I walked into her lodge one day with a sprained ankle and taking one look at me she set out into her woods to grab some Birch bark and then into her garden for some of her huge comfrey leaves. She came back and through the whole bunch into a food processor with some olive oil and chopped it not to terribly fine, but just enough that the whole thing could be smeared around my ankle and wrapped with saran. I sat there with this green goo on my leg for an hour or two and then she unwrapped it and massaged my leg with a mixture of olive oil and Sweet Birch. I smelled wonderful, but I felt even better and two treatments later I was walking with hardly a problem. I've used this on my horses with great success as well, although it takes a bit to remove the green stains from the legs of the grays, but its well worth it. This simple home remedy really works!

In honor of the this months beautiful Birch Moon, I knew that I wanted to make something with Birch syrup! However fate was working against me and I couldn’t find any in my hometown of Cleveland. What I was able to find was some Izze natural Birch soda so I set out to make a syrup of my own. The results were wonderful and although I love real Birch syrup, this is a very acceptable substitute.

I used it as a topping for ice cream, a flavoring for seltzer and this morning as a glaze on wild salmon with currants and shitake mushrooms. If you use this as a sauce for meat or fish, you’ll have to add a bit of salt or perhaps a touch of balsamic vinegar. I think that it would well. Maybe tomorrow I’ll make more!

You will need:
1 bottle of Izze Birch Soda
1 cup of amber agave nectar
3 heaping tablespoons of Black Currant Jam with whole fruits.
1 drops (only 1!) of Sweet Birch Essential Oil- food grade
Two Shakes from a bottle of organic Liquid Smoke

Take the Birch soda and put it into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the agave nectar and the jam and let the whole mixture reduce into a slightly thick syrup about 1 and a half cups worth. It will be gorgeous, sticky and purple. Add the shakes of liquid smoke and stir, and then add the drop of Sweet Birch oil. When I say no more I mean it, don1t be tempted because this stuff is not only strongly flavored it1s highly distilled and toxic to the liver in large doses. You just want enough to add a wild sweet flavor. The liquid smoke adds a bit of dimension to the flavor and a good memory or two!
Let it cool and enjoy!

Sending you huge hugs and fragrant fires from the ever chilly

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