There is a gentleman named Glen whose wares I carry with me at all times. I found him in Byron Bay. He’s a connoisseur, an aficionado, a purveyor of the finest incense. Make no mistake, Glen is no mono-dreaded happy high herbs daydreamer. 5’8” and sturdy, clean shaven,a good jaw, rectangular spectacles and an ordinary haircut, he sports Tommy Bahama-esque shirts and chinos, loves dogs and has an air of Japanese precision with Germany efficiency. His market stall at first glance is unremarkable. Then you find yourself downwind and you turn back to look a little closer. You notice the small sand-filled dishes from which he plucks delicate incense, heats them with a gas lighter and wafts them like a shaman invoking ancient spirits. The rest of the market fades into a peripheral murmur and you’re in Glens world.
With great conviction he tells you everything you didn’t know about his 30 odd varieties of Indian Nag Champa, lovingly hand rolled and presented in hand marbled paper sleeves. I asked about the Nag Champa we all know in the dusty blue boxes found in every Asian grocers and bargain warehouse. He explains that it gained increasing popularity in the West when the likes of Bob Dylan and his contemporaries used to burn it on stage but as demand rocketed unfortunately the quality plummeted and the blend was bulked out with synthetic perfumes and burning agents.
There is Sri Sai Flora Fluxo Incense from india for scenting large areas such as temples and from Taiwan there’s aloeswood incense on bamboo sticks. His clandestine connection in the Middle East sends handmade incense and Frankincense resin from Yemen, a luxurious translucent Myrrh soap in a maroon and gold box from Oman, Myrrh resin also from Oman and Damascus rose oil soaked agarwood from Dubai. As I reel from this veritable bounty he draws my attention to the previously unknown realm of osenkou, Japanese incense, whose names and scents unfold like a tapestry. They’re not much wider than a pencil lead and each of his 26 varieties come sheathed in plastic test tubes with painted paper sleeves. I was drawn helplessly to the spicy, earthy Silk Road and the green notes of Rising Wind. The Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) is a low smoke slow burner so it was ideal for my van and bedroom. This variety of incense are made of the absolute finest ingredients sourced from Thailand, Indonesia, India, Oman and beyond. They are to be handled with care and when lit, release a perfectly balanced aroma that can be enjoyed in close proximity without feeling overpowered.
I loaded up on Frankincense and Myrrh resins too, which have been in my rucksack for the last 4 months. Ordinarily Geln recommends burning a shisha coal in a pot of sand or on an electric burner until white hot ashes form, then sprinkle on top some of the crumbled resins. However, I have been adding a pinch to smouldering (anti mosquito) coconut husks of an evening, to exotic effect. The hiss of burning resin and ensuing vapours conjure images of Marco Polo’s extraordinary odyssey, laden with the spoils of the East; silk, spices, dates, hides. I imagine caravans of Bedouin traders and desert oases (this over Romanitc imagery is also the result of my current reading of the infinitely intriguing Spice by Jack Turner). I wonder about the religious ceremonies and the call to prayer and I’m curious about the farmers themselves and process involved and the cross pollination of different ingredients from around the world.
So here I am in my clifftop Varkala garden, digesting a feast of tandoori Marlin, listening to the Arabian sea below, immersed in a holy perfume as palms pregnant with coconuts sway in the balmy offshore. I see a lifetime of research and travel on the horizon….