I wouldn’t be without…

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.

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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….

Stranger In Town: Far Out Cafe roots.


I dedicate this blog to my parents. Naturally, they’d be delighted if I lived close enough to come for Sunday lunch each week and had the perceived security of a salary or a house of my own but when they receive a postcard in the middle of an English winter from the palm fringed shores of Sri Lanka or open an email detailing my dream of following ancient spice routes through the Middle East or have to ask yet again for a reliable postal address, they’re excited to know that they are responsible.

The essence of my life overseas, the feeling that drove me to set sail, is captured in the following vignette:

Hi Tom, as promised my recollections of the Far Out Café. 1978 myself and four friends take the magic bus from London to Athens. First boat out from Pireaus is bound for Mykonos so we jump aboard and soon after arriving we hear of another island called Ios. So next stop Ios. There was one road from the port to the beach and there were two buses, that was the transport. The beach was long and wonderful and the place where the bus dropped us and other backpackers was the Far Out Café. The place was, it seemed, always full of people from all over like a young United Nations. The food was like any Greek café and I love traditional Greek food as you know but I must say the fare at the Far Out Cafe was never going to win any awards! However it had a great sound system and the one album that stands out for me was ‘Stranger In Town’ by Bob Seager and the Silver Bullit Band. It had been released in May of that year and went on to go platinum. If we were on the beach around the cafe and the first bars of ‘Hollywood Nights’ (the first track of the album) played it was enough to get us in to the place and order a round of beers and start conversations with people we had met or those we had not and who were just enjoying the music like ourselves. For others I’m sure other music will be associated with the Far Out but for me Strangers in Town and the café will always be joined at the hip.
I looked online and as with most things the Far Out has changed; it’s no longer where the bus would drop you. There’s a new Far Out at the other end of the beach where all there used to be was a camp site. Of course, its unrecognisable to the place I and many others would have known but that was then and this is now but for me the Far Out Café I know and cherish will always be the best of places. Ios has another claim to fame as it’s where I met your mum but that’s another story.

Speak to you soon Tom all my love Dad x

That is brilliant, cant believe this is almost 40 years ago, still so vivid in my mind! Perhaps I’ll tell you my story too! Mum x