Delve like a time traveller into the magical world of natural fragrances and you’ll drift through arcades of nutmeg, bermagot, sandalwood and patchouli until, your nostrils infused with the riches of Nature, you find yourself not in ancient Egypt where slinky cats were gods, or along China’s Silk Road with concubines in bright red sheaths, or among tall Nubian women or the lyre-playing maidens of classical Greece, but before a very large oak door. You stand there, catching your breath, and realise you’re at the bustling 17th century London warehouse of the East India Trading Company.
You peek through a crack in the door; hard to see what’s happening in the evening light, but there are traders speaking all the languages of Europe and beyond, scooping up brown and green gold from wooden barrels and sniffing with almost forbidden pleasure, forbidden anyway to those unable to find the gold needed to purchase what’s in those barrels. (And you’ll need a lot, if you want to make profits; this trade is only for the rich, selling to the wealthy.) For it was along these muddy banks of the Thames that the spice trade with the Near and Far East had its global headquarters, and it was here too that the original multinational company was founded by a Royal Charter on the very last day of 1600: its full and proper name, the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies.
Exotic spices and herbs had been imported from Asia for centuries before, over harsh, dangerous routes that crisscrossed the rocky peaks and desert badlands, full of bandits and boiling temperatures. But that was a scattered affair and difficult; once the Portuguese and Spaniards found faster, safer sea routes, they quickly dominated the fragrance trade, and rumours spread like fire across Europe’s aristocracy of fantastic substances that cost a fortune (which indeed they did, and many still do), fueling the romantic inclinations of star-crossed lovers and long-haired poets: one whiff of clove, frankincense or myrrh and dreamers might be transported to far-flung shores.
Demand grew; fabulous riches were to be had; worth fighting for. And the English, masters of the oceans, won the battle. Wealth came to London, and with it, the myriad flavours of the East. In short time, the parlours and kitchens and bathrooms of London Town were infused with cinnamon and amber from the Dutch Indies, with Turkish rose petals and with Indian saffron, and Persian musk, and dried berries and citrus, Egyptian wild currants and figs. Herbs and all manner of spices made their way into balms, and the treasured confections of far distant lands became lotions of luxury, as desired for the body as any precious jewels.
At Aybury, we’re intrigued by subtle and strong fragrances of all kinds, and spend time researching the fabulous stories that go with them. Our contacts with suppliers around the world invariably lead us down the paths of history, into worlds we can only dream about these days. But the heady scents have not changed a bit; to plunge into a bag of lavender and vetiver (an earthy but calming leaf of western and northern India) and jasmine is to experience the same delirious pleasure that you would have enjoyed centuries ago. Of all human senses, is smell perhaps the most intimate and personal of all? We think so.
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