Many of us know about pomanders as a decoration or craft made in late autumn and into the Christmas season. They make lovely decorations for the Thanksgiving table, or as gifts to bring to the host of a holiday party. They are incredibly simple to make (draw a design on an orange, puncture with a toothpick, insert whole cloves) and there are many clever and beautiful designs you can find incorporating ribbons and intricate patterns.
But the history of the pomander starts long before the Colonial American variety that many of us grew up re-creating. The word ‘Pomander’ comes from the French pomme d’ambre‘ which means ‘apple of amber’. In Medieval times, it way typically a hollowed-out spherical shape with patterned openings, the inside of which was stuffed with a scented and spiced wax rolled into balls. It was a type of perfume really, doubling also as a protection against disease (many people in Medieval times believed that disease was spread by ‘miasma’ – or foul smelling vapours, and that having your own pleasant smelling vapour around you acted as a repellent).
These pomanders were often beautiful pieces of jewellery and would have been accessible to the wealthy class only, though peasants would have had their own cheaper methods of making scented objects to keep on their person. There are many paintings of the Medieval and Elizabethan eras in which both men and women can be seen wearing their pomanders – either around their necks, fastened at their waists or held in their hand.
While there are many recipes for a modern pomander made with orange and clove – I of course felt more attracted to researching and posting instructions for how to make your own Medieval-style pomander ball with wax, spices and essential oils!
I have had to provide a ‘modernized’ version – as many of the ingredients listed in Medieval and Elizabethan recipes would not mean anything to us today; ex. Benjamin for Benzoin or Sweet Flag for Calamus Root. I am also suggesting that you use a combination of dried spices and essential oils:
10 drops Sandalwood essential oil
15 drops Benzoin essential oil
1 cinnamon stick
10 whole cloves
1 Star Anise
1 tablespoon of Olive or Almond oil
1/2 lb Beeswax
A mortar and pestle
A ceramic or glass bowl
a medium depth frying pan
A stirring rod
A small ice-cream scoop or spoon
Do it the old-fashioned way and grind your cinnamon, whole cloves and Star of Anise in the mortar and pestle! You do not need to make them into a powder, but you do want them to be about the size of coarse sea salt. You could also use a teaspoon each of these herbs in powder form from the store, but pounding them yourself will mean that the oils are released ‘on the spot’ and will be so much fresher and stronger.
-Place the ceramic bowl in the frying pan. Add enough water (at room temperature) to fill the pan about 1/2 way and turn on the burner.
– Add the beeswax to the bowl and over a low heat, melt completely.
– Add your crushed spices, stir through completely.
– Add the tablespoon of olive or almond oil, stir through completely and remove the bowl from the heat.
– Immediately add in your sandalwood and benzoin essential oils, stir through and allow the mixture to cool.
– When it has solidified enough to be safe to touch (warm, but not extremely hot) use your small ice-cream scoop to scoop out little balls. Roll in the palms of your hands to even out and place on a piece of foil to ‘set’.
– If you don’t have a mini ice-cream scoop, just use a small spoon and spend more time rolling it in your hands to get the desired shape.
Depending on the size of your scoop, this recipe should make 12-15 1-inch pomander balls.
Once they are set, you could place a few in a dish as an air-freshener, or tie with a ribbon and hang in closets or cupboards. Or if you are lucky enough to know a great jewellery maker – tell them what size pomander locket you’d like and custom order a fabulous piece so that you can take your medieval pomander and the lovely scent with you!