Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

Baki is learning about the Bubonic Plague in his Social Studies class, and came home talking about fleas and rats and doctors with beaks, so naturally the first thing that sprang to mind was pomander balls, especially with Christmas around the corner.

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Plague doctors wore masks with beak-like protrusions on them (you might be familiar with the Venetian “doctor” mask, which is quite similar to the one in this picture, if a bit more ominous). This was because the beak area could be stuffed with aromatic herbs; it was believed that sweet smells could ward off the disease. That’s where pomander balls enter the picture. (picture credit: Paul Furst (1608-1666), “Der Doctor Schabel von Rom”)

Every year at Christmas time we open up the boxes of Christmas ornaments and the same smell rises from them – oranges and clove, with faint scents of pine. This is the smell of Christmas to me, and it is mostly coming from the pomander balls in the boxes, some of them decades old.

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Pomander balls in the Middle Ages, when the Plague was a major health concern, were not actually made from oranges at all, but were pieces of jewelry with aromatic herbs inside. The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, meaning amber apple – ambergris was one of the sweet scents inserted in the lockets.

My mother said that she learned how to make pomander balls when she was in high school, but couldn’t get more specific than that. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, the clove studded oranges have made their appearance at the end of every year. In my mind they were synonymous with that time of year and I didn’t think much about it beyond that.

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Zanzibar (a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania) was once known as “the Spice Isles” because they were the world’s largest producer of cloves. When Omani sultan Sayyid Said moved to Zanzibar, he decreed that every farmer plant three clove bushes for every coconut palm on their land. These trees formed the backbone of a major industry, and one that Zanzibar continues to be associated with (unlike the other major function that Zanzibar served at that time – a slave port).

Pomander balls in their present incarnation as clove studded oranges showed up in the 19th century; a gift of a pomander ball at that time was said to indicate “warmth of feeling.” Making pomander balls is pretty straightforward – just cover the orange with cloves. You want to leave a little space between them because the orange will shrink a bit as it dries, but not too much or it will look patchy and balding. When we set Baki to the task, though, it was about thirty seconds before he was complaining of sore fingers and declaring himself bored to death.

Then my mother had a wonderful idea.

“Why not use a fork?” she said.

I had on occasion used a toothpick to poke holes for the cloves , but by using a fork you make the holes and ensure even spacing. A dessert fork is best for the meticulous (me), a dinner fork for the underachiever (Baki).

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Although Baki got off to a slow start with pomander balls, he did come up with a very nice little trick – when making holes in the orange, place the first tine of the fork in the last hole that you made so that your spacing really will be robotically precise. 

In this manner, we were able to make our pomander balls in record time.

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And of course there is the added pleasure of the smell – cloves smell great, and there is something heartening about the smell of orange peels. Make one and see – and keep it for decades! It’ll still hold up, smelling of the Spice Isles and bringing a whiff of the Plague to your holidays.

Merry Christmas to all and sundry!

Escape to London

In Antalya, our summers are perfectly dry. For about four months, it is not reasonable to expect any rain to fall. The temperatures soar and then coast along in the upper regions of the thermometer. This must be why people come here on holiday – no risk of staring out at the rain soaked beach from your hotel room, with your sun hat in your hand. But it turns the forest into a tinderbox – one thing that you are sure to see every summer is the forestry department planes flying by with bags of water trailing behind them. And in the garden, the extreme heat and lack of water means that for us, summer is the busiest season. We spend our days watering everyone – the plants, the trees, the chickens, the cats, the dog, ourselves. In the sense of feeling that we are fighting the weather to keep everyone alive and happy, and that every living thing is undergoing some sort of stress, I feel like summers are our winters. Winter in Antalya is a breeze – it gets rainy and muddy, and it even gets cold, but the plants are delighted by the weather, the vegetable beds are full of lettuces and cabbages, and we have cozy evenings by the wood stove, roasting chestnuts and all sitting around the table to peel and eat them. I look forward to winter every year. I dream about getting the wooly sweaters out.

It can be tiring to trudge around the garden in the pounding heat, and when I get overwhelmed by taking care of the garden and the family, I dream of being alone. There are very few times in a summer day when I am not interrupted by someone who needs something from me. This is the chaotic charm of family life, but it grates sometimes, when I want to think my own thoughts, uninterrupted. I began to plan a little escape. I would go to London in the fall, after my mother came here. I would stay in a hotel near a Waitrose supermarket so I could roam its tastefully curated aisles and read stacks of newspapers, drinking milky tea, or coffee from my Aeropress. I’d visit some museums, and definitely go to the cinema – it had been years since I had done that. I could even eat at a restaurant without wondering when one of the kids was going to start careening around the room. And I did it all.

It was a grey weekend, only intermittently rainy (although I did get badly caught in the rain once and had to duck into a cafe to nurse a coffee and dry out) which is the perfect weather for tea and toast. I had bought a quarter loaf of sourdough bread and a salty unpasteurized butter. A friend of mine remarked that I didn’t post any photos of food from my trip on Instagram, and this was mainly because I was so happy eating buttered toast with a mug of milky tea, that this is what I did, again and again. Not great nutrition, perhaps, but deeply satisfying all the same. Likewise, although I was whiling away the entire weekend doing nothing much of great use to anyone, I felt at the end of it that I had been fed in some intangible way.

IMG_4756I have a lot of good reasons for not living in the city anymore, and most of them are to do with my desire to be closer to nature and more involved in the day to day mechanics of my life – in the garden, we fix our own plumbing, chop our own wood, kill our own chickens. But that does not mean that I am immune to the charms of city life, or to the sense of wellbeing that beautiful architecture or gardens can evoke. One morning, while walking to the British Museum, I noticed a clipped tunnel of trees and walked through it – I discovered later that these were linden trees (the living corridor is more correctly known as a “pleached lime cloister”). It was so enjoyable to be walking in the leafy embrace of the trees that I almost doubled back to do it again, but time was of essence.

IMG_4757I was drawn to the museum because I had read that there was a show of metalpoint drawings there. It has been a long time since I drew with any regularity, but there was a time when I dreamed of art school, and of all art forms drawings are my favorite. I bought my ticket and was directed to go “up the staircase.” This was in the beautiful skylit Great Court, with its huge round stairwell winding importantly upwards. I realized that there couldn’t be any other staircase to refer to in such a nonchalant manner, so up I went and as I ascended, with the cloudy sky dimly visible through the glass ceiling, I found myself level with the Ionic capitals of the classical facade of one of the buildings sheltered in this huge indoor courtyard. It gave me the sensation of floating upwards, or at least of something not quite possible, and this only deepened when I followed the signs pointing towards the exhibition and find myself walking through a room full of mummies. If only Baki were with me, I thought.

Then I entered the small and perfectly silent gallery where the drawings were displayed. I handed my ticket over and was directed into an even quieter room off to the side, with glass cases all along the walls that had wooden bannisters in front of them. As I went to the first drawing, I could see why those bannisters were there because the drawings were so intricate and so beautiful that they drew me towards them and almost without being aware of it at all, I rested my elbows on the bannister and leaned in as close as I could, until I could see my breath on the glass. And as I did, I saw more and more clearly the sharp, precise lines and marveled at how with such hard styluses and unforgiving material these delicate and vibrant drawings had been made. There is something unbelievable about looking at a drawing that was made by artists as far back as the 14th century. Some were sketches or studies, but all executed with a deftness that was visible centuries later. I made my way around the room slowly, silently. The drawing that I loved the most was a study of drapery by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was so beautiful, my eyes filled with tears. And look, I can share it with you here, courtesy of the British Museum’s free image service:metalpoint

I was disappointed when I went to buy a postcard for my mother that the reproductions seemed so lifeless compared to the real thing, but I was overjoyed to find this image reproduced and available for use. I thought I’d never see it again, and any reproduction is better than that!

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Edit Cavell was a nurse shot by a German firing squad for her role in helping allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was controversial to both sides of the conflict because she would treat any soldier, regardless of which side he was fighting on.

This monument caught my eye, probably because I have been reading about World War 1 lately (at the moment I am reading a very good, if sobering, book called 14-18: Understanding the Great War). My trip came directly after Remembrance Day, so there were red poppies on lapels, placed at the foot of monuments such as these, and even hanging on the grills of taxis.

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There is a menacing beauty in the symmetry of these 15 inch guns at the Imperial War Museum entrance.

I visited the WW1 galleries of the Imperial War Museum and pored over exhibits of grisly handmade clubs and knives from the trenches, children’s toys of Lord Kitchener, shells from Big Bertha guns. I had thought that it would be a quiet, lonely visit, but the museum was packed with people of all ages, all buzzing with conversation, and the WW1 galleries were so crowded that walking through the exhibits was a slow business. So there are all these other people, I thought, thinking about these events a century ago.

The city is not the place where I would expect to find human connection; it seems that the great lesson of city life is how to be alone in a crowd. However, I did have a wonderful experience on my trip where I remembered just how helpful it can be to talk through a problem, even with a stranger. I had always been curious about the School of Life, and there happened to be a class there during my trip called How to Realise Your Potential. I signed up for it and then didn’t tell anyone in my family about it because I thought they might laugh at me. I told them about it when I got back, though, because it was a really fun evening where I talked to several very interesting people. It turns out that when you have a room full of people puzzling over something in their lives, it results in a willingness to talk through it all with the person in the next seat. I avoid interacting with strangers like the plague, and I think it was really good for me to not only get over it for an evening, but also come up with some concrete ideas for doing things such as write here more often.

I returned home feeling just as I had hoped I would – feeling energized and ready to get back to work. It was not a very glamorous trip, but it was just what I wanted – just some time to wander around in a city I enjoy and in my own thoughts.