The Raw and the Refined: On the Origins and Making of Peru Balsam
Perfumer Dominique Roques Journeys to the Heart of Scent Production in Central America
Translated by Stephanie Smee.
“I entered the forest, drawn in by the trees almost in spite of myself, it was irresistible. They were emitting such a powerful energy that I felt humbled, happy to receive their generosity. It was immediate, the pleasure I felt from stroking the grey bark; I saw a brown liquid oozing out of the tree, and the smell of balsam stopped me in my tracks. I stayed among the trees for almost an hour, alone, I had lost all notion of time. I know of few ingredients as addictive as Peru balsam. I love its facets, at once gourmand and woody. At first, it is vanillic and ‘balsamic,’ its woody notes are blond, there is nothing dark about it, on the contrary, it has a noble suppleness.”
A formidable perfumer and my sometime traveling partner, Marie has just returned from El Salvador, where she came across Peru balsam hidden away in the cordillera when she was accompanying an important client. She has composed some magnificent fragrances for Guerlain, Armani and Nina Ricci, and she is one of the creators behind Yves Saint Laurent’s Black Opium. She adores the woody, balsamic notes of patchouli. I like her particular sensitivity to natural ingredients, her calm, intense expression, her perceptive commentary.
Sitting opposite her in Paris, I listen to her paint a picture of her balsam experiences. Sharing these intimate emotions, she leads me with her along the paths of the cordillera, evoking my own very vivid memories. I am taken by her image of blond wood. “For me, Peru balsam is gourmand, like a patisserie, intimate and warm. It is used far too sparingly in compositions; in order to do it justice, it should be used with liberal abandon!”
Marie regrets the fact that allergen regulations governing fragrance components have led to significant restrictions on the permitted balsam dosage in perfumery. “But it has led me to a new project, trying to reconstitute it using other naturals, emphasizing all of its characteristics, like a picture that I would make my own by highlighting certain features in pencil.” What raw materials does she intend to use? “Cinnamon, sandalwood, cedar, cacao, benzoin resin,” she tells me, with a smile. “I would never have even thought of it before going into the forest.”
Producers of Peru balsam are difficult to come by. They keep a low profile, deep in the mountains of El Salvador, and their facilities seem even more ancient than the great trees surrounding them. It was ten years ago, on my first visit, that I saw a balsam press for the first time, the beating heart of a production facility’s equipment. The sight of machinery beneath a temporary awning, the ropes, pieces of wood, screws, beams and hoists, brought me back all of a sudden to the era of the conquering Spaniards, as if the men of Christopher Columbus or Cortés had set it up on their way through, and it had remained unaltered ever since. It lent Peru balsam a seductive air of mystery.
The modern history of this ingredient, like that of vanilla, is a tale of conquest that involves the Europeans. They discovered that the native Central Americans were using a balsam that they would collect as exudate from a tree to use as a healing remedy. The substance was effective, it smelled very good, they started using it themselves and soon it was added to the lengthy inventory of American products being brought back to Europe from the sixteenth century onward. Balsam has always been part of the local natural pharmacopoeia.
It is collected from the Myroxylon pereirae tree, which is now found only in the mountains of El Salvador and Nicaragua. The tree has never been known to grow in Peru. It was so named by the Spaniards because it was exported from the port of Lima, capital of what was then the Kingdom of Peru. Raw materials originating in distant and mysterious places only seemed to become real in the eyes of the Europeans at their port of departure, Siamese benzoin being a case in point. Curiously, the world of perfumery has long had a tradition of adopting fanciful or approximate names.
Beyond the notion of protecting confidential sources, the continuing use of these labels suggests a lack of curiosity. From the eighteenth century onward, the world of fragrances, of refinement and creativity, seemed increasingly to maintain its distance from the distant, rural worlds of its raw materials. This distance was to make the fortune of merchants and large fragrance companies, particularly those in Grasse, when they decided to establish trading posts at the source of these natural ingredients.
I returned to El Salvador in 2016 to meet up with Elisa, a young Guatemalan who had set up a company producing aromatic essential oils in her own country. Determined and talented, she had studied chemistry and perfumery in France, married a French engineer and had managed to overcome every obstacle that had been thrown at her when establishing a new business in a challenging country.
With no experience, she had put in patchouli crops and a distillation facility. I was involved with setting up the business and have been following her progress ever since. These days she is successfully producing cardamom and patchouli essential oil, and over a number of years now has developed a keen interest in developing the balsams that grow in the region, namely Honduran styrax and Peru balsam from El Salvador.
Elisa wants to involve the local farmers and carry their communities along with her success; she is appalled by the poverty, illiteracy and isolation to which it seems they are deliberately confined by these Central American nations. She sources her supplies directly from producers at prices that offer a sustainable living. The daughter of a doctor, she pays health insurance premiums for workers in the fragrance industry and guarantees purchase of their entire production. As obvious as this all may seem, it remains a novel approach, and a challenging task. Elisa is determined and unstinting in her refusal to compromise when it comes to the ethics of her business practices.
I have returned to the “balsam cordillera” region, as it is known in El Salvador, to take part in the filming of a documentary for French television. It involves following an essential oil sourcing agent into a remote area and witnessing the “discovery” of a new ingredient. I was initially reluctant, doubting television’s ability to recreate these stories without distorting them or misrepresenting them in order to paint an attractive picture at any price. In the end, I let myself be convinced that it would be a good opportunity to tell the story of the tappers and their extraordinary work, and I agreed.The world of fragrances, of refinement and creativity, seemed increasingly to maintain its distance from the distant, rural worlds of its raw materials.
We have been driving for six hours from the head office of Elisa’s company in Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala and a colonial architectural jewel. Her cooperative is hidden away in the highlands above San Julián, reached by following a narrow track all the way up through the tropical vegetation to the producers’ rudimentary buildings. The director of the cooperative is waiting for us, along with a group of tappers, respectfully lined up with hats in hand.
On the horizon, through enormous clumps of bamboo, a ridge of forested mountains can just be made out: we are in the heart of the balsam cordillera. The production workshop looks out over a jungle-filled valley, out of which appear one or two Myroxylon at twenty-meter intervals. These imposing, balsam-producing trees are twenty to thirty meters tall, and at least eighty years old. Over time, they have grown into astounding forms with grey, striated trunks, the result of decades of balsam production.
The tappers are independent contractors engaged by the owner of the trees, with whom they share the results of the collection process. Fifty-year-old Franklin is an experienced collector whom I got to know on my first visit. With dark eyes in an emaciated face, he is as thin as a rake and never without his white hat, which accompanies him wherever he goes. He started climbing trees at the age of fifteen, continuing the work he learned from his father. In his musical Spanish, he tells of the risks and hardships of his job.
Tapping for Peru balsam is perhaps the most impressive of all the different jobs I have come across in my travels. Franklin readies his equipment on the ground: ropes, a swinging seat, a cardboard fan, a knife, a packet of rag cloths and a bundle of sticks that he will use as a flaming torch. The sticks are taken from the Myroxylon tree, a slow-burning wood that produces excellent embers. He lights the bundle, waits until it is glowing, loads it onto his shoulder along with the rest of the equipment and heads over to the foot of a tree, a plume of smoke fanning out from his neck. A single throw of a rope into a high fork allows him to start his barefoot climb. Fifteen or so meters up, he sits down on his little seat, suspended over the void. The torch is still smoking behind his shoulder. Now he can set to work.
In order to obtain the balsam, he has to stimulate the tree. Franklin slices out a piece of bark and peels it back from the trunk, then takes the torch and uses the fan to kindle some flames. Still seated, feet pushed up against the trunk, he holds the flaming torch to the exposed wood and the surrounding bark, moving it backward and forward, singeing it to encourage the balsam to flow. These rituals must be witnessed first-hand in order to appreciate the true nature of the task of these fragrance “hunters” and their life in the forest. Now Franklin applies rags to the burnt area, affixing them to the edges of the peeled bark. In two or three weeks’ time, they will be saturated with balsam and he will climb back up to collect his harvest, some of which will have gathered in the rags, the rest in the pieces of bark. He goes through the same process again in a dozen or so places judiciously spaced out along the trunk.
The Salvadoran tapper, much like his Lao counterpart, knows exactly how much he can ask of the tree without endangering it. Any tree that is tapped in one twelve-month period will not be tapped the following year, received wisdom that allows hundred-year-old trees to continue to be exploited. The collectors know how to manage their resources. Their lives depend on it.
Excerpted from In Search of Perfumes: A Lifetime Journey to the Source of Nature’s Scents by Dominique Roques. Copyright © 2023. Translated by Stephanie Smee. Available from HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.