Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles
and all the years you have lived.”
A Holiday Decoration to Delight the Senses
The first pomanders (from the French pomme d’ambre, “apple of amber”) were balls made of perfumes and they were one of the earliest forms of aromatherapy. Modern day pomanders are often made during the holiday season by studding oranges or other citrus fruits with whole dried cloves and curing them in fragrant spices. They can be left out to scent and freshen the air, used as beautiful tabletop decorations or tree ornaments, or placed in drawers to keep linens and clothing fresh and pleasant-smelling.
“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
~ Diane Ackerman
A Natural History of the Senses
Pomanders are fun and easy to make and something kids can do too. I find the pleasant, repetitive process of making them to be very relaxing and meditative. It’s a wonderful olfactory experience too, as each time you poke a hole through the orange skin, the zest releases a fine mist of fresh orange scent which combines with the sweet smell of whole cloves, producing an intoxicating fragrance that does something pleasant to my brain—it seems to soothe, calm and uplift my spirit. It’s a great thing to do on a cold winter’s day.
How to Make a Pomander
Pomanders are easy to make. All you need is a citrus fruit, whole cloves, something to poke little holes in the peel with and some ground spices for curing. I like to use oranges for my pomanders. I find that the navel oranges in season at this time of year work well—navels are a good size and I like their perfectly round shape—but you can use lemons or even grapefruits. Choose a healthy-looking citrus fruit with skin that isn’t too thin. I tried making a pomander with a Meyer lemon one year and found that the thinner skin did not stand up well to being poked with holes—the cloves would not stay in and some of the skin got mushy and disintegrated. Grapefruits make lovely pomanders, they just take longer to do as they are larger.
Generally, it’s best to finish your pomander in one sitting, or at least on the same day, but I have stretched it over two days, keeping the unfinished clove-studded orange in the refrigerator between work sessions.
What you Need:
- An orange or other citrus fruit
- Whole cloves (approximately 1/2 cup should be enough to stud one large orange).
- 2 tablespoons of ground cloves and 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon. Add a teaspoon or so of other spices such as ginger or nutmeg, or whatever other spice combination you enjoy. The measurements do not have to be exact—you just need enough spices to coat your pomander.
- 2 tablespoons orris root powder (optional). Natural food stores sometimes carry orris root powder, but if you can’t find it, you can just leave it out of the mix.
- A small, sharp, pointy tool to poke holes with, such as an ice pick, darning needle or a turkey lacer. If you don’t have any of these things on hand you can use a fork.
I use a turkey lacer to poke the little starter holes (I’ve never actually used a turkey lacer on a turkey, but purchased them for the specific purpose of making pomanders). Turkey lacers are inexpensive and usually come in a set of six. I find these little metal lacers are useful for all sorts of other things in the kitchen (they are great for unclogging small piping tips when decorating cookies and come in handy for making crafts). If you’ve ever taken a pottery class, and you happen to have a pottery pin tool lying around, you’ll find that it works splendidly too.
Orris root powder is made from the roots of certain iris plants. Historically, it was used in herbal medicine, but today it is mainly used as a scent fixative (to “fix” the scent, so it lasts longer) and in perfumery to add fragrance base notes. It has a lovely floral, violet-like scent. Orris root is widely used as fixative for potpourris.
To begin, simply poke a little “starter” hole in the orange and insert a whole clove, pushing it in as far as it will go. A starter hole is not strictly required—it is possible to simply push the clove directly into the orange without a hole, but making a starter hole makes the process easier. I usually start studding at one end of the orange and work around to the other end. Work over a bowl or tray. It can get somewhat messy as bits of dried clove loosen and fall from the clove buds. Don’t worry if a little bit of the clove bud or the powdery top breaks as you push it in—this will inevitably happen at times. I do my best not to break them, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Also, you may want to put a bit of masking tape or a band-aid on your working thumb or use a thimble to avoid the dreaded “Clove Thumb” (the little spikes on the whole clove buds can sometimes be rather sharp and scratchy).
I stud the entire orange, but I’ve seen lots of photos online where people have made pretty designs on the oranges, leaving a lot of the orange showing. I’ve never tried partially studding the orange so I’m not sure how they end up curing in the long run, but I think it would be fun to get creative with making designs.
Curing Your Pomander
The last step is to cure your clove-studded orange ball in ground spices. Mix your ground spices (and orris root powder if you are using it) in a bowl. I love cloves and cinnamon, so I use those for the bulk of my curing mixture, along with a bit of ginger and nutmeg.
Place your finished pomander in a bowl with the ground spices and, using a spoon, start to coat the entire ball. It will smell divine and you may swoon from the pleasure of it all. I am no expert at making pomanders, but I understand that, besides adding extra fragrance to the pomander, the ground spices serve to inhibit mould from developing as the pomander dries.
Some people put their pomanders and spices in a paper bag and put it away to cure, but I love to leave mine out in a bowl in the kitchen where the fragrance permeates the air. It is such a pleasure to smell every time I walk into the kitchen.
Once or twice a day, turn the pomander in the spice mixture and redistribute the spices over each pomander. It takes weeks for pomanders to completely dehydrate, but I find they are dry enough to use in about a week (depending on their size and juiciness). Drying time varies according to how much humidity there is where you live. It’s very dry here in Calgary at this time of year so it doesn’t take long for my pomanders to begin to dry and shrink. Over time, the pomander will eventually become very light and significantly smaller as all the moisture eventually evaporates.
Enjoy Your Handiwork
Pomanders smell delicious and I think they are also beautiful to look at. They are very festive and make a lovely decorative centerpiece. I like to place some of mine in a glass bowl along with some gold and silver-coloured orbs as accents. You can leave them au naturel or tie a decorative ribbon around them using small straight pins to affix the ribbons. Get as creative as you would like. You may wish to attach a cinnamon stick or a rosemary branch to your pomander.
Pomanders make great gifts, but I’ll venture to say you’ll love the first few you make so much you’ll want to keep them for yourself. Properly cured, they last for years. You can refresh your pomander balls as needed by rolling them in the spice mixture—I also like to put a drop or two of clove essential oil directly on the pomander to refresh the beautiful clove aroma.
Have fun making your pomander. Take your time, enjoy the process and let its beautiful scent work its magic on you.
All photographs by madlyinlovewithlife; © 2015 madlyinlovewithlife