When you think of the holidays do you think of the aroma of baking apple pies? If so make some pomander balls and have your house smell like you are baking pies every day, all year long.
Pomanders are essentially balls of fragrance. They have been used since the 13th century and were originally any fragrant substance enclosed in a cloth bag or metal ball. They could be as simple as a cloth bag of herbs or as elaborate as a pierced golden ball full of ambergris or musk. They were used to ward off offensive odors, of which there were many. Though pomanders originated in the Arab world, the word pomander comes from the French pomme d’ambre. Pomme means apple, and amber is from ambergris; a very fragrant substance found in the gut of the sperm whale.
Today pomander balls are usually fruit studded with cloves and rolled in spices. If made correctly pomanders will be very fragrant and last for years. I have always used oranges for pomanders but any citrus fruit, apples or pears will do. The fruit chosen should be firm with no soft spots. Once you have chosen your fruit, begin studding it with whole cloves as in the photo below.
Cloves are flower buds harvested from a tropical tree (Syzygium aromaticum) and dried. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means nail. If you look closely you will see that a clove does indeed resemble a nail, with a shank and a head. The shank end is pushed into the fruit. Cloves are sharp and an hour or two of pushing them into fruit can make your thumb ache a bit, so you might want to use a thimble, glove, or masking tape for protection. As you slowly cover the fruit with cloves the increasing aroma will be quite enjoyable. Try to cover the entire fruit in one sitting. Hint: Cloves are much cheaper if bought in bulk. I bought just over 4 oz. for $4.99 and used about half that on this huge orange.
Once your piece of fruit is covered with cloves, mix one tablespoon each of fragrant spices. Traditionally cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and powdered orris root are used, but I also add allspice and a pinch or two of ground cloves. You can add your own favorite spice or make substitutions.
Orris root comes from the root of a variety of German (bearded) iris known as Iris pallida; the Dalmatian or Sweet iris. This iris is cultivated specifically for its root, which smells like violets and has fixative properties that “fix” other fragrances. It may be hard to find locally but it is easy to order online. Using it will mean your pomander’s fragrance will last many years, but if you choose not to use it you can simply roll your pomander in spices if the fragrance starts to fade.
Put the spice mix in a bowl and roll your pomander in it, making sure you cover it completely with the spices until it looks like the photo below. (You may have to spoon the spices over the fruit)
The spices help cure and preserve the fruit so that it won’t mold or spoil. Leave the pomander in the bowl of spices and roll it in them each day. As the fruit cures it will shrink and lose weight. After anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months depending on the size and type of fruit chosen, it will be fully cured and will have lost as much as half its original size. When it feels very light and sounds hollow when tapped it is fully cured. 2 or 3 pomanders can be placed together in a decorative bowl and used as a very old fashioned air freshener, or individual balls can be hung with ribbon. Small, light fruits hung at the end of ribbons make excellent, Victorian style ornaments for the Christmas tree.
Note: This method of making pomander balls comes from the book Potpourri, Incense and Other Fragrant Concoctions by Ann Tucker Fettner, published in 1977. I’ve used this method for over 30 years without a problem. However, there are other methods found online that I question.
One for instance, says that pomanders don’t have to be rolled in spices. Spices are what preserve the fruit and if they aren’t used it will spoil and mold rather than cure, so I’m not sure how this works.
Another method says to put the pomander and spices in a paper bag, and I question this because of the need for good air circulation to prevent mold. The great fragrance to be had from pomanders while they cure would also be lost.
Another method says that sandalwood oil can be used in place of orris root. While I can’t say this isn’t true, it seems to me that the sandalwood oil would overpower the apple pie-like fragrance of the spices, defeating the purpose.
Other methods say to first poke holes in the fruit and then insert the cloves into the holes. While this may work, if the holes are made too big the cloves will simply fall out of them and you’ll be left with what looks like a dusty, shriveled up piece of fruit.
In any case, no matter which method you choose, the object is to have some fun doing something that is perhaps new and different, so I hope you will give it a try.