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The Frankincense Edition
On Oman, terroir, and luxury
Colin here. Oman is one of my favorite places in the world, and when I was last there I sat down with an Omani, Khalid Al Almri, who serves as a cultural ambassador for the Shangri-La Hotel in Muscat. He recently completed a rigorous two-year course that was a deep dive into Omani art, architecture, and history. In addition to the rigor of the subject matter, he had to learn, and teach things back to his tutors. You can imagine this would be hard in his native Arabic, but it was conducted in English, adding to the difficulty. But after the curriculum, he’s become quite a raconteur—helping guests of the hotel connect with every element of Omani culture.
One of his study areas was Frankincense, a hardened resin that comes from the trunk of the Boswellia tree. The substance plays a huge role in Omani society: from health (people use it medicinally to cure things like a sore throat), to hospitality and hosting, where the aromatic fragrance is burned to create a welcoming ambiance. It is even burned during a woman’s pregnancy and after a child’s birth.
Why is this interesting?
By learning about Frankincense, you learn about many other things related to Oman, from trade and medicine to agriculture, climate, and ecology. The substance was precious in the times before oil was discovered, and played a huge role in trade. But what really stood out to me when we talked was the idea of terroir: the specific conditions that create something. We hear a lot about this term with wine, but it turns out that the conditions the trees grow in play a large role in the quality of the resulting product.
Frankincense is harvested from the plant tissue of trees: the sap hardens and becomes a resin that can be burned aromatically. A harvester makes cuts in the bark of the tree: the sap comes out to protect the tree from getting dust in it. It hardens for two weeks and then is extracted and further produced. And just like wine, different regions create different results.
The finest variety comes from a location in the Dhofar region the south of the country, Wadi Hojar. The sap that is extracted from the tree is in its purest form based on a variety of factors. For example, the mountains block humidity and dust wind from reaching the area. Then a combination of the light, the limestone rocks, and other elements of the wadi (a valley) create the right conditions for the perfect version of frankincense.
In the pre-petroleum world, frankincense was one of the world’s most luxurious things: carrying a heavy price tag and providing an important utility for trading with others. Today, it still plays a pervasive role in Omani society and weaves a very interesting trail of aromatic fragrance throughout every aspect of their culture. (CJN)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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