How Trygve Harris followed her nose and left New York to distil frankincense oil in Oman
After a decade in the Oman city of Salalah, the New Yorker has become a Dhofar celebrity, known for oils, soaps, cosmetics and even frankincense ice cream
It isn’t easy to find a frankincense distiller in Dhofar. Trygve Harris knows this well.
In 2006, she travelled from Manhattan to Oman’s monsoon-swept southern governorate of Dhofar to source frankincense oils for her boutique in Manhattan’s west village.
She soon met a distiller in Salalah happy to sell her the rare oil. But not long after, there was some bad news.
The vender had sold his distillery, bought a ship and started to sell scrap metal from Africa to China. Harris was left at square one.
“For two years there was no Omani frankincense oil and for some of us this was quite a crisis,” recalls Harris. “So I came back and I really loved Oman and I wanted to stay and I thought why don’t I just distill it myself?”
Now, after a decade in the Oman city of Salalah, the New Yorker has become a Dhofar celebrity, known for oils, soaps, cosmetics and even frankincense ice cream.
Harris is the only known full-time frankincense distiller in Oman. This month, she moved to the capital Muscat to expand her business. She has doubled her capacity to ten 40-litre copper stills that are capable of distilling 25 kilograms of resin per day.
Inside a spacious villa in downtown Muscat, she works in a room full of curling pipes, copper pots and glass pipettes. It is her first distillation in the city. The water gurgles and drips like a fountain and the air smells like Christmas.
Sacks of frankincense are stacked in a corner – 300kg worth of the valuable sap that once brought such fabulous wealth to southern Arabia.
Since 2006, Harris has divided her time between Dhofar and New York City, where she owns the Enfleurage boutique. It sources oils from independent distilleries around the world: hemlock from Quebec; rose from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan; lavender from France; cinnamon from the Seychelles. The list goes on.
Harris also specialises in Arabic aromatics, although she has all but given up on myrrh. “Myrrh? Myrrh is the brother of glob. It doesn’t separate itself from the water. It sticks and stains,” she says.
Harris, who hails from California, left the Golden State with a suitcase of Yemeni scents, bound for Vancouver, until a pitstop in New York City stopped her in her tracks. She settled, and in Brooklyn, sought out the Yemeni community, sold what she could and founded her aromatics business, Enfleurage. For many years, she travelled to small markets to source oils from independent distillers.
Her passion for scents took her to Yemen in 1989. In 1994 she returned, to stay with
Ghailan Al Dobai, a distiller and bukhoor (incense) maker in the southwestern city of Taiz. He and his family taught her how to make traditional hair balm, how to trap the scent of burnt cloves and cardamom in water, and how to distinguish bukhoor from mountainous Taiz from that of Hudaydah on the coast. Taiz is “more musical, sweeter and smoother”. Al Hudaydah? “Hudaydah. Oh my god. There was a kind of wildness about it, a darkness.”
She continued to make regular trips to Yemen and then visited Salalah in Oman for the first time, in 2006.
In Oman, odes to Dhofar play on the radio, praising it as the land of frankincense. Salalah’s predecessor, the abandoned city of Sumhumran, exported frankincense across oceans and overland to Mecca, Petra, Babylon, Palmyra and Gaza, more than 2,000 years ago. When Harris arrived, this wealth was long forgotten. The town was dusty and uninspiring but the richness of its landscape was unchanged.
Although the frankincense trees are the same species, Boswellia sacra, each wadi is distinct. Before too long, Harris was making regular trips to the wadis, to “see, photograph and pet” the frankincense trees, which she says change dramatically according to geography.
Harris favours black frankincense from the scrawny trees that grow on the cliffs of Al Fazayah, west of Salalah.
“Those frankincense trees in Wadi Dawkah, they live on a flood plain and they’re these huge trees, so of course they’re different than the trees in Wadi Ayoob,” she says.
“Those Fazayah trees they’re all impossible, and those Wadi Ayoob trees, they’re psycho. They have nothing on them, they’re like ferocious little creatures that you think would be in Iceland or something, without any of the branches and gracefulness. They’re just really hardcore. They look like someone in the old days who walked up in the mountains with a sack of salt and a stick to ward off hyenas. I’ve never seen anyone tap them.”
The best frankincense is a matter of opinion, she tells me. “The Omanis are going to say the white frankincense from Hasak or Jebel Samhan is best, or the green one because it’s the male tree. Whatever.
“My favourite one is the dark stuff from Fazayah. I could be wrong about this but the groves that I like the most, I consider them the old lady trees because they’re strong and they’re stout but they’re beautiful. That stuff, it’s oozy and it’s black. I’ve seen them being pollinated by clouds of white butterflies.”
In 2011, Harris gained international attention for her frankincense ice cream, which made its debut at the Al Haffa frankincense souq, outside Salalah. With the blessing of the municipality, she set up a stand beside a mango seller, a corn seller and a chickpea seller.
The international media may have been impressed, local vendors were not. It caused a furor and a meeting was held at the municipality at 11pm one night to discuss why an American woman should have the right to sell frankincense ice cream at all.
“I was like, ‘Try, try, try it. Ladheed wa jadeed.’ Then they would try it because it’s rude to refuse food and then they’d say, ‘I’ll take two more’.”
Harris sourced milk from the royal farm on the road to Taqah that opens its doors at 9am each morning until everything is sold out. “They sell milk and limes and whatever produce they’ve got on that day. It’s like Macy’s at Christmas time, you go there and everybody is standing outside and you’ve got to fight to get in,” Harris says. “You’ve got to elbow and go under people.”
Ice cream and perfume are alike, she says. “When you smell a perfume, effervescence comes out and you’ve got your top notes and then the heart and the base. It’s like a whole musical composition. With ice cream or gelato your fat is basically a similar structure.”
When the monsoon season ended, Harris closed her Haffa souq ice-cream stall and travelled to study, first in the United States and then at a gelato school in Bologna, Italy.
“I went to ‘ice-cream school’ first, at the University of Pennsylvania. It was more the business side of ice cream ... But there was a gelato guy there and everything he said made sense,” she says. “Instead of formulas and tasting the amount of fat percentage and air, we just made gelato.”
For now, the project is on hold but Harris expects she will be making small batches of frankincense ice cream by next year. An Enfleurage boutique will open in Muscat by the end of the year and for now, she is letting the frankincense take its time. Distillation is all about waiting, she says. “You know how Oman is. I just think you can’t force the oil out of the luban, just the same way you can’t force people here. You have to gently ask the frankincense to give up it’s scent and then it gives beautiful oil.”
Updated: August 23, 2017 08:17 PM