Pressing flowers and plants in animal fat to create perfume? It may sound outlandish, but enfleurage, a technique first used by the Romans and the Greeks, is one of the only ways to preserve the scent of delicate flowers and plants. Perfected by the 19th century French perfumeries, enfleurage fell quickly out of favor with the advent of chemical mimicry, but this technique still stands out as a simple and inexpensive way to indulge in these fleeting fragrances long after the flowers are gone.
In Central Massachusetts, we had a large and unruly lilac border. Although it was challenging to cut the flowers, the hedge offered a variety of beautiful lilacs ranging from pale pink to a heady lavender through the month of May. Since they disappear so quickly, I looked for a way to try and preserve the sweet fragrance for longer than lilacs' brief spring appearance. A little research persuaded me to attempt a technique I had never heard of before: enfleurage.
Enfleurage describes the way in which the ‘exhalations’ or odors of delicate flowers are transferred to an absorbent, usually oil or lard.
Certain botanical fragrances simply could not withstand the more common distillation or steam process...
Instead, they were derived from this process and then extracted from the fat with alcohol. Although the French originally used heavily processed animal fat and tallow rendered odorless, to utilize the enfleurage technique you only need two ingredients: a buttery base and fresh-picked lilacs. From my own experience, I can advise that vegetable shortening seems to work well (although I’m eager to see if shea butter might supercede it).
Creating Your Enfleurage
- First, you'll need fresh lilacs and a base substance like shortening. Cut the lilacs in the morning after the dew dries--wet flowers tend towards rot and can spoil your perfume--and gently remove them from the stem and leaves. You want only to keep the small lilac flowers themselves, not the greenery.
- Add your solid fat or shortening to a shallow container so you can maximize the greatest area with the flowers (assuming you have a place to put it, a glass baking dish or baking sheet might be a good option). Gently arrange the flowers onto the fat and seal it off to help the aromatic fragrance absorb, using either a piece of glass to cover the top or even plastic wrap. Make sure the flowers are fresh, bug-free (!) and dry.
- You can leave the sealed tray for 12-24 hours in a cool place before you need to discard the flowers (sniff and monitor the pressing to make sure it still smells fresh throughout the process). To remove the flowers, try turning over the container and tapping to help dislodge the lilacs. Be sure that you remove any that get stuck in the fat so that you don’t end up with a moldy flower or petal in a subsequent pressing.
- Once the lilacs are removed, you can consider the steps complete and seal the fat in a jar and later extract the floral oil with alcohol. If you add the fat and alcohol mixture together (sealed tightly in a jar) and place it somewhere cool, the fat will separate from the alcohol and you can remove the tincture of flower oil.
- If you’d like a stronger aroma, you can replace the blooms with fresh flowers for a second, third or even fourth pressing. This can be repeated several times for more fragrant oil, but note that the more you attempt, the higher the likelihood that you might not change out the flowers as soon as needed or some may mold and ruin the whole effort.
Although you might have some missteps, don’t be discouraged.
Since it mostly requires diligence and patience, enfleurage is inexpensive and the results are lovely and well worth the energy.
A half dram (1.8ml) of lilac oil derived from a traditional enfleurage process can cost over two hundred dollars or more!
Lilac fragrances in stores or in products are concoctions of other oils and often chemicals. Lilac oil made through the enfleurage technique is simply too painstaking for the majority of perfurmeries or manufacturers to indulge in. Plus, for larger producers, a combination of other easily-acquired scent profiles can be blended to mimic the smell of lilacs. For all of these reasons, it’s even more enjoyable to know that you can create your own real lilac essence using an ancient but incredibly effective technique, a nearly lost art that can allow you to savor the beauty of orange blossoms, jasmines and of course lilacs all year long.