Sandy’s Garden ... Pomanders

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Occasionally, I determine to have a good clean-up of accumulated leaflets, magazines and newspaper cuttings, garnered in the belief that they would be of lasting value and usually never consulted again.

Well, I’m glad that the summer horticultural smell they were thinking of was mown grass, for there are lots of gardening smells that are rather less sweet. But his business of exploiting smells has a long history. Cardinal Wolsey, the sixteenth century churchman, is described in a contemporary account … not is my files, I hasten to add … as going about his business in crowded places ‘holding in his hand a very fair orange, whereof the meat or substance therein was taken out, and filled up again with the part of a sponge wherein was vinegar and other confections against the pestilential airs; the which he most commonly smelt unto passing among the press, or else he was pestered with many suitors.’

I’d better say very quickly that the ‘press’ which Cardinal Wolsey was passing through has nothing to do with newspapermen but is an old word for a crowd of people; though, when you come to think of it, some of today’s celebrities might wish that a pomander … for the proper word for what Wolsey was using is a pomander … that a pomander would divert the unwelcome attention of journalists and paparazzi.

Now a pomander, to quote that authority The Oxford Dictionary, is ‘a ball of mixed aromatic substances placed in a cupboard or, historically, carried in a box, bag or similar as a preservative against infection; a container for this; or a spiced orange similarly used.’ So Cardinal Wolsey was using his spiced orange to ward off infection rather than to increase the sales of his wares. And he was not alone in this. Virtually every gentleman of his time … about 500 years ago … had a pomander hung round his neck, hung from his belt or attached to a ring in a bid to ward off infections. Many of these gentlemen’s pomanders were very expensive, the outer casings being made of highly-decorated gold or silver. But Cardinal Wolsey’s simple orange was copied by ‘the lowlier estate’, to use a splendid euphemism for the poor. And if you’d like to make a simple pomander, this is what you do.

Take one medium-sized, thick-skinned orange. Run two strips of self-adhesive tape round the middle of the orange so that you quarter the surface. Now, using a small knitting needle to make the holes if the peel is tough, push cloves into the still-exposed skin until all four quarters are pretty full, but not so densely-packed that there’s no room for the orange to contract somewhat as it dries out. Next, mix a teaspoonful of cinnamon, a teaspoonful of orris root and a pinch of allspice in some sort of small, closable container, giving this mixture a good shake to blend it evenly. Take the tapes off the orange and coat it thoroughly with this spicy mixture. Now wrap the orange in greaseproof paper and pop it into the airing cupboard for the next four weeks. Finally, tie pretty ribbon round the channels where the tapes were and you have a pomander very similar to that which Cardinal Wolsey believed would keep him free of infectious diseases. It’ll smell nice … but I don’t guarantee its effectiveness!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society