The use of resins and vegetable balms has a very long history that goes back to the first hominids. It is presumed, due to convincing scientific evidence, that resins were discovered when controlled fire was introduced into the life practices of these races in the early Paleolithic period. The scents that were emitted from burning resinous branches, must have attracted the attention of the people, thus initiating an interest and expansion of knowledge that would later translate, in subsequent ancient civilizations, into the sacred use of burning aromatic resins to perfume temples dedicated to the gods with the scope of ingratiating the people with the gods’ favors. Indeed the word perfume derives from the Latin word pro-fumum, which means “through smoke.”
Natural resins and balms are viscous substances that are obtained through the intentional incision of bark or by their natural emission due to injuries, of particular types of plants. The leaking liquid hardens and after a few weeks it can be scraped off the bark and collected in the form of large drop-shaped pieces. The resins can be used as such or be treated with water vapor to produce essential oils. Resins are extremely fragrant materials, especially when they are burnt. They have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and astringent properties and their medicinal use is described in various Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman documents.
As with spices, resins were abundantly imported from the places of production, mainly Yemen, Oman, Somalia, Eritrea through terrestrial communication routes known as Incense routes. These routes traveled up the Arabian Peninsula along the coast of the Red Sea to arrive in the Egyptian and Palestinian Mediterranean ports. Frankincense and myrrh are the two most important resins and mainly consist of terpenes such as alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, limonene and terpinolene which determines their fresh, citrusy and slightly pungent smell; balms such as benzoin, styrax and labdanum contain substances with a sweeter and more aromatic olfactory character such as cinnamic and benzoic esters.
The sacred use of balms and resins is still found today and for many people the sacred religious building - incense connection constitutes a very strong olfactory memory. The use of resins and balms has also extended to the cosmetic industry and in particular to perfume production where they are used as base notes (in the form of extracts and essential oils) given their fixative property on the odorous structure of the perfumes that contain them. For example, in the family of perfumes referred to as “Oriental,” resins and balms are often used with sweet notes such as vanilla and cinnamon.
Resin and balsamic aromas also enrich the bouquets of wine, beer and food that we encounter every day. In beer, for example, they may be present due to the use of some North American hops with a marked hint of pine resin. In wine, they can be present due to the barrel-aging process.