1.14.11 Totally Incensed

Sticks1 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
I didn't do much shopping in Mexico, other than buying entirely too many "traditional" candies at the Mexico City airport. Cajeta, a decadent goat's milk caramel, is a life-long obsession of mine, ever since it was first served to me as a tiny girl in Guadalajara. At the airport stall I discovered a delicious guava paste stuffed with cajeta and pecans that was out of this world, and a sticky yellow coconut confection that slammed me straight back to childhood. In fact, I may have to pick up a copy of Fany Gerson's much-lauded My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treatshello, sweet tamales, tres leches cake, milk fudge, flan. (Although my waistline is begging me not to do it!) I tasted some of her treats at a Mexican-themed dinner at Txikito last year and they did not disappoint.But I digress. One thing you truly shouldn't miss when traveling in Mexico is the indigenous incense, known as copal, pictured above. It has a very particular smoky-piney-resiny smell that conjures up Indians, Catholic churches and desert nights. I find it mesmerizing, with a rich, heady smell reminiscent of frankincense and myrrh.
Incense 790 xxx
i find that candles make great incense holders
Copal refers to a kind of tree, known as copalli in the native Nahuatl language. The sap of this tree has been widely used since pre-Hispanic times for incense as well as for chewing, gluing, purifying meat, varnishing and as a medicine for various ailments. It is still quite common to find it burning in Mexican churches and it's especially popular in homes during Day of the Dead celebrations. The incense comes in sticks or in chunks of resin (white is better quality than black). To burn the solid resin, you need to set it atop lit charcoal pellets. I love the whole ritual of this, but the sticks are definitely simpler.
Charcoal 790 xxx
you must be careful to burn the charcoal in a heat-resistant dish
The smell of copal can be quite strong for some people, but you can light it and extinguish it quickly and it's very effective for banishing any disagreeable smells in the air. It's also nice to burn it outdoors, in a screened-in porch or on a balcony. I just find the concept of incense to be so romantic, very ancient and soulful. Other incenses I like are here and here.
Frankincense 790 xxx
this is a chunk of frankincense


love this post -- may I recommend a personal favorite, Paine's red cedar cones, available for $6 a box of 50 @ paineproducts.com
stephanie on January 14, 2011 at 6:28 am —
Stephanie, I do love red cedar, too. Thanks for the link!
laura on January 14, 2011 at 6:46 am —
I burn incense multiple times a day. For meditation and offerings I like to use the incense that the monastics make at Ganden Monastery in Tibet. Recently I discovered a great tea-based incense called Kyobancha. Lovely post, Laura!
vetivresse on January 14, 2011 at 7:44 am —
i love copal. ds & durga, in brooklyn just put out a new scent called mississippi medicine that smells like copal, can't get enough of it. i so enjoy your site, it's a daily read. thanks for all the thoughtful posts.
giovanna on January 14, 2011 at 9:31 am —
Welcome, Giovanna! Thanks so much for the great tip. I know someone (besides me) who will love that mississippi medicine.
laura on January 14, 2011 at 9:45 am —
I was wondering what that was The long sticks of incense looked like giant sparklers that you would see on the top of an immense birthday cake. I have ordered the book about Mexican sweets as I am determined to reproduce the amazing Flan we had in Puerto Vallarta.
rob on January 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm —
I'm afraid to order the book, but I'm sure I will. I'll also see if I can dig up my mother's flan recipe. Once you get the basic version down, it's fun to make variations like pumpkin or coconut,
laura on January 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm —
Had i known. As Rob said, we were curious about the sticks that about four thousand people offered to sell us, but I it seemed an enormous cultural distance to bridge somehow. Do you buy one or two, or do they sell by the dozen? Plus, what if they are fireworks and we get in trouble bringing them across the border? Now I learn this is the legendary copal. I have a small incense collection and am especially fond of resins, especially benzoin. I'm kicking myself.
David on January 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm —
Just another excuse to go back! (Or order some online and pretend you got it there...)
laura on January 16, 2011 at 3:00 am —