Ingredient Spotlight : Brazilian Tonka Bean, the maker of modern masculine perfumery
Tonka Bean—an ingredient so powerful it was once believed in the Pagan tradition to cure the problems of the soul and chase away negativity.
Even though the magical properties of the Tonka Bean may not reach these expectations, the qualities and versatility of this seed is in no way less impressive. Known for it’s intoxicating, powdery-sweet, balmy, and warm essence, this ingredient has historically been used in perfumery for centuries and is currently one of the most trendy and exclusive ingredients in the world of fine gastronomy.
Also known as “Brazilian Tonka Bean” because of its provenience, this species of tree is only cultivated in one single state in the north of Brazil, and 90% of the seeds are actually exported to the international market, primarily for the cosmetic industry.
One of the first documented and most notorious uses of the tonka bean in perfumery is dated back to 1882 when it was used in the composition of the Fougère accord. Consisting of lavender, oakmoss and tonka bean essence (coumarin) the result was a classic and crisp aroma that synthesized the elegance of a tuxedo. The Fougere accord represented the creation of an entirely new fragrance family, particularly in the world of masculine perfumes, that still influences and inspires new creations to this day.
The fragrance of this plant is so pungent it exudes even from the trunk of its tree, and the bean remains fragrant for more than five years after being dried and crystallized. While its scent is reminiscent of the smoky and woody notes of amber and tobacco, the tonka bean’s fragrance is mostly known for its sweet and soothing scent that is the balanced combination of almond and vanilla. The heavy notes of the coumarin, the fragrant substance in the Tonka Bean, pair well with lemony and woody notes such as patchouli, lemon peel, roses, and sandalwood.
The use of the tonka bean goes far beyond perfumery, but without ever leaving the realm of sensory indulgence. Its use in culinary arts is strongly associated with its rich and borderline indescribable aroma. Chefs have connected its scent to a melange of vanilla, cherry, almond, coconut, sweet hay, licorice, cinnamon, and described it as being flowery, smoky, and nutty. It is considered an extremely versatile ingredient matching both savory and sweet descriptions, adapting its contribution to the plate according to the pairing ingredients. When used in cold desserts and cocktails, tonka bean possesses a caramel, dark honey vanilla flavoring, but when paired with warm savory dishes, it evokes a spicy, smoky vanilla taste. The use of the tonka bean is trending within Haute cuisine and reaches exorbitant prices in high-end restaurants in Europe; a good suggestion for those curious to integrate the ingredient in their own home is this home made ice cream recipe that proposes an edgy spin on the traditional vanilla ice cream. To experiment in the kitchen with tonka bean, read more here.
Not only is the tonka bean flavor and aroma intense, but it can also be dangerous. If consumed by more than one gram, coumarin can be toxic to our bodies, a major reason why the tonka bean is used limitedly in infusions or shaved as a garnish over meals. Even though the tonka bean itself presents no harm to human health considering it doesn’t contain high doses of coumarin the substance is being targeted by authorities such as the FDA and the IFRA, that have adopted standards for its use. There’s a limit of 0.1% of coumarin in any product that will be directly consumed by human beings, and not more than 1.6% of it can be found in the composition of fragrances. The solution many perfumers came up to deal with this issue has been the use of coumarone, a replacement for the sweet scent of coumarin that can be produced in the laboratory and doesn’t present any harm to the human body.
The Brazilian tonka bean has been in the perfume industry for more than a hundred years and it has been used to its full potential, discovering new possible pairings every day. It is present in some of the most classic fragrances in the book while also contributing to very modern and edgy perfumes.The complex essence of coumarin plays a crucial role in the Fougere accord, remaining in history as one of the key ingredients in the making of the modern masculine perfumery. As a matter of fact, our own Brooklyn- Violet Leaf fragrance encapsulates the essence of tonka bean, contributing to the sultry smokiness of the scent. As a rare ingredient to be found in stores I wonder: have you come across the Tonka Bean before? Share your impression with us below.