Tonka bean is today the queen of gustatory and olfactory pleasures! From pastries to perfumery, this mysterious ingredient now occupies a place of honor for its vanilla flavors and its powdery and almond notes. From its cultivation to its use in compositions, we reveal all the secrets of this raw material with its exotic and characteristic scent.
The history of the tonka bean
An exotic seed
The tonka bean comes to us from South America and more particularly from Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. It is the fruit of a tropical tree with a complex name: the Dipteryx Odorata Willd, also commonly known as coumaru or teak. This tree can grow up to 30 meters high and grows mainly in the tropical forests of South America, but it is now also cultivated in Nigeria. Tonka beans are actually the seeds of the fruit that grows on this tree. These fruits look like large almonds and contain a unique and precious shiny black seed, which is usually 4cm long. Depending on the climate, a tree can produce between 15 and 75kg of fruit per year.
Its use: from tobacco to perfume
In Venezuela, its country of origin, this little seed is said to have almost magical powers! Until the 1940s, this brown bean was commonly used as a money in commercial transactions. In South America, the inhabitants of the producing countries do not really consume it for its olfactory and gustatory treasures, but more for its therapeutic virtues. Even if these effects have not been scientifically proven, the seed is often used to treat certain ailments such as coughs, nausea or asthma.
Olfactory and gustatory power
One of the first uses of the tonka bean was to perfume… cupboards! The seeds were crushed and reduced to powder to be sold in small bags to be disposed in the linen. The fragrant power of the beans was also used to perfume blond tobacco and snuff (consumed by insufflation, i.e. by nasal injection). Tobacco manufacturers added tonka bean powder for its smooth, soft and warm aroma.
Finally, perfumers began to take an interest in this ingredient with its singular smell at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the house of Guerlain that brought a real boom to the tonka bean. It integrated it into its famous Guerlinade, a fragrance unveiled in 1921 whose wake became the brand’s olfactory signature. Since then, the tonka bean has become a highly prized ingredient for perfumers. It wasn’t until the 1940s that this bean began to appear in the kitchen. It is notably found in German gastronomy where it flavors Christmas cookies. In recent years, the seed has become a key ingredient for cooks who can rasp it, just like a nutmeg.
The tonka bean in perfumery
Cultivation and extraction
When the fruit of the tree ripens in winter, it falls naturally. The ripe fruit is then harvested the following spring. The fruit is picked by hand, by people called “sappapiero”. They are then dried for about a year. Once this ripening period is over, the very hard shell is broken with a stone or a hammer to extract a bean with brown skin and oily ivory-coloured flesh. The beans then dry in the sun and macerate in alcohol at 65° (usually rum) for 24 hours. The seeds then go through a final air-drying stage which lasts 5 days. This is a crucial stage where coumarin crystals, like white frost, will appear on the surface of the beans.
For perfumery, the macerated and dried beans is reduced to powder. They are then treated with volatile solvents to obtain a concrete. This substance is then rinsed with alcohol and delivers a tonka bean absolute. Its color is amber or brown depending on its concentration, and its smell is powerful.
A multifaceted scent
It is impossible to use only one qualifier to describe the smell of the tonka bean. It is a very rich and multifaceted scent. Often used as the base of a fragrance, the tonka bean brings a vanilla note, but more complex than vanilla itself thanks to an exotic aspect. We therefore find soft and sweet nuances reminiscent of almond, caramel or even pistachio and praline. But its notes are also woody and balmy, with a touch of tobacco, dried hay and honey.
The olfactory richness of this ingredient also comes from its main component: coumarin. It appears in the form of crystals when the beans are dried. The tonka bean contains about 45% coumarin, and it is this substance that reveals a very almond smell. In fact, coumarin was one of the first molecules isolated by synthetic chemistry in 1868. Nowadays, this artificial coumarin is mainly used to create vanilla and almond accords. The tonka bean absolute remains more complex with a vanilla bean aspect, a more toasted, almost animal olfactory sensation, reminiscent of a cigar.
Olfactory associations of the tonka bean
Thanks to its sweet scent, the tonka bean can be used in many compositions. It is often found in oriental fragrances where it subtly softens amber notes. The bean also goes perfectly with a fern or woody accord to bring roundness and warmth. It can also be found in fresher, more floral fragrances where it brings a smooth note and a touch of sweetness. Its multiple olfactory facets oscillate between bitterness and gourmand side allowing it to be interpreted in a thousand and one ways.
Carrément Belle and the tonka bean
This mysterious ingredient titillates our nostrils and our creations with its rich and powerful notes. This is how the tonka bean is used in several of our compositions to give them an even more special wake.
The delicacy of a praline note
We find the gourmand side of the tonka bean in our sunny and citrusy fragrance ippi patchouli clair. After a fresh and woody start, the fragrance reveals sparkling and floral notes. In this composition, the little seed takes its place in the base note, in a gourmand and praline wake that warms up the whole and promises you a fragrance you won’t be able to resist!
Between almond, vanilla and caramel
In the eau de parfum vanille, the coumarin contained in the tonka bean reveals all its gourmand, almond and caramelized notes. It combines with vanilla absolute to create a subtle, sensual and sweet accord. We also find its tobacco and spicy aspect, which brings relief and depth to the composition.
Did you know the origin of the tonka bean? Do you like to smell it in your fragrances?
Discover the fragrances mentioned in the article