Centuries ago pomander balls were the traditional New Year’s gift, given as a sign of esteem and good luck. King Henry VII is said to have given one to each guest, tied with a sprig of rosemary, for remembrance.
Originally, pomanders were made from gold, silver, china or ivory, fashioned by silversmiths or jewelers. They were encrusted with jewels and filled with perfumes, herbs and spices.
The beautiful balls were hung from chains and wore around the waist or tiny ones were worn as a locket. Queen Elizabeth was said to have always worn one to ward off disease, and Cardinal Wolsey to have carried a hollowed out apple or orange filled with spices.
The early name for these fragrant balls came from the French, pomme d’ amber, pomme not for apples, but for the resemblance to apples, and ambergris, a substance found in whales used as a chief fixative.
Pomanders were carried by doctors, lawyers, judges, soldiers, travelers and courtiers. It was believed the scented balls would protect one from sickness including the plaque, relieves one from the stench of battle and were used when walking the streets lined with open sewers.
While these pomanders were far too expensive for the common person, it wasn’t long before pomanders were being created, first from oranges, then from apples. Whole cloves were inserted into the fruit then rolled in spices and herbs and allowed to dry. These crude imitations of the jewel encrusted versions provided the same relief from the stench of the day.
When the pilgrims came to America the fruit pomanders came with them. They were known as coffin balls in the New England colonies. The clove studded balls were placed in the coffins, kept in the attic to receive those that did not survive the harsh New England winters. The coffins and their contents would be laid to rest when the ground thawed in the spring.
Pomanders are a delightful part of history. Used today they impart a spicy fragrance to any room and will repel moths and other insects from closets and drawers. To make select fresh, unbruised fruit, oranges and apples work best. Crab apples make tiny versions and I have used other citrus fruit as well. Insert whole cloves into the skin, completely covering the fruit. If the skin is too tough, pierce the fruit with a nail or sharp object first, then insert the cloves. Roll the clove covered fruit in a mixture of ground cloves and other herbs and spices of your choice. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg are good choices. Place in a cool dark place and allow to dry for several months. Turning once a week. The fruit will shrivel and turn rock hard. Tie a pretty ribbon around the pomanders and hang in the closet or place several in a wooden ball to spice up a room