Recollecting Fragrances of Taiwan at Mao Shiang Tan Fang

Author / Kerstin Hsu
Translation / Tina Teng
Photo / Kerstin Hsu, 茅鄉炭坊, My Saiology 匠生活

I have always thought scents are the best clues to a treasured memory. Candles, perfumes, flowers, essential oil, and soaps are all fragrances I use every day to satisfy my sense of smell and to etch different moments into my memory.

I traveled to Grasse, the perfume-making capital of Provence, to explore the origin of perfume. I made my way to Marseille to see how authentic Marseille soaps are made. I also found myself in Florence, dazzled by the historic pharmacy that started creating perfumes in the 16th Century.

A section of ramp before arriving at Mao Shiang Tan Fang used to be the only way to travel between the main traffic road and the mountainous area in the early days. (Photo/ 匠生活)

Coming back home after my travels, the immersive experience at “Mao Shiang Tan Fang” (茅鄉炭坊) in Miaoli made me realize that the scents of Taiwan are truly to be proud of.

Located in Shuanghu Village, Sanyi Township, Mao Shiang Tan Fang is a small community tucked away between the serene woods and an ancient trail. A visit requires a trek up the trail where farmers and workers hiked to transport charcoal in the early days.

In Western terms, Mao Shiang Tan Fang can be described as an atelier, a fragrance studio.

Inside the studio run several large wood-fired distillers, letting off steam that fills the studio while emanating a familiar yet indiscernible scent of the forest.

“This is the aroma of Taiwan cypress, lemongrass, camphor, and Taiwan incense cedar,” said the owner.

Sanyi Township is known for its wood sculptures, but in fact, it also made its name in essential oil and charcoal production in the last century. Sanyi was Taiwan’s major lemongrass agricultural site; in the 1950s, Taiwan’s lemongrass industry witnessed a robust development and was once hailed as the world’s number one lemongrass exporter. However, with the introduction of artificial fragrances, natural lemongrass oil was gradually replaced, and Sanyi’s lemongrass industry slowly faded from people’s memories. (Read also : Day tour in Miao-li)

The fragrance studio, Mao Shiang Tan Fang. (Photo/Kerstin Hsu)

Founder Lo Wan-Chen’s father was a Sanyi artisan who extracted essential oil for a living.

Lo reestablished the atelier more than twenty years ago, inheriting the essential oil extraction and charcoal production art from the old days. The Lo family recreated the lemongrass hut and acacia charcoal kiln while planting their own lemongrass to be later harvested, sun-dried and extracted using the traditional distillery process inherited from Lo’s grandfather. Essential oil and essential water are extracted using traditional wood-fire distillers.

The steps are as follows: sun-dried lemongrass is placed into boiler towers to be heated. The vapor produced passes through a condenser, making the steam cool back into liquid form. The liquid then passes through a separator to be divided into pure, all-natural essential oil and essential water.

An assortment of woodblocks is displayed inside the atelier, they are the raw material from which essential oils are extracted. Stout camphor, ho wood, and benihi all effuse deep woody aromas…As a Taiwanese, these are the aromas I grew up with, and a tour through the atelier transports me to different forests on the island.

Mao Shiang Tan Fang is equipped with a charcoal kiln and everything you need to refine lemongrass, camphor and cypress essential oils. The atelier displays an array of raw materials and finished products; it is unpretentious yet a true demonstration of pure craftsmanship.

Essential oil and essential water are extracted using traditional wood-fire distillers. (Photo/Kerstin Hsu)

During my visit to Mao Shiang Tan Fang, I had the pleasure to witness the refinery process for essential oil and essential water production. What an amazing treat to learn that the golden liquid refined from trees and plants can bring us such joy and relaxation. The first-hand aroma experience was truly unforgettable.

In the end, I carefully placed the stout camphor and ho wood essential oils into my luggage. Wherever I travel next, I will carry with me the scent of Taiwan. (The original from “許育華專欄|在茅鄉炭坊 記憶台灣的香氣“)

From The Chief Editor

Kerstin Hsu
Columnist, Magazine editor, Author of “Wallpaper City Guide Taipei“ and《戀物絮語》. Kerstin has been the senior lifestyle and design editor for international titles such as Marie Claire, Vogue, and GQ TAIWAN. Currently, she is the Chief Editor of Taiwan Scene and a columnist for several media such as United Daily News (聯合報).

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