Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

balsam sometimes called balm but not to be confused with the plants bearing that name, is a compound of plant resins mixed with volatile oils, insoluble in water, used in the past for medicinal purposes but also sometimes as a flavouring.

These substances were originally obtained from the Near and Middle East, as balsam of Gilead or Mecca, and their use for medicinal purposes was in line with the Arabic tradition. Pomet (1712) devoted a lengthy passage in his history of drugs to describing these and other sorts and explaining their various remarkable features, such as how the Sultan of Turkey caused each of the small trees which yielded the true balsam of Gilead to be guarded by soldiers. The discovery of the New World added balsam of Peru and of Tolu (now Santiago de Tolu, in Colombia) to the list; and these too were described by Pomet.