Fascinating Article on Making Rose Water

Every Spring, An Idyllic Iranian Town Turns Fields of Roses Into Rose Water

By distilling their harvest of pink roses, locals make a fragrant ingredient.

A worker picks roses as butterflies dance over the fields.

A worker picks roses as butterflies dance over the fields. PHOTOGRAPHY BY EBRAHIM MIRMALEK

The soft, pink color of dawn still lingers in the sky, and the first golden rays of the sun are just starting to touch the tips of the surrounding mountains. Yet in the rose fields of Qamsar, a small town in the highlands of central Iran, work is already underway. Amid the chirping of nightingales, locals make their way into the fields, where the crisp morning air is heady with the thick aroma of Damask roses.

In a rose field on the outskirts of town, I watch as Javad Jafari picks rose after rose. His calloused, nimble fingers break each stem right below the petals with almost reverential delicacy, before he drops them into a length of cloth tied around his waist and neck. Like many of the other rose pickers who are busy in the fields around us, 66-year-old Jafari has been picking flowers since he was a young boy, helping his father in their family farm, or harvesting the flowers of neighbors. During the rose season, he wakes up at 5 a.m., says his morning prayers, and heads to the fields.

Javad Jafari, picking roses as the sun rises.
Javad Jafari, picking roses as the sun rises.

From late May to the middle of June, idyllic Qamsar becomes a dazzling canvas of pink roses. Rows upon rows of the plants, known in Iran as Mohammadi roses, bloom over the course of 25 days. Every year, hordes of tourists from all over the country and abroad come to watch as workers, farmers, and entire families pick roses and distill them into rose water.

Javad Jafari has been picking roses since he was a boy.
Javad Jafari has been picking roses since he was a boy.

The result is a culinary and therapeutic extract that has been used in Iran and the Middle East since ancient times. Qamsar is one of Iran’s main producers of rose water, an ingredient that flavors and aromatizes ice cream, baklava, rice pudding, and many other dishes in the Persian kitchen. Persians also use rose water to treat everything from headaches to heartache, as the fresh graves of the newly deceased are washed with rose water.

Across Qamsar, rose fields are in bloom.
Across Qamsar, rose fields are in bloom.

Rose water has religious purposes as well. Before the political rifts of recent years between Iran and Saudi Arabia, rose water from Qamsar anointed the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, twice a year. “This is the rose of the prophet, you know,” Jafari says, referring to the belief that the prophet Mohammad used the essence of Damask rose for both its fragrance and its therapeutic benefits. While the local name reflects this connection, abroad the rose often goes by Damask. One tale has it that the rose was brought to Europe by a crusader, who picked up the flower in the Syrian city of Damascus.

A rose picker, holding a handful of flowers.
A rose picker, holding a handful of flowers.

Yet research done by Dr. Ali Nikbakht, associate professor of horticulture at Isfahan University, postulates that the Damask rose was first grown and used in the Qamsar area 2,500 years ago. “The unique combination of strong sunlight and cool mountain air makes Qamsar ideal for the Mohammadi rose, with the roses grown there having the highest quality in all of Iran,” he says. At the time, rose petals were placed in oil to extract their essence. The first evidence of the steam distillation used today is found in the writings of Avicenna, the 11th-century Persian polymath who used rose water extract for medical purposes.

Javad Jafari leaving with his bag full of hand-picked roses.
Javad Jafari leaving with his bag full of hand-picked roses.

Jafari finishes picking the last of the roses just as the sun edges over the mountains, filling the valley with unwanted light and heat. “It’s best to finish picking them before the sun comes up over the mountains,” he says, explaining how direct sunlight and heat cause the delicate fragrance of the roses to evaporate, resulting in lower-quality rose water.

Jafari then swings a plastic bag containing over 15 kilograms of rose petals over his shoulder, and we make our way to a distillery owned by Haj Reza Aghayee, a relative of Jafari and a second-generation rose water maker. Like many other rose water makers, Aghayee has turned what used to be a seasonal job done by farmers into a full-time business that uses one ton of roses per season. Aghayee attributes the increase in sales to local transportation improvements and the recent popularity of herbal remedies in Iran. 20 years ago, he only sold rose water and a handful of other extracts, such as mint. “But now we sell over a hundred types,” Aghayee says.

Freshly picked flowers are poured into a copper still.
Freshly picked flowers are poured into a copper still.

Despite this prolific production, his distillery, like most in Qamsar, still employs traditional methods. In the distillery, Aghayee’s son Alireza adds Jafari’s roses, along with petals from other rose pickers, into a round copper still containing 70 liters of water. The amount of rose varies, depending on whether you want a “heavy or light extract,” Alireza explains. Their “two-fire” rose water, an exceptionally potent variety, is only made in small quantities due to its price and the huge amount of roses needed to make it.

Rosewater vapors collect in submerged flasks.
Rosewater vapors collect in submerged flasks.

Next, Alizera takes a metal lid, called a toghar, and places it on top of the still. Latching it shut, he turns on the flame below the still. Once the mix of petals and water has begun to steam, Alireza connects aluminum tubes to outlet valves on the still, guiding the fragrant steam along the tubes to large flasks submerged in a pool of cold, flowing water. For the next four hours, the steam will condensate and collect in the flask, producing about 40 liters of rose water.

In the Shahre Golab Rosewater Store, the distillation process has begun.
In the Shahre Golab Rosewater Store, the distillation process has begun.

With the process underway, Alireza turns his attention to a previous batch left to distill overnight. After removing the tubes and the lid, Alireza first removes the precious rose oil that has collected at the surface of the flask. He carefully lifts the jelly-like oils with a spoon and collects them in a jar. Later, it will be used to make perfume.

Then, after lifting the filled 40-liter flask from the pool of water with a small ceiling-mounted crane, Alireza pours the freshly distilled rose water into 20-liter tanks for storage. But first, each tank itself is rinsed with rose water to wash out any contamination. Rose water is very sensitive, he notes, and any droplets of water could cause it to prematurely lose its fragrance. Like the making of a unique wine, there are many subtleties to the distillation process. “They may seem like small things, but they make a difference in the final product,” he says.

Cold water is added to the rose petals.
Cold water is added to the rose petals.

In addition, the stills are strictly made out of copper, since copper catalyzes certain reactions that remove unwanted flavors. In other parts of the country, straight distillation tubes are traditionally used, yet distilleries in this region have always utilized two upside-down, V-shaped tubes to ensure that any impurities in the vapor are stopped in the upward slope of the pipe. After distillation, rose water is traditionally stored in tinted glass to prevent any loss of the precious scent that occurs with a plastic container. However, these days rose water is predominantly stored in plastic bottles, due to costs and breakage concerns.

Rosewater products, such as these inside the Shahre Golab Rosewater Store, are sought after by visitors to the town.
Rosewater products, such as these inside the Shahre Golab Rosewater Store, are sought after by visitors to the town.

Despite the harsh economic times in Iran, the rose water business is thriving as domestic and international demand continuously grows. It’s still only mid-morning, but Alireza has four stills simmering, and he is awaiting the next delivery of flowers. “Business is good,” he says. “We have five stills and we refill them three to four times a day.” His father agrees. “If you’d come here 50 years ago, you’d only find five rose water producers; now there are maybe over 200,” Aghayee says. While Bulgaria and Turkey produce more rose water than Iran, Aghayee sees change coming. “The industry is growing every year,” he says. “And that is great, because rose water is a Persian tradition.”

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The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina

This was an all day event for us. After entering the gate, you follow a lush, green winding road through the forest. I tried to imagine how it must have felt dressed in my finery, sitting in a horse drawn carriage, no, riding side saddle on a fine Tennessee Walker, trotting through the glade. It must have been such an honor to receive an invitation to stay with the Vanderbilts at their new country house. I’m sure it was the talk of the town.

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The Vanderbilt’s money came from steam ships among other things. They were one of the, if not the richest, families in the country. When the “house” first came into view, I was stunned with it’s majesty. It seemed so grand. I was unable to imagine that this was a home at one time. Where children grew up and played in the yard. And yet, having been into genteel society, they probably never ever considered that they were living in the lap of luxury. Such things just came naturally. The servants, the ponies, the fishing pond, the reflecting pools. Not a life I can conceive of ever living.

 This house is so large that I could imagine my seeing my husband in the drawing room and greeting him, welcoming him back from his trip only to find out that he’d been home for three weeks already! It is that big. I can’t imagine cleaning the bathrooms.

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If you go, wear good walking shoes. The inside tour takes several hours and I highly recommend taking advantage of the audio tour. You will get a lot more out of it than just walking around. The narration is well done. I especially loved the  winter garden, an inside courtyard filled with plants. High ceilings don’t even begin to convey how large the first hall is. It soars above your head. The grand staircase is off to the left and it is lined with windows and narrow doors that let the servants step out to clean them. 

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A lot of the walls were papered with velvets, fabrics, linens, tapestries and hand tooled leather. We got to tour the upstairs bedrooms and the guest’s living room, the billiard room, dining room (three fireplaces), the kitchen (there was a rotisserie kitchen, a pastry kitchen and the main kitchen.) There was an incredible indoor swimming pool, (you gotta see that one)and a bowling alley. The amenities they had in those days were astonishing.

The bad thing was that you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house. I think they want you to buy the postcards or the books. 

 Next on our list to do was the gardens. It is a walled garden filled with perennial and annual beds and rose gardens of which I took many pictures. The scents were incredible, the colors were vibrant. I can’t imagine how many people it takes to keep those gardens tidy. 

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Annual gardens just starting to fill in for summer.

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One of my faves, these look like Globemaster alliums with orange poppies.Image

Into the walled garden.Image

Pink roses with a center spot. None of the roses had names on the tags, just numbers. Maybe they are test roses or there is a brochure with the name sot match the numbers. Anybody know?

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Burgundy and chartreuse coleus in the pattern of diamonds. I was surprised to see them in the full sun.

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Red single roses with a yellow center. Very striking.

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A shot of the walled garden from another angle.

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The rose garden.

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This looks to be a coleus trained as a standard which I have never seen.Image

This is an attractive use of swiss chard in an ornamental basket with flowers.Image

A view of roses through a lattice keyhole.

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A wisteria covered walkway. Nice and cool on that hot day.Image

 

these are some kind of succulent hung in an old frame on the wall. Love it!

Just when we thought we were done (our feet were killing us and my knee was giving me considerable grief, all those stairs inside and out) we looked down onto a building filled with exotic tropicals and orchids. I picked up some design ideas and interesting color combinations.

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The conservatory

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Orchids and other tropicals.

Finally, our legs could do no more and we walked back up to the top to wait for the shuttle. I would have loved to have had a shuttle from the bottom of the gardens! 

 I would suggest that you take two days for the grounds and inside tour. As it were, we missed the azalea gardens, the italian garden, the reflecting pools, and the bass pond. There is only so much that a body could do.