Sunday, May 3, 2015

Strong and Sweet Berber Roses!

We’ve come to Kelaat M’Gouna, in Southern Morocco, to see the rose harvest. Roses grow around the world, of course, but are a combination of fine, abundant, and suitable for extraction in only a few places: Morocco, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran. People have their favorites but I think it’s a matter of opinion to say that roses are “better” in this place or that. People have preferences, and most of that is geographic, or maybe even practical. Turkey and its fans consider Turkish rose far superior to everything, Bulgarians think theirs is the best, and Iranians are sure they have the best roses in the world. Many people who use and buy rose will trumpet one of the other and point quite seriously at some constituent or other and use it as proof that their favorite rose is the best one. I think that’s complete nonsense. Roses of all origins are subject to the vagaries of their processing, but a fine rose extraction can come from many roses. And we are all sure loving our Moroccan rose.

One of the primary things we love at Enfleurage is the connection between the plants and their terrior, including the people who live among them and their ways. We like to see how the plants thrive, their environment, who surrounds, them, who picks them, who distills or extracts them and how they do it. So we go see.

And here we are in the South of Morocco: Berber country. The roses who grow here are Rosa damescena, and beyond exquisite. Every color of rose appears, from the moment you land at the airport of Marrakech, through the streets, every town, and cafe we passed. But the ones in the fields, the strongest and sweetest ones, the ones picked and distilled, or made into concrete, or dried, or made into rose confiture, run mostly the spectrum of pinks, and they live throughout the green agricultural countryside, interspersed with wheat, olives, and various grasses. Plots are small, about a hectare apiece, but fortunately there are many of them in the limited space. Most of the surrounding area is dry and rocky high desert, with almost no rain, abundant wind, and plenty of rolling craggy hills and space. While surrounded by a huge rolling landscape, tucked into small valleys and wadis are oases and dense green carpeted farms. Gardens may be walled and we drove through town to a magnificent plot, certified organic and even certified AOP. The extreme creatures had an air filter in the field! An open air filter to remove particles from the air which might drift in from the road, although that road is lightly trafficked and pretty far away. I kid you not. First time i’ve seen this.

The roses are glorious! They are so strong, so sweet, really complex, dense, a fruity note and a hint of spice, but they differ from other roses in that there is a certain friendliness about them. They seem loving and accessible and their guardians allowed us to roam in the gardens freely, to play, and frolic, and smell, and taste. The Berber roses are strong and gentle, complex yet approachable, like the people who tend them.

There are four of us from Enfleurage on this trip and we are staying in a traditionally built family home-stay perched on an escarpment above the gardens. The food is lovingly prepared and all vegetables, of course! We drink plenty of vervain infusions and thyme tea and sit on the terrace endlessly watching the sunrise and moonrise and listening to the birds.

We spent our first day visiting the distillery and fields of the certified bio, AOP guy, and later went to the dynamic extractor for other essential oils and rose concrete, and they were again kind enough to let us play, and get in the way, and swoon in intoxicated bliss and the sweet rose fragrance which was really strong there. According to our hosts, here are some rough numbers for extraction:

4 tons (metric ones) of roses make 4000 litres of rosewater.
4 tons of roses also makes a litre of rose otto.

A ton of roses (1000 kilo) also makes a kilo of absolute.

Also, the entire rose season is 3-4 weeks, and the rest of the year the field just waits. So it’s a once-a-year harvest. Low yield and low return on acreage are the reasons rose is so expensive.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Valley of the Roses

Tom and I just took a little trip through Bulgaria’s Rose Valley. We rented a tiny car, thinking it would be appropriate, like it usually is when we cruise the county backroads of Italy or France. This time we got some sort of hideous miniature Toyota death-trap with barely any ground clearance and toy-sized, over-worn tires. The car probably weighed no more than us.

This may be fine to putter around a parking lot,  but we were out looking at distilleries and between the giant potholes on remote mountain passes,  dirt tracks with high weeds, and the flash flood we got stuck in, the car had no chance. The horrifying whine and metallic shrieks it let out when we started it up the last morning were breathtaking, and embarrassing! But the terrifying downpour, followed by a flash flood down the forested mountain in a remote part of central Bulgaria was somehow passable, even in our little float-away Toyota. And we lived, and the car even passed inspection somehow when we returned it, so no harm done. all in good fun, as we say.

Last of the pink roses into the still
We visited several distilleries, of various sizes, and nearly all of them were sophisticated  and professional, beautifully planted with roses and lavender. Quite different from our Laotian jungle stills, remote Indian stills, and our own small and remote frankincense stills in Oman.

We’ve got some fun and interesting things coming and I can’t wait!
Just a hint of things to come: Elderflower, Linden, and, of course, this years Rose Otto. I’ve just been reminded that we still haven’t received our Corsican order either. And that was from April. These things take time, and even though we ship immediately from the store, usually the day of purchase and for sure within 24 hours, it’s another matter with a big essential oil order and different countries. I totally understand and that’s why we ship in bulk to the US from our Omani distillery as well.
Pink Rose Otto 2014

Bulgaria has some great food, in Sofia, as I wrote before, and Kazenlak has less of that, but they do have a wonderful green grassy area in the central square with magnificent roses, and huge evergreen trees and somewhat friendly and adorable cats flopping everywhere. Other than that it’s pretty limited. The countryside is gorgeous and bucolic, with mountains, lavender and rose fields, and wildflowers. Sheep, cows and horses graze freely and everywhere you look people are gathering wild herbs in bags. You still see working horse-carts, even in Sofia.

We learned a couple of things I’m shocked we didn’t know (as usual.) One of them is that the White Rose is not a damescena variety. It’s Rosa alba. Only. The white rose season overlaps with the pink one; it’s just a little later so even though the pink roses ended this week, the white ones are still blossoming like crazy, being picked and packed into the stills.

For anyone who might not easily remember the difference between the odors of these two roses, the pink ones are juicier, richer, stronger, and more feminine I think. The white as less strong, a little more austere and with green notes, while still maintaining their strong rose personalties. If the white is spirit, the pink is emotion. If the white is yoga, the pink are tantra. If the white are kirtan, the pink are the blues.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ciao, Italia! Здравей България! (Hello Bulgaria!)

Gelato school is over for me. I’ve already done the apprenticeship. What a wonderful time I had in Italy. The people who are attracted to Italian gelato are really friendly and warm. I made some great friends and learned a lot of things I will be putting into practice  soon enough. I made some frankincense gelato with roses and also got to experiment with chocolates, which is something I’ve never done before. There are some incredible things you can do with ganache! So with a certain regret, I left Bologna, and made my way east, to Bulgaria, for the next stage of the trip.

I’m waiting for my accomplice here in Sofia, and then we are off to see a harvest. It’s been a ridiculous amount of time since I’ve been in Eastern Europe--it was still communist back then! The last time I was in Bulgaria it was 1986 and nowadays if I tell anyone that they blanche, because they might not have been born yet! It’s a shock, I know. What I remember most was Plovdiv in the late autumn. It was freezing cold and we were hitchhiking to Istanbul. We had three day transit visas for Bulgaria, obtained that morning from the embassy in Beograd. We weren’t allowed to leave our vehicle, basically, but our vehicle was a Turkish TIR truck and he threw us out into the icy night a few kilometres before Plovdiv. Fortunately it was in a parking lot for a hotel. Unfortunately we had no local money and they guy at the desk didn’t give a damn and wouldn’t let us have a room anyway. Fortunately the guy also didn’t give a damn if we slept on the lobby furniture. I remember we scrounged some leva for coffees once the coffee shop opened at 6 am.
Ganache heaven: lavender, strawberry/jasmine, frankincense

We weren’t allowed to hitchhike, as we were supposed to leave with the truck--but we had to since we were illegally stranded in lightly falling snow on the wrong side of Plovdiv with two days left to get to the Turkish border. We tried to be unobtrusive. But we were obvious in our westernness. Everything about us screamed America! Somehow, luck continued to play nicely with us, but not without drama. We got a ride from two thickset laborers in a work truck, who took us into Plovdiv and let us out behind a building when no one was around. On the way we got stopped by the police! in 1986 Bulgaria these kind men would have been in big trouble for picking us up. But as luck dictated, we were stopped for some completely unrelated reason, and we hunkered down on the console, flattening out like cats, and absolutely still, with a blanket over us. The driver got out and greeted the police and they never came to check the cab of the truck.

Once left in Plovdiv, we had to walk out of town to find our next ride, and so began a Plovdiv-long walk but our luck held--we saw policemen, but their backs were always turned. After an hour or two scuttling along nervously, we got to a suitable spot, stuck out our thumbs, and found our next ride, another Turkish TIR truck, who did in fact take us to Turkey, albeit with more drama, but that is another story. What sticks in my mind about Plovdiv is that there was nothing really for sale. The market, which I had to stick my face into, had something like three bottles of milk and a sausage. The department store had nothing to  dress the windows and so someone had cut out flowers from colored construction paper and these were the display.

It’s a little different these days.

Since we haven’t seen any aromatics yet all I can comment on so far is the food but it’s really great. There is an emphasis on organic and local, like in Italy, and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I ate mashed stinging nettles with cheese and eggplant (aubergine) and it was one of the best meals of my life. Now that’s saying something.

The bread is fantastic, very Balkan somehow, chewy and strong, delicious. The fruit is wonderful and they sell raspberries in cups at the farmer’s market, to eat as you stroll, with a little fork. And this is in the eggplant region. In my opinion, there are few places that actually understand eggplant. Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, maybe some of these other small countries in the vicinity. Otherwise it’s hit or miss.

The people are ridiculously helpful--the extraordinarily handsome baker gave me a piping hot loaf of his olive bread this morning. The language is very hard and I can say nothing! Strangely, some people speak Spanish. There are all kinds of small artisanal businesses everywhere, like in Italy, and if this sounds strange that I’m commenting on it, then you don’t live in the Gulf.

The overall esthetic is really interesting. It’s not slick at all, although locals have told me that Sofia is changing, for the worse of course. But to a foreigner like me, it’s really cool. Most of the buildings in my neighborhood still look socialist-era and even crumbling a bit in places. The cyrillic alphabet looks very exotic to me and the straightforward Bulgarian communication style is really exciting somehow. The streets are lined with trees and the lindens are in bloom--the fragrance of Sofia is sweet nectar.
Abandoned house in the middle of Sofia

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Smell and Taste-- a Match Made in Heaven

There’s an enormous affinity between the worlds of perfume and food. If you get testy about what I mean with the term “perfume,” just lighten up, please. Even a single essential oil contains a huge range of notes--This is why they can’t synthesize rose. A single oil, however, doesn’t contain an entire story, an entire world, a structured hierarchy, the layers of textures and the complexity of perfumes. Of course not. The oil can be complex but remains ensconced within his own character. Take our frankincense oil--flowers, fruits, piney wisps, a crust of gold--you can enjoy his complexities and breathe him in and revel in his personality but it’s an individual experience, I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s how I see it.

A perfume, on the other hand, tells a story. It’s far more complex, and if you are unfamiliar with the perfume, you never know who is going to arrive next, which note. It’s an orchestra. So you can be surprised and delighted by the unexpected. I think food, or more precisely, taste, is the same. Taste and smell go and in hand; they compliment each other, and one can only be realized to his full potential with the help of the other. The enjoyment we get from our food, if we love eating well, is enhanced by smell, both before we eat, to whet our appetites, and during the meal.

I am in Florence, Italy, at the moment, taking a weekend break from my Gelato studies in Bologna. And yesterday I had lunch in an ancient inn in the San Niccolo neighborhood at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo. I ate in the basement and enjoyed such a sample, fresh meal--salad of rocket, pears and brie, with the local olive oil and balsamic vinegar (and yes, I know Brie is not local to Tuscany but it was still mighty fine.) The accompanying bread was made without salt, very interesting, and not something I expected. The main dish was a butter and sage ravioli. The ricotta filling was impregnated with a perfect harmony of sage, and the butter seemed to have a gentle infusion as well. It was perfectly balanced, a wonderful journey, with a local Tuscan red wine, with its own symphony of notes, reds, blackberries, woods and spice. This with the butter and sage and the flat rough taste of the bread, following the opening notes fresh green and spicy rocket, sweet pear and cheese, in oil and balsamic was a gustatory perfume, a scent orchestra, a scent sculpture, as my friend Christophe says, if one ever existed. What else can you call it? My sense of smell was fully engaged, as was my sense of taste.

I know, of course, that perfume is different. Many, if not most notes one can find in a perfume are not available as tastes (although the imagination can be tricked into thinking so.) But there are enough similarities to make it interesting, n’est pas?

We can use essential oils in food, sure. Just be objective and critical in deciding which ones to use and make sure you have a good supplier. If you are eating your oils, even in the tiny quantities we must use, they are still going to be metabolized, so be smart. But don’t get crazy and start talking about “food grade” and “therapeutic grade” and all that rot. It’s nonsense. Nor does having the organic certificate mean all you want it to mean. If it’s a French oil, great. Organic certification usually means a great deal in France. But in India? Not the same. And our frankincense is not certified organic at all. However, the oils come from plant material that is remote and wild and clean. The reality of essential oils is usually going be different than what you might expect or hope. Not worse, but different. The cleanest oils in the world might not be certified and yet you might have a supplier who offers any old shlock with a good pedigree, which may be fake. This goes for many certifications, by the way, including CITES. So it’s up to you, and your supplier, to figure out what you want to use.

And we needn’t use only essential oils in our food. There are infusions, herbs, flowers, different ways to cook, hydrosols, aging processes, and the like. Your imagination is the only limit.

I started this post to write about gelato! As usual, I got sidetracked. Gelato and ice cream are ideal vehicles for an aromatic adventure into gustatory wonderland. When you start with a fresh white canvas, using fresh milk and cream, you have a perfect three dimensional bed to let your aromatic imagination run wild, and essential oils are a perfect and easy way to realize this.

This summer, why not try it for yourself? Countertop ice cream machines are readily available at any home store. Why not try making your own homemade ice cream using essential oils? Lavender, rose, lemongrass, lemon myrtle, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom,   peppermint, geranium......all these are extremely suitable for ice cream flavors. Or steep your milk in tea and add a little bergamot oil for Earl Gray ice cream. Steep it in coffee and add cardamom. The list is long and varied. And of course there’s chocolate.

 If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already an essential oil enthusiast. So you probably have a good idea of how strong the oils are. Base your recipe accordingly. Don’t worry too much about using so much you will hurt yourself. The recipe will be far too strong to eat well before that. Always start your experiment with one drop and work your way up from there. Different oils have different flavor strengths. So if two drops works with one oil, another ice cream might need six. Or one.

Please bear in mind that we are prohibited by law to claim medical benefits from the oils, or to recommend internal use of them. Cooking and using them for flavor is different from taking them as a medicine but you’re still using them internally, so be smart.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wild Alpine Lavender

Long long ago I met a woman at a small essential oil exhibition in Nice, France. She distilled lavender from various altitudes and also juniper, myrtle, savory, and a few other oils. Her oils were so expensive! But they were some of the best, sweetest and had the most hallucinogenic quality I’ve ever smelled.

We had her lavenders, some of them, in the store, and some other oils too. Her lavenders are categorized by altitude, starting at 1200, and every 200 metres thereafter up to 1800. After the 2001 attacks in New York we stopped carrying her oils, as the shipping into New York was a problem. We had a hard time with many of our international suppliers then, with our own twin impacts--the financial one, as so many businesses suffered economically in the aftermath, and also through the freight and shipping laws, which became, and continue to be, hideously expensive, excessively limited, difficult to navigate, and illogically constructed. From her remote location in the Alps above Nice, from her tiny village peaked above the clouds, far above the Tinée, it was too much hassle to ship to New York with the panicked new guidelines. And so the years passed. And we have had other fine lavenders in the store.
One by one, over these years, we have gotten our more remote vendors back. The shipping is still insane, but we have figured ways around it. And now we have finally visited Madam Sylviane and her husband Alain at their farm of stone in the clouds in the mountains above Nice.

It’s so difficult to find! And a huge part of that is that it’s so geographically exquisite that it’s hard to pay attention to everything! Of course, being France, the road is lined with beautiful little towns with inviting brasseries, flowers everywhere, happy dogs and cats, and blossoming trees. FInd the road we eventually did, and then it was up into the snow peaks, and beyond the clouds to the restored farmhouse in the sky. The house and factory was an oil olive mill, abandoned after the first world war. Since 1996 they have restored and refurbished it.

Sylviane now only does the lavenders in large sizes--the other oils are tiny harvests. The lavenders are cut, at their varying altitudes, by hand, and this means by sickle. The area is remote, accessible only by Land Rover Defender! But it is still certified organic! There are two main stills, a 1000 litre, and a 100 litre, both of which were built by Alain. The distillations are steam, and the actual condensing method is their own. All hydrolats and oils are kept in the inner sanctum of the old oil press, where the temperature is consistently cool. 
It’s a relief to not have the latest in computerized technology shoved in my face--old style can be better in many ways, and inventions and improvements needn’t always rely on the electrical grid or the latest software. It’s wonderful that in France, small essential oil distilleries are allowed to exist and even thrive, at their own pace and under their own power. Self confidence and security and pride in one’s skill is an attractive trait indeed.

Wild Alpine Lavender hand picked at 1800 metres of altitude will be available in the store from April 14th.

The Temple of Distillation!

I don’t know how many years I’ve been trying to get to Corsica--plenty. Maybe 15? Our Holy Temple of Distillation is here, tucked adorably along the foothills of the Costa Verde. I was almost afraid to tell them we were coming, as I told them last year, and two years before that, and a couple of years before that, etc. Something always steps in and prevents us. But this time it seems we outfoxed fate, or she took pity on our poor, immortelle-craving souls. And here we are, Tom and me.

After attempting a shortcut (which turned out to be a three hour mountain detour on a one lane road in the drizzle, and dumped us right back where we started,) and arriving at our hotel on the beach only to find it completely closed and overgrown, (a more attentive reading of their email revealed they would only open May 16, and I had missed this because I read their confirmation for the year before,) we found ourselves in the town of Bastia, and this is fine indeed. We are warm, well fed and parked. Our little Peugeot somehow manages to accommodate our constantly engorging luggage, and us, as well.

Corsica is all about Corsica, meaning their local, regional products: their wines, cheese, charcuterie, essential oils, preserves, sweets, liquors, knives, pottery, artists, and music. I’m probably leaving stuff out. But I’m pretty sure you won’t find any Starbucks or American fast food chains here. We are in heaven. Everywhere you drive, every tiny road, no matter how remote, (and this is considerable here in Corsica) has signs for cheese, local wines, all kind of food items, or an announcement that a painter lives here, or there are rooms available with home cooking.

Corsica is probably best known for Immortelle, meaning Helichrysum italicum, or Helichryse corse. Local names (Corsica has its own language) are variations on Murza, Marella, Murella, etc. You are probably already familiar with this bright star of aromatherapy, known for its skin-healing properties. In any case, there are plenty of places you can read about this magnificent creature and his properties, both aromatherapeutic and aromatic, so I will not repeat.

Here’s the point! They were distilling petitgrain clementine. I had no idea that blossoms and even fruit went into that pot! No wonder this petitgrain is so exquisite!! The cuttings used are simply those cut off when the tree is pruned. And the whole kit ‘n kaboodle goes in. The distillation is a bit different than we use with frankincense--it’s steam and there is no water actually in with the plant material; the steam is heated separately and piped in through coils under a screen, and the plant material rests atop that.

Here’s what you will be able to find in the store this summer: Petitgrain clementine, petitgrain lime, green myrtle, laurel, corsican immortelle (after the harvest), and a couple of co-distillations as well. These are plants that wouldn’t ordinarily give up their scent--they don’t actually have essential oils in them, but are tricked and persuaded into giving up their scents. These are co-distilled with copaiba balsam. Copaiba has no scent to speak of, and holds other scents well. It’s a brilliant fixative! The hay and stinging nettle co-distillations are awesome.

We are also getting some alcohol extracts. These are made using organic wheat alcohol, then a device using ultrasonic vibration is used to disperse out the fragrant molecules. Raspberry, iris, cacao, coffee, vanilla, and honey!

The Keyserlingk farm was a pilgrimage for me; for years and years I wanted to see the distillations of these wonderful oils, so bright, so alive, so rapturous! The farm itself is biodynamic and the area around, where the wildcrafting happens, is certified organic. Small productions of farm olive oil and Limoncello are reserved for their use only and not sold!

This year we will be able to offer a small amount of Corsican immortelle--our regular Immortelle (helichrysum) is Bosnian but also exquisite and, as it turns, out, distilled on equipment Herr Keyserlingk made and by one of his students. It seems there are several of our distillers who look to Herr Keyserlingk as their mentor and teacher.
Once the Immortelle is distilled we shall have it, along with the twin petitgrains, both clementine and lime (and lemon as soon as it’s done.) These petitgrains are distilled after the fruit harvest slows down, and the trees are pruned. Still remaining on the tree are some fruits and some blossoms. I consider this an exquisite plus, as the petitgrain bitterness is enflowered and sweetened. So it seems most of our petitgrain, except perhaps the bitter orange one, are actually petitgrain over flowers (petitgrain sur fleurs.) What a happy situation!

Also happily on their way are the Green Myrtle and Corsican Laurel. These are wonderful, fabulous and so useful too! Both of them are head and shoulders lovely, bright and energetic, sparkling with life and robust! As you probably know, myrtle is great for the respiratory system, and very gentle--you can use it right in the shower, on the throat, lymph glands, chest....It’s excellent combined with Laurel, who is also known as the “Tree of Life” in certain parts of Southern France. Laurel is a great lymphatic stimulant and this is the pair to introduce your new day. I start my day with a dry brushing for the lymph, then these two in the shower, and of course then a strong coffee. It’s made me a morning person!

The Keyserlingk farm also makes hydrolats, including rose, and they have their own small rose still. The tiny amount of rose oil stays on the farm!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Most of the last 10 or so posts on this blog are reprints from my other blog, AbsoluteTrygve, which is now on semi-permanent hiatus. And that’s all the reposts there are going to be. I don’t like reposting them. Some of the information is no longer valid anyway, like the availability of sandalwood. And it just feels weird doing it.

But there is plenty more to write about!

But not today!!

It’s Christmas Eve, and even though it’s still the early morning, there is plenty to do!

Merry Christmas!