Monday, December 16, 2013

Omani Roses

Letting the Roses sweat it out.
 This is a repost of an Absolute Trygve entry from 2011

I can’t quite believe how sweet the air is, and what on earth is it? There is an undertone of roses, and then roses cooking and then lavender, mint, myrtle, and all these crazy aromatic plants that are distilled up here in Jebel Akhdar.

I feel drugged. Could it be the kilo of these insanely redolent pink roses spilled out on my bed, just because I can? How about the stout and strong chunky lavender bunches we picked? Hard to say why, but I feel like a drunken sailor.

I drove up here from Salalah yesterday, way too fast, it’s true, but for once no one yelled at me. Staying at the unusual and cute Jebel Akhtar Hotel, which no longer has the worst food in Oman. I say it’s an unusual hotel because……for example, the bathroom floor near the toilet burned my feet. The man at the desk gives the most bizarrely incorrect information. When I rang to ask if the harvest had started this past weekend or next, he said roses would be coming in 2 or 3 months……that sort of thing.

But never mind because this hotel is very nice and even though it is a little pricy for what you get, never mind. It’s cool and the breeze comes in my window and there is big space outside. The air smells more than divine. And it’s quietish. Although some of the reason for that might be that tourists are a bit put off due to this being the constantly-in-upheaval Middle East.

So here I am with all my crap: alembic, cold box full of ice cream, 6 tupperwares full of candy, a box of Luban oils, a couple gallons of hydrosol (all completely potable now,) my normal amount of clothes, and the back of the car full of the usual things I have in the back of my car in Salalah: chair, mats, blanket, pillow, firewood….I am laden.
Rose garden next to a mosque.

Roses so sweet and fragrant they are candy on the vine.
This morning I was up and out early to see the harvest in action as the dew dries. Went up to Al Ayn, and walked through the village down to the terraces, greeting everyone as effusively as I could. I think they have had some problems with tourists here. No matter, everyone was nice to me and I bounced down some slopes, danced along the falaj, skipped and tripped through brambles and along fences high above the valley, and came to rest on the edge of a cistern, fed by falaj from ground water far above. I felt like a ladybug.

It’s the beginning of the season here so if you are in Oman, or anywhere in the Gulf, and planning to come, or thinking maybe it might be a good idea, however vaguely, to come, then for goodness sake, come, this harvest goes on another 3 weeks…..And the rosebushes are packed with buds. The air is sweet rose cream, you can’t imagine.

I sat there on the edge of the falaj, in the gurgle of the water, and watched the day begin, as men and women wandered onto the rose terraces to pick flowers. Wallahi, as I have picked up the habit of saying, it’s just divine. The soft and sweet scented air, the gentle morning breeze, the people quietly engaged in a serene and calm useful activity….. I sat there until the bees arrived, and then I went to photograph them.

These roses are Rosa rubigosa and you can damask me to death, but you got nothing on these intoxicating pink beauties. Every step I stopped to inhale another lovely burst of pink wonder, of pink sweet, of pink rose sugar, of pink spun sugar roses! I wanted to swoon but would have likely fallen to my death had I done, so refrained.

After some time I found myself back up top near the car and sped off to meet Salim, my guide. We went immediately to the Aromatic Plants Distillation Factory as run by Handicrafts. They apparently do all kinds of distillation here, including roses and even Luban, and peppermint, and lavender, etc, although right now it’s only roses of course. They distill in glass and distill for hydrosol. This hydrosol they sell locally here, in Nizwa, and at a special handicraft showroom in Muscat, which I never knew the existence of, naturally.
Terraced farmland

Terraced farmland in Jebel Akhtar
More terraces
But it sure was interesting to see this! Who knew? Lots of people I’m sure, but I wasn’t one of them. I always feel like I should have known about stuff like this.

Most of the rosewater comes from the Omani traditional distillation, which I finally have seen in action and have pictures of. You have these clay type ovens and gas going in, let’s say 4 rings, for four burners. The roses are crammed in a ring, in a pot inside, over the fire, and a small pot placed in the center of them. Above this is a hole, upon which is placed a pot of cool water. This is the condenser, kind of. The roses sweat and steam and condense on the underside of that cool pot, dripping back into the small pot resting in the center of the roses….does that make sense? The rosewater is taken without the roses going near any water! It’s almost creepy!! That water comes out of the soul of the roses themselves….Wow. It’s what gives them that smoky scent. Someone poured a few (boiling hot) drops on my hand and hours later it’s imbued me (and no blister either.)

The smoky Omani rosewater may be an acquired taste, but I can tell you it’s possible to acquire it. Just don’t try to compare it to Bulgarian or anything we think of as “rosewater.” The best use for it is in Omani Halwa, which is nothing like anything you know as “halwa” unless you have had the Omani one specifically. It’s a strange, ultra rich and oddly compulsive mix of ghee, sugar, pectin, pistachios, saffron, cardamom…..and when it’s from Barka then you are in fat city in more ways than one. It’s really, terrifically good. But wait til you get the Barka one and then you will understand the Omani rose harvest 100%.

Not sure if this is really lavender, but it smells like sunshine

Salim pointed out the Jebel Akhtar lavender to me. It’s just a weed growing everywhere, and luxurious in its stout, strong feistiness. If lavender is Laurel and Hardy, the Dhofari one is Laurel and this crazy Jebel Akhtar one is Hardy. Well, maybe not exactly, but where I have to cajole and manipulate the Dhofari one to give me a little love, a little juice, to shoot a little lavender scent into my nose, to get my fingers stinking with it, this Jebel Akhtar one plays no such games. He is generous and vibrant and my hotel room is reeking of him. He even has the stamina to go up against the roses. Not only are my fingers (on the un-burned-with-rosewater hand) covered with his scent, but so are my clothes. As if that weren’t enough, he comes out of the ground willingly and easily, flowers throbbing with life and excitement. I’m having a high old time with this lavender. Loving him.

Later we went by an old man’s house, where he had a traditional rose extraction going on. (Believe me the villages smell good around here.) He had given the best room in the house to some roses, picked this morning, and I bought a kilo of fresh and sweet, succulent pink sugar roses, to take to bed with me tonight, just because I can! Wallah.

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