Story and Photography by Catherine Enfield
Taif roses are considered the most fragrant in the world.
It is a long, curvy drive up the Saudi Arabian mountain to Alhada and then Taif, enough to make anyone motion sick. Yet many of life’s most beautiful things are found at the top of a climb. So it is with one of the world’s most expensive commodities–rose water and the rose oil that distills along with it.
The Taif rose, or Wardh Taifi in Arabic, is world-renowned for producing the most fragrant blossoms, used to create aroma and flavor in sweet and savory cooking. Rose and orange blossom flavorings have become synonymous with much of Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, especially desserts. It’s almost unusual not to have rose water in your pastry. Often the final touch will be a pour of warm rose syrup that soaks into basboosa, kenefe, or baklava. The floral note is the perfect accent to honey. It pairs well with all types of fruit, from berries to citrus fruits. In fact, rose was the flavor used for centuries before the discovery and importation of vanilla.
The origin of the Taif rose varies by storyteller. The most commonly told story is that it came via the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. With its cousin, the Damascus rose, cultivated in nearby regions in Turkey and Bulgaria, this tale rings true.
According to Ibrahim Al-Kamal, his ancestors had close relationships with Turks who taught them how to cultivate the flowers. The Al-Kamal distillery, located in the town of Alhada, just down the road from Taif, is the largest in the region with more than 120 distillation pots. As far back as the mid-1800s, Al-Kamal’s family learned the distillation process and started working on producing rose products. His son Abdulrahman Al-Kamal inherited the business, which has been passed down now for eight generations.
Taif roses are pruned during January. The bushes are trimmed down to the primary canes, forcing energy growth for the spring into creating more flowers and fewer leaves. Some clippings are collected and used to start new rose bushes.
Fresh blossoms are picked by hand in the cool mornings.
The rose bushes only produce blooms for a total of 20-40 days, but with the staggering of pruning and tending, the harvest on farms can be elongated to create a season lasting about two months - March through April. During that time, morning at the distillery begins with the arrival of the farmers and their daily harvest. Every day, the farms’ fresh blossoms are plucked by hand before the heat of the day dries them out and destroys the essential oils that are so precious.
The receiving and payment is done not by weight, but by flower count. This method is a way to combat any possible cheating of adding water to make the flowers heavier, so that it’s fair for all the farmers. Payment will not be done until the end of the season, when all days’ harvests are totaled.
The recipe for distillation calls for 15,000 blossoms to 25 liters of water. The bags of weighed flowers are taken to the distillation room where they are stuffed into the water to await boiling. A capture lid is placed on top of each vessel and any possible seams or pockets for air to escape are sealed with tape. The vapor is too precious to lose.
In days past, heat was created by burning wood. Today, the facility is piped with gas lines. Flames are lit and the kettles boil away for 6-8 hours. As they boil, the vapor is transported via a tube through a tank of cold water to force condensation. The condensed liquid slowly drips into a bottle below. Aside from advances like gas flame and tape, the overall process is the same as it was back in the late 1800s.
A ‘second cook’ is being prepared with rose water and fresh roses.
The process repeats daily with some exceptions. The first day, known as the first-cook, the water in the kettles will be fresh, clean, mineral water. The finished water can be bottled for use in foods or cooking. For a two-day cook, the kettles are filled with fresh roses and processed rose water from the previous day, concentrating the rose water. The water produced from a two-day cook is sold for beauty products.
Like cream that floats to the top of a bottle of fresh milk, the rose oil creates a thin, floating layer on top. The oil is carefully removed by eye-droppers and deposited into tincture bottles to be sold to perfumeries.
Rose water for cooking is only one of the many products produced.
At the end of the day, the rose mash within each kettle is tossed into a heap out back. Local farmers will come with tractor or truck to collect some of the mash to feed to their cows. It is said that it sweetens the milk.
Across the region, there are approximately 2,000 farms, growing millions of the same Taif roses. Their signature color of bright pink with a yellow center creates a brilliant carpet.
When the flowers are in bloom, at the beginning of April, the Taif Rose Festival takes place.
Festival staff will happily pour a large basket of roses overhead until the smiling participant is covered in a blanket of pink. The aroma is so strong as to be almost overpowering. The choicest blooms are picked out and packaged into small bags or boxes and sold to guests to take home for brewing in tea.
Local farmers deliver their morning harvest for weighing.
It is the signature flavor of roses that will transport many, through food, to the Middle East.