Unlike the scent of ylang-ylang flowers drifting over the tarmac as I land in Madagascar, the roses of Bulgaria hold their precious scent close.
The rose harvest region is vast and produces over 80% of the world’s rose oil.
The essential oil distillate has a fresh, floral, green, grassy note; a young fragrance that needs time to mature in glass bottles to settle into the iconic and most popular raw material in perfumery today.
Bulgaria harvests flowers from the thorny bushes in May, and the farmers mark this annual tradition in an austere way. Bulgarians have seen communism come and go, had their farms taken and returned, and though the empty towns have a bare, stripped-down quality, the strong, hardy roses, the cornerstone of perfumery, flourish in the soil and bring a touch of femininity to the Kazanlak region.
When I create a perfume with rose, I start by blotting the oil on a paper card and then on my hand. I leave it to settle, to develop – and I note every subtle, changing nuance.
Finding other raw materials that are also harvested in the rose-growing region lends inspiration to my perfume formulae: juniper, a piquant carbon dioxide extract, will form the volatile, top-flight note of this fresh rose perfume. Linden blossoms on a tree abuzz with bees will amplify the rich pollen note, reminiscent of jasmine and honey.
Dimitar and his wife farm the rose land. In a sparse back room, behind their distillation machine, a map of the region has pride of place. On the table lie vials of Dimitar’s prize offerings: rose oils that take all year to nurture after the patient wait for the abundance of just three weeks of harvest. Each vial has its own qualities, and I discover that this is based on which day the flowers were picked and steam distilled.
At the end of the season, these daily yields are carefully blended and sold off to markets such as China (which appreciates fresh, green rose), or the United States (which prefers a sweeter rose), the British (tea rose) and the Europeans (honeyed rose).
“Noses” (expert perfumers) are flown in from around the world to blend the oils together to compose market blends. The oil is still 100% pure rose, but is tweaked by the noses.
Each farm I visit has its own heritage and history: from a young technology-driven entrepreneur to a third-generation family at my last stop supplying flavours and fragrances. Each has their own methods and ways, but all with the same goal in mind: a fine balance between quality and quantity, seeking the most exquisite oils and, at the same time, perfecting methods for high yields. Because the roses are only harvested once a year, the price fetched by the oil must sustain the families surviving off the land in the famed Balkan Rose Valley until the next harvest.
Eleven months on, what started out as a trip to educate and inspire myself has seen me forge ongoing relationships with the men and women who grow and harvest the roses of Bulgaria. I am now able to do serious negotiations to buy 500 litres of pure rose water – an African hand helping to preserve this fragile and dignified business.