A Rose Garden Eighty Miles Long
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Ladies who are fond of the most precious of perfumes, attar of roses, will find, if they have the best attar, the name Kasanlik on the label. But where is Kasanlik, whether in Germany or France, or Italy, is a matter which not one lady out of a thousand bothers her fair head about. Kasanlik, however, is a little town on the Plain of Thrace, almost within shadow of the Balkans. The Plain of Thrace is like hundreds of others I saw in southeastern Europe—absolutely flat, and the mountains surrounding rising al-most precipitously. There is no undulation. All the valleys suggest the bottom of dried lakes cupped by hills. The remarkable thing is that this is the uniform topographical feature over a stretch of hundreds of miles.
Now a great slice of the Thracian plain is devoted to roses. In the district of which Kasanlik is the center there are one hundred and seventy-three villages devoted to rose culture. Roses, roses all the way, is the feature of the landseape. Where in other lands the peasants grow wheat and rye and feed cattle, here for long miles all the fields are rose gardens. It is the biggest rose garden in the world—eighty miles long. The world seems dotted with roses; the air is heavy with their perfume. It is not the richness of the soil that produces the abundance. The soil is rather indifferent, but there is a peculiar quality about it—like the soil of Champagne for grapes—which produces the rose most capable of yielding an exquisite essence.
The distilling of roses began in Persia; the word "atar" (fragrance) is Persian. Until three hundred years ago only rose-water was obtained. It was about the beginning of the seventeenth century that the method of securing the real essence was discovered. From Persia the art spread to Arabia, from Arabia to the Barbary States, and from the Barbary States a wandering Turk brought a rose tree to Kasanlik. The "Rosa damascena," grown in such quantities, is the same as the "Rosa damascene" grown in Tunis, tho now in decreasing quantities. The "Rosa alba," also grown, can be traced, in a sort of backward route, right through the Turkish Empire to Persia, where it is abundant.
Fifty years ago something between four and five hundred pounds' weight of attar was produced at Kasanlik. In 1904 the exact amount was 8,147 pounds. It is by an accident that rose culture on so gigantic a scale has grown up in this out-of-the-way part of Rumelia. But every-thing is favorable. The mean temperature is that of France; the soil is sandy and porous,. and the innumerable rivulets from the mountains provide constant irrigation.
There are plenty of other regions favorable to rose-growing. No region, however, is quite so suitable for roses needed for attar. The attar rose is sensitive to climatic conditions. Exactly identical methods with those followed in Bulgaria have been adopted at Brussa, in Asia Minor, but not with success.
The rose plantations of the Kasanlik region are not arranged in isolated plots or in narrow little hedgerows, as in the rose district of Grasse, in France, but in high parallel hedges, about a hundred yards long, taller than a man, and with a space of about six feet between them. The setting of a plantation is peculiar to the locality. Entire branches, leaves and all, from an old rose tree, are laid horizontally in ditches fourteen inches wide and the same depth. These boughs, each about a yard long, are placed side by side, four or five abreast, and form a long continuous line in the ditch. Part of the earth taken from the ditch is piled lightly on the branches, and above the furrow is placed a slight layer of stable manure.
The rose harvest begins with the flowering time, about the middle of May, and ends about the middle of June. Conditions most favorable to the grower are for the temperature to be moderate and the rain frequent, so that the harvest is prolonged for a full month. Great inconvenience is caused if the harvest is quickly over. Gathering takes place every day during the blossoming period. Every flower that has begun to blow, and every half-opened bud, is plucked. A hectare (two and two-fifths acres) produces generally about 6,600 pounds of roses, that is almost three million roses. These three million yield at most two and one-fifth pounds of attar. With regard to distilleries the question of water takes the lead, for unless water is at hand distillation is impossible.
The distilling apparatus is simple. Its essential part is a large copper alembic, about 4 feet 10 inches high, resting on a brick furnace. The alembic consists of a cistern with a peculiar mushroom-shaped head, and a cooling tube. The cost of the alembic is reckoned according to its weight; thus one weighing about 163 pounds cost about £4 6s. The cost of the vat into which the cooling tube enters from 2s. 6d. to 10s. The cooling tube enters at the top on one side, and passes out into a flask at the lower part of the other side. The operation of distilling rose-water lasts about one to one and a half hours, and is repeated again and again until all the petals picked that day have been used, because petals distilled after twenty-four hours' delay have lost so much of their scent that they only afford an unfavorable yield.
No perfume is quite so strong as that of attar. Remember the yield is less than one twenty-fifth of one per cent. (0.04) of the roses used. For 1 pound of attar more than 4,000 pounds of roses are needed. The peasant gets about 18s. an ounce. For the same thing, as sold in Paris or London, the price is £S an ounce.
So strong is the odor that nothing short of a hermetically sealed jar will restrain it. A glass stopper, however tight, will not keep it back. In-deed, so strong is genuine attar of rose that it is nauseating. To remedy this and make it genial to the nostrils may be put forward as a kindly explanation why it is so often adulterated and weakened. To be in a Kasanlik store was to be in a thick and sickening atmosphere. I put my nose over a copper jar in which was £8,000 worth of attar, and the smell was so powerful as to be disgusting and productive of headache.