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Rose Oil of Bulgaria

Bulgaria's world-renowned Valley of the Roses or Rozova Dolina as it is known in Bulgaria lies tucked between the Balkan Range and the Sredna Gora.

The area is aptly named after the massive rose plantations, from which the area earns its income. In fact, the area between Klisura and Kazanlak produces a staggering 70 percent of the world's rose extract.

How it all Began

Rose growing is believed to have started as a cottage industry during the 1830's, the hobby of a Turkish merchant who was enamoured by the scent of the wild Shipka Rose. The cultivation of the Bulgarian roses soon proved so successful that rose bushes were exported to the Russian and the Ottoman Empires. Rose oil at this time was made with small domestic stills and copper cauldrons imported from Persia and Tunisia. Since the 1830's much time and effort has gone into perfecting the rose planting. The method known as kesme is still rooted in traditional methods simply because no other method to cultivate roses is able to preserve the rose's unique qualities.

By the 20th century, Bulgarian rose oil was a large-scale business, but during the Second World War, the industry came to a standstill, discouraged by the Germans who wanted to flood the perfume market with their manufactured scents. However the industry was swiftly revived after this period and production today is a major industry in Bulgaria.

A Sea of Roses

Rose oil is obtained from the petals of the roses and used in perfume manufacture by most of the world's leading international perfume houses. There are over 5,000 varieties of roses, but only a limited number of them are suitable for the production of commercial rose oil. Rose bushes are grown over 14,000 acres of land and the rose fields are planted with either red roses (rosa damascene) or white roses (rosa alba) and produces up to 1,400 kg of blossom, which is effectively three million rosebuds. Until 1970, the pink rose plantations accounted for around 90 per cent of all rose oil produced and white roses were only planted at high altitudes. Between 3,000 to 6,000 kg are needed to make just one litre of rose extract. Kazanlak is also home to a research institute, which tests pesticides and breeds new rose hybrids. The research laboratories gardens are alleged to contain every rose ever grown in the world! The health benefits of rose products are endless, from drinking rise water for internal health and using rose water or oil to get rid of dry skin on face

Bulgaria's Secret Distillation

The way the Bulgarians distill their rose oil is unique; the oil is distilled in a similar way to Bulgarian Rakia through multiple distillation and like Rakia, rose water of higher alcohol content was obtained.
Distilling the rose oil is done in large stills, which were once made from copper. The stills are filled with petals and water and are heated for up to two hours. This process causes the vapourised rose essence to pour from the still into condensing apparatus and then into a flask. The oil collected makes up 20 per cent of the final product. The water, which condenses alongside the oil is collected and redistilled to obtain the water-soluble part of the rose oil, which are an important component of the scent. This water makes up 80 per cent of the oil.

Rose oil is a dark green colour, which forms white crystals when left at room temperature, but these will disappear when the oil is warmed. The extract also has a strong but pleasant smell, but not one reminiscent of fresh roses. When it is made into perfume it is diluted.

During production the residue of rose water and the pulp remain; they are redistilled and are used to produce herbal medicines, flavourings, sladko jam, beauty products and rosaliika liqueur.

Harvest Time

The roses are left to grow to head height and are then harvested during May between 3 am and 8 am in the morning mainly by nimble-fingered local women. Harvesting takes place at such anti-social hours because once the sun rises, half of the oil evaporates in the heat. The petals are taken in carts to distilleries around Rozino, Kazanlak and Karnare.

Each year, the area celebrates the harvest with the Festival of Roses, which originates from the time when old rose growers used to arrange processions of people involved in the harvest dressed in roses. Kazanlak's first Rose Festival in occurred in 1903 and was repeated a few years later in Karlovo. By 1967, the festival had become a national event with manufacturers from the whole valley parading the streets and masked kukeri dancers singing and dancing. Celebrations are now held in several of the Rose Valley's towns including Pavel Banya, Kazanlak and Karlovo. During the festival, a Queen Rose is elected to lead the parade.