LET'S PICK SOME ROSES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgief

Ultimate Bulgarian experience first hand

bulgarian rose 3.jpg

Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places. Here, in the so-called Valley of Roses, the pink, rather unremarkable Rosa damascena blooms in May and early June, filling the early morning air with its thick, dizzying aroma.

The precise date when the oil bearing rose arrived in the Bulgarian lands has been lost in history, but it probably happened in the 18th century. The new plant felt well in the dry soils and moderate climate of a valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges. In the 19th century, towns such as Karlovo and Kazanlak became centres of a growing production of attar of roses that supplied markets in Europe and beyond.

Today, the Bulgarian rose oil remains a strong presence in the international market and is a vital ingredient for some of the largest international cosmetic companies.

The Bulgarian attar of roses is so highly valued internationally mainly for its rich and lasting aroma, the result of a unique combination of over 300 different components. The rose flowers get processed through water distillation, which results in two products: the strong-smelling and very expensive attar and the cheaper rose water. Almost 100 percent of the attar produce is exported to established markets in France, Germany and Switzerland, and emerging ones like the United States and Australia, with client companies including Chanel, Nina Ricci and Christian Dior. While the attar gets sold to the major perfume producers in the world, the water is used for more affordable cosmetics, soap and even food processing.

While the Bulgarian oil bearing rose does belong to the Rosa damascena species, it has a strong local twist. The local variety, the Kazanlak rose, is perfectly adapted to survive colder winters thanks, some speculate, to crossbreeding with the Bulgarian rosehip. The Valley of Roses is the ideal spot for the plant thanks to the combination of the climate, fertile soils that are not too heavy, soft water with low calcium content and an abundance of sunny eastward-looking fields.

Production in Bulgaria boomed under Communism thanks to a combination of nationalised pre-1944 production facilities and fields of roses, and the ambition of the government to put a more scientific approach to cultivation and production of essential oils. After the collapse of the regime, much of this was lost. Rose fields and distilleries were returned to their previous owners or their heirs, but few of them had the impetus to take over the business. Dozens of acres of roses were uprooted and replaced with less demanding plants. Factories were abandoned and fell into disrepair. International competition from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and China also got stronger.

Production began to revive in the 2000s, powered by ambitious family businesses and EU funding. In 2008, the oil-bearing rose was chosen as one of the country's symbols in a widely popularised campaign, and in 2014, Bulgarian rose attar became a protected designation of origin.

Today, special events advertise rose attar production in particular and the Valley of Roses in general to Bulgarian and foreign visitors. The Rose Festival in Karlovo and Kazanlak is best known for its organised rose picking sessions and beauty pageant. A state museum and a private amusement site are vying for visitors' attention.

However, there is a darker side to the Bulgarian oil bearing rose. The deregulation of the 1990s-2010s resulted in a total loss of control over the varieties farmers grew, and the quality of their rose attar. The Oil Bearing Rose Act that regulates production and secures sustainable product quality was adopted as late as 2020.

Profits remain highly dependent on the annual harvest.

The heavily promoted image of smiling Bulgarian beauties picking roses under the balmy early summer sun could not be further from reality. Picking roses is a tough job that can only be done by hand between 5 am and noon, when the flowers are heavy with morning dew and are at their most fragrant. As a result, most of the petals in the fields are picked by seasonal workers, mainly Gypsies.

Climate change also affects the Bulgarian oil bearing rose. As the climes get hotter and drier, some adventurous farmers have started trying to grow Rosa damascena outside of the Valley of Roses.

Meanwhile, your best chance to experience first-handedly both the charm and the thorns of Bulgarian oil bearing rose is to join one of the rose picking events organised during the Rose Festival. This year you can do this on 19 May in Cherganovo from 9.30 am, on 25 May in Kanchevo from 9.30 am, on 26 May in Rozovo from 9.30 am, on 1 June in Yasenovo from 9.30 am and on 2 June near Kazanlak from 10 am. All of these, with the exception of the 2nd of June event, will be followed by a demonstration of rose distillation at Kazanlak's Museum of Roses, from 11 am.

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