Every spring something special happens on the green mountain. The roses start to bloom, and the farmers descend upon their fields to collect their precious pink flowers.
I knew roses are grown for making rose water on Jebal Akhdar, but that's about all I knew until I decided to investigate for myself with my microphone. What I discovered is a traditional, dainty, craft that continues to thrive despite its many limiting factors.
What wasn't limiting is the knowledge given to me by my new friends, the rose farmers I met in the village of al Ayn. Yahir al Riyami and Nasser al Riyami take us on an journey into the traditional life of the Omani rose farmers.
Weather is the main factor in determining if the rose harvest will be good or not. This year there didn't see much rain, and I'm told it is significantly affecting their yield. A days picking could yield ten kilograms of flowers, but this year is averaging six kilograms for Yahir al Riyami.
Typically the rose harvest starts at the end of March and lasts for about three weeks. However, a bit of rain can fend off the rising heat and extend the season for another week. This year the farmers received a day of rain just after the roses stoped blooming, unfortunately.
Water is another factor in determining a good rose harvest. If the tanks are full, the farmers can expect to water using the falaj (traditional irrigation system) to transport water to their precious plants once every five days. This year brought an unusually dry winter and there is only enough water to irrigate every fourteen days, which limits the roses.
When the roses start to bloom, it's all hands on deck to collect the fragile product. Brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters descend on the fields to pick the flowers before the sun rises and dries out the precious rose. There are two main ways to collet the the flowers.
The first, and most common, is to take a men's massar (typically worn on the head), or a woman's hijab (also, typically worn on the head), and tie it around your neck in a way to create a storage sack for the picked roses.
The second method is only for the men, and is my favorite. One simply folds up his dishdasha and ties a knot around his waist with the loose material to create a knee-height rose collecting sack. This method can hold a huge amount of fresh roses.
Once the morning haul is gathered, the farmer takes the pink loot to his still where he will process the roses immediately to capture all the available moisture the flower has to offer.
The rose water still is a simple device. At its center is a series of clay chamber pots that sit in a solid base made of concrete or mud. The number of chambers can vary depending on the amount of roses needing processing.
Under the chamber pots is the heat source, a flame. Gas is mostly used these days because it is consistent, convenient, and cheap.
When the time comes the farmers places about one-half kilogram 0f his fresh roses inside the chamber along with a small bowl in the middle. Then covers the chamber with a concave lid filled with cold water. The heat turns the moisture in the roses into a gas inside the chamber which condenses on the underside of the lid and drips down into the small bowl. The whole process takes three hours and yields about 350 milliliters of rose water. The still can have anywhere from two to twenty chambers.
The rose water from each chamber joins the others in a tank where it will sit for one to two months before it is bottled and sold.
Rose water has a number of uses. Mainly it is used as a cosmetic for its lovely smell, but it also has moisturizing and medicinal properties. I come across rose water typically in food. Omani Halwa often features the pleasant undertones of Omani roses, along with tea, and my favorite, coffee!
Now you will definitely have a greater appreciation of Omani rose water the next time you spot a bottle in the souq.
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