It’s 6:00 am but the pickers are already working in Rose Valley, home to Bulgaria’s centuries-old rose oil industry, providing a vital ingredient for the global perfumes industry — and now with EU protection.
“We go out very early as the roses must be picked while there’s still dew on them. Then the yield is highest,” says Totka Hristova, one of an army of workers on the foot of the Balkan Mountains in the damp cool of the early morning.
A couple of hours later and her day’s work is already over. Once the sun rises high over the rows and rows of pink rose bushes, it gets too hot and the precious oil retreats down into the plant’s roots.
“We only pick the fully open roses that are most oil-giving, the others we leave for tomorrow,” the pensioner explains, her gloved hands deftly plucking and slipping the flowers into a plastic bag around her waist.
Practically all expensive perfumes the world over contain rose oil.
Bulgaria and neighbouring Turkey are the world’s largest producers. The temperate climate and alluvial soils provide the ideal conditions for growing the best plant, the Damascus Rose, which is originally from Persia.
In a labour-intensive and delicate process unchanged since the days of the Ottoman empire in the 17th century, the petals are taken immediately to distilleries, where they are mixed with water and boiled in vast metal vats.
The vapours are then condensed and redistilled to separate the oil. But the process requires vast volumes of petals.
A good worker – it can be tough finding enough staff – can gather up to 25-30 kilogrammes (55-65 pounds) each morning, but 3,500 kilogrammes are needed to produce just one kilo of oil.
Bulgaria’s annual production of about 1,500 kilogrammes of rose oil requires 5.25 tonnes of petals, grown on 3,800 hectares (9,390 acres) of plantations, mostly in the valley around the central Bulgaria town of Kazanlak.
Once this yellowish-green “liquid gold” is packaged into jars ready for sale, it’s expensive, selling for 6,000-6,500 euros ($6,700-7,200) and above for a kilo.
The buyers — from France, the United States and, increasingly, Asia — are generally firms that make intermediary products which they then sell to companies like Christian Dior, Estee Lauder and Chanel.
“If we are talking about expensive perfumes — it’s part of all of them,” said Juliana Ognyanova from Bulattars, a big rose oil exporter.
Surprisingly, the oil — which contains over 370 components and has no synthetic alternative — is not used for its aroma, which is quite cloying for most noses.
Instead it helps combine the huge number of natural and artificial ingredients in perfumes and to increase the amount of time it stays on the skin, according to expert Nikolay Nenov.
Because of its high price, rose oil has often been faked. But savvy Bulgarian producers have now found a way to guarantee its authenticity.
Last October, after a nine-year application process, producers managed to get the name “Bulgarian Rose Oil” registered on the list of EU products of protected geographical indication and designation of origin.
Similar EU certification has already been awarded to products such as Roquefort cheese from France or Melton Mowbray Pork Pies from England.
“This is a huge success for the whole sector,” Bulgarian distillery owner and one of the people behind the registration, Filip Lissicharov, told AFP.
To be granted the certification, producers must prove their flowers come from a traditional rose-growing region in Bulgaria, that they observe strictly the distillation process and that their product has the essential chemical and physical characteristics specific only to Bulgarian rose oil.
Distillers expect a good year even if not a repeat of the bumper harvest from last year, which was the best in the past 20 years.
“The quality of the rose petals is good and we expect that the quality of the rose oil this year will be equally high,” Lissicharov said.