A Distiller's Tale

Words & Photos by Amanda Saurin

In spring of this year I stood in an orange grove in Cyprus surrounded by leathery-leaved trees bearing buds, blossom, tiny fruit and ripe oranges all ready for picking. At my feet sat a huge basket reserved for picking blossom. It was 42°C and the air shimmered with heat—even the bees were moving slowly, drunk on the nectar and pacified by the sun. Four hours and numerous juicy oranges later the basket was full to overflowing with carefully selected blossom so scented that it made me heady with delight.

I’m a distiller and my work is my pleasure. Very decadently, I keep a large hand-beaten copper Alembic Still in Cyprus especially for orange blossom and Neroli oil distilling. It’s rare to find an occupation so delightful, but for me, distilling is exactly that. It’s a journey into unexpected scent, an alchemical adventure where the prize is a flower water and essential oil so fresh and perfect that it can take my breath away.
Cyprus is an annual journey for me, a trip away from the gloom of an English late winter and onto a Mediterranean island where scent fills the air from morning until night. In April the Bauhinia trees are in full flower emitting an intoxicatingly sweet scent late into the night, the roses are blooming and the honeysuckle scrambles over walls rampantly flowering. Our garden there is full of fragrance.

This year in addition to the orange blossom, which provided six litres of astonishingly lovely orange blossom water and a small amount of Neroli oil, I decided to track down Labdanum and Galbanum.

The air shimmered with heat—even the bees were moving slowly, drunk on the nectar and pacified by the sun

Labdanum is produced from the resin of Cistus creticus, a small shrub with pink flowers that unfurl with the appearance of crumpled tissue paper. I remembered seeing a lot of it growing high up in the mountains along a precipitously narrow track punctuated with large potholes, no barrier and definitely no passing places. I did my research and discovered the traditional way of harvesting labdanum was to drive goats back and forth through patches of the shrubs—the action of grazing it causes the plant to release the resin as a milky coloured sticky sap that sticks to the goat’s beards and hind leg hair. Once sufficiently basted, the goat’s hair would be combed and the Labdanum collected. The alternative technique is to make a ladanistirio—a wooden rake with long leather threads, which the resin sticks to. Once dry, the Labdanum is scraped off.

Full of enthusiasm I pocketed a rather nifty nit comb, ready for an impromptu harvest at a moment’s notice should a herd of goats pass by. As a back-up plan I decided to make a ladanistirio, which proved harder than it looked. After much trial and error I settled for an old broom with thick plastic washing line tied to it—leather strands being in rather short supply.

The journey up into the mountains was punctuated by shouts of “stop, there goes a goat”. I now know that whilst catching up with goats is relatively easy, nit combing them is almost impossible. After numerous attempts and several discussions with goat herders who actually thought I had lost all reason, I decided that I would go for the rake option.

Upwards we wound, through olive groves, past wild sage, thyme and oregano until we reached the place where the hillside was literally covered in Cistus. The plants jostled with each other for space, with pink flowers in various stages of unfurled crumple. The plant stem is dark brown and hairy with narrowish mid green leaves that feel sticky to the touch. In such an inhospitable climate the plants are tough; they survive with tiny amounts of water and set seed between rocks on desperately thin soil.

I leapt out of the car, clutching hat and improvised ladanistirio, had a quick look around for snakes and made for the nearest clump. What followed was neither elegant nor effective. I spent twenty minutes thrashing around with an old broom with strings of chopped up washing line tied to it. On a purely practical level I can now definitively reveal that washing line is a poor substitute for leather. Most importantly when in “mid-lash” the strands fly off the broom and knot themselves up with all the other strings. As a ladanistirio designer/maker I am an abject failure. However, I did examine the plants I had lashed and sure enough there were small white beads of resin that smelt heavenly. My 2013 harvest comprised a small pea of Labdanum resin, but next year I’ll make a proper ladanistirio and then the hillside will be my oyster.

The Galbanum was rather less energetic and more successful. Galbanum is collected from the base of the giant fennel (Ferula gummosa), a fantastic stately plant with impressive umbels of yellow flowers held aloft by a thick, hollow stem. In Cyprus the stems are sometimes used as torches and when the plant dies back there are always Pleurotus ferulae mushrooms to harvest. Making cuts very low down the stem on a few of the plants revealed a very sticky sap that collected over about twenty-four hours. I scraped it off the lower stem just above the roots and put it into a dish to harden. It was quite a struggle given that ants are drawn to the sap and they gathered in little collectives to make off with the resin. It’s now sitting in a jar at home waiting for phase two of the operation, turning it into a useable substance.

Upwards we wound, through olive groves, past wild sage, thyme and oregano

For me, collecting my own ingredients is incredibly important. It makes wandering up mountains, dodging snakes and wading through bogs a part of the journey to delicious, pure scent. I particularly love the freshness and simplicity of the end product that comes from knowing the provenance of every flower that has gone into making it. It’s difficult to describe the olfactory pleasure of making flower waters and essential oils – it’s rather like holding a summer’s day in your hands and then transforming it into something you can re-experience all year. Every plant is different and every distillation reveals a slightly different scent even when the flowers are picked from the same plant only a couple of days apart.

I’m fortunate enough to distil the roses at Glyndebourne, England. As I write this I’m waiting for a call to tell me that the roses are ready for picking—I think another week of sun will tempt them into full bloom. The Head Gardener stands by watching me behead his treasured blooms with a slightly pained expression. I’ve learnt to cut the lower blooms first to ease him into the distress of seeing the top ones disappear into my basket. Roses are wonderful to work with—the effort of picking them and then removing every trace of green to keep the scent pure is nothing compared to the pleasure of sniffing the first drops of the flower water as it drips into the essencier for separation into oil and flower water.

When I distil Bay, I strip the leaves and make the twigs into a little basket that sits in the bottom of the alembic, keeping the leaves from scorching on the bottom. Bay needs a big blast of heat to release its scent and so the distillation is always a volatile affair

The season is short though and, as with any other seasonal product, I pick what I can but when it has gone that’s it for another year. That’s actually part of the pleasure, much as eating strawberries in June is an experience to be savoured and not repeated year round, so it is with distilling. I could dry flowers and distil them throughout the year but somehow the vitality is lost in that process—rehydrating a plant is never as satisfying as waiting for the seasonal glut. A dried flower loses its volatile oils and essence, the scent somehow is never as vibrant or complex.

Leaves, however, are a different matter; some offer year-round pleasure. Bay trees are probably my favourite, with their leathery leaves and stiff little stems that resist being pulled off. When I distil Bay, I strip the leaves and make the twigs into a little basket that sits in the bottom of the alembic, keeping the leaves from scorching on the bottom. Bay needs a big blast of heat to release its scent and so the distillation is always a volatile affair, with the water in the Alembic bubbling madly producing a steam laden with the scent of Bay—peppery, earthy and rich. As it moves through the condensing unit, finally hitting the coils of cold copper it returns to a liquid that spurts out into the essencier separating into Bay water and Bay oil. It’s easy to see why it’s so beloved in Turkey and the Middle East. The smell is so evocative of heat and spice that the essence of that region is made famous by Aleppo soap.

And after all that, the bottles of flower/herb waters sit in dark amber bottles on a special shelf waiting to be turned into beautiful products. The essential oils are carefully labeled and used judiciously in other products, leaving me to follow the flowers and herbs through the seasons collecting sustainably for yet another journey.

Amanda Saurin of Wellgreen Lewes is a wildcraft distiller, experienced Homeopath, Herbalist and mother of six. She works with her own flower waters and essential oils creating beautiful quality skincare and perfumes at her studio in the grounds of Firle Place, East Sussex, England. Amongst others, she creates bespoke products for Glyndebourne Opera House, Charleston Farmhouse and Firle Place. She is delighted by the versatility of natural scents and distils or uses enfleurage for anything that tempts her, from Oakmoss and Sweet Gale collected in Scotland to Orange Blossom and Bauhinia picked in Cyprus. You can find her at www.wellgreenlewes.com

This article appeared in ODOU issue 1
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