Orange flowers glow in the lush greenery…
I have never distilled orange flower water because the orange tree cannot resist the harsh climate of Haute-Provence, more suited to aromatic plants. But these trees have always fascinated me.
Maybe it has something to do with the now very distant memory of those rare fruits that we used to get for Christmas, wrapped in individual squares of tissue paper with cheerful and naïf designs. Or those little lamps we used to make for the Christmas dinner table with a candle stub inside the topped orange skins. Or those aromatic pomanders spiked with cloves that added a spicy fragrance in our houses throughout the year.
The orange tree is more fragile than the olive or almond tree and prefers a coastal environment. Although it made the reputation of the town of Grasse, very few orange groves are still cultivated in the region and the production of essential oil is rare. Orange flowers are now harvested for the perfume industry mainly on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Egypt and in Tunisia, not far from Carthage.
There are different varieties of orange trees. The sweet orange tree produces the Christmas fruit, while the species most valued for its essential oil is the bitter orange tree, also called the Seville orange tree. The essence of orange flower water is obtained from its first flowers in April.
The flowers are harvested very early in the morning, before the sun’s heat affects their freshness, and gathered in canvas bags. They are then distilled on the same day in order to preserve their full fragrance, producing an essence so smooth and delicate, that it was called after a famous Italian aristocratic beauty of the 16th century called princess of Nerola.
The orange flower water from the Neroli distillery sustained the reputation of the Grasse region for many long years. This precious, soothing and refreshing water has been used for thousands of years on the eastern side of the Mediterranean to wash the hands of honoured guests before meals, in a timeless ritual of welcome and respect.
But the orange tree gives us more than its spring blossoms. The peel of its small green fruits and its leaves are used to produce an essential oil called “petit grain”, whose fragrance is sharper and more fruity and which is mainly used in the manufacture of eaux de Cologne and soaps.
In autumn, the orange tree’s second blooming produces flowers with less essence, which are used to make bouquets and the traditional orange blossom circlets of young brides. Throughout the Mediterranean region, the tree’s white blossoms are regarded as a symbol of purity.
The flowers that are not plucked produce the fruits of the winter. The people of Grasse many years ago used to turn the thick peel inside out to make little jewellery caskets and sweet boxes, some of which are on view in the town’s perfume museum. I thought that this tradition had completely died away, but recently I came across the work of craftsmen who still make these fragile and precious boxes. Guess where? In California!
So this know-how has not been lost, after all, and is still being enriched, as are many other precious and useful products of the orange tree!