It’s 5.45am. I’m sitting in a little wooden hut looking out at a dawn breaking over miles of pristine golden sand with only the sound of the sea gently lapping at the shore. The cabin is basic but ideal for a couple of nights break at the end of a week of constant picking and distilling with my sister. It is my guilty pleasure. It is as far as one can travel on this island and one of the last places to remain truly unspoilt. Donkeys with extra big ears mosey along, birds chirrup joyfully, there is no traffic, no noise beyond the natural and, at this magical time of year, an abundance of endemic cyclamen strongly scented of honey and lily of the valley and wild flowers as far as the eye can see. Tourists have yet to arrive, the sea being cold and the temperature only around 22C. I love it. It makes me feel free.
This has been a busy trip, we arrived to little blossom on the orange trees, a moment of panic that my guess of when would be the best time to pick was wrong. But sure enough after 2 days of sunshine I awoke to the unmistakable scent of orange blossom on the air and walked out to see trees that had turned white overnight. Relief and delight in equal measure. Arriving at the very start of the season and distilling when the petals are newly unfurled gives an Aromatic Water and essential oil so fresh and clean – pure Neroli with added pollen to enhance the scent.
Every year it delights me anew, standing beside a tree laden with orange blossom is unlike any other picking experience. The pollen stains the fingers, the scent transfers to hands leaving the most beautiful perfume and as we pick, blossom by individual blossom the mind stills, the heart opens and there is the sheer pleasure of engaging in a quiet, contemplative task – a feeling of melding into the landscape..
We pick only enough for our needs, each tree has literally thousands of blossoms that open gradually over a short 3 week season and we take only a tiny fraction. We pick from many trees, slowly working our way around each, carefully avoiding the thorns that lurk at the joints in the leaf stems. We pick each blossom carefully, we never pull or tear at the trees, we never rip off leaves or twigs. We don’t want anything other than blossom in our aromatic water and essential oil and we don’t want to damage the trees. We prefer to go slowly and tread lightly.
At the end of a pick we tip the blossom onto a big table and marvel at the scent and texture of the individual flowers. People often refer to them as delicate. They are not. The petals are actually quite thick and waxy to the touch, when a petal detaches from the blossom it lands in a perfect curl, holding its shape without problem whichever way it lands. On close examination when a flower is held up with strong sunlight filtering through it, the oil glands are visible as thread-like lines in the petals. The leaves too contain oil which show up as dots when held up to the sun, we don’t add them though, we only want the blossom - the pure scent.
We are fortunate enough to have the freedom to pick in Mariam’s beautiful garden and this is wonderful because it allows the time between picking and distilling to be minimal. The enemy of orange blossom is oxidation of the flowers which affects the scent, so the shorter the time between picking and distilling the better. For us, the distance is 20 paces from the furthest tree and the time can be measured in minutes.
We distil them slowly and gently over hours using micro-filtered water, coaxing out every last ounce of scent and therapeutic, a less robust flower would wilt into sludge but the orange blossom emerges from the Still intact if a little softer. It is an incredible flower and a privilege to revisit it, and this beautiful place, year after year.