Written by Annie Kay
The rose’s origin can be traced back to the ancient and evergreen dendriform roses, growing in the woody and humid provinces of China and India. In the 12th and 13th centuries the oil-bearing rose was brought to Europe from the Middle East. In 1270, at the time of the Crusades, Count Breuer selected the famous Rosa damascena from the area of Damascus, Syria. This rose was found to grow exceptionally well in the sub-Balkan valleys of Bulgaria along the southern slopes of the Balkan range and the Sredna Gora Mountains. It was this rose which ensured that the Kazanluk region came to be known as the Valley of the Roses. The favourable climate of the valley, with its characteristic mild winters and a long spring with light rains, high humidity and abundant morning dew, are ideal for growing the oil-yielding rose and creating its unique aroma.
Rosa damascena from the valley of the Shiraz River in Persia reached the Kazanluk Valley via Syria and Adrianople, and its spread continued during the centuries of the Ottoman Empire. There are two documents preserved from those years: the first is an ordinance of Sultan Murad III (1574–95) to the chief gardener of Adrianople, in which he gives the order that roses from the gardens there should be sent to the gardens of the old palace in the Ottoman capital; the second documentary evidence is in the travel notes of the famous traveller Hadzhi Khalfe, in which he points out that in 1650 rosewater was in great demand in the busy market of Adrianople.
The first Bulgarian attar of roses appeared on European markets as early as the end of the 17th century to meet the needs of the developing perfumery industry. In the beginning it was a small cottage industry and initially involved small domestic stills comprising a copper cauldron from which water-cooled pipes dripped the greenish-yellow rose oil. It became big business early in the 19th century. The high-quality Bulgarian rose oil brought its representatives scores of medals and diplomas from world exhibitions, shows and fairs.
The rose flowers are picked in the course of a month, from the middle of May to the middle of June from 05.00 to about 10.00, before the sun gets too high in the sky, as it can quickly evaporate up to half of the oil. Between 3,000 and 5,000kg are required to make one litre of attar, leaving a residue of rosewater and pulp which is used to make medicaments, flavourings, jam and liqueurs.