The 11th-century Persian philosopher and scientist Avicenna is credited with many contributions to astronomy, geography, psychology, logic, mathematics and physics. He also found time to delve into perfumery and devised methods to extract essential oils, experimenting on roses. If Avicenna were to step into a fragrance lab today, he would orient himself quickly enough – modern perfumery is a curious amalgam of traditional techniques with state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, rose oil is prepared in much the same way as in Avicenna’s time – through the process of steam distillation.
Even older than rose oil is rosewater, an ingredient with a history predating Avicenna. Lebanese food writer Barbara Abdeni Massaad includes a section on making rosewater in her award-winning cookbook Mouneh, which explores the traditions of preserving fruit, vegetables and flowers. “The distillates from roses and orange flowers continue to be made in villages,” she comments on the vitality of the tradition. “Older people still believe that homemade is best.”
First, rose petals are placed in the lower part of an alembic and covered with water. The contraption is then sealed with a paste of ashes and flour, and cold water is added to the top of the alembic and heated slowly. As the temperature rises, the rose petals give off their essential oil, and the watery substance (hydrosol) that remains behind after the essence has the richly scented rosewater.
It is used to flavour puddings, candies and savoury dishes, and in the Middle East a flask of fragrant liquid is often offered to guests to freshen up their hands and faces. More than a delicious aromatic, rosewater is part of the fabric of the culture and is believed to have medicinal properties.
When I recently visited Givaudan, a leading fragrance and flavour company, I noticed an ingredient called Rose Natsource Extract. To obtain it, rosewater is treated one more time to retain the volatile elements. In contrast to the heft and richness of essential oil, the rosewater extract smells citrusy and fruity. Avicenna would doubtless find this blend of old and new intriguing.
Givaudan is not the only organisation in on the act; International Flavors & Fragrances has a material called Rose Water Essential.And so, as more companies use modern technology to recast traditional materials, rosewater extracts are finding their way into perfume formulas. They are also significantly less expensive than classical rose oils and absolutes, and even a small amount can add richness and curves – the French call it “gras”, fat – to a composition.
One illustration is Arquiste’s Fleur de Louis ($175 for 55ml EDP), which uses a touch of rosewater in its jasmine-laced bouquet. Rose is just an accent in this plush blend of night-blooming flowers, but its radiance lingers. Layered onto dark woods, the flowers have a baroque opulence, but even in the powdery drydown, they remain bright and clear.
Other fragrances play with the idea of rosewater freshness by contrasting the floral notes with green, leafy accents. Perfumers may use the rosewater extracts in this context or create their own fantasy accords by combining materials that evoke the delicate aroma of rosewater. For instance, Histoires de Parfums’ Vert Pivoine (€95 for 60ml) and Cartier’s Eau de Cartier Goutte de Rose (from £64 for 100ml EDT) take rose into a crisp and cool direction. Eric Buterbaugh Florals’s Sultry Rose ($295 for 100ml) adds passion fruit and pepper, with the end result being more coquettish than smouldering, but nevertheless charming.
Massaad recommends adding a splash of rosewater to black coffee, and following her advice I have been enjoying many rose-perfumed mornings. Since Avicenna prescribed rosewater to strengthen the heart, it feels like a perfect way to start the day.