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Syrian women prepare jam from petals of Damask rose

Syrian women separating fresh petals of the Damask roses in al-Mrah town, near Damascus to extract aromatic and therapeutic materials (Reuters)

Syrian women separating fresh petals of the Damask roses in al-Mrah town, near Damascus to extract aromatic and therapeutic materials (Reuters)

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Enab Baladi – Khawla Hifzy 

“Roses asked me to whom you pick me, I said, I give thee my word, to the sweetest and prettiest of all, I will give thee.”

With the tunes of this folksong and other traditional songs, Syrian rose growers head to their fields early in the morning in May of every year. At this time, the famed Damask rose blooms, announcing the beginning of its picking season. 

In the afternoon, after farmers finish handpicking the Damask roses, commonly known as the Damascene rose or Rosa Damascena, they return home carrying the rosebuds to be sorted later, in a collaborative working environment.

The sorting phase begins by separating the dried rosebuds to add them to tea for flavor, while other rose petals are stored and prepared for the distillation process.

Women gather to help each other in making rose jam, rose syrup, as well as pastries while listening to folksongs and traditional songs.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), included the Damask rose and its associated practices and craftsmanship on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in late 2019.

How to make rose petal jam 

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Sahar al-Ali, a Syrian housewife residing in the southern Idlib countryside, explained her recipe for making rose petal jam. She noted that Syrian women make the jam from the wild pink roses only.

The wild rose is the popular name for the Damask rose which is used to make jam in the summer season, as it is filled in jars and saved for winter consumption.

The making of rose jam, which begins in May of every year, spreads widely in Syria, mainly in Aleppo, Damascus, and rural areas.

Al-Ali explains the steps of preparing the rose petal jam. She says, “First we need ingredients: one kilogram of the Damask rose, three kilograms of sugar, one spoon of lemon salt, a few carmines (also known as cochineal, a natural food colorant), and five liters of water.” 

Al-Ali continued, ” We prepare the roses, spread them, and then take the petals only. We sprinkle the petals with citric acid crystals and sugar and turn the mix into a paste. After that, we drain the water, which can be used to make the rose syrup.”

Al-Ali adds, ” Next, we put the rose petals in a bowl on the stove, then we add water, and bring them to boil. It is important to know that the mixture needs a lot of boiling and continuance stirring. In the final stage, we sprinkle the carmine and wait for the mix to boil a lot again as well, and then we take it off the fire and fill the prepared jam in jars.”

Cultivation of the Damask rose

“The wild rose, the Damascena rose, and others are some of the many names of the Damask rose; however, in Syria, it is commonly named as the wild rose,” says the agricultural engineer Aliaa al-Basha, to Enab Baladi.

Regarding the origin of the name, al-Basha explained that Westerners were introduced to the rose during the Levant’s crusades. Therefore, they called it the Damask rose after the name of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Damascene rose is not native, but a natural hybrid rose, derived from Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata, actually, it has no original home, al-Basha said.

According to al-Basha, the Damask rose cultivation in Syria is currently concentrated in al-Mrah town in eastern Qalamun of northern Rif Dimashq province. The rose-harvesting season starts in May of every year.

The yellow soil is the most suitable environment for growing the Damask rose; for this type of soil is fertile and rich in nutrients.

The flower is best grown in well-drained soil with no salinity. It is fertilized with natural humus fertilizer (the product of the decomposition of organic materials like leaves and animal waste in the soil) and does not require chemical fertilization, according to the agricultural engineer.

As for planting the rose in a house garden, al-Basha said it could be planted within a hedge plant to protect it well and facilitate its picking. Al-Basha also indicated that the Damask rose is picked by hand and cannot be harvested by machines to prevent any harm or damage.

Extraction of essential oil

The use of the Rosa Damascena is not limited to jam making, as an essential oil can also be extracted from it, which can be used in several fields, including the therapeutic and the cosmetic ones.

“The extraction of the rose attar is done through steam distillation when the absolute aromatic materials are separated from the original substances,” said al-Basha.

She added that extracting one bottle of essential oil requires large quantities of rose petals. The fresh petals are put in a distiller pot, then exposed to high heat to let the water vaporize.

Next, the water vapor goes out, carrying the extracted aromatic oil, which eventually condenses on the surface of the distillation apparatus.

At the end of the steam distillation, the water evaporates, allowing the essential oil to be extracted through a tube attached to the distiller. The floral oil is collected through a valve, and later it is dried with the use of substances such as anhydrous sodium sulfate.

The rose oil is sold for various purposes. Its price can increase depending on the rose type it is extracted from, leading to lower demand. Some people add the essential oil to wax melt burners or incense burners to get its fresh and pleasant fragrance.

While these uses seem quite popular in Syria, the rose jam remains the most common and most related to local customs and traditions. The fragrant aroma of the rose petal jam has become one of the spring days’ characteristics that reek with the Damask roses’ mesmerizing smell.

 

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