It is our foremost flavoring along with rose water in Lebanon when it comes to pastries, puddings or cookies, syrups and jams. We even drink it plain with a bit of water and call it “white coffee”.
Most of the orange blossom water production in Lebanon comes from an area south of the capital called Maghdousheh. This area is famous for its bitter orange groves. To be able to wander in that area in spring when the trees are in bloom is quite a treat!
But what is orange blossom water? It is a water extracted from the distillation of the flowers of bitter orange trees. These trees are also called bigarade or seville oranges or boosfeyr in Lebanon. Apparently, the production of this orange essence started when the alembic was invented, back during the days of the Umayyad caliphates, thirteen centuries ago! It was used during the celebration of Muharram or the Islamic New Year, in various milk and rice-based desserts.
In folk medicine, orange blossom water was sprayed on the faces of people who felt ill. It is believed to aid digestion and to be soothing before sleep. My grandmother would give it to me in a little Turkish coffee cup if I complained of a tummy ache or that I could not sleep. It was also used as a perfume.
If you are lucky enough to know someone who produces orange blossom water from their own orchard, by all means try to get in their good graces! It is far superior to the ones produced industrially.
Just like the orange blossom water, rose water is a distillate of the petals of the Damascus Rose (Rosa Damascena), grown in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Its usage goes back to the early Islamic era. It is used mainly for desserts, sherbets and syrups. The best rose water in Lebanon is found in Qsarnaba, a small village in the central Bekaa.
Arab folk medicine also uses rose water in case of sunburn as it is believed that it will soothe and rejuvenate the skin. Rose water is also used for religious purposes, as it is sprinkled inside mosques.
The distillation of rose petals is an artisanal activity that takes place during the blooming season in May and June. The best method of distillation is with steam rather than water. Unfortunately, most commercial production nowadays uses artificial essences instead of the real thing.
Source: From Akkar to Amel, Lebanon Slow Food Trail, by Rami Zurayk
If you are interested in making rose water, here are the directions:
In Herbs for Natural Beauty,Rosemary Gladstar outlines a home-brewing method that’s simple and fun and takes about 45 minutes.
For ingredients, you’ll need two to three quarts of fresh rose petals, clean water (distilled, if possible), and ice cubes. For equipment, you’ll need a large pot with a convex lid, a quart-size heat-safe stainless steel or glass quart bowl, and a chimney brick.
First, place the brick in the center of the pot and the bowl on top of the brick. Then arrange the rose petals around the brick, adding enough flowers to reach the top of it. Pour in just enough water to cover the roses.
Place the lid upside down on the pot. Bring the water to a rolling boil; then lower the heat to a slow, steady simmer. As soon as the water begins to boil, empty two or three trays of ice cubes into the inverted lid. Ta-da—your home still! If it all goes right, condensed rose water will flow to the center of the lid and drip into the bowl.
It’s important not to simmer the pot too long or your rose water will become diluted. When you’ve collected about a pint, it’s time to stop—and taste the rose water.
Now, I don’t recommend using store-bought roses for your experiment! If you are growing roses in your garden, then yes, that would be the best, especially if they are Rosa Damascena.
For more information:
Rose water will keep for years in a sealed bottle away from light and heat. The flavor will peak after one year.