Just before dawn in the Iranian village of Ghamsar, the sweet scent of damask roses is inescapable. As the sun rises over the surrounding mountains, fields of bright pink bushes are serenaded by a dawn chorus of nightingales. I’ve come to Ghamsar for its famed rosewater festival where each year, thousands travel to witness golab-giri, the delicate process that transforms roses into rosewater.
Roses are indigenous to Iran, and the technique of distilling their essential oils into rosewater was likely developed here, more than 2,000 years ago. It’s used to perfume ice creams, baklava, and nougat, of course. In Iran it is also embraced as a remedy for all manner of ailments, from insect bites to headaches to heartache. Rosewater from Ghamsar has a special spiritual status too—it is used to wash the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, one of the most sacred sites in Islam.
Joining the farmers in their fields, I carefully pull the petals off the flowers, being sure to leave the buds intact on the stem. It’s early, but the atmosphere is cheerful. As we pile handfuls of petals into woven baskets, the farmers tease one another, singing melodic folk songs that have doubtless accompanied the rose harvest for generations. The petals are then transferred to copper stills, where they are submerged in water and gently simmered for several hours. The steam is collected and cooled back into liquid—the basis of rosewater. Many distilleries in Ghamsar pour it over a second batch of petals for a second round of simmering and distilling. This adds extra potency and scent to their final product, which is why, they insist, the rosewater made here is the best in the world.
As I sit to enjoy my post-harvesting breakfast of freshly baked flatbreads, thick slabs of clotted cream, and a hefty dollop of rose petal jam, I couldn’t agree more.