Everything's Coming Up Roses

 If you've ever sniffed rose perfume, chances are you've smelled Bulgaria.  This is the land of Rosa damascene, the damask rose, which French scent houses and essential oil companies call "Bulgarian gold."  Over seventy percent of the world's rose oil is distilled here in Bulgaria.  Though a lot of the industry is centered around the town of Rosa damascene, the whole countryside is redolent of the flowers.
Rose oil is called "otto" here, and it's special for a couple of reasons.  First, the climate of Bulgaria is supposed to be better suited for growing roses than anywhere else - the flowers have a more ambrosial quality, some say, and the otto smells more like roses than oil produced in other countries.  Also, the Bulgarians grow older, heritage varieties which have much more scent, and they have a longstanding tradition of distillation and cultivation.
Most importantly, Bulgaria isn't a wealthy country and it's very, very expensive to produce rose otto.  A single ounce of high quality oil requires about one hundred and seventy pounds of rose petals - thousands and thousands of flowers.  The process is labor intensive, highly agricultural, thorny and nobody else wants to do it.  Not exactly romantic work, but the people here are proud of it.
At one of dozens of "Rose of Bulgaria" stores, tourists can buy all kinds of pink skin creams, shampoos and perfumed soaps.
It's no surprise that people eat roses - they belong to the same family (Rosaceae) as apples, plums, cherries and myriad other fruit trees.  Rose water - a byproduct of otto production - is common here, and finds its way into some foods.  There are cakes and Turkish delight (appropriated and dubbed "Bulgarian delight") made with the stuff, as well as marzipan, syrup and even a few cocktails.  There are also more than a few varieties of tea made from the petals, and a whole host of products made from the rose hips.
When we were staying in the little town of Bachevo, we made these rose-jam butter cookies using two different Bulgarian preserves - a "jam" made with candied petals and a rose hip "marmalade."
The marmalade (on the left) obviously tasted much fruitier, and it was hard to detect any rose essence at all.  The jam was much sweeter and the taste was surprising - it was difficult to distinguish between flavor and fragrance.  The scent of a rose is so distinct; it's a shock to have it meet one's tongue.  In fact, the first impression it gave was of eating soap, though it doesn't actually taste soapy at all.  
On toast, the hip marmalade was better.  On cookies, the floral jam stood out in a great way.  
At the Queen's Winery House in Balchik, which hawks its wares right inside Queen Marie's seaside gardens, there's a rather syrupy-sounding rose wine.  We assumed it would be a cloying, saccharine sip, but it was actually not bad.  Or, rather, it was bad - but not as bad as cough-syrup-pink rose wine with honey could be.
Rosa damascene was brought to Bulgaria by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and the Turks still cultivate the flowers heavily - Turkish oil is now the main competition for Bulgarian otto.  China has begun distilling recently, and Morocco and Pakistan have rose industries.  Persia claims to be the birthplace of the genus, but Syria disagrees.  France is the largest importer of otto, and has a long history with the plant.
But it is Bulgaria, certainly, where the rose smells sweetest - it has come to be a symbol for the nation.  There are blossom festivals in the springtime and harvest traditions, roses planted in roundabouts and postcard pictures of baskets of flowers. In the evening, especially as dusk settles in, the gardens and trellises of this nation are as fragrant as any place on earth.
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