Spring Blossoms Bring Fragrant Life to Maghdouche
By: Rajana Hamyeh
Published Friday, April 20, 2012
Spring is the season of flower water in Maghdouche and all along the citrus areas on Lebanon’s coast. The blossoms and the fruits of the bitter orange tree (known locally as abou sfeir) are made into several products and sold by farmers and cooperatives at a good profit.
Maghdouche, a village overlooking the southern Lebanese city of Saida, smells nothing like its neighboring villages. During this time of year, the orange flowers blossom, giving the shrine of Our Lady of Mantara a unique fragrance only found in this place. Everything here is different: the breeze, flowers, trees, and even taking a walk.
At this time of year, Maghdouche becomes the focal point for the “romantics,” according to Hanna al-Hakim, the deputy head of the cooperative society for orange blossoms, bitter oranges, and all other products from Maghdouche. It is a working beehive for farmers trying to make a living.
In this village, known to its people as the "capital of Lebanon's white gold" because of its famous orange flower water, the orange blossom season cannot pass unnoticed. They are mostly farmers. During the season, they all join in picking the flowers to sell or distill.
This profession becomes “fun with time,” according to Josette Khouri, a 70-year-old woman who has spent the last 30 years distilling flower water.
She waits impatiently to practice this hobby and profession that she had inherited from her father and grandfather. She does not think about giving up what she enjoys because "it is the heritage of our town and it constitutes an additional income for my family."
If this grandmother waits for the season to practice her life-long hobby, there are others waiting for spring to do their one and only job.
Twenty years ago, Usama Ammoun was a shopkeeper in Maghdouche. With time, he began a new career distilling orange blossoms and became an expert at producing flower water.
He learned a lot about the industry in this village, which produces 85 to 100 tons a year. He can tell the good from the bad product just by smelling it, he says.
He talks about the start of the season, "which depends on the weather but usually begins in February." This year, because of the late spring seasonal winds, "the season started 24 days ago and will continue until the end of the month," or perhaps a little earlier.
When harvesting, Ammoun makes sure that the buds are open about 15 percent to allow the workers to pick the necessary amount "that should not be less than 10kg per day."
Today, Ammoun produces two tons of flowers and his partner about four tons each year. Out of these two tons, he distills orange blossom water, sells the flowers, and produces juices. He makes a 50 percent profit from flower water and 25 percent from selling flowers.
But some producers profit by about twice as much. One of the farmers, who wished to remain anonymous, makes about Lebanese Lira (LL) 20 million (US$13,000), while spending LL5 million (US$3,000) in expenses, including workers' wages and gas.
He says that it costs LL25,000 (US$17) "for every 10 kilograms picked." As for the bitter orange fruit juice, the profit could reach 300 percent.
It is undoubtedly a profitable business, although it requires much effort and hard work. The season starts with picking the orange blossoms, which need plenty of physical strength and stamina for long hours of daily work. Extracting the flower water also requires patience.
But all this effort pays off when the farmer reaches the net profit. The LL25,000 that the farmer pays for the worker for 10 kilograms of blossoms brings in a LL25,000 net profit.
The cost of a 500-milliliter bottle of flower water can turn a profit margin of about LL3,000 (US$2). That’s if "you count the price of a kilogram at LL5,000 (US$3) and the cost of bottle content at LL1,500 (US$1), and LL600 (US$.30) for the bottle," Ammoun says.
He adds that a kilogram of blossoms "produces 500 milliliters, which is the standard quantity. The bigger the amount of water in the bottle, the less the quality."
Ammoun is an independent producer. Others pick their orange blossoms and sell them to the Cooperative Society, which buys the "production of anyone who wishes to sell it," Hakim says.
The aim of establishing this co-op was to help the farmers distribute their products and raise the standard of their farming.
"The prices depend on supply and demand," he says. "If we buy a kilogram from a farmer at LL4,000, we add LL500 pounds per kg to the workers' wages."
The co-op society does not only buy and sell the orange blossoms. When the blossoms are collected, "we distill them and sell them individually or wholesale, according to demand," he concludes.
Citrus Groves Flow With Extracts and Jams
Taking a walk along the Lebanese coast is lovely at this time of year. The fragrance from the citrus groves scattered across the plains extending from north to south of the country fills the air.
Many are addicted to this fragrance and await its season, inspiring the flow of poetry for some and of extracts, juices, and jams for others.
Women, mainly, become absorbed in investing in the resources of the citrus groves as they blossoms turn into fruit. Beginning in February, distilling workshops spread and go into full swing to extract flower water, until the end of April.
The blossoms are picked and their journey into becoming flower water begins. They are preserved in canisters and glass bottles.
The distilled blossoms have a calming effect when drank and their fragrance can revive someone who faints. The sweet taste of flower water and its pleasant fragrance makes it a basic ingredient in many traditional sweets, such as katayef (stuffed pancakes), kaak (cookies), and muhallabiyeh (a type of pudding).
It is also mixed in communion bread, which is widely used as offerings in churches, especially at this time of year during Easter.
Flower water is also used in “cafe blanc.” It is mixed with boiled water and a little sugar before presenting it as a hot drink for digestion and relaxation after a meal.
There is also orange blossom jam. It is boiled in hot water and then cooled in another container of cold water for a full day. The blossoms are then taken out of the water, mixed with sugar, and left aside.
One month later, the mixture is boiled for 15 to 30 minutes without mixing, where citrus salt and lemon juice are added.
The blossoms are then taken out of the liquid, left boiling for another 30 minutes, before putting the blossoms back in.
This jam is used to decorate sweets and can be preserved for up to three years.
The skin of the bitter orange fruit is used to make marmalade. It is cooked in sugar and served alone or covered with chocolate.
The actual fruit is used to make a thick, sweetened orange-colored drink, which is easy to make and does not require much time. All it needs is washing and drying the fruits, cutting them in half, and squeezing them by hand to prevent the bitterness of the skin from getting into the juice.
The juice is then filtered through a strainer, mixed with sugar, and boiled, before preserving it in a glass bottle.
Other citrus juices can be made in the same way, including lemon, tangerine, and orange, or mixed together. The bitter orange juice has a distinct and wonderful taste used in several dishes, especially with mashed broad beans and some types of salads.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.