Visit to the Rose de Mai Fields in Grasse
On the morning of May 19th we arrived at These are some of Mul, in Le Petit Champ de Dieu valley near Grasse. Fine aroma of Rose de Mai wafted in the air - what a fine way to start the day! These are the largest rose fields in Grasse - 70,000 square meters with 50,000 Rosa centifolia bushes. The same growers also have 3 hectares of Jasminum grandiflorum which are the home to about 60,000 jasmine shrubs. These fields are owned by the company of Chanel and are used exclusively for No. 5 parfum extrait. They also have iris fields, but this will be discussed another day. The company bought those fields (originally planted by monks) and thus solved the problems that most growers face: shortage of pickers (especially for the jasmine, since the pickers are paid by the yield - where as in rose harvest, they are paid by the hour) and worries about market for the finished product. In the olden days, most of the homes in Grasse had little jasmine fields next to them, and they only picked the flowers and brought them to a cooperative extraction plant in the city for extracting the concrete and absolute. Now most of the jasmine fields are gone because of land development (and the issues mentioned above - which most like has caused the former jasmine growers to sell their land).
They also have iris fields, but this will be discussed tomorrow. The company bought those fields (originally planted by monks) and thus solved the problems that most growers face: shortage of pickers (especially for the jasmine, since the pickers are paid by the yield - where as in rose harvest, they are paid by the hour) and worries about market for the finished product. In the olden days, most of the homes in Grasse had little jasmine fields next to them, and they only picked the flowers and brought them to a cooperative extraction plant in the city for extracting the concrete and absolute. Now most of the jasmine fields are gone because of land development (and the issues mentioned above - which most like has caused the former jasmine growers to sell their land).
Each kilo of roses contains about 500 flowers. A kilo of jasmine, on the other hand, requires 3,000 flowers to be picked, therefore require a lot more work. This may be the reason why it is a lot more difficult to find labour for jasmine harvest.
Before and after the harvest they treat the bushes with insecticide that causes the bugs to not want to eat the flowers. This is not sprayed, as to not kill the ladybugs who help the rose bushes strive by eating the aphids on them. The fields may not be certified organic, but they constantly look for less harmful methods for the environment, and also make sure that those treatments don't interfere with the aroma of the roses, of course (as far as I know, this is true for most flowers grown for perfumery, as well as for the tea gardens around the world).
Special honey can also be produced from the different fragrant flowers in Grasse, and the beehives are moved around between rose fields, lavender fields, etc. to produce aromatic honeys special to the region.
Rose pickers (mostly women it seems) spilling the content of their collecting aprons into the sacks - collected by the men who than transport them into the extraction plant in a tractor. Each picker can collect up to 6kg of roses per hour. The sacs yield between 15-20 kilos of rose. The sacs must not be overpacked, as to not crush the delicate flowers - this will cause loss of essence.
There is no waiting time between picking and distilling. The rose flowers are picked at 8am when the flowers fully open; but on a cloudy day they may need to wait until the next day to pick them. The harvest spans over the course of 3 weeks, in May.
(*For Jasmine, the harvest happens in the heat of the summer between August and September between 6-8 weeks, and takes place between 6am-2pm, with two weighings during the day to ensure quality. The jasmine that grows in the microclimate of Grasse produces a very fine aroma - it is far lower in indole, which is higher in Indian Jasmine).
In the pictures below, the flowers are poured into the hexane extraction machines. The flowers will be bathed in this gas for 5-1/2 hours at 30 degrees celsius to produce a concrete.
Closing the lid on the roses:
Here the flowers are removed from the extraction machine. They are all wilted and lifeless, with only the faintest aroma of cooked roses. The flower waste is made into compost and is used to fertilize the rose fields. Another interesting cycle of life and death!
The concrete is than distilled in 68 degrees celsius (hexane's boiling point) to remove the hexane (which is re-used in future extractions) and later on will be further washed by alcohol and distilled again (to remove the alcohol) in order to extract the finished product - a Rose de Mai absolute. In this extraction plant, only concrete is made. It will be distilled into an absolute (with alcohol washing and evaporation) ony by the client or by the client's demand. This is a very common practice among solvent extractors. The floral waxes help to store and preserve the essence of the flowers and protect the absolute. I'm also guessing it is easier to move around a solid rather than a liquid with less risk for loss of the precious material. Below is an image of the filtration process - I believe this is done here just for testing the quality of the absolute. The absolute, after agitated in alcohol is filtered through a special paper to remove all ipurities (which you can see below - these are mostly floral waxes). As you can see, there is only very little left of the golden coloured rose absolute. The yield ratios (though higher than steam distillation) are as follows: 400kg of flowers yeild 1kg of concrete, which yields to only up 600gr of absolute.
Summary of the process of solvent extraction and steam distillation of rose:
The scent of Rosa centifolia is softer, creamier and a little more light, fruity and subtle than Rosa centifolia, which can get rather dark and opulent and wine-like. There was not a moment that any of the aromas in the field was overwhelming or disturbing. As I said, it was one fine way to start the day and I was only the beginning of one of the most magical days in my life as a perfumer.