Casablanca disappeared behind us in a haze of diesel fumes, street dust and factory smoke. It took a long time to get out of the crowded city, but eventually we were passing through oak groves harvested for their cork bark and small stands offering fresh melons and forest-harvested truffles. Our destination was the agricultural region of Meknes and Khemisset, midway between the Atlantic coast and Fez.
It is neroli season in Khemisset, when the exquisite aroma of citrus blossoms fills the air and their precious perfumed nectar is carefully distilled. Unfortunately, the manager of the first distillery we visited was not happy to see us.
“Frenchmen are like that,” Hamid said as we drove off. I didn’t take it personally; we had showed up unexpectedly, at the production unit of a company that does not do business with the public, and during the manager’s lunch break. I couldn’t blame him for curtly asking us what we wanted and why we were there, then sending us off to wait.
We drove back the way we had come, through rows of pink pepper and eucalyptus trees and fields of green wheat and fava beans and yellow mustard and red poppies and olive groves, then sat for an hour at an empty café by the road. Finally, we decided to go back early, just to smell the orange blossoms we had seen the men unloading in giant bags onto the dock.
The Frenchman was still at lunch, but one of the workers was spreading the freshly picked blossoms into a thin layer with a pitchfork. We sat and made conversation, mildly euphoric from the fragrance wafting off the flowers.
It was a bad year, he said, because there had been so much rain. On our drive into the green hills after leaving Casablanca Hamid had told us that the farmers were very pleased because of the increased rain this year, but it gave a poor yield of the neroli oil, just over a liter from thirty of the huge burlap bags stuffed with blossoms; the yield is much better in dry years. As I knew, the oil would be sent to France where it would be sold primarily to the perfume industry. There were other distillers to visit, however, including two who had been calling us regularly since they learned that we were in the area.
We departed after a few minutes of casual conversation, knowing that we would not be doing business with this company and that our interest was regarded as an intrusion. A short way down the road we found the women who were harvesting the white gold from the citrus orchards. Unlike the tepid reception at the distillery, they were happy to meet us; specifically, they were happy to introduce themselves to Sara and pose for her to take their photos.
Likewise, the distillers at the next stop were not only happy to meet us, but they drove out to the highway to make sure we were escorted to the distillery as honored guests. It was easy to feel special as we followed them: the road was lined with white-gloved police officers standing at attention every few hundred meters. The King was at a nearby agricultural expo, Hamid explained.
The distillery was a large compound with multiple buildings, apparently owned and operated by the three very friendly and enthusiastic gentlemen who met us. Between the six of us we had enough English vocabulary to have a conversation, but mostly relied on Hamid for his excellent translation from French and Arabic.
These distillers did not produce their own line of oils it seemed. Instead, they worked with numerous coops of growers around the country, and distilled on demand when called by clients. They had an extensive list of oils that they could distill at this unit, which had three stills for steam distillation, and there were more species that could be done in their other factory in Tangiers that had different kinds of extracting equipment.
The men took us on a tour of the facility, which included a room with the stills, their lab, a room for food processing of products like olives and jams, and a huge warehouse stacked with bags of dry herbs waiting to be distilled.
Just as it is difficult for farmers to successfully market new agricultural products, it is also difficult for distillers to sell new essential oils that people don’t know what to do with. Therefore, both farmers and distillers tend to produce items that are known to have a good and relatively stable market value, even if it means that they are producing the same product as everyone else. Much of the essential oil industry is repetitive and redundant.
As I followed the men around and talked with them about the various oils they could distill, I realized that I had lost track of how many distilleries I had seen that were devoted to the typical high volume production of conventional essential oils, and that I was now more or less educated about this aspect of the industry.
Yes, I thought to myself as we drove away after multiple rounds of handshakes, there were some fine new discoveries here, such as the cedar wood from the Atlas Mountains they had piled in bags ready for distillation. Yes, the men had expressed interest in developing new and unusual products, but most of what they had I had seen over and over.
What was it, then, that I was truly interested in? In all the vast fields where the art and science of distillation overlap…from chemistry to alchemy to botany to meditation to medicine to ecology to history to politics to economics…what was it that stirred my passions and bestowed artistic inspiration?
I couldn’t articulate that mysterious purpose and pleasure in that moment, as we drove through the late afternoon toward Fez. I knew, however, that we were relatively safe: for miles and miles, almost two hours of driving, the highway was lined with smartly dressed guards waiting for the King to arrive.