by David Crow
“Today we will see distillation in the home,” Hamid announced. We had just emerged from the medina and were ready for our afternoon excursion. I had no idea what he was referring to, but it sounded intriguing.
We drove through the new city of Fez; modern, hip, and affluent its wide boulevards crammed with cars were a stark contrast to the tiny walking lanes of the old city. The old and new cities seemed to have completely different cultures as well, with the new city having a distinctly younger westernized population and the old city appearing as left over from the past, with traditional clothing the norm and the general age of the people noticeably older. It was easy to imagine that many of people we had encountered in the shops of the medina never went outside the walls of their ancient realm.
We were on our way to visit some friends of Hamid. They lived, like most people in modern Fez, in a typical block style apartment building. Their large marble floored living room was filled wall to wall with bright purple couches, which I imagined were frequently packed with dozens if not hundreds of extended family members. In the middle of this, looking rather out of place, was a small still.
Hamid introduced us to the owners of the house, a middle-aged couple of professional demeanor. A cook was busy in the kitchen, while the grandmother looked after their young son. The star of the program was a woman named Nahima, who was preparing for the distillation.
Nahima lit the small propane burner and set the still on it. While it was warming she sealed its three sections together using cloth dipped in a batter of chickpeas. She then brought out a large bowl filled with freshly picked orange blossoms purchased at the flower market. When the still was warmed up she opened it and poured the flowers in, then began a routine of pouring cool water into the top section then draining it off, creating a rudimentary condensing unit. Within a few minutes the entire house was perfumed with the fragrance of neroli; Nahima set a bottle under the lower spout of the still to capture the condensing steam.
While she worked I asked her about this curious and unusual career. She had been doing it for many years, Nahima replied. The first step was to procure the flowers from the market, and then take everything to the home of the client requesting the distillation. The entire operation was quite portable, with the still, gas tank, and flowers requiring no more than two or three trips from her car to set up. Nahima did five to six of these house calls every day during the flower season, which typically lasted about three to four months. The rest of the year she had a business making cookies, which of course were scented with rose and orange blossom waters.
“Is she the only person in Fez doing this work?” I asked Hamid.
Nahima laughed and said that there were hundreds of people who had this career, in this city alone. It was part of the culture, she explained. It was very common for a family to invest $10 once a year for this service, which would give them several liters of neroli or rose hydrosol for use throughout the year. They used these in cooking and medicinal purposes; specifically, they were consumed for headaches, stress and fevers, and applied after the bath for refreshment and cosmetic purposes.
The first bottle was now filled with hydrosol. Nahima labeled it the top grade water coming from the first few minutes of distillation, and passed it around to savor; needless to say, there is nothing quite like fresh orange blossom water distilled in a copper pot at home.
We relaxed on the long purple couches while the distillation proceeded; after the second liter was complete we said farewell to our hosts and Nahima, the distiller who makes house calls.
Such a simple but important thing, this home distillation, I mused as we made our way back to the old city. For ten dollars a family receives a year’s supply of a safe, delicious, fragrant medicine, and hundreds of people have safe and healthy employment, in Fez alone. How sad that this is not a tradition in our western culture, and what would it take to create such an interest? There is no shortage of aromatic plants in most places, certainly no shortage of people who would like a different kind of job, and everyone could benefit from having health-bestowing freshly distilled aromatic waters in their homes.
My entrepreneurial mind began to work. What could we call such a business?