Middle East is not all about deserts after all.
Ask a nonresident to describe the Middle East and invariably he or she will respond with thoughts of deserts, yet beyond the clouds in the green heights of Jebel Akhdar lies a surprise to delight and en-trance even the most reluctant gardener. For in the brief window of May, the villagers of Sayq begin their annual rose harvest in an abundant plantation, rising before dawn to gather flowers whilst the fragrance is at its most sublime.
The promises of an extrasensory extravaganza were tempting and so I joined The Guide Oman who arranged a bespoke itinerary including a tour around a rose water distillery and a walk through the plantation, building up to lunch in a hotel with a difference.
Producing rose water is an ancient tradition in Jebel Akhdar, thought to originate from the 17th century when Oman experienced influence from Persia. But whatever the roots be, remarkably the distillation process has barely changed over time and I was keen to experience it firsthand.
On this trip, The Guide Oman provided a charming and bubbly bunch of guides from Muscat, chauffeuring us in hardy yet comfortable jeep wranglers, an appropriate option to tackle the roads traversing up to our final destination at 2,300m above sea level.
At the foot of the mountain, we noted that the temperature gauge was a searing 40 degrees. However, soon after passing through the police checkpoint, the temperature started to drop by approximately a degree every kilometer. Now that’s great news for a Norwegian girl like myself, who openly admits to loving extremes of cold rather than heat, and happily, this trend continued until the thermometer dropped to 28 degrees, bliss.
The instant reward for 12 kilometers of wiggling roads reminiscent of a snakes-and-ladders board game and encountering endless hairpin bends, was a breathtaking vista back towards the ancient city of Nizwa, former capital of Oman. The view was framed by rolling rock formations, gently waving their way back down into the depths. Around the next bend, the vast canyon becomes apparent and while certainly greener than the lowlands, I was still wondering how this area would support the rich flower harvest promised.
All became clear as we dropped into the village of Sayq and met our mountain guide Mohammed, a sprightly Jabali whose family has farmed in the temperate climate seemingly at the top of the world for time immemorial. Rising from the depths of the Sayq plateau floor is a thick and luscious plantation that was, against the barren, rocky sides the greenery, astoundingly verdant.
Our first port of call was a traditional rose water distillery. Once inside this crude building, we experienced an instant snapshot of the past as our eyes adjusted to the murky smoke lined walls of the cook house and we took in the equipment of a master distiller; the mud brick oven, woven baskets, clay pots and silver rose water dispensers.
The pricey Omani rose water is often claimed to be the most sought variety—the demand is so high from buyers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, so much so that the small harvest on Jebel Akhdar makes it difficult to be met. The key to this lies in the use of charcoal in the distillation process, hence the smoky, slightly brackish colour offsetting the sweetly scented aroma.
Rose water is part of a long culinary history in Oman, with its delicate flavour-enhancing halwa, kahwa and biryani dishes; the benefits can also be sought in a medicinal sense as it can be applied to soothe headaches and aching joints.
The process itself is intricate and requires the utmost dedication to the task, using a whopping five kilograms of roses to produce 75 ml—this is truly the amber nectar. It starts with simmering the roses with water inside a clay pot over a charcoal fire for three hours, the steam is then trapped by a copper bowl filled with cold water and the condensation is then collected in a bowl floating on the surface of the simmering roses. After cooling and filtering out the sediment, the liquid is then decanted into a clay storage pot for ninety days to mature.
The owner of the rose distillery, Abdullah, is proud of his heritage and obligingly answered our questions through our guide. Although in Oman, it often feels like life has rarely moved forward beyond the limits of the larger towns and cities, it was a delight to see a successful family business in action, with perhaps the only change in production over the last century being the introduction of the Vimto bottle as a container for the product.
Our appetites whetted, it was time to explore the heart of the plantation and, walking through a myriad of ancient, shady passageways and listening to the chirpy sounds of village life, it became clear why many residents from across the Gulf are attracted to the area to escape the relentless heat of summer in the lowlands.
The sound of rushing water echoed in the basin as we followed the winding falaj into the depths of the plantation. This gentle walk drew surprising comparisons with the fruit-growing regions of Italy and Spain. The bountiful pomegranate trees were loaded with red trumpet-like flowers that were seamlessly transforming into fruits, a truly spectacular sight. This fertile area is divided into family-owned plots and only the limitations to the type of crop planted are set by the climate. In just five minutes, we passed through trees bearing apricots, figs, walnuts, apples, pears, mangoes and papayas. Suddenly, an arresting fragrance wafted along the breeze and we knew we were close to the holy grail, the mountain rose.
The pale pink variety of the Damask Rose is coveted for distillation, comprising of the most fragrantly and extravagantly frilled petals. A large bush can produce over 3,000 blooms in a season. Our senses were bombarded with colour, scent and the hum of bees going about their life’s work. This was definitely a moment to treasure in the fast approaching long, hot days of summer.
With all our senses fully enlightened and a tremendous feeling of wellbeing, we jumped back into the jeeps to round off the afternoon with late lunch at the newest addition to hotel accommodation at the top of the Jebel, the Al Sahab Hotel. For a hotel in the early phases of opening and in such a remote location, all praise must go to the staff who looked after us royally, and the chef who served up a western style lunch incorporating a choice of lamb or freshly caught hammour, mountain corn and fruits to satisfy our hunger cravings.
The setting was quite beyond compare, not only because of the cleverly landscaped and fossil filled gardens but also because of its location at the lip of a magnificent canyon, overlooking terraced villages clinging to the steep slopes. Our trip ended with the opportunity to ponder over this breathtaking view from the tranquility of the swimming pool, so be sure to pack your swimmers!
The Guide Oman trip cost 45OR per person including lunch. For more information visit www.facebook.com/theguideoman or call Rebecca Mayston +968 98038820