North East Victoria has many wonderful hidden treasures, but visiting the ambrosial damask rose gardens of Samaria Farm just out of Benalla for a Rosewater Distillation Workshop, would have to be the most special of treasures and a sensational day out.
Rosewater is one of those fragrant ingredients that has always had a place in my pantry… or on my cocktail trolley. I often use it in my cooking and cocktails and would say it is one of my favourite ingredients, so I was thrilled to discover Samaria Farm Rosewater, which is actually made here in Australia.
Samaria Farm was one of those ‘down the rabbit hole’ discoveries. I was trying to find a grower of the glorious damask roses so I could purchase some for my garden (not as easy as it sounds) and then came across the farm, their premium rosewater and then the rosewater distilling workshops that take place during their months of harvest, and without a second I thought I was hooked and booked.
It has been a while since I had been on an adventure, and an even longer while since I had been to North East Victoria. Having spent many childhood years there, I hardly needed an excuse, but this was it. It is a beautiful region renowned for its wines and a popular foodie destination.
Enraptured by the prospect of having a hand in making my own pure rosewater, I made the pilgrimage to North East Victoria, to Samaria Farm, about a 20 minute drive out of Benalla.
The farm is owned by Vicki and Allan Wight, who through a stroke of good fortune (I think) purchased the rose farm some years ago. The farm came with over 3000 damask rose bushes, and numerous more heirloom rose varieties that are dotted throughout the property. Red, white, pink, yellow, orange; masses of roses flower spectacularly. Varieties long forgotten bloom in their various guises in secrets gardens that reveal themselves at every turn.
Vicki and Allan wanted to put the farm to good use. Initially it was recommend that the roses be bulldozed (my heart skipped a beat at hearing this), but fortunately Vicki and Allan saw an opportunity, and I am sure, also the beauty, and made the decision to maintain the roses and see what they could produce.
The farm also has an olive grove, lemon myrtle trees, lemon, lime and bergamot orange trees, all of which are used for the extraction of their precious fragrant oils.
The property is just STUNNING. I became the annoying perpetual ‘oooh-er’ and ahhh-er’ as I meandered through the gardens camera in hand, lens deep within the roses – as well as my nose. Heirloom roses, and especially damask roses, have a fragrance like no other and the whole farm is shrouded in this incredible scented halo.
Damask roses are divine. Also known as the Rose of Castille, it is a hybrid (Rosa × damascene) derived from ancient Gallic and musk roses, originating in the Middle East. These are the roses that are cultivated commercially for rose oil and rosewater, and used in the perfume industry, as well as to make fragrant culinary delectables such as Turkish delight and a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. Samaria Farm is the only rose farm that does so in Australia on a commercial scale producing 100% pure damask rosewater and rose essential oils, predominantly for the cosmetic, skin care and aromatherapy industry.
The damask rose itself, is not the most spectacular flower (in comparison with some of the others grown in the Samaria gardens), its flowers are quite loose, and generally fall open at a whim, making them less desirable as cut flowers, but that fragrance… oh lordy, words escape me… its pretty special.
Vicki mainly grows the pink variety, for the sole purpose of the extraction of oils, and the creation of hydrosol, or rosewater as it is more commonly known, which is produced through the distillation of rose petals.
I really gotta get me still… all my favourite things involve a still… rosewater… vodka… gin… there is a bit of a common denominator happening here…
I am fascinated by the process, and really wanted to see the gardens and seeing I could not get hold of any damask roses, I decided a distillation workshop was the next best thing.
Vicki is a beautiful soul and incredibly welcoming – as are the gorgeous harlequin sheep, cockatoos as well as the neighbour’s dog, Eddie. I stayed in the onsite cabin to make getting up early a little easier so arrived the evening prior to the workshop and wandered aimlessly and in awe around the gardens.
Me getting up at 5:30am is always a bit of a novelty, as I don’t do early mornings well. Even more so because in the southern states, it is still dark at this time, which made it feel even more hostile! But then I got out amongst that spectacular field of roses, breathed in the fresh morning rose scented air, the slow rise of the sun casting a golden glow over the roses and vaguely thought that I could gladly do this every morning (while the novelty lasted I suspect). My mind had me living in one of the cabins seeing out the season as a rose picker… sounds romantic doesn’t it?
The workshop begins at dawn. We met Vicki in the rose garden to spend a few hours in the cool of the morning picking the damask rose buds as they opened. I have to say I found this quite a cathartic process and enjoyed it immensely. I quite like working in the garden, so picking these ambrosial little beauties was a little slice of heaven on earth. I might feel differently if I had to do it everyday, but at this particular moment in time I was quite content.
Once we had enough roses, we wandered up to the shed that housed the still and Allan took us through the distilling process.
The beauty of flower water distillation is 1) you don’t need a permit for the still, and 2) it is a reasonably simple process (as far as simple processes go). Having said that, I am sure there is a lot of hidden skill that comes through experience, where feel, instinct and trial and error comes into play, all of which I am sure Allan has spent many years perfecting.
Their still is a huge homemade contraption – I say that lovingly – I think all stills are quite beautiful, especially the more rustic ones. It came with the property and was purpose built by the previous owners and has earned its keep through many fabulous distillations. Much of its operation is determined by ‘feel’, Allan knows this old girl well and knows how to get the best out of her.
We loaded her with the roses, laid out on a tier of metal grates until she was full, added some water and then Allan fired her up.
And the wait began.
Invited back to the house, Vicki made us a fabulous breakfast, and Allan showed off his barista skills with a real coffee – ahh the bliss – I felt I had worked hard… and given the early rise, coffee was like a gift from the gods at this stage.
Breakfast done, Vicki took us on a wonderful walk around the gardens, sharing the history of the property and all that they do.
Vicki’s background is in hospitality, hence the wonderful breakfast, and Allan’s was engineering, in a slightly different kind of oil industry. They both have found their passions, and it is apparent in how they approach everything they do.
After about an hour we wandered back to the shed and the first drops of hydrosol/rosewater had started to make their way out the other end of the condenser into a flask. Hydrosol is the condensed vapour emitted from the roses. The steam cools as it passes through the condenser, and the liquid there of into a cylindrical flask. The rose oil separates and sits as fine layer on top of the hydrosol in the flask, and the hydrosol is syphoned off at a lower outlet point into a container.
When you see the proportion of rosewater to rose oil, you begin to understand why true 100% rose oil is so expensive (from $200 per 2ml)… it is a very disproportionate ratio! To sum up, it takes about 20 kilograms or approximately 8,000 damask roses to produce an average of 20 litres of hydrosol and 5ml of rose essential oil! So due to my picking efforts of the morning I probably contributed to the production of about 1ml of oil… or less… that day… would need to have counted my roses to give an exact estimate…
While other than the picking we didn’t really have to do anything too strenuous – the still did it all for us – we did bottle our own bottle of rosewater, as well as a small vial of jojoba oil into which we carefully used a dropper to add a few drops of precious rose oil – that was a bit nerve wrecking… none of us wanted to waste a drop, or worse, accidentally spill it!
Once all our questions were answered and we had exhausted Allan’s knowledge bank, we enjoyed a delicious lunch back at the house to draw our day reluctantly to a close.
The Rose Distilling Workshops are a lovely day out, and the gardens alone well worth the visit. Vicki and Allan are wonderful hosts and very generous with their time and knowledge… and then there are the roses… and the rosewater…
The workshops only run for just on a month, so if you want to take part in this wonderful experience, there are only a few weeks left in this year’s season, as it is dependant on the roses, though Samaria Farm do run lemon myrtle distillation workshops as well.
While Samaria Farm does tend to focus on the cosmetic applications with their products, they do produce culinary rosewater as well, which was my purpose. The quality is notably superior to the rosewater you buy in supermarkets – I would wonder whether supermarket rosewater even contains real rosewater. All of their products are available for purchase online.
What do I use rosewater for? Lots of things – I often trade it for vanilla essence in sweet recipes – rosewater and cardamom pavlova or a rose crème brûlée, or rosewater poached fruits… #yesplease
A splash of rosewater in a G&T is pretty special too, but my overall favourite would be my Sake Rose Cocktail. It is pretty magic. I will post the recipe shortly…. But first you have to do a workshop and make your own rosewater… otherwise it won’t taste the same!
Workshops run from October to November – the season is nearly at a close, so you will need to act quickly – but there is always next year.
For more information about workshops or online sales visit:
Big thank you to Vicki and Allan for the warm welcome, sharing of knowledge and your glorious gardens.
This story was written by Petra Hughes – Pebbles + Pomegranate Seeds
Photographs by Petra Hughes – © Copyright 2018 – All rights reserved.
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