A flower whose scent and flavor are an indelible part of
our collective memory, the orange blossom occupies a
central role in the history of Western perfumery.
Originating from the southern slopes of the Himalayas, the bigarade or bitter orange tree was probably first cultivated more than 2,000 years ago in China, where it was valued as an ornamental tree for the delicate fragrance of its flowers.
From Asia, this precious plant was brought to the shores of the Mediterranean, whose soils and climate suited it to perfection. In the footsteps of the Arab conquest it was spread throughout the entire region, especially in Spain, where it still adorns the lanes and gardens of Seville.
As early as the 14th century, the very first perfume recipes called for orange blossom, and by the 17th century its sweet, mellow fragrance was highly prized in the French court. Louis XIV had the architect Mansart build an orangery in Versailles in order to enjoy the subtle odor of its flowers in the spring. Anne Marie de La Trémoille, wife of the Prince of Nerola, loved its fragrance so much that the essence of orange blossom, neroli, was named after her.
The first known instances of orange blossom distillation
in Europe date from the 16th century. A milestone came
in the late 18th century, when neroli, combined with
petitgrain and bergamot, inspired the first cologne,
the famous Eau de Cologne 4711.
Soon after, the first orange groves for perfumery were planted in southeastern France around the city of Grasse, and thrived until the mid-20th century. Today the bigarade orange tree is grown mainly in northern Africa, in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.
Every part of this marvelous tree is a source of aromatic pleasure: its flowers, leaves, fruit and zest are used in floral waters, infusions and essential oils for myriad purposes ranging from personal care to fragrance, from cuisine to aromatherapy. In these pages we invite you on an adventure, to discover a flower with an eternally enchanting fragrance.
A hardy, robust plant, the bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium var. amara, offers an extraordinary abundance of riches. The bitter pulp of its fruit is used to make the marmalades beloved by the British. Its zest, pressed to yield bigarade oil, flavors liqueurs like Grand Marnier. Its leaves contain an essential oil called petitgrain, and its blossoms are gently distilled to produce neroli and orange floral water.
Originally native to the foothills of the Himalayas, the bitter orange tree was brought west by Arab travelers and the Muslim conquest, first to Syria and Egypt, and then the entire Mediterranean Basin. Eventually it arrived in southeastern France, although its exact route is not known.
For nearly a century, until the 1950s, Grasse was a center of neroli oil
production. With the first days of spring, the sweet odour of orange
blossom wafted across the rolling countryside.
In 1956 a severe frost killed most of the Provençal orange groves, hastening the decline of French production, and the market was gradually taken over by North African growers.
Already in the early 20th century, French perfumers seeking warmer climates with less frequent frosts began planting bitter orange trees in North Africa, mainly in Morocco and Tunisia. Oranges were also grown in Egypt, but not on such a large scale — the trees there were mostly cultivated by the English for the production of marmalade.
In local tradition, each family has its own small orange grove, lovingly tended for the blossoms. As a result, the Tunisian crop comes from a multitude of very small growing operations, with an average of 40 trees. Cultivated without grafting, the trees grow tall, obliging the harvesters to use ladders to pick the blossoms.
Morocco’s green belt, between Fez and Marrakech, is home to the largest bitter orange plantations. Every year the warm breezes from the Atlantic Ocean clash with the cold air from the Atlas highlands, making it impossible to predict when the first blossoms will appear.
The harvesters work in teams of three or four. The youngest one climbs the tree while the others pluck the blossoms from the low branches. Tarpaulins are spread out around the trunk to catch the picked flowers. Any leaves that fall among them must be carefully sorted out — at the factory, no trace of petitgrain oil from the leaves can be allowed to alter the neroli oil from the blossoms.
Neroli oil has a zesty floral odor whose fresh yet mellow character is inevitably associated with eaux de cologne. The absolute is much more sensual, with a subtly animalic, sometimes almond-like tinge. Its opulent note is often used to enrich floral oriental compositions for women. In addition to these qualities, there are also distinct differences between the two origins: more honey-like for Moroccan orange blossom, more floral for the Tunisian variety.
While perfumery remains an important market for orange blossom extracts, neroli and orange floral water are finding more and more uses in natural cosmetics, aromatherapy and flavors. The high demand is encouraging the development of growing operations, not only in North Africa but also in countries where bitter orange is a new crop. The adventure of the orange blossom is far from over…
North Africa: Morocco 1,200 tons of blossoms, Tunisia 1,500-2,000 tons, Egypt 500-800 tons.
YIELDS AND PRODUCTS
A low yield: 1 ton of flowers for 1 kg of oil and 2.5 kg of concrete.
An annual production of 2 to 2.5 tons of oil and about 1 ton of absolute.
A large global market for orange floral water, totaling several hundred tons.
FRAGRANCES - AROMATHERAPY - FLAVORS - COSMETICS
In addition to perfumery, orange floral water has many applications in cleansing, cooking, cosmetics, etc. The essential oil is also prized as an ingredient in cosmetics, and for its beneficial effects in aromatherapy. As a food flavoring, its floral note enhances many fruit flavors.
An operation at the source with a processing site in Morocco: An organic plantation in Khemisset spanning 160 hectares (395 acres), 50 ha. of which are devoted to orange blossom.