The Tunisians rightly call it “white gold”. It is the flower water of the bitter orange tree and its complement, the essence of neroli, as it is commonly known. Its season, which lasts from the end of March to the end of May, has just begun in the main Tunisian production centers, mainly on the Cap Bon peninsula in the Nabeul governorate.
The bigaradier is the variety of citrus fruit that produces the bitter orange. Although its fruit is less sought after than the sweet fruit of the orange tree, its flowers are the most perfumed and sublime.
Tunisia is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of this highly prized fragrance and has the privilege of producing the best quality.
The Cap Bon peninsula is regularly visited by the great names of the world of perfumery, who come here to obtain both the water and the essential oil of neroli. The Tunisian extract obtained, thanks to extremely careful hand distillation techniques, preserves all the aromas and volatile components of neroli. The resulting perfumes are sublime, releasing the most pleasant scents on the olfactory sense. Some even find it “intoxicating.”
A producer in Nabeul recently confirmed the loyalty of the prestigious French perfume house Guerlain to these Tunisian scents, which it regularly uses to create its top-of-the-range perfumes.
The blossom water of the bigaradier, in its raw, unadulterated state, is already very fragrant and even surpasses the rose water and the water of the rose hip flower, both of which are locally produced and exported in large quantities.
According to figures recently published by the Ministry of Agriculture, on the International Forum on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Djerba on March 18, the production of extracts from medicinal and aromatic plants in Tunisia amounts to 10,000 tons per year, of which citrus oils account for 38%, or around 4,000 tons.
However, rosemary oil is in first place with 41%, while citrus oils are in second place.
France is Tunisia’s main customer in this sector, followed by the United States and Japan.
More than 300 manufacturers and scientific researchers from 20 countries took part in this forum, organized on the initiative of the Medenine Institute for Arid Zones.
For its part, the Tunisian Post Office issued two stamps on March 24, 2023; the first illustrating the method of distillation of the bigaradier flower to obtain neroli perfume, and the second dedicated to the distillation of rose water from rose flowers.
Therapeutic virtues and culinary uses
As the blossom of the bitter orange is too fragile, the Tunisians, together with the Algerians and Moroccans, have perfected a distillation apparatus that allows it to be distilled while preserving all its volatile constituents in the final extracts: orange blossom water, also known as hydrolat, and neroli essence, or neroli essential oil.
This perfumed water is obtained by collecting the cooking vapors of fresh flowers. It is then distilled to obtain the essential oil of neroli. It takes a ton of flowers to produce one liter of essential oil!
These fragrant and delicate white or slightly pink flowers are picked, usually by hand, at dawn (when the aromas are most concentrated), from late April to early May. Essential oil and floral water (or hydrolat) are obtained through the steam process. The blossom water is prized for its relaxing properties and culinary use in cooking, while the neroli essential oil is used to make high quality perfumes with pleasant floral and sweet notes. It is one of the most expensive essential oils, as it takes about 6 kg of flowers to produce just 5 ml of essential oil.
It is said to have good antibacterial, antiviral and antiparasitic properties. It also has calming, relaxing, antidepressant, tonic and digestive properties, and is even said to have aphrodisiac properties.
Another great Tunisian specialty in this field, the cultivation of rose hip is concentrated in the Zaghouan region, while the other aromatic and medicinal plants are found a little everywhere, but mainly in the north.
Last August, French television channel TV5 broadcast a report on this Tunisian wealth in the north, in the region of Kroumirie, entitled “Kroumirie, the Grasse of Tunisia”, a reference to the French city of Grasse, a major world center for the production of flowers and perfumes, twinned with the Tunisian city of Ariana, identified with the Tunisian rose, which organizes an annual festival dedicated to the rose, the 2023 edition of which is scheduled for April 28 to May 14.