When I recall my very first encounter with this intoxicating smell, I step back in time to my grandmother’s garden. It is a vision of discovery, mystery, grounding, warmth and happiness.
And it starts with my grandmother’s quite unusual house.
After a lifetime living in the medina (traditional old city), the family had relocated in the 1950s to La Ville Nouvelle (modern city), the very French new quarter in town.
Mostly European in style with hints of mysterious courtyards and lush gardens interspersed, the home’s design was emblematic of French architecture from this period.
My grandmother’s house had two entrances. Like many households, the main one was reserved for formal guests, affording them direct access into the ornate reception, while the second entrance, through the back of the house, led to a courtyard and kitchen and was where day-to-day life took place. The second entrance led one through a maze of a garden, the centerpiece of which was an orange tree. Most of the year, the tree was bare. But in springtime, it came into full bloom. One had to walk through clouds of green leaves and orange blossom.
“It always caught me off guard: how the scent tangled the clean, brightness of orange blossom with the unexpected bitterness of a dried citrus peel that’s spent too long in the sun”
First, I felt the rustle of leaves in my hair, then I noticed the light and shadows filtering through the branches, followed by the feel of rubbery white orange blossoms. And finally: that smell.
It always caught me off guard: how the scent tangled the clean, brightness of orange blossom -- reminiscent of a sweet, refreshing slice of orange -- with the unexpected bitterness of a dried citrus peel that’s spent too long in the sun.
The surprising aroma warmed like liquid sunshine. That tree in bloom held the promise of a balmy spring and a scorching-yet-liberating summer to come. It reminded me of the joy of bare skin caressed by the sun’s rays. The excitement of splashing each other with water, from the fountain, in the pool, or by the sea. And the glimmer of something only a summer season can inspire. The fluid scent enveloped the skin, and immersed you in a universe of sunlight.
At the end of the garden, was the main courtyard.
There, my glorious grandmother would sit, beautifully draped in a kaftan (traditional outfit), legs crossed comfortably on her plush cushions, flanked on both sides by a lifelong entourage of chatty women, presiding over the life blood of Morocco. A senia (silver tray) of mint tea laid out before them. With orange blossom, of course.
Stepping into that courtyard was like walking into a centuries-old scene. Women socializing together, trading laughter and banter protected by high walls and tall trees, as they had seen their mothers and grandmothers do, passing onto us to continue. Their courtyard conversation would be interrupted a few weeks into the season by the extraction of the orange blossom water.
Bloom picking. Petals Crushing. Water extracting. Orange Blossom water bottling.
And just like that each one of us returned home with a precious bottle of orange water.
We splashed it on our face to tone, soften and brighten our skin, or to reduce a high temperature.
Orange water was everywhere: drizzled in honey-infused treats to add an extra depth of flavor to the sweetness, dropped into drinks to soothe the body, mind and soul, and sprayed in the home to refresh the energy. Orange blossom water adds a drop of the sublime to the ordinary, to make it – even if temporarily – extraordinary.
If this is not magic, what is?