Many mountain villages are dying out on Cyprus, but Agros is flourishing. The damask rose, which grows there, creates prospects and jobs
The sun is still hidden behind the mountaintops as I trot down a stony path thick with rock roses and thistles – far too slowly for Naser Karoub, 30, who is striding ahead of me. “We’re nearly there!” my Syrian companion calls. It’s pure coincidence, he assures me, that he, a man from Damascus, is in Cyprus harvesting damask roses. A glance at my watch tells me it’s a quarter past six. Beads of sweat trickle from my brow. “Here!” Karoub calls, waving me over. He points to a hollow filled with hundreds of tall rose bushes bearing pale pink blossoms like droplets scattered with a paintbrush. Karoub scrambles down the slope. “Let’s get going!”
Karoub snaps the thin stems with his thumbnail and drops the blossoms into his apron pocket. Using both hands, he works so fast that I will hardly be much help, but I don’t want to stand around idly. Time is of the essence, after all. Damask roses open in the early morning, fade within hours and usually drop their petals by noon. This spectacle is repeated throughout the flowering season in May and June. To me, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the transience of life; to Karoub, it means he has to hurry.
I set to and very soon my thumb is black and sticky with sap. At first, I swear every time I mistakenly grab a thorn, but soon I get used to the pain, and soon my apron pocket is full. An hour later, we haul a large sack back toward the road, or rather, Karoub does the hauling while I attempt to keep pace. Shortly afterwards, Karoub steers a small white car past pines and cypresses toward the next field. “We have 5000 blossoms, 10 kilos of roses,” he says. “We need another 20.” Another 10 000 roses? I’m hoping he’s kidding, but Karoub looks grave. The sun is already high above the mountains and time is short.
Two hours later, Karoub drives our booty to the village of Agros in the Troodos Mountains, which is home to 800 people and famous for its roses. A narrow street winds up the slope past crumbling stone cottages and construction sites. Surrounding villages are slowly dying out, but Agros is booming and has been for decades. Businesses locate here, and the village has a youth club, an old people’s home, an elementary school and high school, a 24-hour clinic and a sports center with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Rosewater is a big moneymaker.
“The sunny, sheltered hollows around Agros provide the best conditions for roses,” says tall, tanned Christos Tsolakis, 56, as he tips our morning’s harvest into a steel vat, adds water and starts to heat it up. The steam condenses to rosewater inside a tube and collects in a tank. Whether as a flavoring for desserts, a basis for cosmetic products or a household remedy for headache and stomach ache, rosewater, which contains precious essential oils, has been in use since ancient times, especially in the Middle East. The Crusaders introduced it to the Mediterranean.
The damask rose flourishes on Cyprus, but it wasn’t until the late 1940s that Tsolakis’ father, a businessman, first took bottled rosewater to the capital, Nikosia, to sell. “People all but tore the bottles out of his hands,” says Tsolakis.
In the 1970s, as the business with rosewater and precious rose oil prospered, the enterprising Tsolakis senior embarked on his next project, forming a cooperative with other villagers to buy up land. The climate and soils of the region are ideal for roses, but also for growing grapes, cherries, almonds, peaches, figs and lots of other fruit. The people of Agros invested in agriculture, hiking trails, cycle routes and a large hotel. Today, the village is living off the fruits of that cooperation. It has three butcher’s shops producing fine smoked sausage and ham, three distilleries that make zivania, the Cypriot version of pomace brandy, two rosewater distilleries and any number of fruit growers.
There is no better place on earth than where you were raised
As a young man in his early twenties, Christos Tsolakis had no particular interest in homegrown specialties. The world outside his small village beckoned, and in the late 1970s, he moved to Australia, where he studied information science and worked in construction. Ten years later, realizing the potential of his father’s business in Cyprus, Tsolakis returned and began experimenting with an increasing range of products that could be refined with rosewater – from flavored wine to aromatherapy candles and the company’s own brand of organic skin cream (Venus Rose Cosmetics). Tsolakis now manufactures 35 products that are also sold in Germany, Austria and Russia.
Niki Agathocleus’ sweetmeats factory has also blossomed. On her veranda, the 56-year-old offers me a piece of candied orange peel. With a wonderful, bittersweet taste on my tongue, I follow her into the basement, where women in white hairnets are stirring the contents of large pans and lifting preserved walnuts out of a vat and sealing them into plastic bags.
Agathocleus, a homemaker and mother, made candied fruit and thick jam for friends and family in her own small kitchen before turning her hobby into a business. Today she and some 25 employees produce traditional Cypriot sweet preserves for the home market, although parcels are also making their way abroad. “Tourists who have been here will later order something over the internet to be delivered to their home,” she says. Specialty shops in London, Paris and Melbourne have been her customers for years.
It’s now afternoon, and Christos Tsolakis sets a basket of sliced white bread, sheep’s cheese, sliced tomatoes and a carafe of fruity olive oil down on the table. We share the meal, Tsolakis, his wife, Maria, their two daughters, Andria and Elena, and I. “Believe me, there is no better place on earth than where you were raised,” says Tsolakis. “Especially when it’s a piece of land ideal for growing damask roses,” I would like to add, but a chunk of white bread dunked in olive oil prevents me from speaking. His daughters nod: Andria, 26, has a degree in cosmetic science from Montpellier, France, and developed a rosewater after shave with her father; Elena, 23, is studying business management in Athens. Their next project is to bring out a baby oil and a baby lotion. The sisters intend to carry on the family business. “Until our own children take over from us,” says Andria matter-of-factly. It looks like Agros will flourish for a long time to come.