Yagoda Village, Rose Valley; Photo: Zlatina Tochkova

Rose-picking with harmonica

Yagoda Village

June 2020

Written by: Marina Mihaylova
Photographer: Zlatina Tochkova

Rose cordial harmonica is one of our most precious products, even though it has never been among the best sellers. Nevertheless, there is so much history, experiences, nature, sights and scents in it that we simply can’t bring ourselves to stop talking about it. Every year, with no exception, on a hot summer day in June, we set off early at sunrise to do rose-picking in the mythical Rose valley. This is something that everyone has to experience at least once in their life.

This year is a bit different and it’s just me (Marina from harmonica), the cameraman Rus and the photographer Zlati. The two have never been rose-picking before. Sure, we expected breath-taking views, but what the Valley of Roses held for us that day, was beyond words can express.

The beauty of the Rose Valley is beyond words.

We are visiting Yagoda, the village of Althea’s gardens. It’s the place where the rose petals for our rose cordial are grown. Kaloyan is our host and he is eager to show us around. This summer is rainy and not so hot. Which is good for the roses – they bloom gradually and the picking continues throughout June. The more rainy days, the longer the roses will blossom before the sun dries them.

We are greeted by the aroma – it is not heavy nor overly “perfumed”, but it is light and ethereal, it is found everywhere – in the air, in the bushes, in the clothes, in the hair… almost as if it becomes a part of you. The next thing that amazes us in the Rose valley are the sounds – the songs of dozens of species of birds and the buzzing of all sorts of insects.

This year is rainy and it’s good for the roses.

Everything flies and buzzes past us.

I turn to Kaloyan and ask him what are the “enemies” of roses and that’s how I learn about agrilus. It’s a small beetle that does great mischief – it nests in the stem of the rose and lays its eggs there. Such a little bug (between 6 and 8 mm) could cause a whole bush to dry out. In order to prevent it, organic farmers prune the affected bushes by hand, instead of using chemicals that, in addition to agrilus, would kill all the innocent insects around, including bees.

The other issue with organic beds is grass. Because the grass is not sprayed with herbicides, but fertilized with manure – it grows along with the roses. I wonder what kind of super technology they must have come up with to combat this “scourge”. Kaloyan laughs: From ancient times to the present day, the hoe remains an effective method of weed control. Three times a year all the rose beds are dug with a hoe. By hand.

“The hoe!” The only method that works flawlessly.

We hear the buzzing of all sorts of insects in the organic rose gardens.

I ask Kaloyan if honey could be made from roses. It turns out that there is no such thing, because bees can not collect nectar from roses, they only collect pollen. And so – we learned something new Today!

Yet, we make cordial from roses. It is interesting how in Bulgaria rose products are not as recognized as in many other countries. Although the harmonica rose cordial has international recognition for taste – it has been awarded at the Great taste awards.

Harmonica rose cordial has been awarded at the Great taste awards in 2017.

It is getting dark, the roses close their flowers and Kaloyan promises that in the morning they will be in all their glory. Rose-picking begins at sunrise when the flowers open completely and are ready to be hand-picked. We can’t wait to see the gardens in the light of the rising sun. Getting up early is worth every second – the view is phenomenal.

The Rose Valley just before the sunrise.

With the sunrise, the pickers arrive and immediately get lost in the rose beds. All flowers have open up by now and smell fantastic.

Sunrise in a bottle.

Having for background the majestic nature, Ruslan and Zlati take pictures of the roses and the bottle of our cordial. I decide to join the rose-pickers. It turns out to be an extremely difficult task. They walk slowly through the rose beds and seem to have mastered the art of hand-picking. They have been doing it for years. Their movements are precise, their hands pick only the most open flowers, bypassing the buds, which are still waiting for their sunrise and have not fully bloomed.

Rose-pickers are precise, their hands pick only the most open flowers, bypassing the buds, which are not fully bloomed.

I think I am not helping much: my hands get easily stabbed, I am wet with dew all over and for the time I have picked two handfuls, Angel has filled half a sack next to me. As we pick, we talk.

Angel among roses.

Angel has a good command of English and we switch between the languages for a while. I compliment him on the pronunciation. He told me, he wants his children to grow up and study in Bulgaria. He believes that it is more important to learn Bulgarian in the first place at school. As for the foreign languages, as long as his kids have the necessary desire and will, they’ll catch up fast.

I also do picking in England, for money, of course, but I always come back to Bulgaria. My life is here – better and more real.

I meet Misho, who manages the pickers. He comes to the Rose valley every year, but this one is different  – because of covid-19 kindergartens are closed, so he brought his son with him – Little Misho. And it’s not just him – a lot of kids run around the rose beds, play hide and seek and enjoy their free time.

Ahmed and Little Misho are playing around the rose beds, while their parents are working.

I stare at the fast and precise movements of one of the women. I can’t even follow the trajectory, the sack next to her fills up in a flash. We start talking. Her name is Ekaterina. “Great name”, I exclaim.

“Yes, my mom gave me a pretty name.”

“She wasn’t a bright, as she never went to school, but she chose my name well, ” Ekaterina brags. In fact, her mother wanted to name her Kadrie, but at the time of the Revival process was not allowed for parents to choose Turkish names. The doctors gave Ekaterina’s mother a big book of names, and she liked Ekaterina the most.

There is something very beautiful and special about this woman, so I stay by her side to talk while we pick. She talks willingly – about herself and her husband, with whom they have a son. She jokes about their younger years, how thin and gorgeous she was, and how she has come to terms with her almost 80 kilograms now, because she loves cooking (and eating) so much.

Ekaterina is full of wisdom and beauty.

My husband and I, we’ve been together for 28 years now. And you know what’s most important?

“What is the most important?”, I ask.

“To learn how to forgive. Forgiveness comes with patience and humility.

Even if I get angry at my husband for something, I find a way not to take into heart, but accept it calmly. Just when I feel I may burst out, I tell him I love him. Because anger is delusive. Love is real.”

Ekaterina, who taught me to be patient and humble.

Bed by bed, I meet more and more interesting people and listen to their stories.

I meet Zhelyazka and her husband – Sevdo. They are among the most loyal workers and have been coming here for 10 years to do rose-picking. Professional pickers, they brag. They can handle everything – roses, peppers, tomatoes, olives. They like working and they are not afraid of manual labor.

Zhelyazka loves rose-picking, and she comes every year.

It was difficult for them to pick vegetables in Greece however, because in the greenhouses it is boiling hot, about 50 degrees. They don’t complain though, they tell their stories with laughter. We are talking about children, about dealing with the coronavirus and about the time spent staying at home. They have three kids – Philip, Danka and Dafinka. The boy is the eldest, so he takes care of the little ones while they are alone at home.

Sevdo is from the village of Yagoda and everyone knows them. They are 9 children: 5 brothers and 4 sisters and Sevdo is the eldest. His father leaves them and his mother dies early. Sevdo remains head of the family in the age of 15. He says:

“As children, I took all my brothers and sisters to do rose-picking and told them: I will give each of you 5 bucks on top of your daily salary at the end of the working day. In this way, they are stimulated to work. They start picking immediately and go around like little turtles in rows, but you have to see how fast were their hands! They were great – a bag per hour. Today, all grown up, Sevdo is proud that everyone works and lives with dignity”.

Everyone works and lives with dignity.

Zhelyazka shows her hands – she was stung by several bees the day before. They hide in the flowers and sometimes fail to take off in time. The bees get angry with the pickers and sting their hands. I ask her if it hurts, she laughs and answers that she is used to it, moreover, it was good for the health.

Zheliazka’s hands, swollen by the bee’s stings.

Noon is approaching, the picking is over, and it’s time for us to return to Sofia. On departure we meet Rose.

“A rose that picks roses!” We exclaim in a chorus. Yes, she says proudly, and insists we take a picture of her. Well, how can we refuse?

Rose and the roses.

Everyone takes with him a different memory – a story, a beautiful view. We tell ourselves that we will come back soon in this magical valley and its magical people.

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