Distilling with Sherifa
It’s an overcast day in March, occasional clouds drizzling soft trills of rain onto the courtyard.
Optimistically, I set the alembic up in a corner, knowing that unless it pours, we’ll be safe under the cedar beamed edges of the open roof.
Soon after the afternoon call to prayer, Sherifa* arrives with her son. We hug and kiss in the courtyard until quickly the men disappear off outside and we women are left around the copper pots.
Without too much faff, Sherifa asks me to bring what she needs. Not much, the bottles and pots and ground stove are ready. I bring some extra buckets and a little cloth and flour.
She begins to sift through the orange blossoms. Fresh from the market that morning, their floral scent already fills the house. Picking out the leaves, she separates the blossoms into two. We’ll have enough to run the pots twice.
The bottom of the alembic is filled with water to just over half. On the hot stove it will heat up fast.
Half of the blossoms are layered into the copper sieve, which is placed to sit on top.
The lid is then placed, which will need to be filled with cold water once the water begins to boil.
All of us find our space around the pots. Sherifa at the head, by the tap. Me, by the bottles. The other two ladies, next us, playing hopscotch with a baby who needs more than one lap to sit on for entertainment.
With a great exhale, we giggle and chat as the water comes to a boil. Sherifa’s energy is light and joyful, almost child-like, and she brims with delight whenever she shares any of her Craft.
I ask her how she learnt. It was everywhere around me, she responds. That’s all I need to know, really. It’s nature, here.
The pots are already hot when she starts applying the cloth, to seal the gaps in the joins between each part of the alembic.
Soaked in a watery flour putty, she gently taps the cloth against the hot copper, which dries the putty in an instant. I wonder at how she’s not burning her fingers.
I try a little, managing to splash the dough all over the side of the alembic.
“Are you frying pancakes?”, She laughs. I decide to leave it to the master.
With the water boiling she asks me to fill the top of the alembic up with cold water. Sitting by the tap, she regulates when this cold water needs changing, if its heated up.
“Not quite” she says, dipping a finger into the steamy pool.
It works by pushing the steam from the bottom of the boiling pot up through the blossoms, which on hitting the copper dome at the bottom of the lid, meets with the cold water which sits on top. The steam thus condenses against the copper dome, and trickles down into a pipe, collecting in a glass bottle as orange blossom water.
We anticipate the first drop. And when it comes, we inhale. The perfume is sweet and heady.
Sealing any gaps where it might be able to escape, the drips start to fall faster and faster.
The first bottle always seems to take the longest. It’s the darkest in colour too, carrying pigment from the pollen of the blossoms. On the top of the water floats the best the essential oils exuded from the petals.
As the bottle nears full, Sherifa asks me to bring some thick cloth to wrap the bottles. They shouldn’t cool down too fast, and they need the darkness to be able to mature.
I bring some thick winter socks, perfectly sized for the bottles. “Perfect!”, she smiles with innocent delight.
“Bismillah”, I remove the first hot bottle from the pipe, quickly placing a fresh one underneath. As quickly and mindfully as I can, I seal the bottle and stretch the sock across it. We laugh, it looks very cosy.
The water at the top needs changing more quickly now, the copper holds the heat so well. Every few minutes I walk to the fountain to fill another jug.
We collect the hot water from the top in buckets in the fountain, never to be thrown down the drain whilst hot so as not to disturb any spirits living in the pipes. The water has been infused with a hint of the perfume too. I’ll use what I can to water the plants.
Surrounded by water, steam, copper and perfume, we float through the heady afternoon like leaves on a gentle wind. Sherifa is encouraging but stern, and I feel safe and inspired under her expert gaze.
On the Spirituality of Distillation
Somewhere in the space, watching a pot boil, I was healed.
Healed from what? A sort of earthly trauma of existing. Of acting. Of the constant drive to produce. Of the demand to “BE” something. As if I wasn’t everything, all at once, already.
Healed, from the lack of genuine Sisterhood in my life. Of Women’s craft. Of Women’s knowledge.
Somewhere in the slowness, the stillness and the steam, I realised I was exactly where I needed to be at that exact moment.
As the steam ascended, somehow, so did I. Just for a while.
The Prophet loved perfume. Perfume, in all genuine traditions, is of great spiritual importance. Heaven is a garden.
The muslims were not the first to distill rose and orange blossom. But we were perhaps the first to NEED it. To sanctify and ritualise it. We were the first to cultivate it, to turn it into an alchemical science.
Because with water, heat, and petals, you can make Gold. It smells like gold, it looks like gold, and tastes it too. And in the process, your soul can be polished Gold too.
There’s something mystical about distillation which cannot be put into words. It is steeped with sacred symbolism. All I will say, is that with it, you can touch the essence of heaven, just for an instant.
*Sherifa is not my Master’s name. It is an honorific commonly used in Moroccan culture for older women of Prophetic origin.