By Annette Chrysostomou
Only a visit to Agros can really bring home the versatility of a flower that most of us see as nothing more than a sweet-smelling garden plant or a Valentine’s Day gift.
Down the decades, roses have become big business in Agros, an industry that was acknowledged this week when Agros’ traditional rose preserve was added to the list of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) by the European Commission.
The village is home to the Damascus rose, the main ingredient in the ‘Glyko triantafyllo Agrou’, as the preserve is called.
But the sweet is just one of many products made from the Damascus rose in Agros where two village families are at the forefront of the rose industry.
Christakis Tsolakis’ rose factory has become a big visitor attraction over the years. While the factory does not produce the preserve which has been added to the PGI list, it does make an extraordinary range of rose-based cosmetics and drinks.
The cosmetic side of the company produces creams, lotions and face masks among others. They are all organic and non-toxic and therefore preferred by people who are prone to allergies.
Then, there are the liqueurs, a rose aperitif, tea, candles, rose water and rose marmalade. And also a therapeutic rose oil.
“Rose oil is anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, an aphrodisiac, a stimulant, antiseptic, cleansing, it regulates the blood circulation and the menstrual cycle, calms and moisturises the skin,” said Andria Tsolakis, one of the six family members running the place.
The harvesting of the roses only takes place in May for 20 to 25 days when the roses are in blossom. They have to be picked just when the petals open early in the morning before the sun heats them up and their fragrance evaporates.
“At our place, 30,000 to 50,000 roses are hand-picked every morning,” production manager Tsolakis said. That many are needed, she explained, as for one kilo of rose petals 400 to 500 roses need to be picked. To make the most of the fragrance, they then need to be placed in a cauldron for distillation as soon as possible.
Just 100 metres from the rose factory is the only place where the PGI-listed sweet is commercially produced. Niki Agathocleous, who employs 25 local people, has been making and selling traditional sweets for 30 years. “I got the recipe from my husband’s grandmother,” she said, “I call it great grandmother’s medicine because in these days there was no medicine so people used what they found in nature to cure them. It calms you down and is even helpful when you have an abscess.”
The rose industry has certainly put Agros on the tourist map. Every year, more than 70,000 tourists visit the village to sample and buy the products, and Niki sells thousands of jars to places like the UK, Australia and America. Most of her exports go to Japan, where, she says, people are aware of the fact that rose products are good for your stomach and have many other calming and healing properties.
Agros’ association with roses dates back to the beginning of the 20th century when a number of rose bushes were located in the grounds of the Virgin Mary church in Agros. The rose bushes, imported from Damascus and therefore known as Rosa Damascena, were especially prolific in Milikouri and Agros.
According to Andria Tsolakis, the cultivation of the flowers started with the uncle of the late president Glafcos Clerides. When in 1918, Nearchos Clerides was appointed teacher in his native village he had the idea of producing rose water to substantially improve the standard of living of the local community.
He founded a pupils’ association aiming at expanding the cultivation of the plant. Under the programme, each pupil had to plant 50 rose bushes in their parents’ gardens.
One of the pupils was Nicodemus Tsolakis who in 1948 after cultivating his own plantation started to produce his own rose water. In 1987 his son took over and expanded the business.
Niki Agathocleous had been making spoon sweets and jam for years at home before she started her company. Initially, she simply wanted to carry on the Cyprus tradition of offering homemade spoon sweets to her guests. “I was inspired by my mother who had a passion for cooking,” she said, “so I began to make sweets and marmalades for friends and relatives.”
But she didn’t stop there. In 1986 she opened her first workshop and in 1989 her company was officially born. Today it has become one of the biggest companies in Cyprus producing traditional Cypriot products.
It was in 1996 that the company brought back the very old recipe for the pink rose sweet, a recipe only known to the people of Agros.
Apart from other traditional sweets, Agathacleous also has many other products revolving around the rose, including jam, syrup and rose water.
Helping to keep alive the culture of roses is a rose festival, which this year took place for the tenth time in May over two weekends. It starts, of course, early each morning, at 5.30am, with visitors hand picking roses in the fields. Other activities later in the day include planting rose bushes, a demonstration on how to distill rose water and a painting competition with roses as the main theme. This year, the Cyprus bartender association participated by making cocktails based, of course, on roses.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) list
The European Commission’s Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) list covers agricultural products and foodstuff closely linked to geographical areas. For a product to be eligible, at least one of the stages of production, processing, or preparation must take place in the area in question.
Three more Cypriot agricultural products are in the EC’s list of PGI, the Paphos sausage, the Yeroskipou ‘Loukoumi’ (delight), and ‘Koufeta Amygdalou’ (almond dragees).