Vallebona is one of the many small, narrow Ligurian valleys that run inland from the sea, climbing up towards the mountains. A winding road snakes through the bottom of the valley and the hillsides are lined with dry-stone terraces. Until a few decades ago, these terraces were covered in orange trees, mostly bitter oranges, as well as roses and aromatic herbs like lavender, thyme and rosemary. France and the famous perfume-making town of Grasse are not far from Vallebona, and here, as in other towns near the border, there is a long-standing tradition of distilling perfumed water and essential oils for use in cosmetics.
The Vacca distillery in Ventimiglia was still active until not long ago, but the Postiglietto distillery in Borghetto San Nicolò, near Bordighera, has been closed for many years. The Guglielmi family opened a distillery in Vallebona in 1865, and it closed in the early 1960s.
The bitter orange trees found a particularly favorable climate in sheltered and sunny Vallebona, as in other parts of Provence and Italy with similar exposure. As a result, the valley’s economy was mostly based on the cultivation and harvest of orange flowers – also said zagara or bigaradièr – for distillation. Bitter orange flower water (in local dialect called sciùra de citrùn water) was used to flavor fritters called bugie, typical of Carnival in the rest of Italy but here made for festivities throughout the year. The fragrant water was also drunk for its curative effects, for example given to children suffering from stomachache.
During the harvest period, which lasted for around 20 days in May, the pickers would arrive from nearby valleys and the coast. They would start working in the early morning, picking the just-opened, still-damp blossoms, laying them on pieces of cloth to dry them gently and then taking them to be distilled before the day got too hot. The patient work was mostly done by women and girls who did not labor in the fields. Their small hands were better suited to the delicate task.
This went on until around the 1950s, until the flower harvest stopped being profitable. The tradition was gradually lost, along with the art of distillation, thanks to the chemical industry, which was able to produce artificial aromas and essences very cheaply.
The distillery closed its doors, though for a few years it continued to sell essences produced by other companies. The orange trees, left untended, were decimated by three historic frosts, in 1969 and 1970 and then in 1985, which definitively blighted the few remaining trees.
Flowers are harvested in May and the water must be allowed to stand for at least two weeks before being bottled.
The distillation no longer takes place in copper alembics, but instead uses a current of steam. The flowers do not come into direct contact with boiling water, meaning the procedure is more delicate. Steam enters the base of the extraction vessel and rises to the top, passing through the mass of flowers. When it reaches the top, the steam is conveyed into a Florentine flask, where the actual distillation occurs. In the Florentine flask, a special kind of glass alembic, the flower water rises to the top and separates from the essential oil, which settles in the bottom of the flask. The oil, known as neroli, highly prized in the cosmetics industry. It takes a ton of flowers to extract just one kilo of oil. Usually around two liters of flower water are obtained from each kilo of distilled flowers.
The water is mostly sold locally to people who still use it at home to make bugie and to confectioners who use it to flavor sweets.
The Presidium’s aim is to bring back the cultivation of bitter oranges to the Vallebona terraces, involving the local growers, restoring the beautiful agricultural landscape of the past and giving new life to an artisan tradition and product closely interwoven with the valley’s history.
Vallebona, Imperia province
Presidium supported by
Fondazione Carige – Progetto Mare Terra di Liguria
tel. +39 339 1277887