Connor Fitzpatrick continues his work on this series:
Laurel is an extremely resilient evergreen forest tree that grows in all Mediterranean areas. In Syria, laurel grows wild above 200 meters over sea level along the coastal area. It is resistant to extreme temperatures and to coastal conditions. Its fruits are very dark, small, round berries that ripen between October and December.
In Syria, age-old methods handed down from generation-to-generation are used to produce unique products that are then sold in local markets. Although the local demand has remained stable for decades, export demand has grown recently, creating new income-generating opportunities for the local population. Laurel has been used for centuries in traditional cosmetic products such as laurel oil and laurel soap. Known for its unique perfume, it nourishes, softens, refreshes, and cleanses skin while acting as an antiseptic. It is especially recommended for sensitive and damaged skin. The oil is also used extensively in cosmetics and moisturizing products. In addition, dried laurel leaves are an important ingredient in Syrian and Mediterranean cooking. The leaves are also used in traditional medicine; dried leaves are brewed as an herbal tea and used to treat rheumatism, joint pains, schizophrenia, stress, to stimulate the appetite and as a sedative. The oil extracted from the berries is used as a cure for irritated skin, earache, asthma and urinary ailments.
For generations in Syria, the livelihoods of the community members in two coastal and mountain areas and of the traders in major Syrian cities have depended heavily on the production and marketing of traditional laurel products. Traditional collection and processing of wild laurel leaves and berries accounts for about one-third of their total yearly income. The market chain is made up of collectors, traders, soap producers and consumers. The collectors dry leaves and/or process the berries into oil; the traders buy the oil from the collector/processor and sell it to the soap makers who then produce traditional soap for the local market and for export.
In Syrian mountain communities, villagers collect laurel berries and manually extract the oil using traditional, multi-staged methods. The whole berries are boiled in water for six to eight hours in a metal container over a wood fire. As the oil rises to the surface, it is skimmed off with a wooden spoon then filtered and bottled. Sixteen kilograms of laurel berries produce about one litre of laurel oil. The quality of laurel oil depends on the fatty acid content which varies according to the variety of laurel used.
Laurel soap is believed to have been developed in Syria some 2,000 years ago. There are about 50 privately owned small-scale soap factories that use traditional soap-making methods. Most of the factories are located in the Aleppo Province. The soap is made with laurel oil, olive oil, and caustic soda using a process called saponification. The oil mixture is blended with an aqueous solution containing the soda in large cauldrons. This mixture is then heated to over 200 °C and stirred until the oil is reduced to glycerine and sodium salts. The caustic soda solution is drained from the cauldron and the soap mixture is left overnight to cool slightly; the excess water is then drained off. Once a solid block has formed, the soap is cut manually into square bars, stamped and stored in a dry place for at least six months. The process of making soap is carried out from November to April. From May to November, soap storage and trading activities are carried out.
A few retailers/producers/distributors include: