Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Distillation on a Greek Island

Soon, I'll be on the island of Syros in the heart of the Cyclades. Syros is a beautiful and peaceful island with a rich history and culture. The Australasian College of Health Sciences is sponsoring this hands on Summer Session For ten days, we will enjoy the relaxing healthy lifestyle of a Greek island amidst a wide variety of Mediterranean plants and herbs. Instruction is by ACHS’s outstanding faculty, with bonus guest lectures from leading professionals in the industry. Greece is the birthplace of the “father of medicine” Hippocrates, who believed the body should be treated as a whole and that food should be our medicine. Summer session 2006 is an opportunity to immerse yourself in this ancient land. Syros is close to Mykonos and Santorini and not too far from the island of Cos where Hippocrates founded a medical school and began teaching his ideas. Syros is an enchanting location for this residential session. We have Rosemary and Rose Geranium planted on the island, which have been grown using organic methods. In addition to these plants, we also hope to harvest Sage, Thyme and Helichrysum from the wild. The hills on Syros are quite aromatic. It's a very heady experience to walk on a hillside covered with wild growing aromatic plants with the bright blue sea lapping the beaches below. It's Aromatherapy, pure and simple. We will be distilling in a 100 liter rotating column copper Alembic. The Alembic stands about 6 feet tall when the column is up, in the position for steam and water distillation. Traditionally, this apparatus is used for making Eau de Vie, Tziporo, Grappa etc. The Essential Oil Company represents a group of Artisans in Portugal who make many and varied distillers, all in the traditional fashion. With very little adaptation, I find that this equipment is fabulous for making essential oils and hydrosols. There are no gaskets for these distillers. Joints between the Alembic head (onion) and the column, and the joint between the column and the "pot" are sealed using dough made from rye flour. This is a very old and established method, and it works like a charm. Only rye flour will work. Rye seems to absorb moisture and stay somewhat soft, while other flours will dry and crack from the heat of distillation. Some folks make a paste with rye flour and water and smear it over the joints. I prefer to make a dough, roll the dough into a rope and press it into the joints. Our Alembic is fired with propane. We will also distill in a propane stainless steel table top distiller. The Alembic can hold about 50 pounds of raw material. The table top can hold up to 15 pounds. We will be distilling the same material in both distillers so that we can see the difference in the products. For separating the essential oils and hydrosols we will use our copper Essencier and stainless steel Florentine Separator. Last year was quite an experience getting our equipment into Greece. We couldn't get the stainless steel distiller and Florentine Separator out of customs. For our first few batches from our copper Alembic we had to catch the distillate in a bowl and then decant the oils using pouring and pipettes. What a pain in the neck. There was some loss of essential oils. It was also an expensive excercise with customs fees seeming somewhat arbitrary. We distilled Thyme, Sage (officinalis), Pine (Aleppo), Rosemary and Rose Geranium. Thyme is a protected plant on the island, because Thyme honey is a specialty product. In order to harvest, we had to get permission and be well away from beehives and beekeepers. Participants in last year's summer session had a great time. They made a variety of natural products from the plants they harvested. Not just essential oils. I can't wait to get back to Syros. It's a lovely environment to work and play.

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