Mar 2, 2013

Ode to the Orange Blossom

Winter Haven, Florida is home to some of the oldest American orange trees. Winter Hill, Somerville is home to the notorious 'Winter Hill Gang'  of the 1960's.  Each are special in their own way. But so far as I can tell the only thing these two places have in common is the word 'Winter' and the fact that I've spent significant time in both. While I sit writing at my kitchen table next to a jar of dried orange blossoms, I can't help but be flooded with memories of Winter Haven.

My dad designed a house for my Aunt, Uncle and cousins in Winter Haven among the palms and turtle tracks, complete with a hot tub that overflowed into the pool, a living room with a vaulted ceiling like a Church, and stained glass windows made by my uncle Paul.

Our family would drive down from Boston during our winter break from school, and after two and half days spent cooped up in the family car with my brothers making sarcastic remarks and trying to steal my McDonald's hamburger while simultaneously spilling luke warm Coca-Cola down my ankle, I cannot describe the pleasure of finally reaching Winter Haven. I knew we'd arrived because the scent of orange blossoms would suddenly infiltrate the car, and putting our windows down we'd allow the warm perfume to flush out all the stale, Cheez-Balls-and-peanut-butter scented air. In the stop-motion animation of my memory, the scene goes from a highway of noisy tractor-trailer trucks and shouting brothers to a blissful silence; everything moves in slow time, the light at a gold slant hitting the leaves of the orange trees and making them shine and glisten, the blossoms tiny pin-pricks of white. As I look out the window, my hair comes loose and whips along the side of the car, and I close my eyes and inhale.

At the start of March here in Winter Hill, Somerville, the closest I've come to this blissed-out memory of Winter Haven is this jar of dried Moroccan orange blossoms I procured from a New York spice blender named Lior Lev Sercarz. The blossoms go for roughly $400 per pound, not as much as saffron (which runs about $1200/lb), but still steep enough that I could only afford to buy a small handful, and even then it felt like I was rich with spices in the ancient sense. Opening the jar and inhaling its contents is not quite the same as inhaling the warm wind blowing through a grove of orange trees in bloom, but it is pretty nice. The scent is floral and refreshing and uplifting—it is fresh cut wood and roses and salt air. No wonder it is more often used in perfume than in food.

"Insects, leaves, flowers, petals, seeds, roots and galls. China, India, Java, Egypt, Africa, gardens and valleys of Morocco, blending perfumes foreign to our European senses. Spices violent with all the wildness of the countries where they have ripened, sweet from the loving culture of gardens where they have flowered, it is all the fascination of your dark kitchens, the odor of your streets..."

Z. Guinaudeau, Fez: Traditional Moroccan Cooking, 1969

It's of little surprise then, if you were to travel a little west of Winter Haven over to Louisiana and down into the streets of New Orleaans, that you'd find a cocktail scented with orange blossoms... "sweet from the loving culture of gardens where they have flowered." 

The Ramos Gin Fizz is a fabulous cocktail dating back to the 1880's. It's named after a man named Henry C. Ramos, who invented the drink at his bar in the New Orleans Meyer's Restaurant. It is a frothy, gorgeous combination of ingredients. The unusual flavor ingredient is orange blossom water, which gives the drink its delicate, cloud-like flavor. The cloud-like texture owes itself to egg whites and cream, which, when shaken violently with the gin and citrus and simple syrup make this drink a dramatic cocktail experience. Though the combination may seem odd, and even heavy (CREAM AND GIN! COME ON!) I swear to you it is a heavenly and delicate drink. Recommended to drink at brunch, but since I'm not one to often have the energy to make cocktails in the morning, I recommend it at happy hour, with bread and cheese and fresh cucumbers. 

You can find orange blossom water at some liquor stores, or Middle Eastern grocery stores or specialty markets.

And if you don't feel like hunting down ingredients and shaking and straining, just visit your local speakeasy and ask your friendly bar tender to make you one. They may hate you a little, but you'll love it.


Combine all ingredients except for soda water in a shaker (no ice yet! It will destroy the frothing process) and shake like the dickens, for as long as you can bear it. Shaker boys in New Orleans were expected to shake this cocktail for 12 minutes.

Add ice and shake some more. 

In a tall, thin collins glass, pour about 3" of soda water and then slowly strain your cocktail over top. Top with a little more soda water and an orange twist.