Jul 9, 2013

Ah, Little Rose

I betrayed the roses I was trying to honor. I boiled them too long in syrup and ended up with a caramelized, sticky rose petal mess. After a lovely fourth of July on a secluded beach collecting Rosa rugosa petals in between swimming in the ice-cold North Atlantic and lying on the beach blanket squinting at the pages of my book, I tried to make rose petal jam. I collected a lot of petals. I used the edge of my shirt pulled up to form a basket and then filled the empty Tupperware containers from our picnic with the cool, silky petals. Then I brought them home and it all went downhill. When I combined them with sugar, water and heat the beautiful petals began turning into syrup, then jam, then all of a sudden they turned into a candy as stiff and inedible as tire rubber.

These failures happen in the kitchen - perhaps more frequently than I'd care to admit - but a failure with hand-picked rose petals is particularly heartbreaking. I stood over my pot of browning petals and wanted to crumple. But only for a little while until I decided to HELL with rose petal jam I'm going to make a wild strawberry tart. So I did, and it was delicious, but my heart still ached for those petals.

I'd like to travel to all the countries that produce rose products: Morocco, Iran, Bulgaria. The products themselves, in addition to their origins, seem so ancient, so plainly romantic. Bulgaria's "Rose Valley," just south of the Balkans, is where roses are grown to make rose oil, used in the perfume industry. In Morocco, Damask roses are grown in the Daddes valley (also called "The Rose Valley") for rose water as well as rose oil. The province where they're grown is called Ouarzazate and boasts an annual rose festival every May. Likewise a festival takes place is Kashan, an area in Iran near the Karkas mountains where roses are produced for rose water.

The roses at my parent's farm in Maine are having a banner year—the cultivated ones next to the house, the wild ones in the field, all of them in a happy, blissed-out blossoming state.

The scent of a rose can mean so many different things to me. The scent can be comforting, summery and fresh or it can be a cliché of itself, a saccharine perfume, like you'd find dripping from a badly produced romantic comedy. It can be deliciously exotic, like I imagine the streets of Ouarzazate smell, where men walk with roses tucked behind their ears; or it can be as familiar and sweet as a single rose on Valentines day. I realize that both cooking and writing about roses brings up a lot of emotion. They are loaded with meaning, just as poems are, and mustn't be overdone. The poet Emily Dickinson (master of poetic restraint!) comes to mind in this poem about a rose she's picked:

Nobody knows this little Rose --
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it --
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey --
On its breast to lie --
Only a Bird will wonder --
Only a Breeze will sigh --
Ah Little Rose -- how easy
For such as thee to die!

I love this poem not only for its poetic restraint (and the rhyming of "sigh" with "die"), but also for the simple fact that she is admiring a rose and considering its life. As she writes, "it might a pilgrim be / Did I not take it from the ways / and lift it up to thee." I assume by "thee" she means God, but in any case she is taking an ordinary rose, a "pilgrim" and honoring it. The poem is not overwrought with sentimentality but rather imbued with quiet awe for something that nature has produced.

Dickinson's careful, restrained celebration of the rose in the above poem can translate directly to cooking with roses. Using rose water or rose syrup in a dish must be done with a careful hand, a light touch, lest the flavor take over and remind us of a drippy soap opera or a cloying perfume. Sometimes, as in many Persian recipes, you barely know its there, as it adds just the slightest floral quality, say to a recipe for jeweled rice, or a cake.
Though I didn't succeed in capturing the flavor of the wild roses from the beach and field the other day, I did have some rose water in the cupboard as back-up. I wish I could say I made the rose water, but I didn't. Some talented dudettes in the Middle East did. And it's great in lemonade!

Hibiscus Rose Lemonade
This recipe is from my dear friend Susan Turner. She suggests also using the syrup to sweeten black iced tea or add to champagne or prosecco for a gorgeous cocktail.

You'll need about 6 lemons.

For the Syrup:
peels from about 4 of your lemons
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup hibiscus flowers or 2 teabags of hibiscus tea
2 TB rose water

With a veggie peeler, peel the rind off 4 of your lemons, and place them in a small saucepan with sugar and water to make your simple syrup. Bring to a boil and then turn off the heat and add the hibiscus and rose water. Let cool.

To make the lemonade:
Squeeze the lemons. 6 lemons should give you about 1 cup lemon juice, maybe a little more. Strain out seeds.

Strain the syrup and add to the juice in a big pitcher. (You can also save some syrup for other purposes). Add 6 cups water and bingo-bango, PINK LEMONADE!


  1. I think bingo-bango needs to be used more often in conversation.

  2. I'm blushing to have "my" lemonade included in a post that takes its time considering an Emily Dickinson poem, and draws such a dreamish picture of the men of Ouarzazate and their rose-adorned ears.

    I think I will name my third child Ouarzazate. Or, my next cat. Either way, Zazate for short.