Jun 28, 2014

Roses for Survival

Sometimes I think it's necessary to listen to Jim Croce. This song, in particular. 

His voice is so comforting, kind of lazy and flannel-like, that when my shoulders are tense and I feel crazy, like I've just woken up from a dream yelling "Not again!" because escaped prisoners are throwing cabbages at me (again), the sound of a voice that is grounding and sweet and nostalgic, like Croce's, is all I need. That and maybe some strawberry rose-petal jam on toast.

Last week I had a pretty special week. I harvested wild rose petals with farmer Eva Sommaripa as well as my former boss, pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick. It was such a pleasure to be out among the thorny roses with these two fantastic and talented women. Eva has been gathering rose petals for many years (from an undisclosed location that is one exit before heaven), to offer to local chefs, while Maura has been using these petals to make her famous rose petal jam at Sofra Bakery.

It was a warm day, but we all rose to the challenge of suiting up in rain boots and heavy jackets (well, Eva always rises to every challenge with glee!), and picked a wonderful bounty of petals. Without jackets the thorns will rip your clothes and skin to shreds, and without boots one is surely coming home with a poison ivy rash. Such are the risks of gathering flower petals. I brought some home to freeze for various projects (cocktails!) and today it was time to process a load of decaying strawberries, so why not strawberry & rose jam?

Last summer I had tried and failed to make rose petal jam (see that post here), so this year I thought I'd give it another shot with strawberries. Summer marks the official start to preservation season, to pickling and jamming and freezing. I even began shopping for chest freezers despite the fact that we'd probably have to set it up in the middle of our living room.

My week was also very special because my brother Ian and I had the privilege of having supper with Michael Pollan. We ate grass-fed hamburgers and talked about flavor science, Slow Food, research, science fiction, MSG and parsnips.

Returning home after these experiences—that is, picking rose petals and dining with Michael Pollan—made me overflow with inspiration and motivation. I wanted to collect more beautiful ingredients, read more books and magazines, write more, cook more, get up earlier and shake the dreams out of my head.

So as I started making my strawberry-rose jam, dumping sugar into the pot of boiling strawberries and roses that sent a spicy, clove and pineapple-like sweetness into the air, I also started thinking about sweetness and the cravings I get for it, and how to get my mind around it. While I am still in the midst of reading Pollan's newest book, Cooked, my favorite of his works is one of his earliest books, The Botany of Desire (2001). As Pollan writes:
"Anthropologists have found that cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavors, but a taste for sweetness appears to be universal. This goes for many animals, too, which shouldn't be surprising, since sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy." (p. 19)

I thought of the group of us climbing through brambles to collect rose petals, which can't be considered food really, but contain a sweetness and aroma that is rare in nature. The color, too, reveals a desire for something—for beauty (another chapter in Pollan's The Botany of Desire) that seems a strange thing to require for survival, but as Pollan explains:
"The presence of a reliable predictor of future food. People who were drawn to flowers, and who further could distinguish among them and then remember where in landscape they'd seen them, would be much more successful foragers than people who were blind to their significance." (p. 68)

Roses, at least of the Rosa rugosa variety, develop rose hips, (that look like apples, because they are in the same family) which contain starch, sugars, and an immense amount of vitamin C. So despite the fact that we were picking the petals to make jam or rose-scented vodka tonics, we were also demonstrating our human instinct to recognize food in the wild.

Alas, I wish I could cap off my special week by drinking a rose & vodka tonic with Jim Croce, but he exited at heaven in 1973. I can imagine he's there lying shirtless on a cloud drinking up the scent of beach roses while writing a few more tunes.

Suggestions for collecting & using rose petals:

Rosa rugosa is a plant native to East Asia, so if you're there, in say, Japan, keep an eye out for them.

In New England, look for them growing along beaches, sand dunes, or even in parking lots in June (into July in Maine.) They are often planted ornamentally, so as long as you're not trespassing or harvesting in an area that may've been sprayed with pesticides, bring a plastic bag and collect the petals. If you don't have time to use them fresh, toss in lemon juice and freeze; they'll last a year.

To make a rose petal syrup, combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water and heat until the sugar dissolves. Add 1 TB lemon juice and 2 cups packed wild rose petals and simmer gently on very low heat for 5 minutes. Make sure not to let it come to a full boil, or you will lose the flavor. 
For strawberry rose-petal jam, bring to a boil 5 cups crushed strawberries with 1/4 cup lemon juice and gradually add 1 TB pectin. Slowly add 5 cups sugar and 2 cups packed wild rose petals and boil hard for 1 minute. Turn off heat, remove foam if necessary and ladle into hot, sterilized jars. Screw the lids on finger-tight and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.
For a rose vodka tonic:In a cold old-fashioned glass, combine:
1/2 oz rose syrup
1/2 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz ice-cold vodka
stir and top with plenty of ice and tonic. Garnish with a few rose petals.


  1. Hello! Great recipe. I'm wondering how long this rose syrup will last in the fridge? Thanks!

  2. Rose syrup will be good for about a month (or more.) I made mine mid-June and just finished it up. Good on yogurt, berries, peaches, or in vodka tonic. Yum!

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