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A Passion for the Rose

A cultural study of how one flower rose to the top

ONCE PLUCKED, THE ROSE'S CHARMS ARE FLEETING; THE FLORAL MUSKINESS MUST BE CAPTURED QUICKLY. 'OLD' ROSES ARE BEST, AS THE SWEETER THE PERFUME, THE GREATER ITS FLAVOUR.

I know a place where the fruits of Rosa canina, the dog rose, are blended with other good things to make exquisite natural herbal teas. Sitting in on a blending session set me thinking of the many uses we make of the rose when we bring it into the kitchen. After all, it’s something we have been doing for at least a thousand years.

Dating back more than 35 million years, wild roses grow throughout the northern hemisphere. The thousands of hybrids and cultivars around the world come from little more than 20 species. They bear sweetly evocative names such as Rosa gallica (the apothecary or French rose); Rosa damascena (the Damask rose); Rosa eglantine (the sweet briar rose); and Rosa moschata (the musk rose). On a warm summer evening, the heady scent of these varieties of ‘old’ rose in the garden is intoxicating.

The Greeks saw the rose as a symbol of love, beauty and happiness. The Romans associated it with Venus, the goddess of love, and would add rose petals to their wine. In Hindu legend, Brahma used 108 large, and 1,008 small rose petals to create Lakshmi, as a bride for Vishnu. Perhaps most romantic of all is the Arabic legend that all roses were originally white until a nightingale, falling in love with one, leaned in too closely to its beloved. A thorn pierced the bird’s heart, draining its lifeblood and suffusing the rose with red.

Grown first for their beauty and scent, rose cultivation can be traced back more than 2,000 years to ancient Persia, Babylon, Egypt and China. The spread of their cultivation can be charted through the development of trade routes and the pattern of conquest. The Romans ensured that they were grown in all suitable corners of their empire. In the first century, Pliny the Elder recorded 32 medicinal uses for the rose, and 10th century Persian physician Avicenna called for rose oil in many of his healing preparations. It was also highly valued for perfumery and cosmetics.

The essence of rose was first captured by extracting its essential oil through distillation – familiar to us as attar of roses. Rosewater is a by-product of this process, and is believed to date back to third or fourth century Mesopotamia. Production on a large scale is thought to have begun in 10th century Persia, and as production became more sophisticated, an edible rosewater was developed. The rose began to be valued in the kitchen.

Once plucked, the rose’s charms are fleeting; the floral muskiness must be captured quickly. ‘Old’ roses are best, as the sweeter the perfume, the greater its flavour. Apart from distilling, favoured methods include drying, crystalising the petals, or transforming its parts into a heavenly syrup, jam or jelly. Citrus, chocolate, or bitter-edged spices are perfect partners to balance the resultant sweetness.

The Persians began using rose petals for fragrant jams, dried them for use in sweetmeats, or added them to spice mixes such as advieh for savoury dishes. Egyptians delight in sherberts flavoured with rosewater, and the Moroccan spice mix ras el-hanout, used in savoury tagines, calls for dried rosebuds. The Turks use rosewater to flavour lokum (Turkish delight), of which there are versions throughout Eastern Europe, and the Greeks use it to fragrance halva. Further east in India, rose petals are valued for making the preserve gulkand, used to freshen the mouth, and rosewater is added to cooling lassi. Almost alarmingly, in China, the flowerhead of Rosa semperflorens (the Red China rose) is sometimes cooked whole as a vegetable.

The passion for culinary roses spread into Europe during the Crusades and via the spice trade. Rosewater became a favourite flavouring in the kitchens of Elizabethan England. The 17th century English courtier Sir Kenelm Digbie left a recipe for conserve of red roses in which he poetically instructs the cook to boil until ‘the petals be very tender and look pale like linen’. An English recipe of 1741 refers to ‘butter well-washed in rose water’. Sometimes the butter was wrapped in fine muslin and buried in rose petals until the pat was lightly perfumed.

With the hairy seeds removed, rose hips (or haws) have long been eaten as fruit in Europe, Asia, and by North American Indians. The haws of the sweet briar rose are still boiled with sugar to produce a syrup which is many times higher in vitamin C than oranges. Its oddly tropical flavour lies somewhere between mango and lychee, and it’s a taste many carry with them from childhood. With a revised interest in foraging, the gathering of rosehips is once more in vogue.

So, a thousand years on, the rose retains its appeal in the kitchen. We’ve found even more uses ranging from pickled rose petals, fragrant teas and tisanes, to heavenly perfumed chocolate, nougat, marshmallow, and patisserie. Who can resist a featherlight macaron tasting of Rosa ispahan? Is there anything more decadent than a spoonful of rose petal jam?

A Passion for the Rose
A Passion for the Rose
A Passion for the Rose
A Passion for the Rose
A Passion for the Rose

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