“’What a lovely thing a rose is!’”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty
Montague or Capulet? Does it really matter? After all, “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
But just because it looks like a rose doesn’t mean it is one! (Just consider the ‘snow’ dusted ‘rose’ apple.)!
Certainly the culinary artifice of Shakespeare’s time – a time when banquets featured “a cunning counterfeit ham made of salmon in gelatin” and the like – reveled in serving dishes that looked like one thing but were, in fact, made of something wholly different. These stunning assemblages of foodstuffs were, in a way, the ingestible counterparts of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) ‘portraits’ of The Librarian, circa 1566, The Jurist, 1566, and The Vegetable Gardener, circa 1590, a painting that works equally well whether it is viewed upside-down or right side-up!
Roses, like other flowers, assumed a fancy-dress role in this Arcimboldo-like cuisine. This is, perhaps, not surprising since roses – whether red or white – were so often symbolic. Invariably, they stood for something else: the enraptured heart of the lover, the perfection of the bud-like lips of the beloved, the purity of the Virgin Mary, etc.
The Rose has been around a very long time, appearing in the fossil record about forty million years ago. As for the fragrant varieties with which we are familiar, they made their way to Europe from China and the Near East only in the last few thousand years! Europeans obviously recognized their aesthetic, medicinal, and culinary values. Hence, for example, the mania for tulips that gripped 17th century Holland also embraced a passion for roses. In addition to a vase brimming with the real thing, artists Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) made a very fine living replicating their appearance in various stages of growth-bud to full blossom!
As for medicinal use, the medical handbook The English Physician, 1652, says it all. “Red roses do strengthen the Heart, the Stomach, and the Liver.” Moreover, they “mitigate the Pains that arise from Heat, assuage inflammations, procure Rest and Sleep, stay both Whites and Reds in Women, the Gonorrhea, or Running of the Reins, and Fluxes of the Belly; the Juice of them doth cleanse the Body from Choler and Phlegm.” (2)
The versatility of the rose in the sickroom was more than matched by its use in the kitchen! In 1536, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio hosted a multi-service & many-course dinner welcoming to Rome the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Besides napkins that released flocks of song birds when unfolded and in addition to candied violets encased in puff pastry and aromatic rice, Charles enjoyed cold roasted carp dressed with sugar and rosewater. But that paled in comparison to the delights served to Queen Christina of Sweden during her visit to Rome in November-December of 1668.
“In spite of those who deny that one might be nourished by scents, the diners here grazed on the flowers… and fed on the scents; here [in a manner paralleling Arcimboldo’s up/down-side Gardener] autumn turned into spring and spring into autumn…. Fruits were in flowers but flowers were more fruitful still…. For here there were truly fruits aplenty to be found inside flowers…. And of these flowers it could have been said that… their blueness was flavorsome, their flavor was crimson, and their sweetness green; and that the carnations were sweet, the rose sugary, the violet honey-flavored…”(1)
Yet such grandiose uses of the rose were not restricted to the royal class, a fact made clear by Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies, 1602. Written with the housewife of middling-means in mind, Plat’s book includes multiple recipes for candying flowers and distilling Rosewater. The artfulness of roses in cooking – their Arcimboldo effect – comes through vividly in Plat’s Delights for Ladies.
Among the first rose recipes (no. #5) is “A singular Manner of Making the Syrup of Roses.” Fill a silver basin ¾ full of rain water and “put therein a convenient proportion of rose leaves (petals).” Cover then steep in a double-boiler (“as we usually bake a custard”). After an hour remove petals, squeezing out any liquid. Repeat 7 times in order to attain the maximum intensity of flavor and richness of color. The vivid splendor of color is crucial since it not only helps retain the desired hue for Preserved Roses but can be used as paint.
To Preserve a Rose – a real rose – (recipe no. # 7), dip a Rose (one that is neither a bud nor over blown) in a syrup made of double-fine sugar and Rosewater. After dipping, carefully separate the petals with “a fine bodkin, either of bone or wood” then set out to dry “whilst the the Sun is in good height.”
As for making a counterfeit rose, the skilled housewife is given step-by-step instructions on how to feign reality like any adept artist. Indeed, like Rachel Ruysch’s canvas, her table can rival nature with a veritable bouquet of “sugared simulacra of reality.” (3) To do this Plat instructs (recipe no. 12) the woman of the house to make an almond paste that is malleable enough to be rolled into a dough, shaped by hand or pressed into a mold that can then be painted with Rosewater. (Infusions concocted from marigolds, violets, sage and other flowers broader the artful cook’s palette as well as tantalize the diner’s palate!)
In looking for an appropriate recipe, I came across an article titled “Flower Power.” It focused on the excitement in 2005 of menus in which flowers did more than garnish a salad. Dishes created in conjunction with the Chelsea Flower Show made flowers, including roses, an integral ingredient in an array of amazing culinary creations. One is below….
… but first a quote. In reading for this post, I came across Moderata Fonte’s (1552-1592) defense of women, who had long been (and sadly in some quarters still are) seen as secondary, derivative.
“Men were created before women. … But that doesn’t prove their superiority – rather, it proves ours…. [simply consider the fact that] Lowly seeds are nourished in the earth, and then later the ravishing blooms appear; lovely roses blossom forth and scented narcissi.”
― Moderata Fonte, The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men, 1600.
Royale of juniper and rose petals, violet consommé*
10g juniper berries
For the royale
40g juniper berries
300g of chicken liver
50g whipping cream
1tbs rose blossom water
15 rose petals
15 violets (on stem)
10 dried rose petals
Blanch the chickens for four minutes and rinse them under cold water. Halve the onions and char the cut surfaces. Put chickens whole in a large stock pot with carrots, onions and leeks. Cover with cold water, bring to simmering point, skim. Wipe any scum from the pan edges and simmer very gently for eight hours. Drain stock through a kitchen cloth or muslin into a clean pan and put in the rose petals and juniper berries. Reduce very gently by evaporation in the oven (at 100°C) for two hours. Drain and keep for serving.
For the royale, infuse milk with juniper berries. Remove berries and blitz the chicken liver, eggs, milk, cream, salt, white pepper, rose blossom water, violet and rose petals. When liquid, pass and pour into small moulds or ramekins. Cook in a bain-marie for 20 minutes in a moderate oven (150°C).
To finish, julienne the rose petals and dry them in a warm oven (70°C) for one hour. Put the hot royale in middle of a soup plate and pour the hot consommé over it. Add the rose julienne and violet petals over it. Serve.
*Bignold, D. (2005, May). FLOWER POWER. Caterer & Hotelkeeper, 194, 28-31.
- Charlotte Birnbaum, Ed., Threee Banquets for a Queen. The Reception of Her Most Serene Majesty Christina Queen of Sweden by His Holiness Our Lord Pope Clement IX in Rome 1668 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), page 41.
- Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013), page 221.
- In addition to Plat’s Delights of Ladies to Adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories, with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, see Wendy Wall, “Distillation: Transformations in and out of the Kitchen” in Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare. Culinary Readings and Culinary Histories, Joan Fitzpatrick (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), esp. pages 95-98.