Much beloved by the Tudors, this exotic distilled ingredient was sidelined by later culinary inventions. Clarissa Hyman charts its revival
What is it?
The bewitching scent and delicate flavour of rosewater is made by macerating and distilling rose petals: the intense damask rose (Rosa damascena) is most famous, but others include the cabbage (Rosa centifolia) and musk (Rosa moschata). While the petals used for culinary purposes are usually pink, lilac or red, the result is always a clear liquid. Used in pastry-making and confectionery east of the Balkans and across the Middle East and North Africa, it adds a seductive dimension to baklava, firni, sherbet and Turkish delight, for example. It was also once a popular flavouring in British cooking right up to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans knew how to create fragrance by steeping petals in water, oil or alcohol but it wasn’t until 800AD that the Arab scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan invented an improvised still. Around two centuries later, the Bukharan-born physician ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) discovered how to use the still to extract the essential oil from flower petals, opening up the way for steam distillation of floral waters, particularly rosewater, and thus producing a more delicate and fragrant oil. Initially, they were a means of administering drugs, but stills were soon appropriated for perfumery and cooking in the wide and lavish repertoire of the Arab countries. In many Yemenite homes a bottle of rosewater was kept near the door to sprinkle over guests and at celebrations, and some Middle Eastern women still wash with rosewater.
Its use spread to Europe via the Crusaders, but it also became a favourite flavouring of the Ottoman Turks, who in turn introduced it to Bulgaria. The Valley of the Roses at Kazanlak is especially famous for its production of rosewater, oil of roses, rose-petal jams and preserves. Another much sought-after rosewater comes from Kashan, Iran, where the ceremonial process of plucking and distilling the roses has become a tourist attraction.
In England, the perfuming of food was a custom borrowed from French cuisine and rosewater became a favourite condiment in Tudor and Stuart times. It was found in all manner of sweet and savoury confections, from taffety tart (thinly sliced apples on pastry, glazed with a rosewater icing) to chewits (minced meat pies).
To distill your own rosewater, according to the 18th-century cookery writer Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper: ‘You need to gather your red roses when they are dry and full blown, pick off the leaves, and to every peck put one quart of water. Then put them into a cold still and make a slow fire underneath; the slower you distil the better it is. Then bottle and cork it in two or three days’ time, and keep it for use.’
It is to the cook’s benefit that rosewater still smells as sweet even when heated. Surprisingly, perhaps, it also has a slightly spicy and smoky taste. There’s no rule about how much to use but be cautious: add just enough to suit your taste or the nature of the dish, whether it’s a gentle suggestion or a well-defined accent. If you use too much it can make the dish taste unpleasantly soapy.
Be aware that some distilled waters on the market are concentrated and others are diluted, so they will have varying strengths. Some cheap versions are just water with a bit of rose oil or synthetic flavouring, so look for a good-quality product.
It is said to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, and may soothe skin irritation caused by eczema or rosacea. It has been used as a beauty product for thousands of years to clear the complexion and reduce redness and acne. It may be a helpful treatment for various infections and is sometimes used in eyedrops to reduce conjunctivitis. Some people swear by it to soothe sore throats, digestive problems, headaches, burns and depression, and even smooth wrinkles. Whether or not these claims are overstated, the beautiful smell alone can be restorative.
Pour a sugar syrup laced with rosewater over a fresh fruit salad or any strawberries lacking character. Sophie Grigson has the brilliant idea of using it to spike cream cheese beaten with sweet cream until soft and light, for a ‘rich and wicked two-minute pudding’. Try sprinkling over rice after cooking to give a heady Levantine scent. Or stir into clear honey, then trickle over a soft cheese; add a few drops to a glass of water or black tea. Xanthe Clay suggests spraying a little into a glass of prosecco, then floating a rose petal in the glass to underline the dreamy fragrance.
How to showcase it
Cakes, biscuits, custards and baked creams such as mousses and bavarois are the classic vehicles, but you can also add rosewater to sorbets and ice creams, whipped cream, jellies and jams. It goes amazingly well with all things chocolate and fruity, too. James Martin suggests a lovely hot-weather dessert of watermelon sorbet with rosewater gulab jamun and marinated watermelon wedges; Paul Hollywood adds a classic old English touch to his Yorkshire curd tart; and Tony Singh uses it for a wee exotic twist in his version of Scottish cranachan. And it would be hard to resist the rose, raspberry and coconut fool as prepared by Nadiya Hussain.
Such was the popularity in Germany at one time that the surname Rosenwasser became widespread. But, with the introduction of new flavourings like vanilla extract, it fell out of fashion. In the UK it became synonymous with Granny’s chocolate-covered rose creams. Time for rediscovery? A bottle will last a couple of years before it fades. But once you start, you’ll want to put it in everything.
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