Alicia and I have a standing date once a year, right around Valentine’s Day.
It’s complicated. We don leather gauntlets and surgical gloves, hone our razor sharp blades and unfurl balls of sturdy twine.
Is your imagination running wild?
Never mind. We’re just preparing to prune the roses.
We spent much of this afternoon wrestling Dortmund into submission. Dortmund, in case you are wondering, is a startlingly vigorous climbing rose which bursts into profuse bloom the first or second week of May. Its ruffled single blossoms are blood-red with bright golden stamens at the center. When the sprawling canes are covered with clusters of these vivid flowers, it is—in gardener-speak—a heart-stopping “moment.”
But at this particular moment, Dortmund’s recalcitrant canes are adorned only with the most vicious half-inch thorns. This is how it goes: Alicia gets down in the bed below the porch where she surgically removes diseased and twisted branches, prunes errant stems heading in the wrong direction, and then in a master stroke, cuts the remaining central canes back severely to a third of what they were before.
My job is to stand on the porch and tie the canes to the porch balustrade and railing with twine. It’s a tough job but… yeah, you know. When it’s over, we’re both scratched and bleeding, but very satisfied. As for Dortmond, I expect it’s in total shock, but the potent kelp, Rosetone and fish emulsion cocktail I’ll be feeding it soon will spur literally hundreds of new blossoms to burst forth in late spring.
I find there’s no better way to relax after an afternoon of plant torture than to curl up on the library sofa with a fragrant cup of chai and a few rose catalogues that remind me why I engaged in such behavior in the first place. For a quick fix, Kalustyan’s makes a peppery mix of powdered cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, black peppercorns, mint, and lemongrass along with ground up rose petals. Simmered with milk, water and strong black tea—I always use Assam—and sweetened with sugar, it makes a deliciously spicy cup of chai that has a faint, lingering scent of roses.
Today, though, I made my own chai mix: Cinnamon, green cardamom, black peppercorns, a single clove and a spoonful of cracked dried ginger, along with a broken piece of vanilla bean. Rose and vanilla seem to have an affinity for each other—both are sweet and fragrant–while the more pungent spices keep all those flowery flavors from becoming too cloying.
After I brewed the tea, I added a few precious drops of the exquisite rosewater sold at Goumanyat et Son Royaume, my favorite Paris spice shop. It’s made in Iran’s Qamsar Valley by the same families who’ve been supplying rosewater to Mecca for 900 years. Distilled from old damask roses, it is sultry rather than spicy, and frankly intoxicating. Naturally you can’t get it here. But Kalustyan’s also sells nine kinds of rosewater, including Mymoune Eau de Roses which comes from Lebanon. It has a delicate flavor that combines better with tea than other more powerfully scented rosewaters. (These always make me feel as if I’m drinking cheap perfume.)
Do you grow your own fragrant roses? Then you could add those to your chai. Just don’t use the petals of roses that have been sprayed—and never roses from a florist….
But you knew that!
Rose-Scented Chai Spiced with Vanilla and Ginger
Makes 3 cups of chai
12 green cardamom pods
2-inch piece of cinnamon, broken in half
1-inch piece of vanilla bean, split in half
1 teaspoon cracked dry ginger, or ½ teaspoon powdered ginger (see note)
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon strong black tea (I use Assam)
¼ cup milk
2-1/2 cups water
4 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
Few drops rosewater, or to taste
1. Combine all the spices in a mortar and crush lightly with the pestle. Put the mixture in a small muslin spice bag. Add the black tea to the bag and tie firmly. (If you don’t have a spice bag, don’t worry about it. Just set these ingredients aside for the moment.)
2. In a medium pot, bring the milk and water briefly to a boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the sugar. Add the spice bag, or simply add the loose spices and tea to the pot. Return the contents of the pot to the boil, cover with a lid, and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Pour, or, if using loose spices, strain the tea into a cup. Carefully add a few drops of rosewater to the chai and stir. Taste. If you would like a stronger rose flavor, add a few more drops—but be careful. A little rosewater goes a long way.
Note: Cracked dried ginger is sold on line at penzeys.com.