Fez, Morocco: Late afternoon, March 7, 2001. It’s spring, but the sun is brutally hot. A day of wandering the intricate spider web of streets in the ancient medina has left me limp and exhausted.
But when I return to La Maison Bleue, I am instantly revived. As Azami opens the fortress-like door, I step into a dark corridor lit with flickering lanterns. It’s the cocktail hour, and the cool air in the passageway is heavy with the sweet scent of roses. Inexplicably the fragrance seems to rise from my feet: I look down and see stones damp with the flowery elixir, a welcoming embrace for the returning traveler.
This, as you might guess, was the beginning of a decade-long infatuation.
In “Eau de Cuisine: Don’t Put It Behind Your Ears” (The New York Times, September 1, 2010, pp. D1 and D4), John Willoughby explains that rose water, made by distilling petals in steam, was originally “created by chemists of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.” Surprisingly, even though it is often associated with the “exotic” cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa and India, “before 1841, when vanilla became widely available…[it] was a primary flavoring in a wide range of desserts and pastries in Europe and America.”
For today’s cooks, Willoughby suggests “freelancing” by swapping rose water for vanilla in cupcakes, scones or the batter for French toast. A few drops can lend a refreshing flavor to a glass of lemonade, he says, or to the dressing for a salad of bitter greens. But remember to use it with restraint. “The idea is that people should notice it, but have to ask you exactly what that subtle flavoring is, not quite able to put a finger on it.”
Sometimes that means using as little as a drop or two—too much, and you’ll think you’re eating perfume.
Recipes with the article include Moroccan-Style Carrot Salad, in which rose water “provides a delicate balance to the earthy cumin and coriander;” Grilled Rose-Water Poundcake, in which the flowery essence stands in for vanilla; and Peach Compote with Rose Water, an example of the way that rose water “matches uncannily well with many fruits, drawing out their shy aromas.”
In this vein, you could also substitute a little rose water for the rose geranium leaf in the recipe for Strawberry-Rose Geranium Sponge Cakes with Clouds of Whipped Cream right here on SpiceLines. Other rose-scented recipes on this blog include Raspberry-Rose Lassi, an icy cold Indian-inspired yoghurt drink; Incomparable Rose Water Ice Cream; and Deliriously Delicious Rice Pudding Scented with Rosewater and Cardamom.
Willoughby specifically mentions Cortas brand rose water, which is made in Lebanon. This is the same rose water recommended to me by Nawal Nasrallah, the Iraqi author of Delights from the Garden of Eden, a cookbook that should be positively redolent with the scent of rose water considering the number of dishes in which it is used. Nasrallah, who now lives near Boston, was adamant that I use only Cortas or Cedar brands in my kitchen, for true rose flavor and aroma.
Although Cortas is said to be readily available in Middle Eastern groceries, I have had trouble finding it around here—if necessary, you can order it from Amazon.