There is something reminiscent of childhood whim that is connected to eating flowers; I remember one of my first books, in which a small fairy wore bright nasturtiums for hats, and drank morning dew from the upturned bells of bluebonnets.
The truth is, flowers are often reserved solely for these whimseys and whiles. Roses, for instance: in my mind, they have always been something that would only be used for cooking purposes in say, Turkey. I imagine an ancient Arabian world, where scents of cardamom, rose, and ginger waft from brews simmering in large copper pots, stirred with wide, wooden ladles by wizened women.
My neighbor, who I have spoken before about here, is out to change that. With elderflower tinctures, candied violets, and rose hydrosols, flowers from her garden tiptoe quietly beyond their decorative role and clearly become something that should be integrated more in our daily lives.
A few weeks ago, she called me over to help her distill roses. Damask roses, specifically: a heritage varietal known for its potent and focused fragrance.
The rose bushes were overflowing. A veritable glut of fine, pink petals was spread across the table, and the still sat round and ready, waiting for the flowers to be tucked cosily inside. A flame, cool water to keep the metal tubes of the still from overheating, and a waiting jar were all that were needed for an afternoon of distillation.
What emerged in clear droplets from the mouth of the still was a liquid combining the bright scent of fresh pink petals with a fascinating a bitter component reminiscent of chewing on a tender green stem. Each drop tasted of the whole flower, as if a delicate bud had just been clipped from the bush and chewed on its own, without adornment or florish.
The gallon jar was filled with this potent rose water by the end of the afternoon. When the still had exhausted the energy of the roses, and the stream slowed to infrequent drops, we saw small pools of rose oil floating across the surface. This, my neighbor explained, could be skimmed off and bottled on its own, but she preferred to leave it to integrate with the water, adding further depth and perfume.
Later, I took a basket of roses home to make a rose syrup. Simmered with sugar, the roses leached a lovely color and strong fragrance. When tasted, the syrup had none of the whole-flower quality of the hydrosol, but rather tasted of candied petals. If the rose water seemed curative and healing with its pleasant bitterness, the syrup was the opposite: toothnumbingly sweet, intoxicating in beauty yet straightforward in its nod to the pure and simple loveliness of petals.
Cooking with the hydrosol and syrup is the next step. So far, time has led us to drinking: the water or the syrup stirred into lemonade, iced tea, bubble water....or even brought a notch more into the adult world when muddled with crisp gin and cucumber...
My neighbor tells me the rose is protective; open and lovely, yet always ready with sharp thorns. A model for combatting the unpredictable nature of a wild and rambunctious garden. Surely, this protection should not solely be reserved for fairies.