By Amie Bolissian-McRae

The rosewater used in our sweet festive snow was typically made from Rosa gallica L. or Rosa damascena Mill. (the Damask rose).

Rosewater is something that, today, people in England often associate with Middle Eastern food. My own Armenian grandmother made her unsurpassable baklava with generous teaspoons of rosewater and orange-water. What is less well known is quite how popular a culinary ingredient rosewater was in 16th to 18th century recipes. It appeared in almost all desserts and many savoury dishes. As an example, the 1597 booke of cookerie suggested rosewater, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and mace as the flavourings for its savoury ‘Tart to provoke courage in either man or woman’.1 (The main ingredients were wine, burdock, eight egg yolks, and ‘the braines of thrée or fower cocke sparrowes’, It remains unclear which was thought the active ingredient to promote bravery.) Rosewater was a ubiquitous ingredient found in merchants’ and apothecary shops and it wasn’t too tricky to make. In fact, I found very few actual recipes for rosewater in the printed and manuscript collections, which is likely down to how common the knowledge was for making flower waters. Two types of rosewater were likely. One was made by merely steeping the parts of the flower (petals, sepals, buds) in water, sometimes with a little alcohol, and the other was distilled. This would have been done using an alembic or ‘Lembic’ as they often called it. The recipe below, using a ‘stillitory’ is one of the more complex methods for making rosewater from the disturbingly titled 1651 published work, Natura Extenturata: Nature Unbowelled:

‘To make Rosewater for Damask-water

Take red Roses and pick them from the buds, then take Lavender speck, Marjoram, and Basul, the leaves of each two handfuls, then take five or seven leaves of your Roses, and lay on them a little quantitie of Cyvet, then take Damask powder and straw between every range, then distill them in your Stillitory with a soft fire in/s? anywise.’2

17th-century alembic, furnace, bellows, and assorted flasks [DS0001] (The Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry, Apparatus Museum, University of Cincinnati) Fair use
Rosewaters such as this were also considered medicinal remedies. There was a distinct overlap between food and medicine during this period. They were both believed to have healthy or unhealthy effects on the body, and they were both prepared in very similar manners. Medicines were usually made with a variety of plants, herbs, spices, and chemicals and their preparation involved much of the same equipment as cooking, such as pestles and mortars. Not just apothecaries, but also lay healers and some women of means in this period had elaborate distillation equipment for making medicines in or near their kitchens. In the dominant Ancient Greek and Roman humoural medical doctrines of the period, all ingredients were thought to have specific properties of temperature or moisture. Some substances, like pepper and ginger, were said to be hot and dry, whereas cucumbers and fish, unsurprisingly, were considered cold and wet. This didn’t mean that they merely embodied these qualities, but they were also thought to have these specific heating, cooling, drying, or moistening effects on the people who consumed them. Roses were considered cold in the first degree and dry in the first degree (the degrees went up to four). This meant that waters, syrups, tinctures, and elixirs made with roses, were mild in their action but still considered good for drying and binding the body. This meant they help with diarrhoea, indigestion, and weakness.

We can see examples of their health ‘virtues’ below in these excerpts from the 1653 Royal College of Physicians’ Pharmacopoeia. Syrup of roses is even suggested for taking before or after ‘meat’ (the term ‘meat’ at this time signified all food), in order to avoid digestive problems.

Exactly what we could all do with after an enormous Christmas meal!

  1. A booke of cookerie, 1597, 33-4.
  2. Philiatros, Natura Extenturata, 1655, 378.

Advent Botany Day 12 / 14

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