Sweet scents: a guide to edible flowers and flower waters
Distilling flower petals by steaming them until the plant material infuses the water with its essence and flavour produces flower waters, otherwise known as hydrasols.
This technique of distillation became popular in the Middle East in the early Middle Ages, and was taken to Europe by the crusaders. The process vaporises certain compounds and leaves behind others, producing a concentrate of aromatics, pigments and flavonoids that delivers the essence of the floral scent.
Besides being used medicinally and in perfumes, floral waters, particularly rose water, became firmly ensconced in the cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa and North India. Before 1841, when vanilla became widely available, rose water was a primary flavouring in a wide range of desserts and pastries. Substituting rose water for the vanilla in cupcakes or vanilla cakes delivers a wonderful floral note.
You can take the same approach with orange blossom water. Both rose water and orange blossom water are available in New Zealand in specialist food stores and some supermarkets.
Orange blossom water is often paired with almonds in Middle Eastern cakes and baking. I love adding a few drops into a strawberrry or rhubarb puree or any kind of fruit cream or icecream.
In Provence recently, I enjoyed a cooling drink made simply by infusing fresh rose petals overnight with a big handful of lemon verbena leaves in a big jug of cold water. The result was exquisitely refreshing. I am sure this would work equally well with elderflowers, violets or hibiscus flowers – as long as they haven’t been sprayed. Elderflowers, which blossom in late spring, have a slightly bitter taste and a slightly unpleasant odour when picked. You need to soak them in water or cook them in a syrup to coax out their delicious fragrance.
These recipes celebrate the depth of fragrance and flavour that florals and aromatics bring to our table.
I often stir together a variation of this fragrant, silky cream to serve with sweet tarts, grilled fruits and other desserts. It's so simple but makes a meal feel so much more special.
With any kind of floral water you need to be careful not to use too much or the taste becomes unpleasantly medicinal.