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Eating Roses

My daughter Katie Walsh writes for a food blog called Whisked Foodie She called me the other day to ask where to get edible roses. (If you have a source, please share it under “comments.”) This question seems to come up once a year around this time. I used to grow organic roses so I could cook with them, but growing roses without chemicals proved too be to big a challenge for my modest gardening skills.

Still, the question brought back fond memories of Valentine’s Day cooking projects.

This article and the recipe for Quail in Rose Petal Sauce ran in column I used to write for Natural History Magazine “A Matter of Taste.” The story was published in May of 1999. (story and recipe after the jump)


A Rosy Repast
Ever so gently, the young woman gasped as I set the platter down on the table. It was a few days before Valentine’s Day and for dinner I had made quail in rose petal sauce. The dish was made famous in the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Tita, the cook whose dishes literally express her emotions, makes the sauce from roses given to her by Pedro, her forbidden lover. Putting this recipe together, I felt a little like I was preparing a witch’s potion. And the most magical of the ingredients were the red roses.

Flowers aren’t really unusual in cooking, in fact they are often essential. Bouillabaisse wouldn’t be bouillabaisse without the intoxicating aroma of saffron threads, which are the orange-yellow stigmas of the purple crocus. Hot-and-sour soup wouldn’t taste right without dried day lilies, known in China as “golden needles.” And in New Orleans, no self-respecting bartender would dare serve a Ramos Gin Fizz without a splash of orange-flower water. But in none of these flower-flavored dishes can you actually recognize any blossoms. As the book title, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies suggests, actually putting whole blossoms in your mouth seems a little strange.

Roses in particular, with all of their romantic connotations, look odd on an ingredient list. After all, when a man sends a woman a dozen roses, he doesn’t expect that she’s going to be making salad out of them. But, in fact, roses have been eaten since ancient Roman times. At some flower-strewn Roman feasts, rose petals were sprinkled on the food, the table, and all over the banquet hall. Rose petals, fresh, dried and crystallized, as well as rose water and rose syrup are still widely used in the cuisines of the Middle East. Greek baklava, for instance, is authentically served with a drizzle of rose syrup.

While roses are one of the most common flowers in our florist shops, we Americans hardly ever eat them. Which is a good thing, because modern systemic pesticides have made them highly toxic. And according to Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate, (Fulcrum), even if you could eat modern hybrid roses, you’d probably be disappointed. “Queen Elizabeth has very little flavor, Tropicana has none at all,” she reports. Barash grows flowers organically so that she can use them in cooking. And she has eaten dozens of roses in her quest for good tasting varieties. “My favorite eating rose is the beach rose (Rosa rugosa alba) which grows wild along much of the Atlantic coast,” she says. “It has great aroma and it tastes as good as it smells.”

If you’re looking for a cooking rose to grow organically in your garden, Barash recommends David Austin varieties, which are throwbacks to old garden roses. “‘Gertrude Jekyll’ is my pick of his cultivars,” she says. Among the modern hybrids, ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ a deep velvety-red rose and Tiffany, a light pink hybrid are tastiest. Carrot slaw on a bed of pink Tiffany rose petals is one of Barash’s favorite salad recipes.

We can thank the organic farming movement for the return of edible flowers to our cuisine. The pesticide-free cooking roses used by most American chefs come from organic gardeners in California who air freight them to specialty food suppliers around the country. So what does a good eating rose taste like? “I don’t think roses really taste like much of anything on the palate,” Chef Danielle Custer told me, “but there is an aroma and a texture and an association with their eye appeal that makes them very sensual–almost– what’s the word–aphrodisical.”

The quail in rose petal sauce that Tita made in Like Water for Chocolate certainly was an aphrodisiac. After eating it, her sister Gertrudis “began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs.” Dripping with rose-scented sweat, Gertrudis went to the wooden shower stall in the backyard to wash. “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame.” Having set the shower stall on fire, Gertudis stood in her backyard, burning hot and smelling of roses, until she was suddenly swooped up by one of Pancho Villa’s men who charged into the backyard on horseback. “Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away.” The naked Gertrudis and the crazed soldier made love at a full gallop. The moral: Cook and eat flowers at your own risk.

I followed Tita’s recipe pretty closely, except I added more roses. Not only did I use rose petals and rose water as called for in the recipe, I also garnished the dish with an extra dozen tiny red buds. The young lady who ate the quail with me did not set my house on fire. (I kept a pitcher of water nearby just in case.) But the striking beauty and the deep perfume of all those roses certainly made her cheeks flush.

Quail in Rose Petal Sauce
(from Like Water for Chocolate)
My local Middle Eastern store had plenty of rose water on hand. I ordered the edible roses in advance from a specialty food company, but if you grow organic roses, you are in luck. You can also find edible flowers at farmers’ markets sometimes. Tita’s recipe also calls for pitaya, a delicious type of cactus fruit. But pitaya was out of season, so I substituted a dark red prickly pear fruit puree. You can also use frozen raspberries.

Serves 2

6 quail
3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup dry sherry
Petals of 6 fresh, organic red roses
6 peeled chestnuts (boiled, roasted or canned)
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup pitaya or red prickly pear fruit puree (or substitute raspberries)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground anise seed
1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
14 teaspoons rosewater

Rinse the quail and pat dry. In a large frying pan over
medium-high heat, melt the butter and lightly brown the birds on all
sides. Add sherry and salt and pepper the quail. Lower the heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Turn the quail, cover and cook another 10 minutes. Remove the quail, reserving the pan juices.
Rinse the rose petals in cold water. Place half the petals in the
blender, with remaining ingredients and the pan juices. Puree until smooth. Transfer to a sauce pan and simmer 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning with more salt, pepper and/or honey. Pour some sauce on the plates and arrange three quail on each. Pour the rest of the sauce over the quail and sprinkle with the remaining rose petals. Serve with crusty bread, tossed salad and a chilled Rosé champagne.

3 comments to Eating Roses

  • Robb-

    We, too, always have a bit of trouble finding edible roses for our preserves this time of year. We often get ‘donations’ of homegrown roses when they are bloom twice a year here in austin. Whole Foods used to carry an organic variety, but I believe even the roses labeled ‘organic’ are still allowed to have a minimal amount of pesticide as they are not labeled ‘edible’. This year we used a mail order company out of California-the roses are actually grown and shipped from Ecuador. (http://www.flowerexplosion.com/by-flower/roses/edible.html). Although they are edible, they do not have the fragrance that a homegrown, antique variety of rose delivers. Makes me almost want to grow them myself. Almost.

  • Brazos

    My wife and I love that movie. I think I’ll get her the BluRay for Valentines Day. Thx for the reminder. Oh, and I think I’ll plant some organic antique roses!

  • pateberry

    Robb, short of growing your own or having VERY goods friends who garden organically, I’m not so sure who I would trust. Perhaps a botanical garden near you grows David Austen roses and would be willing to share. They will have the fragrance your first commentor mentions Ecuadorians not having (I will NOT use commercial flowers on/in my foods- especially those from outside USA…really I use NONE from even the wholesalers as they’ve been treated with gases to reduce botryitis and other funguses.) There is one museum/ garden in Memphis that has the antique Austen’s; the fragrance is glorious in spring and summer! If you are going to Oxford,MS for SFA in October perhaps a quick swing thru Dixon Gardens would let you fill that floral basket to its brim!

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