The hedgerows are covered in wild roses at the moment.
Unlike hybrid tea roses which are a bit tough, wild roses are excellent for eating. Using roses in cookery has gone out of fashion in England in the last few hundred years, though thanks to their being more common in Middle Eastern and North African cookery, you can get rosewater at Lakeland and in many delis. The Tudors, of course, were big on eating flowers, partly for colour and flavour but also because of their ‘virtues’.
‘Virtue’ meant the particular healing or health-giving properties that many plants were believed to contain. These could be physical or psychological. Books, called herbals, listed the virtues of different plants. The idea of foods being medicinal or healthy makes sense to us but it sometimes tipped over into the magical. It wasn’t just plants that had virtues – precious stones could have them too, and a jewel that was thought to have lost its virtue might fetch much less money than one that still had power, say, against epilepsy, or to protect in childbirth.
Anthony Askham‘s Little Herbal, written around 1550, gives this recipe for ‘melrosette’. If you’re interested in Elizabeth I, you might also like to know that Anthony Askham is believed to have been the youngest brother of Roger Ascham, who tutored Princess Elizabeth in Greek and Latin from 1548-50. So while Anthony was writing down recipes, Roger was giving grammar lessons to the future queen.
I’ve updated the spelling but left the language exactly as it is. See? You can follow a Tudor recipe! Easy!
‘Melrosette is made thus. Take fair purified honey and new red roses, the white ends of them clipped away, then chop them small and put them into the honey and boil them meanly [ie for a little while] together; to know when it is boiled enough, you shall know it by the sweet odour and the colour red. Five years he may be kept in his virtue; by the roses he hath virtue of comforting and by the honey he hath virtue of cleansing.’
In other words, the virtue will last for five years. ‘Fair purified honey’ just means normal honey, as far as we’re concerned – it’s a reminder that in the Tudor kitchen or stillroom, things came in different states and you might have to do a fair bit of work on an ingredient before it was ready to use!
He also suggests several different recipes for a sugar rose syrup. Here is the simplest:
‘Syrup of roses is made thus. Some do take roses dight [done] as it is said and boil them in water and in the water strained they put sugar and make a syrup thereof.’
‘Some do stamp new roses and then strain the juice out of it and [put] sugar therewith, they make syrup, and this is the best making of syrup. In winter and summer it may be given competently to feeble, sick, melancholy and choleric people.’
‘Melancholy’ and ‘choleric’ mean something more than just ‘sad’ or ‘irritable’. They relate to an idea which dominated Tudor medicine, that people’s health was governed by four ‘humours‘. The humours, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, needed to be in perfect balance, and their relative quantities in your body made you a certain type of person, melancholy, choleric, sanguine or phlegmatic. Personally I think this rose syrup would be nice on ice cream or rice pudding but please don’t feed it to anyone sanguine or phlegmatic – there might be awful consequences… Notice he also specifies that you can eat it in winter or summer. Askham was an astrologer, so he would have known that you had to eat things at the right time of year, as well as being the right type of person. Tudor nutrition was complicated….
The problem with these recipes from our point of view is that they need a LOT of rose petals. I don’t have old-fashioned roses in my garden and I didn’t want to go and strip all the local hedgerows, so I’m going to show you sugared rose petals, which you can do with just a few, and with no risk of sugar burns. There are Tudor recipes where you dip the rose petal in boiling syrup, but this works just as well.
white sugar (granulated or caster)
a small paintbrush
First, gather your rose petals carefully. I didn’t wash mine because it had just been raining so I dried them by gently pressing them between two layers of kitchen roll. You have to make sure not to bruise them, because they’ll turn brown.
Then use the scissors to trim away most of the white part from the base of each petal (this part is tough and tastes bitter). Spread some sugar out on a plate. Paint each rose petal with egg white, then dip or sprinkle it with sugar until it’s completely covered. Leave to dry overnight.
They are crunchy and ridiculously delicious, like very delicate sweets. I used mine to decorate my daughter’s birthday cake, because she’s nine and that’s her idea of the height of sophistication.
Of course, in Tudor England they would have been pretty sophisticated, because sugar was a luxury item. For this reason, the people we have to imagine using these recipes are wealthy women, who would have learnt sugarcraft as girls and carried on making sweetmeats and preserves even once they were in charge of a whole household with several cooks. And while flavours like this are very good at evoking the sixteenth century, we’d better not forget that sugared rose petals were something most ordinary Tudor people would never even have tasted!