Our cat Harry lives a charmed life. Despite our feeble efforts to make him an indoor cat, he chooses to be an outdoor one and really, who can blame him? In the evening his nap place of choice is atop a sun-warmed granite boulder that juts out over a canopy of green that allows him to survey his kingdom. In the heat of mid-summer his chosen spot is beneath a giant wild rose bush outside our front door. He basks beneath its wickedly thorny arms, the fragrant petals perfuming his jet-black fur with the faint scent of Turkish delight – the scent of a Nova Scotia summer for me.
We find it everywhere we go – a backdrop to almost all of our beaches, along our craggy shorelines, bordering lonesome roads and in our backyards that define our properties. The wild rose (Rosa rugosa) is so common in the summertime in Nova Scotia we almost look right past her. But stop a minute to notice her beauty and you’ll be captivated by her perfume. A perfume that transports me back to my youth and a love of Turkish delight.
According to legend, the wild rose that we find growing so commonly all over Nova Scotia was washed a shore after a shipwreck. (Why the castaway rose was onboard in the first place is a question I have yet to find an answer to). The fact that the hips (fruits) of this wild rose are both buoyant and sturdy and can remain intact in seawater for months at a time might be a more plausible reason. Either way, Rosa rugosa took to our shores in abundance.
They are impervious to Nova Scotia’s salty conditions and sea spray, which is why they are often called ‘beach roses’. They are resilient in the face of gale force winds; they can withstand our harshest winters that drop below -20ºC and will not shrivel in the heat of our hottest summers. All wild roses have beautiful white or pink flowers with 5 petals and many stamens. Variations of wild roses proliferate, some with poppy-like flowers growing individually, others in clusters, some unfurling their petals in a single layer, others in double layers or more. The leaves have an odd number of leaflets and a wing-like sheaf clasps the base of the leaf. The fruit or “hips” form bright orange balls in the fall, and are almost as well known as the flowers and can be turned into as many recipes. Whatever shape Rosa rugosa may take, whatever its hue, it’s most distinctive characteristic is its fragrance and it’s the scent that translates into taste.
She is an old soul – her influence has reigned in art, poetry, songs and religious ceremony and her culinary influence has been prominent for centuries. The Romans added her petals to their wine; the Persians added them to jams, sweetmeats and spices like advieh; Egyptians created sherbets and Moroccans add the dried petals to the spice ras el hanout. In India petals are added to fragrant lassi’s and gulkand preserve, known for its intense flavours and for its healing properties.
Perhaps most famously the Turks added the concentrated perfume in the form of rosewater to their beloved lokum (Turkish Delight). Although these uses may conjure up exotic, faraway lands and ancient recipes, our wild rose petals are contemporary and fit in beautifully with modern recipes alongside the rest of our local produce. All of our wild roses are edible, which is not surprising since our orchard fruits like apples, pears, and berries are related to wild roses.
The flowers are in bloom from July until the end of August. The best time of day to gather the flower petals is late morning or early afternoon. They open each morning, become dusted with pollen around noon, and will drop their petals by late evening, leaving the pollinated and developing hip behind. By gently grasping the whole flower head with your hand and tugging the petals, you will often get most of the petals off easily. The hardest part is avoiding the thorns. Darker rose hued petals will always have stronger flavours. Remove any white portion of the petal, which will be bitter. Before using the petals they should be massaged to get that beautiful rose perfume and fuchsia colour.
Most chefs will tell you that everything in a dish should be integral to the eating experience, so whether tossed in a salad or blended into a smoothie the petals add complexity and flavour. Their use fits perfectly with summer recipes, because food in these months should be light, exciting and vital. The addition of wild rose petals to almost any dish instantly transforms something fairly ordinary into something fragrant and unusual.
Handfuls of rose petals I’ve gathered from Harry’s tree will be used to infuse a simple syrup that will be used in a cordial; Others will infuse the sugar to be used in the homemade rose and strawberry ice cream; a few will be chopped up and added to the meringues; I threw handfuls in with the tea I was brewing; I will, before the end of summer try my hand at wild rose Turkish delight; and the rest I’ve soaked in some vodka to capture the essence of summer, to be sipped when the roses have gone and the chill of fall sets in.
Wild Rose & Strawberry Ice Cream
1 cup wild rose petals
1/2 cup granulated sugar
In a medium sized mixing bowl combine the sugar and wild rose petal. Massage the petals gently in the sugar. Leave to infuse overnight.
1 cup fresh chopped strawberries
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
Combine strawberries and rose petal sugar and let them stand for 1 hour.
Place mixture in a food processor and pulse until strawberries are chopped.
Add cream and milk to strawberry mixture.
Start ice cream maker and pour mixture in; churn for 20-40 minutes or until desired consistency.