Rosewater.

I fell back in love with rose water over the lovely long Easter break. Although I am not sure I ever fell out of love with it. Maybe I should just say we got reacquainted.

I made a semolina pistachio rose water cake (from my favourite Sweet). And then served it with rose water crème fraiche. It was popular* – it is a very complex cake with lots of flavours and just a joy to eat. Not too sweet. Nutty. Rose-water-y. Divine.

Anyway, it led me to thinking about rose water. It is one of those things that I think you either love or hate. Some people liken it to eating soap. Or a bath cube**

However, I think if it is used correctly and in the right quantity, it can make your whole life beautiful. It is strong. STRONG. So you need to be judicious. Otherwise you will end up in the aforementioned soap-eating place.

*disappeared, crumbs only remained.

** OMG do you remember bath cubes? They were quite the thing to buy your mother if you needed to get her a present and you only had a dollar. You could get three in a box.

The research

What is it?

Rose water is simply water flavoured by steeping rose petals in water (fancy scientific term for what happens when you steep any fresh flower, fruit, plant in water = hydrosol). Other common hydrosols include orange blossom water and lavender water. The gorgeous floral flavoured water is what remains after the essential oils are extracted (for things like perfume).

You can make your own rose water (if you are one of those people who has roses in their garden and has managed to keep them alive).

The Persian word for rose water is golāb. In India, Iran and other places on the sub-continent it is called gulab (gul = flower, ab = water).

Rose water is used for culinary purposes, cosmetics, medical preparations and religious purposes throughout Europe and Asia.

Where is it from?

The cultivation of fragrant flowers for perfume may date back as far as Sassanid Persia (and here we are talking around 200-600 AD – so like, heaps ages ago).

It is said that the ancient Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians considered rose gardens to be as important as crops and orchards.

Mass production of rose water through steam distillation started in medieval Islamic times, which then led to more lucrative trade. Rose water became a staple ingredient in the aromatic cuisines of the Middle East as well as North Africa and North India.

Does it have any health benefits?

From a holistic perspective, rose water is known for its healing properties – for example add it to tea to soothe a sore throat. Some people use it for relieving stress – I would defy anyone not to take a big whiff of it and instantly feel calmer and happier!

It’s also believed to promote healthy skin, so you often see it mentioned as an ingredient in face creams and the like.

The flavour

The flavour of rose water is pretty… ummm… rosey. Haha. Seriously.

What does it go with?

In sweet world, it can go anywhere, really. It is particularly good combined with vanilla. It is good with fruit-based things, particularly fleshy fruits. And creamy things like panacotta or ice cream. It adds depth to jams.

Add it to your boozy concoctions as it will cut through bitterness. Or as a spritzer… maybe make it into a rose syrup for some extra delectability.

When rose water is baked it changes and becomes more subdued (wouldn’t you become more subdued if you were subjected to 200 deg temperatures?). So it then comes into its own as a savoury additive. It will complement aromatics like cardamom, coriander, ginger, saffron. Anything in the Middle Easter/Moroccan/African kind of area and you are firmly into rose water’s happy place. I haven’t cooked this roast chicken with saffron and hazelnuts but it looks like something we all need to try.

The fun fact

Rose water is frequently used as a halal substitute for red wine and other alcohol in cooking.

The rant

I am really not sure what is going on in my life, but I seriously have no rants to give. NONE. I can sense the disappointment 🙂

Vanilla.

Is there a baked good in the entire history of the universe that wasn’t enhanced by a bit of vanilla? Answer: no. As a baking fiend my pantry is full of different varieties – the pods, the paste, the essence – and all of them get a pretty good workout. But up until researching this post I didn’t really know too much (aka anything) about this gorgeous tasting and divinely fragrant little gift to the world. So…

The research.

What is it?

Vanilla, along with cardamom and saffron, is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is found in the seeds of the orchid vine vanilla planifolia which is native to Mexico. Obtaining true vanilla is a lengthy process, as the beans are slowly fermented then seeds extracted and ground. Pollination is also difficult as specific conditions are required. A method of hand pollination was developed in Reunion in 1841 – the variety of vanilla grown there and in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla, after the island’s former name.

The vanilla flavour (from the vanillin) is easily chemically synthesised from clove oil, waste material from the paper and wood-pulp industries and petrochemical products – YUM!! This artificial vanilla is very close to the natural flavour and so the export of real vanilla is in decline. About 97% of the world’s supply of vanilla is now synthetic… so if you want to be sure of getting the real deal, get the pods people!

Where is it from?

It is native to Mexico but is now grown in Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia. Tahitian vanilla is said to be fruity and spicy, Madagascan the most common, Mexican spicier and richer.

Any health benefits?

When vanilla became popular in 17th century Europe it was used for a huge variety of things – stomach ulcers, sedation and seduction – yes, it has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac.

The flavour.

The flavour comes from the seed pod – the bean, if you will. All beans contain thousands of seeds – those little black grains you see in anything that has been made with true vanilla pods eg vanilla bean ice cream*

Vanilla is rich, full, aromatic and powerful and highly fragrant. Check out some ideas for vanilla’s best playmates.

*If I was an ice cream manufacturer who wanted to sell shedloads of ice cream to gullible consumers, I would sprinkle any old black dust into it and call it ‘vanilla bean’. Cheaper to make. Sell at a premium. Make lots of lovely money. Lucky for you, dear readers, I am not in the ice cream business.

Ideas for vanilla:

Vanilla will enhance every fruit. Every fruit. Think apples, raspberries, apricots… whatever. Vanilla and chocolate – this was its only role back in Incan times: to flavour chocolate. It is a standard addition to cakes, biscuits, pies, anything sweet.

But how about some savoury ideas? I would think about trying a pairing with its close partners anise and cardamom in some dishes – tomato-based things in particular (tomato being a fruit).

Aside: did you know that Galliano has vanilla and anise as its core ingredients?

The fun fact.

The word ‘vanilla’ derives from the Latin word ‘vagina’. In ancient Rome, vagina meant ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. The rascals over in Spain adapted that word to ‘vaina’ which then resulted in the diminutive form ‘vainilla’ meaning ‘little sheath’. As the vanilla pod resembles a sheath, vanilla got its name. Now try eating vanilla ice cream without thinking about that. Ha.

Photo by Cel Lisboa on Unsplash

Kampot pepper.

In the middle of a surprisingly amazing holiday in Cambodia (not surprising that we had a good holiday, just surprising that it was SO great, SO interesting and SO much fun) we got in a tuk tuk and travelled for a long time over quite* bumpy dusty dirt roads to the pepper farms of Kampot. We went mainly because we wanted a day out in a tuk tuk and didn’t expect to be quite so blown away by pepper. Yes, pepper.

I had never given much thought to pepper. It was just one of those things I used every day and it was small and black and required a grinder. Depending where you were, this grinder was either easily slotted into your hand, or big enough to substitute for an artificial limb (I’m looking at you, Sydney Italian restaurants in general).

But at the Kampot pepper farm I learned that pepper is so much more. And infinite in variety. Red, white, green, black. Round, long. They were all here for our edification and education. Kampot pepper has AOC certification. That means it’s like champagne that can only come from the Champagne region of France. I love champagne. But I digress.

*very extremely maximally 

The research.

What is it?

Kampot pepper is a cultivar of piper negrum and has been a certified appellation of origin (AOC) product since 2010.

Where is it from?

Uh… duh! KAMPOT!

Specifically the foothills of the Elephant Mountains, where the quartz content of the soil apparently helps to give the pepper its unique terroir.

Kampot pepper first came to world attention in the 13th century. Production in the modern era was initiated under French colonial rule in the 1870s. By the 1960s there were 1 million pepper poles in Kampot, but this drastically declined during the civil war. Production is now increasing again but is not at the pre-war level yet.

There’s a bit of argy-bargy about deforestation occurring due to the increase in production. I find it hard to know where to land on this issue. On one hand I am a big fan of trees and protecting the planet, it being the only one we currently have. But on the other, who are we as rich white Westerners to tell these people, who are trying SO hard to emerge from a terrible war and destruction and poverty that they can’t try to make a quid any way they can?

The flavour.

Kampot pepper is so fragrant! And so full of flavour. It has helped me to see the pepper light and recognise that, like so many things, there can be the regular workaday variety that you don’t think much about, and the supremo version that can change your life.

What does it go with?

I have only three words for you: Kampot. Pepper. Crab.

OK, I have more words: anything you put pepper on.

The fun fact. 

Black peppercorns are green when harvested but change colour during drying. White peppercorns are black ones without the skin. Red peppercorns are green ones left on the vine for an extra four months.

The rant.

I am reading a lot about Cambodia and its government. Again. I don’t really want to say too much as I would love to return and preferably not be thrown in the clink, but those beautiful people deserve so much more and so much better. They are extraordinarily resilient, kind and peaceful people, and this oppression – that has been tolerated by Western countries and even rewarded with aid – is yucky (understatement). Watch the movie ‘First They Killed My Father’ if you want to spend a harrowing night at home with the popcorn.

Star anise.

Let me start by telling you that I love star anise. It can do no wrong in my eyes, and there is pretty much no place it doesn’t belong… sweet, savoury, slow cooking, quick baking. It is a star (see what I did there?).

Anyway, it is potentially my favourite spice, although it’s likely as we continue on this food blogging path that I find at least another twenty favourite spices. I’m quite a commitment-phobe when it comes to food and flavours – I want them all.

The research.

What is it?

Star anise (scientific name Illicium verum) is sometimes called Chinese star anise. Here’s something I learned while researching it: there is also something called Japanese star aniseIllicium anisatum, which is highly toxic. So probably best not to mix them up, OK? Good.

It is star shaped (who knew?), with between five and ten pointed boat-shaped sections, about eight on average. These hard sections are seed pods. The fruit is picked before it can ripen, and dried. The stars are available whole, or ground.

Star anise is not related to anise as we know it in the Western world (which is anisum vulgare). It was first introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century (or the sixteenth – the jury is still out). The oil, produced by a process of steam extraction, is now substituted for European aniseed (because its cheaper) in commercial drinks like absinthe. I love the mythology around absinthe, and the dangerous feeling around it.

Where is it from?

Star anise is the fruit of an oriental tree, related to the magnolia, that grows pretty much exclusively in southern China, Japan and Indo-China.

Does it have any health benefits?

Star anise is reputed to assist with fungal infections, joint pain, sleep disorders, to aid digestion and ease a cough. The Chinese have used it to support pregnant women and new mothers in modulating hormone function.

The flavour.

It is a strong spice – a little bit goes a long way – and it is licorice-like in flavour. It is one of the key elements of Chinese Five Spice powder. There are four others – ha – which are, most commonly, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, fennel seeds and Sichuan pepper.

Ideas for star anise:

Obviously the Chinese use star anise a lot, mainly in savoury dishes. Stocks, soups, meat (particularly duck – I love duck) nearly always contain it.

I have read that star anise makes an excellent pairing with tomatoes, which makes perfect sense when you think about its flavour – that licorice hint is close to both fennel and basil, which are classic accompaniments to tomato. So next time I make a tomato sauce or bolognese, I am throwing a star in.

Star anise is great in all sorts of baking. Over Christmas I made a lot of shortbread and fell in love with the orange and star anise shortbread recipe from Sweet (the latest recipe book from Yotam Ottolenghi in collaboration with Helen Goh – who is originally from Australia – go Goh). The star anise gave it such a lovely depth of flavour and something a bit different.

The fun facts.

 About 90% of the world’s star anise crop is used for extraction of shikimic acid, a chemical used to make the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. This led to shortages of the spice in both 2005 and 2009 (swine flu time).

The rant.

Thinking about star anise led me to thinking about recipe books. Let’s talk about recipe books and my addiction to them. OK, let’s not talk about the addiction, but let’s talk about the quality of some offerings. There are many many fabulous books where every recipe you try works exactly as it should, the measurements are correct, the oven temp is pretty spot on and the cooking times are accurate. This may sound like a ‘duh, what did you expect’ kind of statement, but I have recently purchased a few books which are chronic non-workers in the recipe department and this makes me a little bit twitchy. If you are going to ask people to spend their dollars on your book, test the recipes. In domestic ovens. In different conditions. The waste of ingredients when recipes fail annoys the crap out of me!