Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, and soon procrastinators will scramble to buy last minute gifts, including those very expensive rose bouquets. Perhaps it’s time the human race became reacquainted with our most powerful symbol of love. Not to mention the one plant family, whose own history is most intimately entwined with ours.
The Rosaceae family is incredibly diverse. Besides the tremendous number of “ornamental” varieties we plant in our yards, and often torture, there are species of roses we eat all the time. Most of us just don’t realize it any more. My interest in rose history was piqued when heirloom roses really started becoming mainstream. I took notice in the early to mid-1990s, but I believe the old rose movement was part of the return to organic/natural gardening; which started making a resurgence in the 1960s & 70s. Of course, growing and using fresh herbs was occurring at the same time; along with rediscovering old recipes for cooking, freshening the home (potpourri), and curing what ails you. Before the Victorians came along, with their notions of beating nature into submission with science; and ornamental gardening became a hobby of the new middle class, roses were multi-purpose herbs. Yes, that includes the roses we now prize for their flowers alone.
Have you ever been to a fancy celebration where sugar-coated rose petals decorated a cake? Or perhaps the crazy old lady down the street gifted you with a jar of rose hip jam. Since those items became a lost art, especially in the 20th Century US, you might have thought eating roses was a strange thing to do. I know I did, when I first started seeing rose recipes in magazines like “Victoria” and “Country Living”. I forgot what I learned in Biology. Are you a strawberry jam junky? Guess what. You’re eating roses. Remember, I mentioned this is a diverse family. Other members include apples, pears, and quinces (Fall fruits). The drupes; otherwise known as stone fruits like apricots, peaches, cherries, plums and almonds (Summer fruits). Then there are blackberries, raspberries and strawberries (late Spring & early Summer). It is the flowers of all these plants which show their relationships to each other. Study them closely, and you will see similarities, especially in all the fruits which are grown commercially. Many species roses are also single, with five petals, making the connection more obvious.
So, how did the rose become the flower the of love, anyway? I think it started with humankind’s love of eating. Some nutrition experts are fixated on the hunter part of our history, and maybe downplay the gatherer part a little too much; but let’s be honest here. We’re not the biggest creatures on this planet. We also don’t have fangs and sharp claws. Having meat in our diets took a tremendous amount of work, and the outcome of a hunt certainly wasn’t guaranteed. That makes meat a treat, most likely in jerky form. The bulk of early man’s diet was plants, because they don’t run from you; and unless they’re poisonous or have thorns, don’t fight back. Plants from the rose family are probably one of the first superfoods. Rose hips are very high in Vitamin C. They’re generally available from late summer into fall. It’s not hard to imagine stone-age man carrying rosy raisins around in their pouches, once they discovered consumption of their snacks, kept them from getting sick in the winter. Besides, what’s not to like about a plant family that makes food at least half the year?
Because of that early relationship, the rose became civilized with us. Once we settled down and started becoming all philosophical, it was only a matter of time before roses meant more than a means of filling our bellies. The heady fragrances of their flowers spoke to our souls, and their longevity made them mythical beings to a species which often didn’t live very long. (Yes, when this large plant family is left to its own devices, many members can live a very long time.) It was everything we admire in roses, which made them the old world’s enduring symbols of both religion and love. (Even after chocolate hopped the pond, it couldn’t unseat the queen of flowers from her throne.)
If your budget isn’t compatible with a big, fancy bouquet of the flowers, don’t be ashamed of your chocolate covered strawberries. Those who wish to be globally inclusive, might consider giving the gift of a chocolate coated, gourmet candy apple. DIYers may like the simple caramel sauce recipe which is included here, for dipping their favorite fruits and cookies. Since Valentine’s Day is supposed to celebrate lovers, I highly recommend it as a treat for two. I promise the recipe creates more than enough for sharing. However, it is very sticky. Ponder carefully before getting creative. Quite frankly, I can’t think of a more romantic way to show your devotion and express your amorous intent. In the event your significant other complains you didn’t give them even a single rose, you smile sweetly and say, “Of course I did, my darling. You’re eating it.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Simple Caramel Sauce
Usually, caramel is made with white sugar. The distinctive flavor partly comes from cooking it until it starts turning color. Light gold is butterscotch, and amber is usually the desired shade for caramel. This process takes a bit more time than the recipe below. You also have to watch it very carefully. Once it starts getting some color, it doesn’t take long to burn. Using brown sugar provides color and flavor upfront. So, the main concern is keeping the sugar from recrystallizing. That is why the syrup is included. Light corn syrup is usually used in candy making, which this is. However, I usually have cane syrup in my pantry all the time. It works too. A candy thermometer is not needed here, if you don’t have one. This is only cooked long enough for the soft ball stage. The addition of heavy cream or half-in-half is the other part of the flavor equation; but I made a substitution here because dairy and I have a complicated relationship. The amount of liquid added, determines whether it stays a soft candy, or becomes a sauce. It sets as it cools. If it’s thickening too much for dipping, slowly reheat and add a bit more liquid.
My sauce making pan is an inexpensive aluminum non-stick. It’s not a heavy pan, meaning it heats up faster. Do not use stainless steel anything. It causes crystallization. Stir with a wooden or silicone utensil. It’s also a good idea to be a patient and keep the heat a bit low. You have more control that way.
1 ½ c. Brown Sugar
1 ½ c. White or Natural Cane Sugar
¼ c. Water
1 tbsp. Light Corn or Cane Syrup
1 tsp. Vanilla
1 tbsp. Dark Rum
1 tsp. Salt
¾ c. Half & Half or Almond/Coconut Coffee Creamer
Place the first four ingredients in the pan. After combining, bring to a rolling boil. Allow to boil just long enough to melt the sugar crystals, no more than two minutes at the most. Remove from the heat and allow the boiling to subside a bit before adding the remaining ingredients, especially the rum. Once it’s cooled completely, store in an airtight container or squeeze bottle.
One more note: If you substitute a nut-based product for the half & half, your sauce may appear translucent with tiny flecks in it. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. The flecks are nuts which are ground and suspended in water.