x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Valentine's Day raises anxiety about bad scents and poor taste

Roses I dread and violets I rue - but on any other day of the year, I like them in my food.

This is the story of an unlikely romance. Even thinking about it makes me short of breath, though not in a good way. There's no bouquet of flowers big enough to cover the sins of all the scented candles, heart-shaped boxes and sweet-smelling mistakes that will change hands on Valentine's Day. Roses I dread and violets I rue - but on any other day of the year, I like them in my food.

Queen Victoria, who loved perfume in general, was a lavender-deodorant enthusiast. I'd be willing to bet that her passion for it paled next to that of those who launched "For the Love of Lavender", a lavender-themed emporium that once existed here in Santa Fe and met the same fate as many endeavours driven by a singular and eccentric obsession. No stroll down Lavender Lane could be complete without a shout-out to the lemon-infused, lavender-flecked slabs of white chocolate with salty, tamari-roasted almonds from The Chocolate Smith, also here in Santa Fe. Or without mentioning the organic lavender ice cream, made with dried Provençal flowers, from the long-gone and lamented Tara's Organic Ice Cream, now based in the Bay Area where it can ruin the residents for all other ice creams, too.

But in Victoria's days, perfume was still made from bases of real, honest-to-goodness flowers - and roses, lavender, iris root, jasmine and violet were favoured themes. Because labour-intensive violet essence was so wildly expensive, it was considered a luxury, and that's one reason we now associate its smell with that of really old ladies: they were the only ones who could afford it.

It's why I felt, upon tasting a Choward's violet mint for the first time, as if I were sucking on a fossilised relic from the bowels of a fusty Victorian handbag. Parma Violets, a British confectionery that looks like giant tablets of baby aspirin, taste to me like a stranger's bath salts off-gassing in my mouth. Artificial flavours and flowers are grounds for divorce. True candied violets, on the other hand, are gorgeous in flavour and form, and violet syrup can be used to make scones or marshmallows, or it can be stirred into lemonade. Rose petals and orange blossoms can also be candied or strained to make syrups for pastries and confections such as Turkish delight and frozen sherbet.

At a wedding shower last year, I had a forkful of pistachio cake topped with garnet berries and buttercream roses of fluffy pink frosting. The first bite was like taking a mouthful of hand lotion. So I stopped breathing through my nose: a Pavlovian reaction to ancient locker room olfactory trauma (spray deodorant, Aqua Net, Nivea-scented steam), claustrophobic near-meltdowns over those automatic time-release air fresheners in elevators, and stifling encounters in faux pine scented taxicabs. I'm so picky about scents that when I'm given a bottle of perfume I simply pass it on as a gift to somebody else.

Real roses are not saccharine-smelling, but feral and fleeting, like night-blooming jasmine. I keep my rosewater and orange flower water in small glass spray bottles, so I can add them sparingly to drinks and to Middle Eastern desserts - baklava and semolina cake, kunafeh and filo dough filled with pastry cream. But I don't want flower waters sloshed thoughtlessly into creamy rice pudding or ricotta cheesecake or crème fraîche. I've tasted iced water that had been transformed into a lesser version of itself by a dash of rosewater. There may be a flower for every occasion, but not every occasion calls for it.

Variations of something called Lebanese iced tea, first mentioned in print about 20 years ago, are being served at Middle Eastern restaurants -oddly - throughout Louisiana, and have now spread to Texas and elsewhere in the US. The drink's origins and creators are a mystery, but it's basically sweetened iced tea with the merest trickle of rosewater and the hefty crunch of buttery pine nuts. Some versions contain the slight tang of lemon; others are made tart by the addition of pomegranate molasses.

Orange blossom water is one of the great legacies of Mediterranean citrus: distilled water perfumed with fresh essential oils from bitter orange blossoms. Seville oranges are generally believed to produce both the finest marmalade and the most fragrant blossoms.

In Lebanon and Syria, "white coffee" is served after dinner as a digestif, and is simply hot orange blossom water served in tiny cups, often with a side of candied rose petals.

There are dozens of edible flowers out in the world: elderflowers for making into cordial, squash blossoms for stuffing with cheese and frying, unopened sunflower buds to be steamed like artichokes, garlic blossoms snipped off so that we may enjoy them and so that the bulbs can better thrive, basil flowers for the same reasons, hibiscus and camomile flowers for tea, anise hyssop for so many things, although none as pleasurable as breathing in the scent left on one's hands after picking it. And of course, there are sweet and peppery little nasturtiums, which can be pickled, thrown into salads, or used to decorate dessert and fruit, along with geraniums and borage flowers, when they are available at their aromatic best.

A pensive person eating flowers is nothing new to cinema. In The Last Emperor, Elizabeth eats orchid flowers while a lone tear rolls down her cheek. In Monsoon Wedding, Dubey has a contemplative moment while folding a spicy, saffron-coloured marigold into his mouth. And the best scene in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory shows a melancholy Gene Wilder first sipping from, and then biting into, a buttercup.

Many of us have held a buttercup flower at our necks on a sunny day, bathing our chins in a yellow glow and thereby "proving" that we like butter, as the children's folklore goes. Grown-ups are privy to the joyless realisation that the particular optical properties of the buttercup, and the ability of its petals to manipulate light, are in fact responsible for this magic trick, which doesn't necessarily make it any less magical.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

artslife@thenational.ae

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