I love reading old cookbooks. One is immediately immersed into another world, where the daily concerns, dietary beliefs and time constraints are very different from ours. The recipes reflect all of this, ranging from simple preparations to complex affairs requiring extra helping hands. Whether I open a 19th century book published in Russia or in France, I know that there is always something intriguing to anticipate, a new taste, a new technique, a new inspiration.
The main reason for my fascination with older cookbooks, however, lies in the explicit link between olfaction and cooking. Previous generations of cooks were quite savvy when it came to aromas, and they understood the basic principles of blending spices and herbs to create distinctive flavors. Recipes for perfumes were commonplace in cookbooks published before the 20th century, and those could be found alongside recipes for liqueurs and cordials. With the growth of the commercial perfume industry, the tradition of homemade fragrances waned and it is likely that many interesting preparations have simply been forgotten.
To illustrate my point, I have selected two recipes for floral liqueurs that straddle the line between a delicious beverage and a heady perfume. They are derived from the books I use frequently in my kitchen, and if you read French, I highly recommend both, especially since they are easily available through Kitchen Arts & Letters and Amazon. I am not going to compete with Rachel Ray here; for most of us without access to a blooming garden they are only curios. Nevertheless, imagine the jasmine’s fragrance of apricot jam and green banana in liqueur form. Or the voluptuous richness of Rosolies, a traditional Valencial liqueur made with roses and sweet spices.
Jasmine Ratafia (Ratafia de Jasmin)
The following recipe for ratafia, or cordial, comes from the 1910 edition of a wonderful book La Cuisinière Provençale, written by J.-B. Reboul. I present the recipe here as it was published in the book, but when I tried making it myself, I cooled the syrup to lukewarm before adding jasmine flowers. Instead of eau de vie, I used a high quality grappa, Italian brandy made from grape skins. Heavenly!
200g jasmine blossoms
1L eau-de-vie (marc, clear brandy)
Sugar syrup: 500g (1lb) sugar, 1L water
Prepare sugar syrup by adding sugar to water and simmering until sugar is dissolved. When it has been brought to boil, remove from the heat and add jasmine blossoms. Cover the pot and leave to infuse for 10min. Transfer to a wide mouth jar and add alcohol. Leave to infuse for 15 to 20 days. Filter, transfer to individual bottles and store in a dark, cool place.
Rose Liqueur (Rosolies, Liqueur de Roses de Valencia)
From La Cuisine Catalane by Eliane Thibaut Comelade, Tome II (Països Valencians, Baléars) published in 1979. Author specifies Valencia roses and Malaga raisins in her recipe, but any fragrant roses will work. Although the book is of a relatively recent vintage, the recipe is quite old.
2.5 L alcohol at 90% (clear grain alcohol, Everclear)
275g rose petals
26g jasmine blossoms
2 large pieces of mace
2.5g cinnamon bark
Syrup: 1kg (2lb) sugar, 1 L water
In a large jar, mix flowers, raisins, spices and alcohol. Let them macerate for 40 days.
After 40 days have passed, filter and add cold sugar syrup. Bottle and store in a dark, cool place.
To make sugar syrup, bring sugar and water to boil and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let it cool.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.