Venetian Damask Roses and Rose-Scented Spritz
Lemons and rose blossoms from the garden go into a favorite drink you'll be served only on La Terrazza: Spritz ai petali di rosa
From mid-May to early June, the purple rose bush Nonna received in 1973 from the monks of the island San Lazzaro degli Armeni, blossoms in the little garden. For a long time, that is since 1968, just a tall yellow rose was growing on the upper terace, and below, two climbing roses, light pink and violet, had survived the floods of 4 November 1966. So there was indeed space for another rose in the garden, this special gift of rosa damascena (damask rose).
This rosa damascena from San Lazzaro took well in its own corner just below the laurel terrace, protected from wind and harsh weather. It thrives next to a row of pink hydrangea, which is really a coincidence because in Venice, you can never know whether plants will take well or not.
That’s because most of the time, you don’t know what type of soil you have in your garden: It could be mixed with debris of former buildings, which means your plants won’t take well. It could be mud which means the soil will turn rather brittle in the sun. Or, it might be fertile grounds. Lina’s courtyard has all three of these types of soil, which means that gardening in the hortus conclusus can be a challenge!
In addition to its flamboyant purple color, the damask rose smells heavenly. And it’s easy to propagate. It might even thrive in a large container although it would be smaller.
Of course, Nonna, grateful for this special gift, couldn’t resist harvesting its blossoms and using them for her own recipes and those from the San Zaccaria library.
As you can see, the rose looks quite lush, it’s about three meters tall. From mid-May, a portion of its petals are harvested and used to test recipes (not all of them - a part are left and turn into rose hips in late summer).
From the blossoms, we make jam and syrup. The syrup can be used to flavor many drinks and cakes, gelato, sweet breads, short breads, and also spritz, the all-Venetian or rather, “all-Italian drink”.
Actually, you can find vin spezià ae rose - rose-flavored wine - in the monastery libraries in Venice:
For example, the library of the former Spatiaria (spezieria) of San Zanipolo holds a number of recipes using roses. The term “spritz” goes back to the 1840s when the Austrian military during the occupation of Venice asked for wine mixed with water to fight off the heat in summer with this “light drink called spritz or Spritzer”.
In the 1920s and then again, in the 1990s, Venetians changed the way their spritz tasted and looked like: They kept the name spritz but changed ingredients: Prosecco was used instead of vino liscio (white wine), sparkling water was added instead of tap water, and colorful liqueurs such as Aperol or the Venetian Select.
Aperol is a bitter liqueur consisting of rhubarb, cinchona bark, yellow gentian, bitter orange and a special secret herb and spice mix.
The Venetian Select tastes similar to Aperol but includes yet another herb and spice mix: It was first produced by Fratelli Pilla residing in the sestiere di Castello. To me, Select tastes more balanced and is even capable of sweetening prosecco a bit. In the 1920s, the Venetian heritage of making liqueurs was more present in the city, so Select was made based on the historical way Venetians used cook or make drinks. We’ll have more recipes with Aperol and Select over at Laguna in Cucina - our Culinary Venice Newsletter + Membership.
But let’s return to our spritz, or rather spriss, as it’s called in Venice: Readers of our Venice blog recently voted it the “recipe of the month May”, so we’re sharing it here. And its defining ingredient is rose syrup made from the petals of our rosa damascena.
Spritz ai petali di rosa (rose-scented spritz)
1/2 cup of freshly picked rose petals
1/2 lemon (medium-sized)
1 1/2 cups of white cane sugar
A hint of cinnamon
2 cups of prosecco
1 cup of Select (you can substitute this with Aperol)
Serve with a slice of orange or with cherries
STEP ONE: MAKE A SYRUP: Bring the rose petals (clean them carefully) to the boil in one cup of water. Leave to infuse 10 minutes, then add the lemon juice and cinnamon, and leave to infuse for another 50 minutes.
STEP TWO: PREPARE THE DRINK: Pour the prosecco, Select and 1/2 liter of tap water into a bowl, then add the rose syrup. Stir well and leave in the fridge for 30-60 minutes before serving.
Did you try this recipe at home, or have questions? We’d love to hear from you :-)
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Cane sugar, refined and unrefined, white, yellow and brown, was the choice in Venice until the late 16th century. Only then did the government of La Serenissima allow central European beet sugar into the city. It was used very seldom, though, because preference was given to the white refined cane sugar, grown by the Venetians on the islands Cyprus and Crete in the Aegean Sea. In Venice, cane sugar was considered a “spice” with medical properties, and was used very sparingly. To sweeten dishes or drinks, honey and molass were used during the times of La Serenissima Republic.
In Venice, cinnamon is often used in historical recipes to enhance flavors, also those of blossom syrups. It rounds up the taste, makes it fuller and to the point.