Spice Garden: Saffron Crocus

Growing Saffron
Saffron is derived from the autumn blooming Crocus sativa, or saffron crocus. Saffron threads, the bloom's stigmas, are easily extracted, when gently pulled in late autumn, soon after the crocus has bloomed. The harvest process is time-consuming however, and with 75,000 flowers required to produce just 1 pound, saffron is an expensive and precious commodity. Rather than buying saffron for culinary use, it makes sense to grow your own. Saffron bulbs can be planted in the ground or in pots and do not require much growing space. Once planted in the ground, they will continue to bloom year after year. I have about 20 bulbs and am able to extract enough saffron to last me at least a year, about 1 teaspoon.

The food writer, Elizabeth David describes the sight of saffron harvesting in the Spanish countryside:

Her father was preparing saffron-- picking the orange stigmas one by one from the iridescent
mauve flowers heaped up in a shoe box by his side and spreading them carefully on a piece of
brown paper to dry. The heap of discarded crocus petals made a splash of intense and pure
colour, shining like a pool of quicksilver in the cavernous shadows of the village living room.
Every night, during the six-odd weeks that the season lasts, he prepares a boxful of flowers...

In An Omlette and a Glass of Wine, New York: Viking Penguin, 1985, 97.

Crocus sativa

Freshly pulled saffron in early November. Place the fresh stigmas in a single layer on a non-porous surface for several days until dry.

Saffron as an Ingredient
While saffron is often recommended for its flavor in modern cookbooks and recipes, early recipes stress the use of saffron as a colorant. When steeped in liquid, saffron threads tint the liquid with their radiant, sunset hue and can offer vibrant, decorative appeal to a dish. Ancient records describe the use of saffron in medicinal preparations, but by the 14th century saffron appears alongside ingredients such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and rosewater in European and Islamic recipes for sweet and savory dishes including rice, meats, vegetables, puddings, and halva. A common coda to the 13th century recipes of al-Baghdadi in Kitab al-Tabikh translates as "colour with saffron." In many medieval recipes egg yolks are often combined with or used instead of saffron for the same purpose. Examples can be viewed at the online archival resource, Medieval Cookery.

The presence of color at the elite medieval table stemmed from color associations that developed in antiquity. In some cases, however, the decorative aspect may have been enough to establish color conventions for certain foods. Food historian Ken Albala addresses the decline of saffron's status in his book, Eating Right in the Renaissance. Saffron's golden color and dear price became acculturated as a mimetic link to the aristocracy in Medieval Europe. According to Albala, saffron lost this status by the 17th century as the spice, although still costly, became available to lower classes. Albala argues that while trade may have increased accessibility to rare spices, prices remained competitive and governed by Portuguese and Dutch monopolies. This link between access and value is suggested by Polish food scholar Maria Dembinska who notes, "saffron was more expensive in Gdansk than in Cracow or Lvov during the Middle Ages, which suggests that distance from market source played a key role in determining the cost of such imported goods. A large portion of Polish saffron appears to have come from regions bordering the Black Sea where saffron originated, via Genoese middlemen." Although the appearance of saffron in European recipes reflects expansion in trade with Western Asia, saffron cultivation became an industry in parts of Europe. By the 15th century in Britain, a saffron industry had developed in the area eventually known as Saffron-Walden in Essex. The spice came to be a common feature in the dishes of East Anglia and Cornwall.


Saffron Rice Pudding Cake
In this creamy, no-bake cake, saffron imparts a delicate golden color to the rice pudding. The almond topping can be made more decorative by soaking the almonds in saffron liquid and then lightly toasting them. The cake can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.


3 1/2 cups soy or cow's milk
1 cup rice
3 Tbs sugar
2 cardamom pods
1 tsp vanilla extract
2" cinnamon stick
Large pinch of saffron, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water or rosewater
3 oz. amaranth biscuits or graham crackers
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbs butter, melted or canola oil
slivered almonds, optional

A rectangular or square metal tart pan with a removable base.

1. Bring the soymilk to boil in a large pot and add rice. Reduce to a simmer and stir in sugar, cardamom, vanilla, and cinnamon. Cook, stirring occassionally, until the rice absorbs most of the liquid, and a pudding-like consistency is reached, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. Pour the saffron liquid through a strainer into the rice and discard the threads.

2. Meanwhile, place amaranth biscuits in a food processor and grind to a medium-fine, cornmeal-like texture. Add butter or oil and salt and pulse to incorporate fully.

3. To assemble the cake, scoop spoonfuls of ground biscuit mixture evenly onto tart pan and using plastic wrap, press into an even crust. Repeat with the saffron rice pudding. Refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours. To serve, slice into sticks or bars and top with slivered almonds.

Recommended Reading:

Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Dembinska, Maria. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Woolgar, Christopher. "Conspicuous Consumption and the Nobility. " In Hicks, Michael, ed. Revolution and Consumption in Late Medieval England. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2001.

Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005.

Kiku Exhibition & Recipe

The New York Botanical Garden's third annual exhibition, Kiku: Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum, is on view until November 15, 2009. See my post on last year's exhibit here. Although the NYBG does plan to hold future kiku exhibitions, the exhibit will not return next year.

Kengai (cascade) style chrysanthemum, grown from a single stem.

This year, in addition to specimens from the exquisite Imperial style varieties displayed in 2008, the garden is showing examples of several other herbaceous chrysanthemums, many of which are pictured below.

The Imperial style kiku are a visual paradox. From their upright form one senses a noble carriage conveying austerity, elegance, and refinement, yet the crowning profusion of petals suggests a controlled flashiness, at once self-effacing and florid.

The Ogiku, or "Single Stem" style features a tri-color pattern of kiku. The combination of lavender, yellow, and white are associated with equine regalia of the Japanese court.

The more common chrysanthemum varieties are less flashy but radiate a similar feeling of subtle beauty. As I mentioned in last year's post, chrysanthemums are a common theme in Japanese literature. Kikugurama, (Boxcar of Chrysanthemums, 1967) a short story by illustrious novelist, Enchi Fumiko, alludes to the modest charm of the white chrysanthemum. In this story, a woman traveling home one early autumn evening finds herself on a local train carrying both passengers and freight. The long journey is protracted with frequent stops to pick up the night's cargo-- freshly picked chrysanthemums destined for the Tokyo flower market. At one stop the narrator observes a middle-aged woman accompanying her mentally handicapped husband as he sends off his beloved white chrysanthemums. Some time after the train leaves the station the narrator recognizes the couple as the Ishiges, whose strange marriage she had heard of before the Second World War. Apparently Mr Ishige had been born to a wealthy family. Worrying that his son's handicap would prevent his marriage, his father finds a willing young woman, Rie, to marry his son. The marriage elicited doubt and speculation from those who heard of the union. It was suspected that Rie had received financial incentives, but her quiet dedication and the love she showed for her husband over the years, despite humiliating events and a proposal from another man, proved her truly selfless nature. The narrator confides that she too had looked down on Rie. Seeing the Ishiges together after twenty years, the narrator realizes her mistake. Walking home from the train she recalls fondly:

I had been riding on a freight train full of chrysanthemums. In those dark, soot-covered cars hundreds and thousands of beautiful flowers were sleeping, in different shades of white, yellow, red, and purple, and in different shapes. Their fragrance was sealed in the cars. Tomorrow they would be in the Tokyo flower market and sold to florists who would display them in front of their shops.

At that moment she thinks of Rie and says, "She's a white chrysanthemum, that's what she is." Like the chrysanthemum, Rie was an enigma-- beautiful yet decorous and humble. The narrator concludes, "I felt a sense of joy in thinking of Rie's melancholy, middle-aged face as being somehow like the short, dense petals of a modest white chrysanthemum."

(This story can be found in Yukiko Tanaka and Elizabeth Hanson, trans. This Kind of Woman. New York: Perigee Books, 1982.)

Kiku Turnip Pickles
A reader recommended this tasty side dish in which turnip pieces are cut to resemble the petals of a chrysanthemum flower and then pickled with sweetened vinegar. I soaked the kiku in juice from concord grapes to achieve a pinkish hue. Red shiso leaves, soaked in water, would probably work too.


1 turnip, peeled and sliced 3/4" crosswise
4 Tbs vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbs salt

1. Take a turnip slice and score cross-hatch, or grid marks across the surface, about 2/3 into the slice. Repeat with remaining slices. Cut each slices into pieces that are approximately 1 to 1-1/2" square.

2. Cover the turnip pieces with just enough water to cover, mix in salt and soak for 15-20 minutes. You can add the coloring of your choice at this point or substitute plain water for colored water.

3. In a medium sized, non-reactive bowl or container, combine vinegar with an equal amount of water. Stir in sugar to dissolve.

4. After removing turnip pieces, pat dry with a towel, gently but firmly enough to remove excess water.

5. Soak turnip pieces in vinegar mixture for 1 hour. When ready, pat each piece dry and carefully separate the "petals" so they resemble a bloom. Keep refrigerated up to 2 weeks.

A Bonsai Gingko Tree

See highlights from the 2008 exhibition, Kiku: Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum

Book Review: Cold Savoury Meals

This charming English ca. 1925 recipe book by Mrs C.F. Leyel (Hilda Leyel, 1880-1957) was published by George Routledge & Sons as part of a series by the author called The Lure of Cookery. Other titles in this series include Puddings, Meals on a Tray, Drinks & Cordials, and Salads and Jams, offering Leyel's inventive cooking style as well as a concise overview of modern British cookery at that time. Cold Savoury Meals suggests meals in the manner of an impromptu Continental style picnic. In the preface Leyel writes, "It taxes the ingenuity of most English cooks to even think out a cold meal on the day the boiler has to be cleaned, and yet a cold supper, and even a picnic basket of cold food, can be made a banquet."

The volume is divided into the following chapters, and includes menus with a main dish and suggestions for other courses suitable for serving at a dinner party or luncheon:

Cold Suppers
Cold Fish as Hors D'Oeuvres or Savouries
Cold Egg Dishes as Hors D'Oeuvres
Cold Cheese Dishes as Hors D'Oeuvres
Cold Vegetable Dishes as Hors D'Oeuvres

As with most pre-war era cookbooks, Cold Savoury Meals has few instructions and ingredient details- Leyel presumes a general level of cooking knowledge from her readers. Her words are directed at the middle to upper-middle class host/hostess, with recommendations such as the use of decorative molds in which to set a paté. These meals did not require servants, costly serving pieces, or many hours of preparation. Rather, a meal such as Cheshire Eggs, Savoury Banana Salad, and Strawberry Soufflé can be assembled without much fuss with the aid of a refrigerator. Much of the recipes are variations on mousse, loaf, or paté and rely on standbys such as aspic and béchamel or curry sauce. There are some unusual features such as a sandwich which combines gruyère cheese and plantain leaves, but I'm not sure whether ingredients such as plantain leaves were considered unique during the period.

I tried Leyel's delicious recipe for Spaghetti Pie, a perfect choice to serve a group of people, as it can be made in large proportion.

Spaghetti Pie, adapted from Cold Savoury Meals
The recipe calls for "a good béchamel sauce" and I provide my favorite recipe below.


3/4 lb. spaghetti
12 oz. milk
2 Tbs butter
2 Tbs flour
2 or 3 hard boiled eggs, sliced lengthwise
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
white pepper

While spaghetti cooks in boiling water, prepare béchamel sauce. Over a low flame, melt butter in a saucepan until it just starts to brown. Evenly sprinkle flour over butter and whisk together until flour begins to smell nutty, about a minute. Continue whisking and add milk slowly. Gradually raise the heat, add bay leaf, a pinch of nutmeg and white pepper and stir with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside. Drain cooked spaghetti and fill a deep pie dish with alternate layers of spaghetti and egg. Pour béchamel sauce over the spaghetti and place under the broiler until slightly browned. Allow to cool and set for about 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature.

Served at room temperature, the Spaghetti Pie is a nice picnic meal when combined with side dishes such as my piquant cucumbers.

Quince: Jewel of the Autumn Garden

Even without its fruit the quince tree could stand alone as an ornamental in the garden. At around 6 to 8 feet tall, the tree's handsomely compact structure is complemented by the subtle gnarls and twists that add character to the trunk and branches, making it a compelling sight even after the leaves have fallen. The foliage is nicely shaped and turns a lovely, bright yellow in the fall.

Cydonia oblonga Quince Tree.

But quince fruit is one of the garden's most enchanting products. It is visually interesting, with a sculptural, globular, apple-like form and downy covering, and remains on the tree until the end of the season in December. Its scent is also lovely: a musky perfume reminiscent of fir trees. After being picked in Autumn, quince fruit is cooked to soften the flesh and release the fragrance.

Two varieties of quince from the Chaenomeles japonica shrub.

I usually combine the fruit from the quince tree and shrub varieties to make jam. I find that the jam's taste and appearance varies according to when the quinces were picked. Early autumn (October) seems to yield a complex, pungent, and spicy flavor with a soft yellow hue, while late autumn (around November) seems to have a mellow, less pronounced bite, with a pinky-orange tone. No matter when you choose to cook quince, it will always be deliciously tart and an excellent source of Vitamin C. While the jam is perfect on toast or mixed into yogurt, it is also a nice filling for pies, tarts, pancakes, bread, etc. and mixes well with other fruit such as berries, apple, pear, and peach. You can also bake whole quinces as you would apples, cored and filled with brown sugar and butter.

Quince Cardamom Jam

2 lbs quinces, cored and quartered
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 cardamom pods

1. Place quince quarters in a large pot and add enough water to cover them. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer.
2. Cook until the quince is very soft.
3. Drain quince in a fine mesh strainer and reserve about 1 cup of the liquid.
4. Hold the fine mesh strainer over a cooking pot and gently mash the quince through the sieve into the pot.
5. Add the reserved cooking liquid to the strained quince and place the pot over medium heat.
6. Add sugar and cardamom and stir well. Raise the heat and continue to stir until the jam starts to boil. Reduce heat and taste a little to decide if it needs more sugar.
7. Remove jam from the heat, cover, and allow to cool. Place in jars and keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or sterilize containers for longer storage.

For more information on quince in the garden, visit the Cloister's blog post.

Variations on a Theme: Sandwiches, Part I

One of my favorite sandwiches was served at a cozy Japanese cafe in the Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre in Singapore called Mitsubachi (Honey Bee). I have recreated their shiitake and melted cheese toast many times at home. Sandwiches can be an exciting lunch option, with infinite possibilites for fillings. Yet, the sandwich choices available on average menus are usually disappointing. Often the bread is too dense and the fillings are uninspired renditions of portabello mushrooms and pesto. There are so many unusual ways to approach the sandwich, from delicate tea sandwiches to grilled cheese and I've found that like pancakes, sandwiches are found in many different forms around the world. I have enjoyed and made some memorable sandwiches including Manfred's Popeye & Olive Oil Sandwich, filled with luscious spinach, from the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds website, and Vietnamese bahn mi, with its sweet-sour-salty seasoning in a French baguette. Below are some of my own sandwich recipes.

Shiitake & Melted Cheese Toasts
For each sandwich you will need:
4 shiitake mushroom caps, fresh or dried and reconstituted
1 piece thick-sliced Japanese white bread (found at Japanese bakeries and markets)
1-2 thin slices of cheese such as provolone or Swiss
soy sauce (not neccessary if using dried mushrooms)
1 Tbs oil

Heat oil in a pan over medium heat and add whole shiitake caps.
After a couple of minutes add a splash of mirin and a little soy sauce and cook a few more minutes.
Turn caps over and cook a few more minutes until the mushrooms are coated with a syrupy, brown glaze.
Arrange cooked shiitake evenly over bread, cover with cheese and place in a toaster oven or under a broiler until cheese melts.
Serve with a little honey on top.

This protein-rich snack can be made with canned red bean paste or the homemade version below. To make the recipe vegan, omit the butter or use a butter substitute.

Sweet Red Bean Toast
To make 2 toasts you will need:
8 oz. sweet red bean paste (store bought or homemade recipe below)
2 pieces thick-sliced Japanese white bread (found at Japanese bakeries and markets)

Heat a little oil in a pan over medium heat. Butter both sides of each bread slice and then gently smear each side with a thick layer of red bean paste as you would peanut butter. Place bread in hot pan, for a few minutes until golden brown. Flip, repeat, and serve.

To make red bean paste:

In a large bowl, cover 1 cup uncooked adzuki red beans with water and soak overnight. Drain, add beans to a saucepan, cover with water and cook until soft, about 30-40 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Puree cooked beans in a food processor with 2 Tbs brown sugar until well combined. Transfer to a jar and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 2 weeks).

In this multi-part series of sandwich recipes, I will be featuring a variety of sandwiches inspired by Nita Mehta's Sandwiches, which has led me to broaden my concept of how to approach the ingredients and preparation of a sandwich.

In the following recipes the chili toasts are made with delicious and easy quick-pickled chili peppers, which are slightly mellowed by the cheese topping. The macaroni sandwiches are my own invention, after I became intrigued by two sandwiches in the book that feature pasta with tomato sauce. I wanted to create something a little lighter and so my version is dressed simply with oil and spices wrapped in a soft and fluffy tandoori naan, the texture of which suits the macaroni well.

Pickled Chilies & Melted Cheese Toasts
For 2-4 servings you will need:

2 baguette loaves
pickled chilies (recipe below)
thinly sliced cheese such as provolone

Slice the baguettes into 2" rounds at an angle. Spread each slice with hummus and top with as many chilies as you like. Cover with cheese and place in a toaster oven or under a broiler until cheese melts. Serve with honey and black pepper on top.

To make quick-pickled chilies:

Take about 4 or 5 green chilies (about 3"long), seed them, and slice into 1/2" rounds. Place in a jar with 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp salt and enough white vinegar to cover the chilies. Screw lid tightly and shake well. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Bowtie Pasta Sandwich in Naan
To make 3 wraps you will need:

1 store-bought tandoori naan, divided into 3 slices
1/2 cup small macaroni such as elbows or mini farfalle (bowties)
1 1/2 Tbs canola or grapeseed oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
dash of asafoetida
1/2 tsp paprika
1 Tbs parmesan cheese
Coriander leaves, optional

Cook macaroni in boiling water, drain, and return to the pot, away from the heat. Sprinkle paprika and parmesan on top. Do not stir. In a small saucepan such as a butter warmer, heat oil and mustard seeds until mustard begins to pop. Add asafoetida, remove from the heat, and pour onto the macaroni. Stir well to evenly distribute the spices. Spread naan with hummus and a few spoonfuls of macaroni and coriander. Gather up sides of naan, secure with a toothpick and serve.

See Sandwiches, Part II

Spice Garden: Mahlab

The small, shrubby Prunus mahaleb is one of two species of cherry (the other is Mazzard) from which cultivated cherries are grafted. Also known as the St. Lucie cherry or rock cherry, the name mahaleb comes from the Arabic word that references its sweet smell. While Mahaleb cherries are not usually cultivated for their small and bitter fruit, the seed kernel can be ground into a fragrant spice, known as mahlab, that seems to carry the fruit's seminal cherry essence.

Drawing of Mahaleb leaves, flowers, and fruit courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 2: 328.

With its enchanting almond-anise-like fragrance, complex nutty flavor and surprisingly bitter aftertaste, mahlab is used to flavor baked goods in many European, Western and Central Asian cooking traditions. I have not found explicit mention of mahlab being used in savory dishes. A recipe for Vegetable Stew from a 15th century Dutch cookbook which translator Christianne Muusers calls Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and Noble Food), mentions the ingredient "kernellen van criekelsteenen" or "kernels of cherry stones" in addition to other spices such as anise. The Dutch criekel translates as "black cherry" but I would not be surprised if at the time the cookbook was written, this referred to the black cherries of Prunus mahaleb and not the Prunus serotina variety commonly known today as black cherry. I'm not sure if the latter can be used in seasoning; I have tried breaking open the pit and the kernel looks similar to mahlab, but I have never heard of the pits of any other cherry variety being used in place of mahlab. Any further information would be appreciated.

Mahlab's aromatic quality was also used in soap-making, combined with other essential oils, as mentioned in the 10th century Iraqi cookbook, Kitab Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, translated in Nawal Nasrallah's excellent tome Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, pp 495-498.

I like to grind a tablespoon or so of mahlab in a mortar and pestle and add it to cookies and breads. I recently experimented with using it in baklava, mixing it into a paste with sesame seeds and cashews. It adds such a lovely fragrance.

Recipe: Baklava
This recipe requires about 30 sheets of phyllo. I used 4-inch (10cm) wide strips but if your sheets are wider, simply double or triple the first 5 ingredients.
Serves 4

1/3 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 Tbs mahlab, ground
1/4 cup cashews
3 Tbs brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
pinch of cardamom and cinnamon
frozen phyllo dough, thawed

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. To make the filling, finely grind the first 4 ingredients together in a food processor into a loose, crumbly mixture and set aside. Brush a rectangular baking pan with butter. Place 2 phyllo sheets on pan, brush with butter and repeat this step 4 more times ending with butter on top of the last layer. Evenly sprinkle 1/3 of the filling on top.

2. Place 2 sheets over filling, brush with butter and repeat 2 more times. Sprinkle 1/3 of filling on top.

3. Repeat step 2 using final 1/3 of filling.

4. Place 1 sheet on top of filling and brush with butter. Place 1 more sheet on top and brush with butter. Chill for 10 minutes. Cut into squares or diamonds and bake in oven for about 30 minutes, until golden on top. Serve with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top and a generous drizzle of acacia honey.

The Strawberry Fork Remembered

The strawberry fork is a small utensil with 2 or 3 tines used solely for eating strawberries. It is a food-specific, decorative object and like the five o'clock teaspoon, was never a necessity at the table. Yet for a short time in America, items such as these came to suggest refinement and serve as a reflection of wealth and social status.

Post Civil War Society: Activating a Consumer Class
With the industrialization and economic development of America in the second half of the 19th century, a large middle class developed that had disposable income and leisure time. This social mobility led to a growth in conspicuous consumption, as items were marketed toward an increasingly powerful middle class eager to effect the trappings of wealth. Household items such as fine silver were once only associated with elite society. As class boundaries began to blur, dining became more ritualized and defined by rules of etiquette. The resulting tension between social groups often revealed itself through the objects displayed on the dining table. Although silver prices had dropped by the 1850s, the cost of food was still very high and lavish dinner services, complete with specialized cutlery, thereby signified wealth.

Silver and Conspicuous Consumption in Late 19th Century America
The significance and value of silver changed throughout the 19th century. In the 17th & 18th centuries, silver was accessible only to the wealthy. By the second half of the 19th century, however, American currency had shifted from the use of silver coins to bank notes. As a result, a family's silver no longer served as a representation of their monetary worth. Furthermore, with industrialization, machines were able to efficiently reproduce the time consuming work of the silversmith, making silver more affordable and plentiful. After the invention of electroplating, perfected by the English company Elkington around 1840, this method spread to America and provided a cheaper substitute to the more costly sterling silver standard.

As silver prices fell, several companies such as Tiffany and Gorham began producing silver with a new emphasis on: 1) the object and it's function, and 2) a return to craftsmanship. Following this trend, specialized silver pieces were patented for the rarefied uses of the elite: orange bowls for serving this still exotic, imported fruit; olive bowls, designed and decorated to cleverly suggest the food they held; and utensils as various as ice cream servers, berry scoops, griddle cake servers, melon knives, cherry forks, and strawberry forks, many of which can be viewed on the Cooper-Hewitt Museum's website.

The Decline in Fancy Flatware
Food and object came to define one another and uniquely expressed social conventions and consumer culture at the end of the 19th century. By the 20th century, the fashion for silver had diminished. Yet, it still connoted an elite refinement among the middle class, affirmed by the tradition of wedding silver. Many young women added to their silver collection over the years, and in this way, silver continued to represent a milestone of social achievement. As Jennifer F. Goldsborough says in "From 'Fiddle' to Fatuous: The Proliferation of Cutlery and Flatware Designs in Nineteenth Century America,"

During the years between the end of World War I and the 1970s, when stainless steel supplanted
silver as the dominant flatware material, many young "working girls" spent money to acquire one
silver spoon or fork at a time rather than going to the movies or indulging in a new blouse. As such,
a silver spoon remained, until well after World War II, the most ubiquitous symbol of the American dream.

(Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005, New York: Assouline, 2006: 189).

Indeed this idea is confirmed in Mary Davis Gillies' Popular Home Decoration, a guide to the essentials of interior decorating and entertaining published in 1940 and 1948 by Wise & Co., New York. Gillies, also the Interior and Architectural editor for McCall's Magazine, writes, "It is difficult not to take silver seriously. In some incalculable way, it has become all tangled up with sentiment, tradition, and other intangibles" (265). Gillies encourages women to buy silver plate settings or, "if you are of the orchid wearing class and can get sterling for your table, it is practical to use the place setting plan." She singles out a dinner knife, dinner fork, salad fork, butter knife, teaspoon, and dessert spoon for each setting. She then advises that "it may... be necessary to plan your menus around your silver. You will have to forego oysters, for instance, until you get oyster forks." Yet while oyster forks, correlating with a luxury food, remained in use, items like the strawberry fork were no longer relevant. As Gillies advised her readers, "In my estimation you can get along forever without such pieces as: orange spoons, ice cream forks, berry spoons" (266). It is likely that Gillies would have felt this way about strawberry forks, which quickly found their place among the other articles of 19th century frippery.

Strawberry Fork with Strawberry Pattern, Probably Tiffany & Co., ca. 1895. Length: 4.25 inches

For more information on Tiffany & Co. and other late 19th century flatware, see this excellent resource:
Hood, William P. et al. Tiffany Silver Flatware, 1845-1905: When Dining Was An Art. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1999.

For pictures and information on strawberry forks and similar specialty flatware, see: Osterberg, Richard F. and Betty Smith, Silver Flatware Dictionary. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1981.
According to the authors, the strawberry fork was for "piercing a berry and dipping it into an accompanying dish of sugar, whipped cream, or sour cream" (114).

A Strawberry Recipe from the West Coast Cookbook

In looking for a dish to feature the flavor of just picked strawberries, I found a nice recipe in Helen Brown's West Coast Cookbook (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952), which involves briefly shallow frying strawberries rolled in crackers (I used Walker oatcakes), ground almonds, and dipped in an egg batter. The fritters were delicious but I wanted something a bit lighter, fluffier, and golden hued. I replaced the cracker meal with fine semolina flour and added a little maple syrup. The recipe below can be adjusted to your favorite ingredients.

Strawberry flowers in late May

Freshly picked June strawberries.

Strawberry Fritters


1 rounded cup chopped strawberries
5 Tbs semolina flour
1 Tbs almond flour
2 Tbs maple syrup
neutral oil for shallow frying

While oil heats in a pan, mix the ingredients in a bowl. For each fritter, place a dollop of batter in the pan and cook, turning once, until golden on each side. Place finished fritters on a plate lined with paper towels and cover until ready to serve.

Rosewater: Essence of the Garden

Rosa 'Ispahan'

Scent of the Garden: Flavoring Food in Middle Eastern Cuisine

Besides its reputation as a common subject in the visual and literary arts, the rose has occupied a place among culinary traditions in many parts of the world. Rosewater, with its refreshingly uncloying sweet perfume, has been used to add flavor and scent to food and drinks for centuries. In medieval Islamic cuisine, aromatics were artfully used to heighten the sensory pleasures of eating and rosewater is a common ingredient in cookbooks from various regions. These include the 10th century Iraqi Kitab Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, the ca. 14th century Fadalat al-khiwan fi tayyibat al-ta ‘am wa’l-alwan by Ibn Razin al-Tujibi from Murcia in Spain, and the 13th-14th century Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwi‘ al-fawa’id, possibly of Egyptian origin (Manuela Marin, "Beyond Taste: the Complements of Color and Smell in the Medieval Arab Culinary Tradition," In A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, eds. Sami Zubaida & Richard Tapper, 2006). Some Arab cookery books correlate cooking with garden building as both arts involve organizing individual components towards a final aesthetic product that will engage all of the senses.(Ibid., 214).

Petals from the Ispahan Rose.

Roses, Rosewater, and Paradise Gardens

The concept of the ideal Islamic garden, or paradise garden, was beautifully realized at the 17th century Mughal Indian palace retreats in Kashmir. The garden was a special place in the Mughal court, as much a part of the living space as the palace itself. Within the gardens' permanent stone structural foundations, an ephemeral form of beauty was on display, as water, flowers, and decorative objects, along with intangible elements like sound and scent, combined to create the Islamic Paradise on earth.

Rosa 'Moonlight'

Flowers were a central element in the Mughal paradise gardens of Kashmir. Wide herbaceous borders included flowers with varying bloom times so that the garden would be in color for most of the year. Crocuses, tulips, iris and narcissi blossomed in the spring. Roses bloomed throughout most of the year and their heady fragrance was perfectly suited to a paradise garden. Queen Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, is credited with extracting the rose’s essential oils and making rosewater. As with fruit cultivation, this became an industry in itself and was later exported around the world. Painted porcelain flasks held rosewater and were kept in the garden in wall niches. Along with the flowers and their fragrance came birds, their calls adding to the enchantment of the garden.

Making Rosewater and Cooking with Rosewater

Preparing rosewater could not be simpler since it involves merely pouring boiling water over fresh petals and steeping them. The quality of the rose matters, however. Choose an heirloom variety that is extremely fragrant. Depending on the variety the perfume may be quite different so pick a scent you really like. Most importantly, the roses must be unsprayed, and ideally located away from a main road from which dust and fumes can settle on flowers.

Rosewater Recipe

2 cups fresh rose petals
1 cup boiling water

Place rose petals in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to steep for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid through a fine cheesecloth into a jar or bottle and keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Rosewater will retain a pink hue when made with pink roses of a high color saturation. Otherwise the color may be a pinky-yellow.

Rosewater adds a lovely background perfume to many dishes or a pleasing garnish when splashed on sweets such as the almond chai halva posted previously. I've also made coconut-rose ice cream, a fondue-like rosewater mascarpone sauce to dip cookies in, savory rice and couscous flavored with rosewater, and most recently this delightful rose lassi.

Refreshing and nourishing, this beverage is a perfect restorative on a hot day.

Rose Lassi
Makes approximately 2 cups


2 cups yogurt
11-12 Tbs rosewater
6 Tbs agave nectar (or more if you prefer) or other sweetener

Whisk yogurt swiftly until it becomes smooth. Add rosewater and sweetener and whisk until well blended. Taste to adjust flavors. You'll want to be able to taste the rosewater without it being overpowering. Pour into glasses and serve with or without ice.

Fragrant Rose Petal, Mint, and Pea Leaf Salad

Left over rose petals make a lovely summer salad. Simply add a handful of roses to some other small-leaf greens and top with a light drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice, and some crushed pink peppercorns or freshly ground black pepper.

Related posts:
Halva: A Sweet of Worldly Delight
Cooking with Roses
A Thousand Damask Roses

Selection of References on Islamic Gardens:

Forkl, Hermann, et al. Die Gärten des Islam. Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1993.
Scholarly publication on gardens all over the Islamic world and the cross influence between gardens and other art. Well illustrated. In German.

Maurières, Arnaud and Éric Ossart. Paradise Gardens. Paris: Hachette Livre, 2000.
Detailed analysis of aesthetics within the Islamic garden, such as particular flowers and their scents.

Wescoat, James, ed. Mughal Gardens: Sources, Places, Representations, and Prospects. Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996.
Scholarly collection of articles on Mughal gardens with detailed analysis.