Monday, August 24, 2009

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Syrup of Violets, Three Ways

“My God, have mercy upon me! " and, uttering a fearful cry, Barrois fell back as if he had been struck by lightning. D'Avrigny put his hand to his heart and placed a glass before his lips. "Well!" said Villefort. "Go to the kitchen, and get me some syrup of violets."

~ The Count of Monte-Cristo (1893)
Chapter 79: The Lemonade
Alexandre Dumas

Given the number of bottles laced with violets at Tales of the Cocktail this summer, smart money says we'll be seeing more floral drinks mixed at some of our favorite watering holes. Obscure-spirits wrangler Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz already imports a 20% abv Crème de Violette made from Alpine Queen Charlotte and March violets. Rob Cooper—whose St Germain elderflower liqueur has achieved such popularity that it’s been called “the ketchup of bartenders”—showed his Crème Yvette, a liqueur that also incorporates violets. It should be hitting shelves this fall.

Violets have an aroma that reminds some of old ladies’ perfume. Yet Crème Yvette is a core ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Blue Moon of which Ted Haigh waxes to eloquently in his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Marleigh Riggins over at Sloshed! teases us with a sampling of Blue Moons which—for a while at any rate—will be difficult to create at home until Crème Yvette achieves wider distribution. She presents a version with Crème de Violette.

Until then, I offer a workaround: Syrup of violets. Alexandre Dumas knew of violet syrup over a hundred years ago, but this erstwhile kitchen staple has an older history in English cookery. Though I haven’t tried these recipes, I suspect adding spirit to a violet syrup base may make an interesting addition to the bartender’s arsenal, especially if the spirit is Grand Marnier or another orange liqueur, vanilla-infused rum, or other liquors with more character than vodka or plain neutral spirits. Clearly, these aren't substitutions for either Crème Yvette or crème de violettes, but nonalcoholic bases from which to experiment.

First off is Eleanor Parkinson who gives this 1844 version in The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-cook, and Baker:

Syrup of Violets—One pound of violet flowers, one quart of water, four pounds of sugar. Put the flowers cleared from their stalks and calx, into a glazed earthen pan; pour on the water boiling hot, and stop the pan quite close; let it remain in a warm place for a day, then strain off the infusion through a thin cloth; add the sugar, and place in the bain-marie: stir it well and heat it until you can scarcely bear your finger in it; then take it off, and when cold, bottle.

English botanist Nicholas Culpepper offers us in his Complete Herbal (1814) a recipe that’s essentially the same—down to the glazed vessel—but without heating.

Syrupus Violarum

Take of Violet flowers fresh and picked, a pound, clear water made boiling hot, two pounds, shut them up close together into a new glazed pot, a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pounds of the liquor dissolve four pounds and three ounces of white sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling.

Going back another two centuries, Elinor Fettiplace, in her handwritten 1604 recipe book, gives directions To Make a Sirrop of Violetts:

Elinor Fettiplace’s Sirrop of Violetts

First make a thicke sirop of sugar and clarifie yt well, then take blew violets and picke them well from the whights then put them in the sirrop, let them lye in yt 24 howres keepinge yt warme in the meane time, then straine these violets out and put in fresh, so do 4 times then set them on the fire, let them simper a good while but not boyle fast put in some Juice of limonds in the boyleinge then straine yt and keep yt to yor use.

Both Fettiplace and Parkinson hit on a detail sometimes missed by those who don’t often make floral infusions: they remove parts of the flower before infusing. Naturally, the stems have no place in a delicate syrup such as this, but neither does the whole petal. The “whights”—or white part of the flowers—are removed before the infusion. Rosewater and rose syrup recipes often call for the same procedure. The idea is to eliminate bitterness that can result from including the white parts of the flowers.

Now all I need is a gallon or so of unsprayed, aromatic violets and a pair of sharp scissors.

Goes well with:

  • Hilary Spurling (1986) Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking. Viking Press, New York. Spurling, wife of a modern relation to the 17th-century Fettiplace, has admirably presented the cookery styles, concerns, patterns, and recipes of a housewife at an age when England enjoyed immense power and wealth (yet still had trouble putting down those pesky Irish). The book is out of print, but well worth tracking down for an understanding of household management, including the products of stillrooms.
  • Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses includes a discussion of violets and their peculiar effect on human smell: unlike, say, the aroma of steak or cigar smoke, humans' ability to smell that of violets is not constant. Our perception of their smell comes in waves. Ionone, one of the flower's components, temporarily short circuits our sense of smell. After a few minutes, we can smell violets again and their aroma comes on clearly and strongly. Buy Ackerman's book here or check it out in your local library. Then get some flowers and try it for yourself.

Blue Moon photo courtesy of Marleigh Riggins.



Mr. Manhattan said...

If only Rob Cooper's Creme Yvette had been redolent of violets! Far from it, I am sad to say. I put more faith into offerings from Haus Alpenz and Tempus Fugit.

Matthew Rowley said... the Tempus Fugit looked extra appealing (yeah, I admit I'm sometimes a sucker for great packaging, too), but the crush of attendees lining up made me think I'd come back later for a taste. Being Tales, of course I didn't: too many glasses to sample.

Mr. Manhattan said...

I've tried the TF stuff a couple of times and it says "violets" distinctly enough so you know what's in the glass. I tried the Creme Yvette neat and just couldn't get much from it: kind of a mildish berry flavor with a hint of vanilla. Otherwise rather flabby. It crossed my mind that it was something which may have been designed specifically so it could be added to a cocktail in rather high volume (1/2 oz. or even more) w/o overpowering it. Would be a reasonable strategy for a company hoping to sell a lot of bottles of something.

Matthew Rowley said...

Mr. M ~ I first had creme de violette over at Dr. Cocktail's pad when I was up in your neck of the woods. The bottles were probably twice as old as I was, but they still bore distinct violet aromas. Sweet, but not cloying. I don't know if it was those two digestif samples or the end-of-the-night absinthes (yes, plural), but driving home to SD was out of the question.

Your idea of a less aggressive Creme Yvette meant to sell higher volume is entirely possible. While I like having the Haus Alpenz stuff in the hall liquor closet for those cocktails that call for it, it's not a bottle I reach for all that often (hence, it's in the closet and not out on one of the bars). When even avid drinkers might only purchase one bottle every year or two, I'd consider every angle possible to get them to buy more.

Tony Harion said...

Nice! Nice!
I´ve been wondering a lot about how to make floral syrups lately and there is very usefull stuff on this post!
Now I have to track down some violets on health shops around here, never seen any, but haven´t looked that far either. All i´ve seen around here are fresh flowers on flower shops, but I won’t go there, too many pesticides and not food grade stuff goes in there.
Cheers, Rowley!

Matthew Rowley said...

Tony ~ Bom dia! Good to see you on here. You clearly know the violet situation in Brasil better than I do, but if all you have access to is dried violets, there's still a way to make syrup using them (think of all the dried hibiscus we're seeing these days). In "Flowery Cookery" (1967), Mary MacNichol writes:

"Queen Victoria liked a violet syrup made of half a pound of dried violets, a pound of sugar, an ounce of gum arabic and a bit of powdered orris root mixed with half cup water. Make syrup in usual way. Bottle when cold."

Hope it helps.

Tony Harion said...

Hey Rowley!
Thank you for the answer! I´ll give it a try!