Orange Flower Water

Orange Flower Water, also sometimes called Orange Blossom Water, has a rich citrus scent and a strong flavor of orange. It was used as a flavoring in Regency cookery, as it had been in a number of countries for many centuries before. In fact, during the Regency, orange flower water was as popular a flavoring as vanilla is today. However, this fragrant and flavorful water also had both medicinal and cosmetic uses, so it could be found in a great many still rooms, kitchens, dressing rooms and even on the shelves of a number of apothecary shops, well into the nineteenth century.

How the small flowers of a bitter fruit enriched the food, drink and even the intimate relations of our Regency ancestors …

Orange flower water was actually a by-product in the making of an essential oil known as neroli. Each year, through late April and early May, the white waxy, fully-opened flowers of the bitter or Seville orange were hand picked early each morning. The best orange blossom water required that the task be completed no later than two to three hours after sunrise. The stems were removed, the flowers were rinsed thoroughly in cool water, crushed, salted and distilled using steam. The heat had to be increased very slowly in order to prevent scorching the flowers. Upon completion of the distillation process, the steam would cool and condense into distilled water. Most of the essential oil would rise to the surface of the liquid where it could be carefully drawn off and bottled. The distilled water which resulted from the cooled steam was infused with a small amount of the oil, imparting a rich, strong floral fragrance which it would retain for a long time, if it was properly stored. About two pounds of fresh bitter orange blossoms were needed to produce a quart of orange flower water. Inferior orange flower water was sometimes made from the blossoms of other species of oranges, but none of them had the strong, rich fragrance of Seville orange flowers.

There were actually multiple grades of orange flower water, based on the percentage of fresh flowers to water which were used in the distillation process. Double orange flower water was the most commonly produced grade of orange flower water, resulting from the distillation of one part of orange flowers and four parts of water. Triple orange flower water was made with one part of flowers and three parts of water, while quadruple orange flower water was made by distilling one part of flowers and two parts of water. Single orange flower water was made by mixing one part of double orange flower water with an equal part of plain distilled water. It appears that double orange flower water was the grade of orange flower water most commonly produced and sold during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Orange flower water was very costly, so the diluted single grade would be the least expensive, while the double, triple and quadruple grades would each be increasingly more expensive.

Though many women during the Regency distilled a host of floral and herbal waters and oils in their still rooms, orange flower water was not typically among them. Seville oranges were not widely cultivated in England, except as an occasional ornamental tree in orangeries and conservatories. Therefore, few people had access to enough fresh flowers to make their own orange flower water and neroli oil. The best orange flower waters came from France, but they were difficult to acquire during the Napoleonic Wars. Nor are there any records to show that orange flower waters were among the products which were smuggled into England from France. However, the Seville orange was also widely cultivated in Italy as well as Spain and Portugal, where orange flower water was also made. In addition, by the Regency, Seville oranges, which the English usually called bitter oranges, were being grown in the British West Indies, where orange flower water was also produced. Thus, there was no shortage of orange flower water available in Britain during the Regency. Nevertheless, it was only available to those who could afford it.

The same distillation process used to make neroli oil and orange flower water was used to make other essential oils and aromatic waters from flowers as early as the Middle Ages. However, at that time, the aromatic waters were considered to have the greatest value and there was little interest in the essential oils which were also produced. Yet, by the sixteenth century, essential oils were gradually growing in importance, and the floral waters were considered to be of lesser value. By the end of that century, with the exception of orange blossom and rose water, only the essential oils were retained from the distillation process. In most cases, the aromatic flower waters were typically discarded, since they were considered too expensive to transport far from their place of manufacture. However, the high demand for orange flower water which continued well into the nineteenth century ensured the distillation of millions of gallons of that richly fragrant water every year.

The use of orange flower water in cooking dates back to at least the eight century in the Middle East, typically for pastries and other sweet dishes. It gradually spread across the Mediterranean and then into Europe over the course of the following centuries. It had become a exotic and costly, but popular, flavoring in England by the seventeenth century. In fact, it was the exotic quality and high cost of orange flower water which seems to have enhanced its popularity among the upper classes of Britain. Serving dishes and beverages flavored with orange flower water had become a status symbol by the eighteenth century. That flavoring retained much of its upscale cachet right through the Regency, which is why it was regularly found in food and drink served at social events.

There were both lamb and poultry dishes which were made with orange flower water, and it was also used as an ingredient in dressings for both vegetable and fruit salads. It was widely used in the making of cakes and pastries. In particular, the famous madeleines of France were flavored with orange flower water. Despite the ongoing war with France, these lovely little orange-flavored cakes were very popular in Regency England. Orange flower water had been used in French cuisine for more than a century before the Regency, therefore, those in Britain at that time who could afford to hire a French chef could expect to enjoy any number of foods and beverages which had been flavored with orange flower water.

The delicate flavor of orange flower water was enhanced by sugar, so it was commonly employed in the making of dishes intended for the dessert course. Treats like macaroons, custard puddings, biscuits, jams and jellies might all be flavored with orange flower water. Lisbon or Portugal cake, popular in England from the early eighteenth century, included flour, eggs, raisins, ground almonds, fortified wine from Portugal, and orange flower water. Fruit fools, which consisted of fresh fruit, pastry, cream custard and whipped cream were often flavored with orange flower water. Delicately flavored fruits such as apricots and peaches made particularly tasty fools with the addition of orange flower water. From the eighteenth century, cheesecakes, a blend of almonds, sugar, eggs, butter, cream and fortified wine, flavored with orange flower water and served cold in pastry shells, were still a much-loved dessert in Regency England. For centuries before Henry VIII severed English allegiance to the Church of Rome, the English, like the rest of Europe, were subject to the many fast days dictated by the Catholic Church. Dairy products were among the commodities which were usually prohibited on these fast days. But there was no prohibition against almonds, and long before the Regency, the milk of almonds was used as a replacement for milk and cream. The English had come to enjoy their almond milk and despite the fact they had broken with the Church of Rome centuries before, they never lost their taste for it. Almond milk was still regularly used during the Regency in place of milk or cream in the making of these cheesecakes and other desserts, many of them flavored with orange flower water.

One of the most elegant of the desserts made with orange flower water had originated in eighteenth-century France as oeufs à la niege (snow eggs). In England, it was more often called "Floating Islands." The whites of eggs were beaten until they were stiff, then finely powdered sugar and a few drops of orange flower water were folded in to the beaten egg whites. Milk, mixed with sugar and orange flower water, was set to boil. The egg white mixture was dropped by the spoonful into the boiling milk. When the little "islands" were poached, they were set aside to drain. The egg yolks were beaten into the remainder of the milk, along with a splash or two of wine and cooked until thickened to the consistency of a soft custard. The poached egg whites were set out on a platter and the custard was poured around them, the finished dish giving the impression of pure white islands floating in a golden sea. Floating Islands was considered a very pretty dish and was often served at suppers to which special guests had been invited. Thomas Jefferson first had the dish in France and took it back to America, were he had it served regularly at his home, Monticello, and at the White House, when he became President.

Though Floating Islands was one of the more sophisticated and attractive desserts made with orange flower water and would have been a grand sight on any dessert or supper table, I think I would most enjoy orange flower water ice cream. Often known by its French name, Crême a la Fleur d’Oranger, this frozen dessert was made of a combination of bitter and sweet almonds, pounded to a paste with a mortar and pestle, mixed with cream, sugar, and egg yolks. The mixture was set over a fire to thicken and was then put through a tammy, a strainer made of very fine cloth. Once it had cooled, a couple of wine glasses full of orange flower water was added before the mixture was frozen. I am almost certain that I would not like Iced Spinach a la Creme, which was ice cream made with spinach and orange flower water. However, Orange Flower Water Ice, made with milk, sugar and a large quantity of orange flower water, does sound quite refreshing.

As has been noted above, the combination of almonds and orange flower water was widely favored during the Regency. And not just in foods, but also in drink. A light and refreshing beverage which had been a staple offering at many social events, particularly late night suppers, was orgeat. Originally made from barley and melon seeds, by the eighteenth century, orgeat was made of almond paste, milk, sugar, orange flower water and plain water. By the latter decades of the century, the almond paste, milk, sugar and orange flower water were made into an orgeat syrup which was bottled and sold by many grocers and even some wine shops. Thus, orgeat was easily made by adding the syrup to plain water in the amount needed. Pronounced "orjaw" according to Thackeray, orgeat was served chilled. Since it was non-alcoholic, orgeat was quite popular with the ladies, particularly after a few sprightly dances or at a picnic or an alfresco lunch in the summertime. Very few men, however, were willing to partake of this sweet cold drink, at least not in public.

Another drink popular during the Regency had been invented a century before by Colonel Francis Negus. Unlike orgeat, negus was made with wine and was served hot. Negus was usually made with either port or sherry, thinned with water and sweetened with sugar. It was sometimes flavored with spices like clove, nutmeg or cinnamon. Some versions of negus were flavored with lemon juice, or more often, with orange flower water. Once all the ingredients were combined, the negus was heated gently, in the way of mulled wine. Some batches of negus may well have been heated in the same way as mulled wine sometimes was, by having a red-hot fireplace poker plunged into the pitcher or bowl which held the blended beverage. Negus was served at many social events, particularly those held in the colder months, when its warmth was most appreciated.

Orange flower water had been put to another purpose than flavoring at quite a number of very grand dessert courses since the seventeenth century. Fountains were set up, either in the center of the main table, or on smaller tables nearby. These small fountains flowed with orange flower water, thus wafting the lovely fragrance about the room. Fountains flowing with orange flower water were especially popular as an accompaniment to alfresco meals in warm weather. This was most often seen in Italy and the south of France, but the practice was adopted occasionally in England. Many people believed that the floral fragrance wafting in the air during the meal refreshed tired eyes and revived any flagging spirits.

The notion that orange flower water was beneficial had also led to its use in various medical preparations. Orange flower water was believed to promote good digestion and was taken by many as a tonic to strengthen the stomach. There were some who thought it might prevent the convulsions caused by epilepsy and similar diseases. It was regularly prescribed for those with nervous dispositions as a remedy for "neuralgic headache" and palpitations of the heart. Some physicians and apothecaries prescribed orange flower water for a host of minor "hysteroidal" disorders which they considered to be the result of self-indulgence and indolence. And yet, in large doses, orange flower water was often given as a sleeping draught. Because of its strong and pleasant flavor, orange flower water was also frequently used to improve the taste of unpalatable medicinal preparations made up for the treatment of a variety of other ailments.

In the making of cosmetics, orange flower water was nearly as widely used as rose water. Orange flower water was found to have a moisturizing and restorative effect on dry skin. It might be used on its own or blended with other ingredients to make a variety of skin lotions or creams. Orange flower milk was one of the most popular of those skin preparations and it was believed to soothe and ease the pain of sunburn. Some soaps were scented with plain orange flower water while others were scented with a blend of fragrances which included orange flower water. Plain orange flower water, or orange flower milk might be used as a bath additive not only to add fragrance but to soften skin as well. Water to which a few drops of orange flower water had been added was used as a final rinse, to add softness, shine and a fresh, light scent to hair. Some people had a few drops of orange flower water added to the final rinse of their laundry, while others had their sheets and other personal linens sprinkled with it to give them a fresh light scent.

Orange flower water was very stable in terms of its fragrance so it became a standard component of many perfumes and colognes. It was usually blended with other fragrances to create new and unique scents. Orange flower blossoms were considered to be symbols of purity and innocence, and for that reason, they remain, to this day, a flower that is always associated with brides. And orange flower water was commonly taken as a sleeping draught. Yet, curiously, its fragrance was considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac. During the eighteenth century, a special fragrance was blended called "angel water." This special concoction was a mixture of one part orange flower water, one part rose water and a half part of myrtle water, shaken well, to which was added a dash of both musk and ambergris. Ladies would apply angel water liberally to their bosom, which was also pushed up by their corsets, and exposed by their low necklines. It was believed that the fragrance of angel water was both a strong aphrodisiac and a powerful performance enhancer for their partner of the evening. Angel water was still known during the Regency, but its use seems to have been limited primarily to courtesans and the madams at some upscale brothels.

The most commonly available grade of orange flower water during the Regency was double orange flower water, which usually cost between one and two shillings per bottle. Triple or quadruple orange flower waters would be more expensive, but they would last much longer. The bottles used for orange flower water were usually made of dark blue glass, in order to protect the contents from light damage. Orange flower water would also keep much longer if it was stored in a cool dark place.

Orange flower water is still made and sold today. It can usually be found in larger Middle Eastern groceries, if you have one near you. If not, it is also available online, just run a search on "orange flower water" to find a plethora of sites from which it can be purchased. Such a search will also pull up a number of sites which provide recipes using orange flower water. You can use your orange flower water just as it was used during the Regency, as a flavoring, a medicine or as cosmetic. A chance to enjoy the same tastes and scents which might have been enjoyed by our Regency ancestors.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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22 Responses to Orange Flower Water

  1. kwillow says:

    Fascinating, as usual! I remember in “The Convenient Marriage” Horry and the Earl drank a toast to their upcoming nuptials (she proposed to him) with Negus. The footman who brought it to them was really hoping to observe the Earl drink Negus.

    I was interested in how it tastes, and looked it up on Amazon. Here is a review that will amuse you: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3MGDAWCO4DPN3/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B000LQJ6CQ&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=16310101&store=grocery

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Are you sure that they toasted their engagement in negus? I am almost certain it was ratafia, a very sweet wine which many young ladies enjoyed and most men of taste abhorred.

      Based on the ingredients, I am not sure I would like negus either, since I don’t care much for very sweet drinks, especially hot ones.

      Thanks for sharing the link.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • kwillow says:

        Blast! You’re quite right. It sounds awful. I myself hate anything flavored with almond, tho I like almonds.

        • me too… almonds, whole, raw, roast, flaked, ground and put in sweet pastry yum, almond flavour almost as bad as cherry…there’s a relationship between almond and cherry flavour, well, they both belong to the Prunus family and you get a bitter almond flavour [and cyanide] from the cherry pips… and incidentally from apple pips, though Malus and Prunus aren’t that closely related

  2. Would negus really taste so bad? The ingredients port, brown sugar, juice and zest of lemon, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon stick, cloves and segments of oranges sound fine to me.
    Negus was probably more a drink for the ladies, so Horry would have liked it better than the Earl.

    Intriguingly, there was a kid’s version of negus: Instead of being made with port, it was made with white wine… . Not quite what we would think to be proper today.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Preferences in taste, and even scent, both seem to be strongly shaped by cultural associations, so it probably depended upon what was accepted in a given society.

      Orgeat and ratafia were drinks which were almost exclusively the province of the ladies. However, negus was essentially a type of mulled wine, and based on my research, it was enjoyed by both men and women, usually in a social setting. More than likely, when men were drinking negus on their own, they probably used less sugar than might have been used in a batch of negus intended for both men and women. From other research, I have learned that men tended to drink coffee, tea and even cocoa with much less sugar than most women did.

      The version of negus for children does not really surprise me. With the exception of the uptight Americans, many cultures introduce their children to wine and beer at an early age. Nothing taken in moderation is really harmful, and more than likely, those children learned how to drink responsibly due to their early introduction to liquor.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Excellent, I look forward to further articles!
        How tastes change; now it’s mostly women who drink tea without sugar and coffee with very little and hate the sugary carbonated drinks that men seem to love. I don’t know a single man who drinks tea or coffee without having a little bit of beverage with their sugar…

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I wonder if that is a Brit male thing? Very few of the men I know drink any kind of soda. They tend to drink mostly water, coffee and iced tea, with little or no sugar. Some also drink sports drinks which do have some sugar.

          Most of the women I know who do drink soda, only drink the diet versions, since they are habitually watching their weight. In fact, they tend to avoid sugar almost completely. I just wonder how healthy those diet drinks really are, with all those chemical additives. I think I would prefer few drinks with real sugar, than lots of diet drinks.

          =^..^=

          • We only use cola to clean toilets with; does a lovely job on limescale, so go figure what it’s doing to your insides.
            I suspect the sweet tooth in men thing in Britain may be a tradition acquired since the war because of the heavy rationing… I suspect our women take less notice of diet products too, there’s a hint of desperation in the ads for them. I take sugar in my tea by the way. I don’t go for dieting, and half the diet foods are high in other things that are bad for you… and none of the family like fizzy drinks, prefer pure pressed fruit juice…. and the odd sports drink to recover from illness, more as a medicine than in any sense of enjoyment. It’s easier than mixing the electrolytes yourself! Sugar was still a medicine in the Regency, wasn’t it, perhaps with people getting run down, that wasn’t so daft. And various salts in the spas, and the chalybeate springs providing iron for anaemia. Sorry, I’m babbling! late at night here….

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Never thought of using cola to clean toilets. But my dad used to use it to clean our concrete driveway of the oil and grease which had dripped from the car while it was parked there. It worked well, and pretty fast. Again begs the question, what is it doing to your innards?

              I drink Earl Grey almost exclusively, and like Jean-Luc Picard, I like my Earl Grey black and hot. No sugar or milk, since it is just so lovely on its own. I think you are right about sugar in the Regency. As I recall, it was often used as a pick-me-up. Though I do wonder if it was not just as often used in the same way as orange flower water, to improve the taste of the real medicine. Rather like Mary Poppins, with her philosophy that a “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

              I do envy you, being able to regularly enjoy pure pressed fruit juice. It is much too expensive for me, so I make do with juice from concentrate. But, based on the ingredients list, it is real juice which just needs the water added back in, so I figure it is reasonably healthy.

              =^..^=

              • I think you may be right about the flavour… though sugar has a long history of being used as a medicine in itself, it was considered such in the late middle ages, it was the tudors who took it into everything [and i mean everything, including savoury dishes!]. The irony is that honey really IS a medicine being antiseptic and antibiotic….
                I have to say fresh fruit juice is a luxury we permit ourselves, and it’s still cheaper than drinking alcohol… we look out for two for one, and as they are usually quite strong we also dilute them to go further, being parsimonious spelled m-e-a-n.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                I know what you mean about the Tudors and sugar. I was watching a program on Hampton Court and the cooking historian there made an authentic Tudor dish which included beef bone marrow and quite a lot of sugar. I thought it sounded rather nasty, but he seemed to find it quite tasty. I guess the Tudors liked both their sugar and their beef, even in the same dish!

                =^..^=

              • I shudder every time I read some of the recipes in ‘All the King’s Cooks’, a history and recipe book from Hampton Court. I have to say I have modified some of the recipes, and with half as much honey as they add of sugar, most of them are very nice indeed. I managed to get a picky teenager to eat vegetables like sprouts by roasting them in butter WITHOUT the addition of sugar at all, though, despite the original suggestions of how to season worts! [though honey and mustard roasted parsnips and carrots are to die for…]

  3. Fascinating as always! It hadn’t occurred to me that Seville oranges would be grown in the West Indies, but of course, it does make senses, and gives me some ideas for a plot bunny I’ve vaguely been stewing regarding a heroine who inherits plantations in Jamaica and has to deal with her hatred of slavery and goes out there to see for herself.
    Orgeat and Ratafia – another drink made with bitter almonds – are good ways to hide the flavour of cyanide of course, but then, the sweetness of the drink can foil a would-be murderer by reducing the efficacy…. I used Ratafia for a failed murder attempt in ‘Jane and the Opera dancer’.
    I would query that only rose water and orange flower water were around, because surely lavender water was still used in laundry? that would have been a home-grown commodity though, I would assume, as the growing of lavender had long been undertaken in monasterys, and people still needed to wash clothes after the dissolution.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think there were some men who would have considered either orgeat or ratafia as poison even without the addition of cyanide! 😉

      There were a whole “bouquet” of floral waters available in England during the Regency. Some, like orange flower water, were usually purchased, while others, like lavender, verbena, and myrtle waters, to mention only a few, were homemade. But this article was only about orange flower water, so I did not focus on the others. I am planning future articles on other floral waters in the coming months.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. chasbaz says:

    Most interesting and it makes one want to try the orange water in various recipes.
    A similar process is that used to produce rose oil and rosewater. You might find this film interesting – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLLWPsR3fyY

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have ordered some orange flower water and am planning to try a few dishes with it when it arrives. According to my research, it smells like the orange blossom, but it has a very strong taste of the fruit, and I love oranges. I am thinking of making some madeleines and certainly some orange flower ice cream. I may even splash some in my bath.

      Thanks so much for the link to the video! It is beautiful and very informative.

      Regards,

      Kat

    • I do look forward to his book coming out. Thanks Charles, that’s fascinating I’ve made rose wine [delicious]. I must have a go… I also look forward to Kat talking about Jasmine, which I know should be dried to put with your gloves but I’ve never had any success with drying it….

  5. chasbaz says:

    I find that most things dry well by just putting them in the freezer. They never go mouldy and seem to keep their essences well

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