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.