"Σιήψε Τριανταφυλλένη (Triandafilleni) μου τζαί φίλα με στα σιήλει" (Bend down and kiss me on the lips, my Rose)
This is a verse that comes to mind from a popular Cypriot folk poem. I heard it on the radio many years ago. It stayed in my memory as the voice reciting it seemed to have been made for reciting Greek folk poetry – it was the voice of Kostas Charalambides, sublime and full of expression.
Tριανταφυλλένη (Triandafilleni) or Τριανταφυλιά (Triandafilia) is a girl's name in honour of the Rose.
It’s no wonder that roses have made their way into folk poetry and songs. Over the generations, the small, scented, pink roses have always been popular with the Greeks for their beauty and their fragrance – and they’d be found even in the smallest of yards.
At the start of the 20th century, our great-grandmothers started their own home production of rose water, even if they only had one rose bush in their yard.
Rose water became popular for so many of its benefits – both in food products and in cosmetic products. It has traditionally been especially popular in the hot summer months, when it would be used in the refreshing desert, ‘mahalepi’.
Mahalepi is a kind of thick custard served in a bowl, and surrounded by sweetened water flavoured with a few drops of rose water – like a boat in water.
When I was growing up, our neighbour Mrs. Evgenia used to make mahalepi every single evening during the summer months. Her father would go around the streets in Larnaca with his cart selling it to passers-by.
In fact, I remember that our oldest son Sebastian had his first flavour of mahalepi outside my father's carpentry shop when we returned to Cyprus on holiday one summer. He must have been only two years old, and when the mahalepi cart went by he got his first taste, one that has remained a favourite for him ever since! It’s a flavour that has become engrained in his soul, a flavour that represents his grandfather, a street vendor, his mother’s background and culture, hot summer days and cool summer nights – all rolled into one.
Home production of rose water using pots and pans led to the production of a special gadget, a simple distiller made by local metal craftsmen.
It is called ‘lambikos’. My mother bought one for me when I was living in England, with the idea that I could produce rose water from the abundance of rose bushes we had in the garden. I never did, though – roses in an English garden might be fragrant and beautiful, but they’re not the right type for essential oil extraction. England’s weather conditions do not help either.
Cyprus, on the other hand, is blessed with the warmest climate in Europe.
Roses in history and mythology
The climate, the vegetation, the traditions – all have led to the small pink roses having a unique association for Greeks and Cypriots. What pleasure we associate with the flowers! They awaken our senses: we absorb their beauty with our eyes, their fragrance with our nose, their flavour when we taste something made with rose water.
We can also go back to Greek mythology, history and religion and discover many things associated with roses and rose water. There are too many to mention here, but one of my favourites is the expression: "Όπου ρόδο και αγκάθι." This is a well-known Greek saying, and translates as: ‘where there is a rose there is also a thorn’, meaning that amongst beauty you might find a speck of ugliness, amongst lovely people you might find the odd one out.
This saying was created, according to mythology, in Cyprus when our goddess of beauty and love, Aphrodite, stepped on a rose bush and pricked herself.
Roses may have thorns, but this is the smallest obstacle for a very special family, which set up a small rose water production company. As we saw last week, this family started the business out of the young son’s love for roses and his desire to cultivate the family’s land. 100 rose bushes became 200, then 300.
As with so many small businesses where people work long and hard, this family tried to apply for European funding, but the layers of bureaucracy proved to be the real thorns in this rose garden. But instead of giving up, siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts all group together to harvest the roses and extract each painstaking drop of rose essence from the petals. The essence of each kilo of roses is consistently mixed with two litres of water; the resulting rose water is bottled and sold throughout Cyprus.
More rose stories
Cyprus’ stories about roses and rose water are far from finished. There are so many places of note that we hope to take you to one day, including the village of Agros, which has become synonymous with rose gardens and rose bushes, and the village of Lythrodondas, where a priest has been producing his own rose water for years.
But for now, we’ll leave you with a recipe for the rose water desert, mahalepi. Enjoy!
- 6 cups water
- 6 heaped spoons of Νησιαστέ/nisaste (maize powdered starch) or corn flour
- Put 5 cups of the water in a pot and on fire
- Put the 6th cup of water in a bowl and stir in the Νησιαστέ or corn flour
- Add this to the pot and stir constantly until it starts bubbling and thickening
- Simmer for a couple of minutes, stirring continuously
- Rinse 6 small bowls under cold water (you need them to be wet)
- Put a ladle of the full of your mixture into each wet bowl
- Allow to cool, then place bowls in the fridge
- The next day, take a big bowl and fill it with cold water
- Take your mahalepi bowls, and tip each one out into the bowl with the water (if you had remembered to rinse the bowls with water, the mahalepi will tip out quickly and easily)
- Place back in the fridge and use when required
- Serve each mahalepi whole, placed in a bowl and sprinkled with a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of rosewater. More rosewater and sugar can be used if required. Rose squash (triandafillo) can be added too – this is a cordial sold in most supermarkets.
- If you expect visitors, don't use the 6 small bowls but put your hot mahalepi in a pyrex dish. When it sets, cut it into square portions and place in a big serving bowl with sugar and rose water to taste. You can add a splash of triandafillo/rose squash for colour or you can leave it as it is and sprinkle a few rose petals if available.
- For extra fragrance and sweetness before the boiling process, add 4 tbspns of rosewater and 2 heaped spoons of sugar together with the 5 cups of water in the pot.