Orange flower water is a popular ingredient in north African cuisine, but you may be surprised to find out that it is popular in many French recipes as well.
Some people are put off by the perfumey taste of orange blossom water, so it is best to try a little at first. Also different brands offer different strengths.
You can sometimes find good French eau de fleur d'oranger (which is of course what I used in the recipe below) on Amazon.com.
Orange Blossom Water Production in France
Orange flower water is a distillate made from the petals of the bitter orange tree (known as a bigaradier in French). In France, these orange blossoms are harvested for the most part around Grasse, which is considered the flower and perfume capital of the country. Not only orange blossoms, but roses, lavender, and jasmine are cultivated and processed in this lovely town located in the hillsides to the west of Nice.
I have a wonderful memory of visiting Grasse when the rose pickers had gone on strike. In protest they had strewn the streets with millions of rose petals. You might not be so lucky, but Grasse is a completely charming and interesting French town and well worth a visit if you are in the south of France.
Orange trees normally blossom sometime in the spring. Only some of the snowy white flowers will actually produce a fruit, which can then take up to six months to mature on the tree. The petals fall to the ground and are quickly gathered so that they are still in very good shape when they are distilled. One of the products of this distillation is used to make perfume, but another part is bottled and sold to cook with.
Cooking with Orange Flower Water
Orange blossom water is a traditional ingredient in North African cooking where you will find it in both
sweet and savory dishes and even salads. In France it is mostly in the south where you will find flower
waters used to delicately flavor various regional dishes, mostly desserts and sweets, like in this tea cake recipe.
To add a whiff of delicate taste to your desserts, follow the French lead:
Mix orange flower water into cake batters and creams.
Use it to flavor crepes.
Include it in chocolate mousse.
Marry it with white chocolate.
Add it to fruit salads, jams, and fruit sauces.
One well known bread flavored with orange blossom water is the fougassette, which is often
served as one of the thirteen traditional Christmas desserts in Provence. This slightly sweet yeast bread is
pierced with seven holes to represent the seven orifices in the face of Jesus. Tradition says that to avoid
a year of bad luck, you must break the bread with your hands rather than use a knife to serve it.
Orange blossom water is also reputed as a gentle sleeping aid in France. Mothers will put a few drops in a glass of milk to help their wee ones get to bed. People also enjoy a splash in their cup of tea.
For the Bath Too!
If you buy a bottle of orange flower water and find it lingering on your pantry shelves for months, try a splash in your bath. Not only should it soften your skin and calm your nerves, you will smell lovely as well.