When you think of Genoa you think of pesto, and that’s only right. But there are many gastronomic traditions in this former Maritime Republic: focaccia, panissa and farinata, to name some of the more famous ones. Then there are the roses: their use has a long history, going back to the 18th century at least. If you didn’t have a rose bush you collected the buds in the Scrivia Valley or bought petals from the grocer or florist. Once upon a time, rose syrup was used as a medicine for sore throats, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Today, there’s still a few boutiques in Genoa that sell rose petals to those rare Genoese who still make their own homemade rose syrup, and, in May, you can find baskets full of rose petals next to crates of artichokes and asparagus.
At the same time, the cultivation of roses is coming back into fashion: partly thanks to Maria Giulia Scolaro, among the first to relaunch rose syrup as an artisanal gastronomic product.
The right occasion
As Maria Giulia explains: “It all started in the first years of the new millennium, when I had the chance to leave my job. I’d already worked at Olivetti for 25 years when the company proposed to transfer me to Milan. But I’d already bought a house and land in the Scrivia Valley. I dreamed of turning it into a farm one day, or a bed & breakfast, or an agritourism. As I already had a vegetable garden and fruit trees, it was only natural that I chose this route, to start my own farm rather than go to Milan.”
In those years, Genoa was trying to relaunch the cultivation of roses for syrup: “At home, my mother had always made it, and I had a few plants. So I resigned from my job and I started farming.” The organic farm, in Savignone, part of the Antola Natural Park, has the same name: Maria Giulia Scolaro. I spent the first years bedding, then made the decision to open a workshop, where today the Rose Syrup is produced, now a Slow Food Presidium, as well as preserves and jams, including a rose petal preserve called zucchero rosato (rosy sugar).
The Rose Syrup Presidium
The roses for syrup are harvested in May and the beginning of June, when the flower is well open. The recipe for the infusion is simple: the petals are immersed with a little lemon juice in water that’s already been boiled. You leave them to macerate for around 24 hours, the filter the macerated liquid, then press the mass of residual petals and add sugar. This liquid is then brought back to boil for around ten minutes and then poured into small bottles.
The commonplace version you find on the market is generally of poor quality, made using synthetic aromas, colorants, glucose and preservatives. There are only a few artisans making an authentic product, made via petal infusion with water, sugar and lemon. The Presidium brings these artisan producers together who still use the traditional Genoese recipe, with exclusively natural ingredients and rose petals cultivated sustainably and far from sources of pollution.
Writing a book
Maria Giulia’s success has encouraged other producers to follow her example: over the years, a Rose Festival has even been established: “Over time we’ve involved restaurants and bars that have created dishes or cocktails using roses. New ideas have been thought up; we’ve discovered that the syrup goes well with ice cream!”
In 2016, Maria Giulia published a book: written together with food blogger Ilaria Fioravanti, it’s called Rosa rosae. Declinare la rosa in cucina (The Declension of the Rose in the Kitchen). As Maria Giulia remembers: “Publishing a book gave me great satisfaction, because I understood that I was doing the right thing. We presented the book in lots of different cities. People came, listened to the story of the rose syrup, tasted it and we shared our recipes with them. It was an occasion to spread the word of this tradition to people who knew nothing of it, and allowed the product to tour Italy.”
A personal satisfaction, Scolaro says, which is also a sort of fight back against big distribution: “that local culture which multinationals had tried to flatten, getting us used to monocultures. But in these last 20 years I’ve seen an awareness of our history and our recipes come back into bloom.”
by Marco Gritti, email@example.com