Anyone who’s ever tried to describe a coffee can tell you it’s not easy. We experienced this recently in trying to pick flavour descriptions for Kelloo - a wonderful washed Ethiopian - (currently available in our webshop).
Photo Credit - Hannah Campbell
Between us we settled fairly quickly on mandarin orange and pear to describe the fruity sweetness and acidity of this coffee - but Kelloo has a strong floral top-note that we were struggling to pin down. The closest we could get was ‘rose’, but none of us were really satisfied with it as a descriptor. In the end we picked ‘rose water’, trying to convey the extra weight and sweetness in the rose-like aroma of this coffee.
I didn’t feel like we’d nailed it, but gave it no more thought until some weeks later, when my partner and I spent a rare, glorious summer weekend camping at The Apple Farm in Tipperary. It is a perfect idyll, sleeping tucked away between the apple shed and the orchard, huge vats of cider slowly turning to vinegar on the one side, strawberry beds stretching away on the other. In the farm’s shop, stacked bushels of apples fill the air with the most incredible perfume.
As well as being redolent of the sweetness of the ripe fruit, the aroma of those apples had intense floral overtones - a reminder that roses and apples are, after all, distant cousins. The wonderful scent of those apples called to mind an old post of James Hoffmann’s talking about how difficult it is to describe their flavour, and set me thinking again about how to be more precise in our flavour descriptors.
Later the same day we visited Swiss Cottage, a faux-rustic folly of a thatched cottage, surrounded by climbing roses. Stopping to smell one of these - called ‘Albertine’ - in the doorway, I was surprised to find it smelt uncannily like the boxes of apples I’d been greedily sniffing earlier that day.
Which made me think - perhaps the reason we’d struggled so much with ‘rose’ as a flavour descriptor for Kelloo is because roses don’t all smell the same. So I started making a point of smelling roses, first around the cottage, and later in the collection at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, and trying to describe their scent.
Plenty of roses, of course, just smell like rose - more or less the sort of idealised rose scent that you find in rosewater and old-fashioned perfumes. But more often than not, the scent was distinctive, if not always easy to describe.
Sure enough, apple came up a few times. ‘Albertine’, the rose that started it all at Swiss Cottage, but in several others, especially in the bouquet-like clusters of ‘Many Happy Returns’ in the Botanic Gardens.
Many Happy Returns
Citrus notes also seem to be pretty common - from a yellow rose (that I couldn’t identify) with a distinctive lemon fragrance, to ‘Harry Edland’, which has, under its heavy perfume, the sharp tang of grapefruit.
A couple had the riper scent of peaches - ‘Red Devil’, and the stunning ‘Honore de Balzac, which combines a peachy sweetness with a fresher cucumber-mint aroma. Indeed many of the most powerfully fragranced roses, like ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’ had a fresh menthol-eucalyptus type intensity to them.
Red Devil Rose
Honore de Balzac
Mme Isaac Pereire
At the other end of the scale ‘Alexander’ is barely fragranced, but a deep sniff yielded the distinctive smell of the inside of a church - candlewax and perhaps a faint hint of incense.
The last rose I came to that day had a classic old-rose scent that made me think of bathroom soap, and I was tickled to discover it bore the unfortunate name ‘Radox Bouquet’.
With all these very different fragrances, does it make sense to just use ‘rose’ as a descriptor? On the other hand, trying to be more specific about which kind of rose you mean is not going to be useful to someone without fairly specialist knowledge, and liable to be confusing. Even in ‘Le Nez du Cafe’, Lenoir writes that the rose scent given is specific to the Damask rose - the type most commonly used to make rosewater and rose oil - but then labels it as ‘Tea Rose/Redcurrant Jelly’. Tea roses are a quite different group to Damasks - originally cultivated in China, with a scent variously described as like tea leaves, clove, or honeysuckle. Where redcurrant jelly fits into this is anyone’s guess.
So having tried to pin down the fragrance of all these different roses, which one would I now use to describe the wonderful floral aroma of Kelloo? Well, the honest answer is that if you asked me now, I’d say it was actually more like sweet pea. Just don’t ask me which variety…
A version of this article originally appeared on www.PerfectDailyGrind.com