Creme de Violette, distilled from Austrian violets, is a old liqueur that's making a comeback. Its sweet, flowery taste blends beautifully with dry prosecco or champagne.
Here’s another scent-memory.
I’m sitting at my grandmother’s dressing table, gazing at reflections of my eight-year- old self in its three mirrors. Her silver jewelry box, lined with sandalwood, is open. A rose gold bangle set with a single diamond winks at me.
But my hand strays instead to a small creamy flacon painted with the most delicate purple petals. I lift the stopper and inhale. The sweet scent of violets washes over me. I feel woozy; my vision blurs. It’s the most beautiful fragrance of my young life.
“Parma violets,” smiles my grandmother who has slipped up behind me. She dabs a little perfume on my earlobes and then, so that I can breathe in the scent, touches the stopper to my upper lip. I’m in perfume heaven.
Do you know what was in the bottle?
I hope you do because my grandmother’s perfume—in the scent world, it’s known as a soliflore, or single flower fragrance—appears to have vanished. I’ve looked, but I can’t find it anywhere.
But maybe that’s not surprising.
Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, as painted by Giovan Battista Borghese in 1839. The painting hangs in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Once upon a time, shy violets were all the rage. They were the favorite flower of Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, who so loved them that she wrote in violet ink and used the flower in her signature. After the Emperor was exiled to Elba in 1814, Marie Louise moved to the Duchy of Parma in Italy. There she planted Austrian violets in her garden and persuaded monks at the Monastery of the Annunciata to distill their essence for her personal fragrance. Years after her death a perfumer, Lodovico Borsari, obtained the formula and created the single-flower scent, Violetta di Parma. (For a fascinating review, see the Scented Salamander.)
Viola odorata, photographed in German by Fritz Geller-Grimm. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The most fragrant violets are variations on viola odorata, a species common to Europe and Asia. The name seems to come from Io, a beautiful nymph who, like so many others, got the full, usually disasterous, Jupiter treatment: First there was an affair, then to hide her from the always jealous Juno, he turned her into a heifer. Io consoled herself by grazing on a field of sweet purple flowers, and ever after the violet has been associated with love.
The flower is also edible, of course. In his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets [Salads] John Evelyn adds viola matronalis to his list of “obsolete or quite neglected” blossoms for salads, along with heliotropes and sunflowers—but not ”the green popy, by most accounted among the most deadly poysons…” These days, candied violets are about the only way we consume the flower—and rarely.
Still, violets, with their intimations of shyness and restraint, are out of step with our full-frontal culture. They’re an old fashioned flower, too sweet and humble for our edgy times.
But for the last few months I’ve been wondering if they are slipping back into our lives. Everywhere I look violets are re-emerging…
In Lisbon Serendipity and I found daily excuses to linger in the center hall of our hotel, just to breathe in the elusive scent of violets. The public rooms of the old palace, built early in the 19th century by the Marques del Valle Flor, are beautifully preserved—perfuming the air with violets seems like an inspired historic touch.
Did the delicate fragrance emanate from the bosom of this exquisitely embroidered gown on a mannequin in the corner of the Chinese Salon?
Or did it linger in the silvery tea salon, like a pale memory of a long forgotten romantic afternoon?
The a la violette from Laduree produces a pale gold cup of tea, lightly scented with essence of violets.
Back in London, B and I found ourselves at the Knightsbridge outpost of Laduree, the famed Parisian tearoom. In the peculiar, all-black Napoleonic salon where bare-breasted ‘figureheads’ with silvery hair preside over a flotilla of tea tables, I drifted into a floral reverie, sipping a delicate violet-flavored oolong as I nibbled on a rose-scented macaron. (Naturally the tea came home with us.)
Mother's Day included a gift of sugar scented with French essence of violets.
Then just a few weeks ago I became very excited when Annie, who made the most exquisite chocolate Mother’s Day tart sprinkled with candied violets, also sent along a little gift of violet-scented sugar. Dreaming of ways to use the sugar led me to Chocolate and Zucchini and Clotilde’s recipe for Raspberry and Violet Tartlets. Clotilde kindly tells us where to find violet syrup and candied violets—my Paris shopping list just got a little longer.
This is a long way around to tell you about my newest passion: Crème de Violette. This dark, bluish-purple liqueur is made in Austria—there’s that Marie Louise connection—from the springtime blooms of Queen Charlotte and March Violets. The flowers are macerated in Weinbrand, an alcohol distilled from grapes and there’s a good bit of sugar added. When you taste it, the first wave of flavor is pure alcohol. Then the violets emerge, delicate and a little retiring. Finally the sweetness hits your palate.
It’s not the kind of liqueur you’d sip on its own—at least I wouldn’t—but in the past Crème de Violette has lent it its color and fragrance to a host of classic cocktails. The Blue Moon, for instance, blends dry gin and fresh lemon juice with a half ounce of violet liqueur. To me, the drink mainly tastes like gin, but then that’s not my personal poison.
The taste of the flower really comes through, though, in the Violette Royale, which is simply brut champagne mixed with half an ounce of the liqueur.
A cocktail for stargazers: The Midnight Violet, with chilled dry prosecco, raspberries and a generous splash of Creme de Violette.
Which leads me to prosecco: If like me, you’re a fan of the Italian sparkling wine, you may want to try an indulgent drink I’ve dubbed the Midnight Violet: icy cold, dry prosecco with raspberries and a splash of Crème de Violette. The tartness of the sparkling wine balances the liqueur’s sweetness, while the raspberries—which actually taste of violets—are very pretty bobbling around in the fizz of what would otherwise be a rather moody lavender-hued cocktail.
Drink the Midnight Violet in the garden after the sun goes down, on a humid evening when the moonflowers have unfurled, or later when you’re in bed reading French magazines, wearing your pearls and silk pajamas. You won’t want more than one—or maybe two—but it’s lovely for stargazing.
I must tell you, by the way, that I had to go all the way to Texas to find Crème de Violette, since our local ABC stores don’t carry it. I’d like to claim that I brought it home swathed in my silk pajamas, but really it was wrapped in about 40 plastic grocery bags just in case it erupted in my suitcase during the flight home.
It emerged intact, I’m happy to say. I figure I have about a summer’s worth of cocktails in one bottle.
The Midnight Violet
Makes one cocktail
½ ounce Crème de Violette
3 to 4 ounces chilled dry prosecco
3 whole fresh raspberries
1. Dip a champagne flute in water and chill it in the freezer for about 15 minutes.
2. Drop one raspberry into the bottom of the flute and pour the Crème de Violette over it. Fill the glass with prosecco. Add the other two raspberries to the cocktail and stir once. Sip slowly and luxuriously. Don’t forget to look at the stars.