It seems that using flowers in food and cooking has, well, blossomed in the last few years! That’s not to say there is anything new in the idea though; in fact, flowers have been part of world cuisines for as long as some vegetables and fruit. They’ve been used in the same way as herbs and spices to complement, enhance, add flavour to food or bring a splash of colour to the plate. We know that roses were used in both cooking and medicine in Ancient Rome and violets and primroses have been eaten since the Middle Ages. Flowers were particularly popular additions to salads in the Victorian era. Saffron has long been used in world cooking to add both flavour and colour to food; just think Spanish paellas, Italian risottos, French bouillabaisses and Indian biryanis.
There are several familiar examples in our own food heritage. Elderflower, used for cordials or wine, is an obvious example but who else remembers putting borage in their Pimms? With a taste similar to cucumber, the leaves in particular work well in the classic summer drink but the slight peppery taste of the flowers means they have had a culinary use in this country since Medieval times.
Another spicy tasting and versatile plant, the nasturtium was introduced into Europe in about the 18th century and has been used in cooking ever since. The flowers and leaves are great in salads and the seed pods can be dried, ground and used as an alternative to pepper or soaked in vinegar and used as a substitute for capers (they are sometimes even referred to as ‘poor man’s capers’). Nasturtium leaves are sometimes used as an interesting alternative to basil in a homemade pesto.
Edible flowers are so much more than a pretty garnish. Why not try some of these ideas:
- Chive flowers look great on a potato salad but like the stems they have a subtle onion flavour that works particularly well with the earthy taste of new potatoes or try using the blossom to flavour a pot of sea salt
- Use flowers to flavour vinaigrettes or marinades – basil or thyme flowers work well
- Daylilies have been eaten in China for centuries. The flower buds add a lovely crunch to salads or try them sautéed or stir fried with vegetables
Stuffed courgette flowers are popular in Mediterranean cuisines. Try stuffing them with ricotta and herbs and deep-frying in an airy, light batter
Rose petals are often used in desserts as their scented flavour works well in sweet recipe (Turkish Delight is an obvious example). The best tasting roses are, of course, those with the best scent. Try making rose petal jam or steep the petals in sugar syrup and use to poach strawberries or peaches
- Infuse cream with chamomile before whipping to add another dimension to desserts, particularly good served with summer berries
Lavender is another versatile flower in cooking. The flavour works well in both sweet and savoury dishes. It is often paired with lemon; try making lavender shortbreads to serve with lemon posset or try roasting with a joint of lamb
- Crush pansies or violets and use to flavour buttercream. Delicious on cup cakes or between layers of a sponge cake
- Elderflowers make such a delicious cordial that it is a must-make each year in our kitchen but we also use the flower heads in the same way as rose petals, to flavour poaching syrups and liqueurs
- We were first introduced to the idea of putting hibiscus flowers in champagne in Australia but jars of the flower buds preserved in syrup and ready to pop into a glass are now widely available in this country
- Many edible flowers make lovely floral teas. Calendula, chamomile, rose, rose geranium and hibiscus to name just a few. Use on their own or combine with fruit or herbs
The flowers included above are probably the ones we use most often in the kitchen but there are many more out there. We should point out that if you do use flowers in your cooking then make sure they have not been sprayed with pesticides etc. and rinse them well if you have foraged from the wild. Better still, grow your own then you’ll know what they’ve been exposed to! There is wealth of information available on edible flowers but remember; never eat a plant that you can’t identify and if you are eating something for the first time, it is perhaps sensible to try a small amount just in case you discover it disagrees with you!
Enjoy the sun and happy cooking!