I am an accidental gardener; what do I mean by this statement you may wonder, well, I didn’t realise until I was well into my thirties, that I actually have “green fingers”, and more to the point, plants, bulbs, cuttings and seeds seem to respond to my less than standard approach to the fine art of gardening! On the other hand, I discovered flowers as part of my culinary repertoire when I was in my early teens; memories of serving up a plate of nasturtium flowers for lunch to my grandparents, are still with me, as I remember them toying with the plate of orange and scarlet blooms sans dressing!
I have come on since then, and although I still have a sneaking suspicion that my floral platters shock some of my friends and family, it has become very fashionable to serve flowers at the meal table now, and elderflowers have become the “new black” on the cordial front, although I have always foraged for them, and made (and enjoyed) elderflower cordial, fritters and champagne every year.
Another well-known flower that is often used in the summer kitchen is the courgette flower; beloved of the French and Italians, this pretty yellow bloom is usually stuffed with rice, herbs, shallots and tomatoes, and makes a most elegant starter for a luncheon party or an “al fresco” supper on the terrace.
The list of edible flowers is long, and it’s probably easier to state what flowers are NOT edible than to list the many that can be added to your cooking. But, for the purposes of this article, I am going to concentrate on my favourites, the flowers and herbs that I always have growing in my summer garden, and the ones that make a regular appearance on my kitchen table ~ Marigolds, Violas, Lavender, Borage and Roses……..as well as the myriad of other herbs and their blossoms that adorn my salads, I find that the list above pretty much covers most of my sweet and savoury baking and cooking needs throughout the summer.
Let’s start with Lavender ~ this cottage garden herb has exploded on to the culinary scene over the last few years; but, it has always been used in the kitchen, medicine cabinet as well as the still room throughout the centuries, and is one of the most popular plants in the garden. I LOVE my lavender, and I use it to fragrance bedding and linen, as an insect repellent, and of course, I use it in my cooking and baking. My annual recipes, those that I ALWAYS make, are lavender sugar, lavender honey and lavender bags. By the end of July, anyone entering my kitchen, will see bunches of lavender hanging up from an old clothes airer to dry. And my top tip is a French one, something they all do in the South of France when making conserves and confitures ~ just add a spring of lavender to the top of your jam, after potting and just before sealing, and this will impart a delicate fragrance to the jam as well as discouraging mould. My favourite is Apricot and Lavender Confiture, a sunny soft set jam that is sure to bring a smile to all at the breakfast table.
Roses are just exquisite in baking; my favourite way to use roses is to simply crystallise the petals and scatter them over cakes and bakes. Whole roses can be done in this way too, for a stunning arrangement on top of a special gateau or birthday cake. Rose petal jam is another favourite of mine, and if you use deep red roses that are highly fragranced, you have a scented rose garden in a jar to brighten up the dull winter months. And, just like my lavender flowers, scented rose petals find their way into my jars of sugar too…..for a rose fragranced sugar, a truly magical ingredient in baking.
Marigolds and Violas are next on my summer flower list……marigolds are wonderful when used in salads of all sorts, and again, it is a very French way to serve a “country salad”, with marigold petals strewn over the lettuce leaves; a recent recipe of mine that I developed, was a wonderful duck salad with raspberries, mint and marigold petals (pictured below) ~ pretty and extremely sophisticated, this salad has become a firm favourite with my family and friends.
Violas often find themselves in my salads too, but, I discovered a new way of serving this year, that is an edible adornment to a Goat’s Cheese and Apricot Tartine (A French Open Sandwich, picture and recipe below). These delicate little flowers look so pretty and they dress any recipe up to Haut Couture level, as well as imparting a delicate flavour to subtle recipe dishes.
Finally is Borage ~ I adore this herb and it’s subtle cucumber flavour……it adds a splash of colour to salads, desserts and beverages, the most famous being Pimm’s Cocktail, which I have been known to enjoy on a summer’s afternoon! A favourite summer salad using borage flowers is again and old French recipe; this delightful old French salad recipe, which uses fresh aromatic herbs with fresh lettuce leaves and a simple dressing, is studded with vibrant blue borage flowers. Adapted from a 16th century French translation of a book originally written in Latin in 1474, La Salade De Plusieurs Herbes (pictured below) makes a stunning centre piece to the summer buffet table or as an accompaniment to poached salmon or cold chicken for an elegant dinner party dish.
It may seem “tres chic” and “uber modern” to serve and eat flowers, but this is “old hat” in many ways, as flowers were VERY much part of the British cook’s culinary heritage, with cordials, wines, medicines, potions, tisanes, desserts, salads, tarts and cakes being made in the humblest of kitchens, and using blossoms and blooms from all types of edible plants. The French still embrace their floral past and use flowers in traditional recipes even nowadays, so; perhaps it’s about time we returned to the ancient practice of using more than roots and leaves from vegetables, fruit and herbs in our cooking, and to return to the scented kitchen.