Floral Flavors: Exploring Edible Flowers in Cuisine

Garden flowers, like pansies, can be eaten whole but it is usually only the petals that are used

Forget bouquets; there are many more ways to say it with flowers. Carol Wright describes the countless ways edible flowers can be used in food

The Chinese ate flowers back in 3000 BC; Persians nibbled nasturtiums in the 4th century BC; the Romans cooked with violets, lavender and roses, the Incas dined on sunflowers while orange blossom, pot marigolds and roses have always been part of the culinary culture of India and the Middle East.

In Europe, flowers preserved in oils, vinegar and sugar featured in medicinal remedies. In the 17th century, salads were liberally strewn with flower petals and the Victorians plastered sweet
and savoury food with crystallised violets, primroses and roses. Today chefs are spearheading a revival in flower-powered foods, creating eye-catching dishes, and hostesses eager to give an easy and colourful zing to their parties are copying their ideas. Westlands, a leading UK grower of edible flowers, say they started growing them ten years ago in a small way but now need the space of several football pitches to supply restaurant demands.

Edible nasturtium flowers enliven a plain greern salad: Nasturtiums can mix with cream cheese on crackers, or stirred into yoghurt for a lemon tang

The range of flowers that are edible is wide and includes most herb flowers. Saffron is, after all, part of the crocus flower. Other herb flowers included are coriander, chives and rosemary in particular — and some vegetable flowers like runner bean flowers (scarlet flowers only) as a vegetable garnish. Courgette flowers can be eaten hot or cold, as fritters or filled with rice or cheese, coated with pancake-style batter and fried. When sautéed, they can be stirred into pasta and, when thinly sliced, included in omelettes, scrambled eggs and salads. Garden or wild flowers are enchanting cookery finds, adding colourful drama to foods. Flowers to eat are best picked when fresh and not sun shrivelled. They can be put in the fridge in a plastic container to keep for a day or two. Before use, wash by dipping in a bowl of water and shaking slightly. This helps dislodge any insects and dirt. Gently pat dry and place on kitchen paper. Some flowers, like pansies, can be eaten whole, but it is often only the petals that are consumed. The heel or base of each petal, usually white, should be nipped off as it is bitter, as also the stamens, pistil and calyx of larger flowers. All the green parts and stems should also be removed. Those allergic to pollen should avoid eating flowers. Don’t harvest flowers near roadsides or any that have been sprayed with chemicals and pesticides.

Before refrigeration came along, flowers were preserved through the seasons by methods still relevant today. Floral sugars were common and the best flowers to use are lavender, roses, violets and dianthus. A mix of 350g sugar with 8-16 tablespoons of chopped flower petals left to impart their flavour can be used in cake baking and is delicious in meringues, as is lavender-sugar in the making of biscuits, jams, jellies and sorbets.

A royal cook’s book written in 1665 describes how to crystallise flowers by boiling sugar and rose water, turning dried flowers in the still hot mix, dipping in powdered sugar, repeating the process and leaving to dry. An alternative method, dating from the same period, is to brush flowers with a mix of rosewater in which gum arabic has been dissolved and then dry them in the oven at its lowest heat. Cowslips, pansies, primroses, violets and borage are also good for crystallisation. Put an egg white and 50g caster sugar in separate saucers. Brush the flowers or petals with egg white on both sides, cover with sugar and dry on baking parchment.

Cornflower petals enliven bland dishes and can go in omelettes and baked potatoes

Heavier oils, such as walnut and hazelnut oil, should be used to preserve flowers for savoury dishes, and light sunflower oil for sweeter dishes. Oils flavoured with petals of flowers such as roses, cowslips and pot marigolds will last three to four months. Honeysuckle oil enriches pancakes, and lavender oil is excellent to baste barbecued chicken.

Vinegar is another preserving medium. Gently heat 426ml white wine vinegar and pour onto four or eight tablespoons of flower petals in a jar, leaving about one centimetre at the top. Cool, cover and after three to four weeks, strain into a bottle adding some fresh flowers as decoration. Nasturtiums give a watercress tang when infused in vinegar (or try them in vodka). Violet vinegar improves a vinaigrette.

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Floral butters can be spread on breads, buns and used in cake mixes and sauces. Beat eight tablespoons finely chopped flower petals into 225g unsalted butter. Left in the fridge, flavours develop in up to two weeks and, if frozen, in up to three months. Flower heads, and especially buds like those of the day lily, can be patted dry and placed, not touching each other, on a baking tray in the coldest part of the freezer, and when frozen, kept in a plastic bag or container. There is no need to thaw them out before use; just add to food as needed.

It’s said that we eat with our eyes, and adding flowers gives visual appeal to dull looking dishes like green salads, pastas, rice, pilaffs, risottos, white sauces and bland cake surfaces. Texture and a little crunch is also added.

To wake up salads, the bright yellow petals of pot marigolds (calendula) are ideal, especially a variety like Indian Prince which has scarlet petal backs. They can also spice up lamb casseroles. Sunflower petals, giving a slightly nutty taste, look equally cheerful in salads, and can be added to omelettes and hard-boiled eggs. Peonies, scented geraniums, dandelions, fresh and peppery nasturtiums and clover petals are all salad brighteners. Hollyhocks enliven orange and walnut salads and make an unusual salad when added to pear and iceberg lettuce. Violets (also good with soft cheeses) are fresh spring-salad decor. Pansies have a lettuce-like flavour which makes them good companions to green salads and they can also be used as a paté garnish, while a honeysuckle and carrot salad is a simple tabletop show stopper.

Marigolds have always been part of the culinary culture of India

The versatility of edible flowers goes beyond garnishing salads; lavender flowers can be added to vegetable stock to make a sauce for duck, chicken or lamb. Nasturtiums and lilac flowers can mix with cream cheese on crackers, or be stirred into yoghurt to add a lemon tang. Day lily petals, said to have a taste of mange-touts and pepper, enhance hot and cold soups. They can be eaten as a vegetable, and both buds and flowers can be fried and then filled in a similar way to courgette flowers. Nasturtiums, cornflower, marigold and clover petals can go in omelettes, in pasta spirals and oven baked potatoes. Hibiscus can be used in more or less any dish to add a cranberry taste.

The sweetness of flowers, beloved of bees, can be harnessed to uplift desserts and cakes. Primroses add a delicate flavour to apple pies and, with pansies, can enliven cakes and creamy desserts. The clove-like aroma of dianthus can be added to fruit salads, whipped into cream on trifles, improve cake mixes as well as soups, salads and punch bowls.

When using roses, remember that the darker the petal, the more intense the flavour. Rose petals can be made into jam, chopped into butter, syrups, oils and, when crystallised, sprinkled over cakes and ice cream. They look delightful set inside fruit jellies. Lavender gives bite to meringues, biscuits, chocolate cake, and can be used to decorate ice cream, custards, flans and sorbets. Lemon-scented geraniums were popular in the 19th century to flavour biscuits and jellies and to sprinkle over desserts and cold drinks. Valerian goes well with fruit. Whole bananas in their skins can be barbecued and sprinkled with valerian flowers.

Roses add fragrance and are one of the most popular flowers used in food

Chartreuse, developed in France in the 17th century, has dianthus petals among its ingredients. Making wine with flowers like dandelion, elderflower, cowslip, clover and hawthorn is an old country custom. The small intense blue borage flower is particularly popular as a drink additive in Pimms, Gin & Tonic and lemonade, and it has high visual impact when encased in ice cubes. Floral ice cubes like those containing scented geranium petals can also be added to chilled soups. Impatiens (Busy Lizzie) can be floated in cold drinks.

Although care should be taken to make sure that the flowers you use are not poisonous, some flowers have medicinal properties and contain vitamins A and C. Research is being done into their anti-oxidant and antiinflammatory potential. In the 18th century, flower syrups were added to cordials as tonics. More simply, the sight of bright orange petals splashed on green salad leaves or the perfume of rose petals on top of a cake do wonders to raise one’s spirits.