From soda bread to sorbets, edible flowers are versatile and flavoursome. Rick Jordan investigates
What would your reaction be if, after admiring your carefully arranged table decorations of tulips and carnations, your dinner guests started picking the flowers and scattering them over their food? While flowers have been used in food for thousands of years, we still tend to think of them as decorative – to brighten up a garden border, or be snipped and presented for Mother’s Day. But edible flowers are blooming, not only as garnishes for cocktails and desserts, but as flavoursome ingredients in savoury dishes, too.
‘People are using flowers more creatively these days, which is driven by the foraging movement,’ says Erin Bunting who, along with her wife, Jo Facer, has written a new book on the subject, The Edible Flower. ‘But it’s an old skill that many people have simply forgotten. If you go back to the 15th and 16th centuries you’ll find all sorts of interesting dishes on menus from country estates – and, of course, there’s a long history of edible flowers in Middle Eastern and ancient Greek and Roman cultures.’
The couple moved to County Down in Northern Ireland from London a few years ago, buying a farmhouse and smallholding, and running supper clubs and classes to share their passion for growing and cooking with flowers. ‘The big appeal is you get some surprising flavours that you just don’t encounter anywhere else. Think of using edible flowers in the same way you would fresh herbs.’ Their recipes gather up spicy calendula petals and peppery nasturtiums, almondy hawthorne and bright cornflowers, with tulips sprinkled over a spicy Thai beef dish, borage adding interest to a pickled kohlrabi and cucumber salad, along with fragrant recipes for soda bread, pavlova and sorbets.
While chefs such as René Redzepi famously championed flowers at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, fashioning edible landscapes with mustard flowers paired to broad beans, and thyme to beetroot, the floral movement is blossoming. In Berlin, food artist Kristiane Kegelmann crystallises flowers to make imaginative pralines at her recently opened restaurant Pars; while just outside the city, Paris-based chef Rose Chalalai Singh hosts pop-up flower feasts at the farm belonging to artist Danh Vo. And flowers continue to brighten up savoury dishes at restaurants from Geranium in Copenhagen to Sketch in London.
We don’t get many calories from flowers,Erin Bunting
but you do get a lot of joy.
ERIN’S BEST FLOWERS TO GROW FOR COOKING
With a long growing season, you can use all the parts – stuffed, added to dough for bread, leaves used for salsa verde, the stems pickled like capers.
Use instead of rosemary in lamb dishes and roast carrots, for a Middle Eastern vibe, or added to shortbread.
This pretty flower is loved by pollinators, and has a spicy flavour – you just need one flower, mixing petals through salads or grain dishes.
So easy to grow, these have a mild, spicy flavour – slightly clovey – and flower until October if you keep cutting. Stir the petals through rice and grain dishes.