As kids we loved hanging out in the back garden breaking the bottom off honeysuckle and nasturtium blossoms. We’d carefully sip the drop or two of clear nectar that dripped out; it was almost like eating sweets. The tiny bit of floral sweetness was incredibly pleasurable and satisfying.
I still enjoy floral notes in food and the occasional addition of a petal to a dish, but I don’t tend to think of using flowers in my everyday cooking. I guess I have associations of it as being a bit cheffy (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). There is also the issue of where to buy edible flowers, along with making sure they aren’t poisonous or unpleasant tasting. I was therefore very curious about what I’d learn at Pip McCormac’s recent Divertimenti evening course devoted to his love of edible flowers.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the class. However I’ve done a little ‘wild food’ walking and sampling before which I really enjoyed, and am generally up for eating most things that don’t involve meat (perhaps a little strangely, I don’t include insects in my ‘meat’ definition…).
Pip is very passionate about the power of petals. He described gardening experiments in his own small outside space in London, much of which is captured in his lovely cookery book, ‘The Herb & Flower Cookbook’. I like Pip’s approach of adding edible flowers and herbs to food in a way that’s very accessible. Importantly, the use of flowers in his recipes genuinely enhances the look and flavour of food; they’re not just there as window dressing. It’s good to surprise your palette every now and then, and edible flowers and interesting herbs are a great way of doing this.
An evening always starts well when it starts with chocolate, especially when it involves one of my favourite floral combinations of rose and chocolate. Our first task was to prepare a rich, gooey chocolate fondant, enhanced with a few drops of rose essence and crystallised rose petals on top. If I’d been at home I suspect quite a bit of the mixture would have ended up in my mouth before it got anywhere near the oven. The gentle sweetness of the rose was the perfect background for slightly tart raspberries and bitter dark chocolate. Pip also shared a useful tip for ensuring fondant centres are always runny (see tips below).
The surprise of the evening was the celery, stilton and calendula soup. It tasted deceptively light, but was full of decadent ingredients, including double cream, butter and stilton (with some extra stilton thrown in for good measure). The soup was actually very refreshing; the pretty calendula petals were like little streaks of sunshine in the pale green soup and added a pleasant peppery note.
The butter didn’t stop there; we also enjoyed steamed artichokes dipped in nasturtium butter. Artichokes are hard to eat with decorum as you need to rip, dip and suck. I recommend just going for it and not worrying too much about the odd buttery drip on your fingers. Start from the outside leaves and work your way in, chewing off the soft pulpy ‘meat’ at the bottom of the artichoke petals. It’s fun to get tactile with food, especially when it involves lots of golden nasturtium butter.
The final part of our meal, chive flower pizzetta, was so simple to prepare and perfect for an easy mid-week meal. It was kind of a mix between garlic bread and pizza. All that’s required are some good baguettes, and butter mixed with chive flowers and salt. We used the fluffy purple petals of the chive flowers (not the woody stems), which have light onion-y flavour, keeping a few to scatter on top of each finished pizzetta. You can add another topping of your choice; I had mushrooms on mine, but you could add sliced tomatoes, prosciutto, roasted peppers, or whatever you like really.
We also tried a few different florals that didn’t specifically feature in dishes; the most bizarre was the electric daisy. The bright yellow fuzzy flower heads are the floral equivalent of popping candy. My tongue was left ever so slightly numb, with a lingering taste not dissimilar to Szechuan pepper. The plain rose petals were also a revelation; they were sweet and delicious, and slightly crunchy. It was not at all what I was expecting.
By the end of the class I’d totally revised my opinion of the ‘cheffiness’ of edible flowers. I might now finally get around to planting some of the flower seeds I’ve been meaning to throw in the garden so I can pick my own fresh. I was also inspired after the class to buy some edible flowers from The Slow Food and Living Market in London. They proudly topped my porridge and breakfast smoothies during the week. As well as adding an interesting sweetness, they made my breakfast so lovely to look at. If having an extra reason to smile in the morning isn’t enough to encourage you to try flowers for yourself, I don’t know what is.
Read on for some more floral tips…
Top floral tips:
– Even the smallest outside space, or a kitchen window sill, can accommodate a pot or two so you can grown your own; herbs and flowers don’t require huge amounts of space. Start with something simple, like basil or chives, and just see how you go from there.
– If you don’t have any in your garden (or you don’t have a garden!), the easiest way to get hold of edible flowers is to buy them online. Many websites offer next day delivery. This can also help you get to know which flowers are and aren’t safe to eat.
– Some other floral suggestions Pip shared in the class were:
Dahlias have an interesting peanut flavour and you can pick their petals to add at the end of a stir fry.
Sunflowers have a carroty taste and work well in potato salad.
Lilacs are an unusual addition to a salted caramel and apple sauce – but make sure you check the varieties first as only certain types are edible.
Collect elderflower and make a syrup to drizzle over an almond cake for a different take on the normal lemon drizzle cake.
– Extra bonus tip: to ensure a perfect gooey fondant centre, take a couple of teaspoons of mixture per fondant and put them into an ice cube tray (a silicone one is easiest to get the mixture out of). Pop the tray in the freezer for 30 minutes. When you’re ready to make the fondants, fill half of your ramekin with your normal mixture, drop in the cooled fondant centre and then cover with more fondant mixture. Voila!
Ultimately the best tip for flowers and herbs is to have fun and play around. Explore a few flavour combinations, and see what works best for your eyes and your palate.
To discover more great classes at Divertimenti Cookery School, check out their course calendar.