Let Them Eat Petals: Why British tables are blooming

The nation's vegetable aisles are suddenly bright with edible flowers. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

For years the preserve of artistically flamboyant chefs, edible flowers are now blooming in the nation's vegetable aisles. As of this month, discerning domestic chefs can add nasturtiums to their bangers and mash or violas to their vanilla ice cream.

Responding to an increasing trend, Waitrose will now be selling edible flowers at their salad counters, while the home-improvement chain B&Q is promoting growing kits.

Eating flowers is certainly not a modern affectation: the Romans and Victorians were fans. But in the 20th century, blooms were confined to the dinner centrepiece rather than the cooking pot.

"Flowers have been so ignored and people have become afraid of them but they are just normal and natural to add. They are amazing and can add a flavour of spices or peppers," said chef Silvena Rowe, a devotee who will be including flowers among many of her recipes when the restaurant Quince at the May Fair opens in June. It will include dishes such as Orange and Orange Blossom Baklava, a 16th-century favourite of Roxelane, a harem girl who married Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

"Flowers are like a splash of Viagra in the dish. They are not just visual but they add an injection of flavour," Ms Rowe said. "Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is the cuisine of queens. It is not just food for the stomach. It is visual, a feast for all the senses.

"I have a dish of roasted king prawns on pomegranate butter with anise flowers. They lie like water lilies in a purple pool of pomegranate butter. They not only add a delicate flavour of aniseed to the sweet and sour, velvety butter but the visual yellow on the deep purple satisfies your whole existence." For the uninitiated, Ms Rowe recommended trying the flowers of herbs such as chives, thyme, rosemary and wild garlic, severed from supermarket products but ideal to flavour a salad.

But before tucking into a daffodil or sweet pea from the garden, be warned that they, like many pretty plants, are poisonous.

"Just make sure they are edible ones. Most roses are edible as long as they have not been sprayed," said Ms Rowe, who wrote Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume, a book full of recipes using flowers.

When delving into this new culinary world, experts are adamant that you should only cook flowers when you are sure they are not toxic, have not been grown with pesticides and have all the pistils and stamens removed.

B&Q insisted that many people are turning to growing their own, with sales of kits of products such as its edible pansy and nasturtium growing kits up nearly 25 per cent year on year. The chain's horticulture trading manager, Steve Guy, said: "We are making it easier for our customers to re-create 'masterchef' dishes."

And 180 Waitrose stores will be selling pots of viola and nasturtium blooms grown in Evesham, Worcestershire. Rhonwen Cunningham, a buyer for the supermarket, said: "Violas have a very mild flavour whilst the yellow nasturtiums taste slightly peppery. Edible flowers were a popular food a few hundred years ago and we're now seeing a renewed interest in eating these traditional English garden ingredients."

A recipe with flower power

*Veal, prawn and cumin kebabs with a nasturtium flower salad is one of chef Silvena Rowe's signature dishes at the new Quince at the May Fair.

For the kebabs:

400g minced veal

400g boned spare rib of veal, chopped

8 large king prawns, peeled

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 red onion, grated

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon mild chilli flakes

Large bunch of fresh chopped coriander

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 wooden skewers

For the salad:

2 fennel bulbs

15 small pink radishes, finely sliced

1 red onion, finely sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

8 nasturtium flowers

To make the kebabs:

Mix the veal and chopped spare rib. Chop and add the prawns, with the cumin, onion, garlic, chilli and coriander. Combine with your hands. Divide the mixture into 12 small balls, then divide each of these into 3 smaller balls for each wooden skewer. Brush with olive oil. Place kebabs on a barbecue or in a pan and cook on a high heat for 5–6 minutes on each side.

To make the salad:

Remove outer layer from the fennel bulbs and, using a mandolin, slice fennel so it's paper thin. Toss the fennel, radishes and onions with the olive oil and lemon juice. Add nasturtiums.

Edible flowers...

*Roses – Usually served with desserts, all roses are edible, with a more pronounced flavour in the darker varieties. Sweet, with subtle undertones ranging from fruit to mint to spice.

*Pansies – Slightly sweet green or grassy flavour. The flavour of the petals is extremely mild, but the whole flower is much stronger, and goes well with winter vegetables.

*Marigolds – Can be used as a substitute for saffron, particularly in North African-style lamb or chicken dishes. Their citrus flavour also works well in salads.

*Anises – Most commonly used in seafood, both flowers and leaves have a delicate liquorice flavour.

*Chrysanthemums – Tangy, slightly bitter, ranging in red, white, yellow and orange. The white "garland chrysanthemum" is widely used in oriental stir-fries and as salad seasoning.

...And ones to avoid

*Lilies of the valley – All parts of this woodland plant are highly poisonous, especially the swollen stems.

*Sweet peas – Strong-smelling and brightly coloured though it may be, this variety is toxic, causing symptoms similar to those present in scurvy.

*Daffodils – all parts of the plant, especially the bulbs, are dangerous.

*Foxgloves – A hardy, elegant perennial. Eating its leaves can cause irregular heartbeat and death.

*Hyacinths – Its bulb contains oxalic acid and it is a renowned menace to cats.