Swathes of lavender fields under a Mediterranean sky evoke heady, food-fuelled holidays, the kind of perfect culinary fix we surely all crave as an antidote to our unpredictable summer.
With perfect timing, stealthily, lavender has become fashionable again. Its early apogee was many centuries back: Queen Elizabeth I, allegedly, insisted a jar of lavender preserve should be on the table for every meal. It has nostalgic appeal, haunting fragrance, is at the height of its short ready-to-pick season right now, and, most interestingly, bats both ways.
Lavender has an "androgynous" aroma and flavour – both savoury and sweet, with a distinct herbal edge, akin to rosemary and thyme (it makes a good "summer encapsulated" alternative to either) and is even more versatile for savoury treatments. Though, when the flower buds are infused with sugar, cream, butter or chocolate, endless evocative desserts open up.
Despite lavender being synonymous with Provence in my mind (after all, herbes de Provence includes crushed lavender flowers and there are a few French classic recipes involving lavender such as crème brûlée à la lavande), it is English lavender, varieties of angustifolia, that are best for culinary use as the flavour is more mellow, less pungent.
For those with their own supply, harvest the lavender buds when they are still closed (as this best preserves their essential oils), being sure to wait to pick on a dry day. Hang buds upside-down in bunches (secured with a rubber band to allow for shrinkage as the stems dry) in a dark place for two to three days to absorb all their moisture and store in an airtight jar away from direct sunlight (otherwise their colour and fragrance will fade).
I was fortunate enough to be given a stash of dried culinary lavender by The Table Cafe, which admirably uses herbs and salads grown by St Mungo's charity for the homeless for its alluring all-day modern Italian-inspired menu, a handy pitstop near the Tate Modern on London's Southbank. New chef Cinzia Ghignoni (ex Zucca, Duck Soup, Angela Hartnett) uses lavender in a delicate dessert of pannacotta with roast white peaches and cantuccini.
Otherwise, visit a lavender nursery such as Yorkshire Lavender (enjoy sensory gardens, a lavender maze and sculptures too) or New Forest Lavender (tempting café offerings include coconut and lavender cake): both sell online too; La Fromagerie in London stocks The Hop Shop's culinary lavender buds and oils. Follow Frances Bissell's advice in her gorgeous Scented Kitchen book and make lavender salt in the same way as celery salt.
Use about one part flowers (ensure they are absolutely dry) to 10 parts coarse sea salt and grind in a spice mill or with a pestle and mortar. Add a refreshingly unexpected flavour to new potatoes by tossing in butter and lavender salt or use to season duck breasts before grilling. Lavender works surprisingly well with fish, too: stuff a few lavender buds – do go easy, it should be subtle – inside seabass or grill red mullet over lavender stalks, preferably over the BBQ.
Try a lavender take on dukkah, an Egyptian side which combine ground toasted hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin seeds with lavender flowers, salt and pepper and use as a crust for chicken or fish (I tried with ultra-sustainable pouting cod to delicious aromatic effect). Or simply infuse lavender in heated olive oil or add several springs of lavender to a bottle of white wine vinegar and leave to allow to infuse for at least a fortnight. For those impatient for a Mediterranean hit, try Womersley Foods' intriguing lime, black pepper and lavender vinegar, which won gold at The Great Taste Awards last week.
Bought lavender honey (mono-floral honey produced by bees that have only fed on the nectar of lavender) can be a bit underwhelming flavour-wise. For a more distinctive scent, prepare your own. I used half a jar of lovely Melvita clear honey (from Ardeche) heated with four sprigs of lavender until nearly boiling, then left it to infuse until cold. It made a sybaritic match with duck: rub duck breasts with lime juice, soy sauce and lavender honey and roast for 20 minutes.
For a quintessential summer roast, Daniel Galmiche, head chef of The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire, swears by roast lamb with garlic and lavender. Prepare the night before by crushing four peeled garlic cloves with six lavender sprigs and mixing with 100ml of olive oil. Rub into the leg of lamb, wrap in cling film and leave in fridge to infuse overnight. To roast, poke a couple of garlic cloves into the lamb (don't be tempted to add lavender buds: the flavour would be too strong), and cook until golden brown outside and pink within. De-glaze roasting juices by adding 100ml of water and returning to oven to reduce for three minutes and serve sprinkled with a few extra lavender flowers.
Lavender bushes are used in the walled garden of The Ethicurean near Bristol to discourage rabbits from trying to burrow in. Head chef Matthew Pennington thinks it only fitting that rabbits still caught in the garden get the confit treatment. They wittily serve with a lavender jelly. Pennington advises pressure-cooking the stems and flowers over an upturned steam basket on low pressure for 12 minutes to effectively infuse the essential oils into sugar syrup speedily.
Last weekend I spotted Nut Knowle Farm's lavender goat cheese, produced as a new seasonal summer treat. Slightly sweet, despite the tanginess of the cheese, it worked admirably with a salad of bitter leaves, thin ribbons of raw fennel, figs roasted with a little drizzle of lavender honey and walnuts. More restraint should be exercised when imbuing sweet dishes with lavender.
Quite the best way is to add some properly dry, crumbled culinary lavender buds to caster sugar and use this to flavour desserts. It makes wonderfully delicate lavender shortbreads. I followed Sally Clarke's recipe: cream 200g unsalted butter with 100g lavender sugar, add 300g sifted plain flour with a pinch of salt. Roll out, cut into circles and bake for about 25 minutes until just beginning to turn brown. Should still be soft when taken from the oven.
Lavender and apricot make a beautiful scented combination both in a tea bread and as a preserve. The Dorchester serves film-makers turned handmade jam producers Tea Together's ambrosial apricot and lavender jam at breakfast seasonally and it is available at Whole Foods Market in Kensington and Soho too. Lavender made a surprise star appearance in ethereal, chic, macarons sandwiched with whipped Greek yoghurt, an inspired, on-trend combination by new chef at The Greenhouse in Mayfair, Arnaud Bignon.
Even chocolate and lavender, once the taste preserve of genteel older ladies, is enjoying a revival and features in chocolatier William Curley's repertoire. Lavender sugar adds interest to molten chocolate pots, too. As Matthew Pennington of The Ethicurean reminds me, as he proffers a plate of freshly-made lavender and elderflower marshmallows, the colour lavender has long represented decadence, besides being known for inducing tranquillity. Need I say more – the definitive seasonal solace?