Petals from heaven

Take some lily of the valley and carrot leaves, and what do you have? No, not a meal for your pet rabbit but the ingredients for a dish by Alexis Gauthier. Sybil Kapoor explores a new kind of flower power
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For many years, only rabbits might have considered the Chelsea Flower Show a gastronomical heaven, but these days chefs are getting increasingly excited by many of its exhibits. Their interest stems from a desire to cook unusual seasonal produce, such as fragrant mimosa blossom. Chelsea has therefore become a good way to see, albeit not to taste, unfamiliar foods, ranging from Jekka McVicar's superlative herb display to greenhouse company Alitex's 19th-century inspired potager garden, whose plants have been grown by Audley End Organic Kitchen Garden in Essex.

For many years, only rabbits might have considered the Chelsea Flower Show a gastronomical heaven, but these days chefs are getting increasingly excited by many of its exhibits. Their interest stems from a desire to cook unusual seasonal produce, such as fragrant mimosa blossom. Chelsea has therefore become a good way to see, albeit not to taste, unfamiliar foods, ranging from Jekka McVicar's superlative herb display to greenhouse company Alitex's 19th-century inspired potager garden, whose plants have been grown by Audley End Organic Kitchen Garden in Essex.

Alexis Gauthier, chef of Michelin-starred Roussillon in London, is among the most passionate advocates of seasonal produce. "Last year," he says, "HDRA [the organic organisation based at Ryton Organic Gardens] gave me these wonderful flat-podded broad beans. It took 20 minutes just to shell a handful of them, but the inner kernel was so soft and sweet it was delicious eaten raw, stuffed into little lettuces with herbs and olive oil." Gauthier bubbles over with enthusiasm for every ingredient he uses. "We served an amuse bouche which was made from white and corkscrew-shaped carrots that are cooked in their own juices, and garnished with deep-fried carrot leaves," he states dreamily, before adding, "People don't realise you can eat carrot tops but they're delicious."

One of his main suppliers is Secretts Direct, which is owned by Greg Wallace and Vernon Mascarenhas. "We've been introducing chefs to a wide variety of unusual crops," explains Mascarenhas, whose clients include Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and Mark Hix of The Ivy. "We sit down with local farmers and go through seed catalogues, including HDRA's heritage seed lists, then we trial out various crops. If our chefs go for them, we try to grow more the next year." Unfamiliar cresses are the next big salad ingredient, apparently.

Bob Sherman, director of gardens and gardening at Ryton Gardens, is keen to encourage people to experiment with heritage plant varieties. "Many of the uglier or less prolific vegetables have the best taste," he says, before citing as an example his favourite tomato, the very ugly and scant-fruited Fablonelistnyj, a yellow beef tomato with a fabulous flavour.

Finding old varieties of fruit is even more problematic, given that fruit trees take years to reach maturity. Mike Thurlow, Audley End's head gardener, grows everything from flat China peaches to glass-house grapes, and has 40 varieties of pears. "In the 19th century, they knew how to ensure that they had the best variety of home-grown fruit throughout the year, a skill we've almost lost," he says. Perhaps our delight in good food will help revive it.

The Chelsea Flower Show runs from Tuesday until Saturday. For further information, visit www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea. Roussillon, 16 St Barnabas Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7730 5550; HDRA, tel: 024 7630 3517, www.hdra.org.uk; Audley End Organic Kitchen Garden, tel: 01799 522 148; Secretts Farm Shop, tel: 01483 520 500, www.secretts.co.uk

Sage wine

Serves 6

10 fresh sage leaves, washed
1 bottle of dry white wine
(from Cassis)
2tbsp honey

Pat the sage leaves dry, chop and mix into the wine. Leave to macerate for 12 hours - but stir every hour. Then pass it through a kitchen cloth, sweeten with honey and bottle it. Keep for 1 month before drinking.

Cos lettuce with green peas & mint dressing

Serves 4

You can use old lettuce varieties such as Northern Queen, Soulie, George Richardson and Brown Goldring for this recipe, as well as early peas like Prince Albert.

1 cos lettuce
250g/83/4oz green peas, shelled
2tbsp ricotta
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 bunch mint, finely sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Wash the lettuce and dry it. Pick the smallest and crunchiest leaves.

Pour 2tbsp of olive oil into a large sauté pan. Add the peas when the oil is smoking. Stir and add salt. Add 1 large glass of water and cover. Cook for 3 minutes at high heat. When peas are cooked, remove them and let them cool until they are warm, then add the ricotta and mix in the lemon juice, a little olive oil, seasoning and nearly all the mint. Stuff each lettuce leaf with a spoon of the mixture. Add a bit of chopped mint and serve cold.

Chlorophyll risotto and sautéed petals

Serves 4

Edible flowers are sold in small packets which usually include nasturtiums, pansies and pot marigold petals.

1kg/2lb 4oz spinach, washed
200g/7oz Arborio rice
1/2 onion, finely chopped
8tbsp white wine
20g/3/4oz Mascarpone
20g/3/4oz Parmesan Reggiano
8tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 punnets of edible flowers
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Process the spinach in a mixer with 2 glasses of water and 3tbsp sea salt. Transfer the green jus to a bain-marie and gently cook for 20 minutes. Then strain through muslin and reserve the green chlorophyll.

Set a large cooking pan over a low heat with 2tbsp olive oil. Add the onion and stir. Add the rice with a pinch of salt and warm it up to the point that you cannot touch it. Stir in - without stopping - the white wine. Slowly stir in the water over 5 minutes. The rice has to swim all the time in the same amount of liquid. After 5 minutes, drain the rice (saving its liquid) and spread it thinly on a tray to cool.

Put the rice in a pan with 2tbsp chlorophyll, 2 glasses of rice stock and 2 glasses of water. Bring it to the boil and then start to incorporate the ingredients one after the other - make sure that it continues to boil. Begin with the Mascarpone, followed by the butter, Parmesan, 6tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper. The risotto should be al dente: it is the olive oil that will make a difference.

In a separate pan, heat 1/2tsp olive oil. Once hot, fry the flowers and serve on top of the green risotto. Add grated Parmesan and serve.

Chocolate and lily of the valley crunch

Serves 6

Use home-grown, unsprayed lily of the valley flowers.

For the dacquoise
250g/83/4oz ground hazelnut
250g/83/4oz caster sugar
200g/7oz egg white
100g/31/2oz icing sugar

For the crunch on top of dacquoise
300g/101/2oz praline
75g/21/2oz white chocolate

For the ganache Paradis
250g/83/4oz Valrhona chocolate (70 per cent)
225g/8oz whipping cream
375g/13oz water
300g/101/2oz caster sugar
125g/41/2oz double cream
125g/41/2oz cocoa powder

For the chocolate mousse
200g/7oz ganache paradis
175g/6oz whipping cream
2 handfuls of lily of the valley flowers, de-stalked

Begin by making the dacquoise. Line a baking sheet with greased paper. Whip the egg white, add the ground hazelnut and caster sugar and finish with icing sugar. Cook at 190C/375F/Gas 5 until a knife comes out clean. Cut six 10cm (4in) diameter rings of dacquoise and set aside. Melt the white chocolate in a bain-marie bowl. Add the praline. Spread a thin layer of this on each dacquoise ring and chill.

Make the ganache Paradis by slicing the Valhrona chocolate with a large knife. Boil the cream, add the shredded chocolate and boil while stirring for a minute. Add the water, sugar and cocoa. Allow to cool, and then chill.

Whip the cream into soft peaks and add 200g (7oz) ganache Paradis to make the chocolate mousse. Spread over each dacquoise, then sprinkle with the flowers and freeze for 4 hours. Just before serving remove the rings from the freezer and glaze them with the warm ganache paradis. Cut in two to show the inside and garnish with lily of the valley.

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