The Ultimate Guide to Edible Flowers
How about instead of saying “Finish your vegetables” we say “Eat your blooms”?
Flowers are not just pretty decorations for cupcakes or fancy salads. Edible flowers have been used in cooking from ancient Greek dishes through to today’s molecular gastronomy and farm-to-table restaurants.
A Bouquet of Possibilities
This “edible landscape” can release quite surprising flavors: geraniums can unleash flavors of lemon, hazelnuts, rose or even apple. Nasturtium buds are redolent of radishes while courgette flowers offer a milder, subtler flavor than that of the vegetable.
The flavors range from sweet to snappy and they complement everything from artichokes to zabaglione.
Known as “the poor man’s saffron”, the sunset hued marigold flower really does taste like saffron when it’s sautéed in olive oil to release its flavor.
Honeysuckle flowers can be eaten as they are or boiled into a syrup to successfully replace sugar in drinks, yoghurt, sorbets or quick bread recipes.
Edible flowers throughout history
The first recorded mention of edible flowers was back in 140 BC. The Romans used violets and roses to garnish salads and decorate cakes – it really isn’t a new trend.
Romans mixed flowers with butter or fruit preserves or added them to marinades and salad dressings. Cookery and Dinning in Imperial Rome is one of the world’s earliest cookbooks, generally attributed to the first century Roman gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius. In it we found recipes that mention mallow, nasturtium, fennel blossom and saffron as essential spices.
The plenitude of Roman table also included sautéed dandelions, violet wines and a dish with a modern touch called Frog Legs with fennel flower garnish. There is no feast without desserts and with rose custard sounds just delicious, but maybe not as delicious as lamb’s brains and 30 rose petals prettily named Dish of Roses.
And it wasn’t just the Romans. Greeks used flowers in salads and Egyptians cultivated okra for stews, which is today a very common dish.
Because the Roman Empire stretched so far across Europe, the tradition continued into the medieval era of English history. Even today rose water and orange flower water are used daily in many Middle Eastern and South Asian homes.
Elizabethan Age – from peasants to the King’s table
In the Elizabethan Age, the diet of the poor was complemented with pot marigolds, violets, roses, nasturtiums, chrysanthemums, day lilies, bee balm and borage blossom.
This was an inexpensive, even free, way to add flavor and color to their bland meals. Borage is a beautiful blue star-shaped flower that tastes a bit like cucumber and goes well in salads and is delicious in lemonade or brewed in tea. Two hundred years later, edible flowers moved up the ranks of the class system. They were now in vogue and have entered the royal and aristocratic kitchens, making a real statement of power and wealth.
Peony roots, however, were always deemed a food fit exclusively for kings.
Below is a recipe for Violet Cakes from that time from Hannah Wolley:
“To make Violet Cakes –
Take them clipped clean from the whites and their weight in fine Sugar, wet your Sugar in fair water, and boil it to a Candy height, then put in your Violets, and stir them well together, with a few drops of a Limon, then pour them upon a wet Pye-Plate, or on a slicked paper, and cut them in what form you please; do not let them boil, for that will spoil the color: Thus you may do with any Herb or Flour, or with any Orange or Limon Pill, and, if you like it, put in a little Musk or Ambergreece.”
Neither did Renaissance cooks confine flower to vases. During a performance of Shakespeare’s plays, the audience quenched their thirst on rose petal water and snacked on delicacies such as stewed primroses.
In more recent history, the 17th century saw the use of chrysanthemums in Chinese, Korean and Japanese meals, particularly soups and teas.
Calendula entered England’s cuisine as Pot Marigold via Italy due to its common use in their soups, but was afterwards renamed by monks. Capers, the flower buds of the capparis shrub, soon followed.
A French man made Chartreuse, a popular green liqueur, with a secret ingredient of carnation petals.
The hot summer days of Mexico were cooled with Jamaico, a cold drink made from hibiscus infusion. The same flower was used to flavor ice cream and sorbets.
Victorian Age and Primrose Day
It was Queen Victoria who incorporated flowers into palace cuisine. Teatime saw Rose Geranium Cake on the table and little sandwiches with nasturtium flowers pressed between thin pieces of buttered bread.
Through her friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Primrose Day evolved. The day was celebrated with a fancy fairy cupcake recipe, including a peck of flowers pounded with ladyfingers, three pints of cream, sixteen eggs, a few drops of rosewater, buttered and baked with sugar on top. It looks like a true calorie bomb, but the Queen’s wishes were not to be questioned.
Victorians fell in love with flower-encrusted sweets and pastries. Candied flowers became very popular and the process that preserves these delicate blooms is a wonderful way to add sweetness and texture to any dessert. This was the time when the “language of flowers” developed, with every flower carrying an intended meaning.
Flower Power Comeback
After World War I when home gardens were destroyed and personal cooks disappeared, edible flowers faded from the culinary world.
Food trends settled for less decorated versions of dishes, a practice preferred by the lady of the house in the absence of cooks and maids providing food. Even caterers and restaurants turned their interests elsewhere as the production and sale of food grew to an industrial scale.
But flowers made a comeback as chefs began to give edible flowers a new place in modern cuisine.
Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat, both three-star Michelin French chefs, legitimized the use of edible flowers in the 1990s. Together with micro greens and baby leaves, they conquered the world of professional chefs and amateur cooks.
Today we find edible flowers on supermarket shelves, but you can easily find them in your garden or local fields. To be edible, they must be free from pesticides, and you really have to know which ones to pick to avoid unfortunate accidents as some flowers are very poisonous and others can exacerbate allergies.
Marigolds, for instance, are considered safe in small quantities but only certain species are palatable.
Wow Factor for Your Dinner Table
If you’re hosting a dinner party or plan a celebration, it’s easy to produce dazzling creations with very little work.
Simply garnish cupcakes, salads or even pizza with small vibrant colored blooms, dress up a store bought cake or a bundt cake with flowers on top like a bouquet.
Chocolates with petals incorporated are now an easy find.
Refreshments like infused water or floral cocktails with a whimsical twist can be made if you have a floral syrup and rose petals at hand. You can turn a boring ice cube into eye candy just by adding pansies in the ice cube tray.
Need more inspiration? Check out four amazing recipes that make great use of edible flowers:
- Crab apple salad with wasabi dressing and edible flowers
- Foie gras magnum served with berries, spiced apple macaron and edible flowers
- Beef fillet decorated with edible viola flowers
But if you want to put on the apron and get your hands dirty you can make appealing appetizers such as Nasturtium poppers: mix goats cheese with herbs, rolled up into a ball shape and placed inside a fresh nasturtium blossom.
With their slightly spicy taste, raw marigold petals can be incorporated in your basic recipe to add depth to deviled eggs. Stuff the bright yellow flowers of the courgette or zucchini plant with herbs and goats cheese, or go for a more colorful picture and put them on pizza with red cherry tomatoes and green pesto.
Nothing compares to home baked desserts and choices are plenty, from lavender shortbread to zucchini-walnut cake, fruit and petal pavlova to frosted fruit juice and flower popsicles.
I will definitely try this easy and mess free lollipop recipe. All you need are silicone lollipop molds, clear peppermint hard candies, lollipop sticks and dried pressed edible flowers. Preheat the oven to 250ᵒF, place the silicone molds on a baking sheet and add one flower face down in each mold then place in the sticks.
Put one or two peppermint candies in each mold, place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30-60 minutes, or until the hard candy has completely melted. Allow them to cool and harden completely before gently popping them out of the molds.
Health Benefits of Edible Flowers
Flowers are not simply aesthetic additions. They have a nutritional value being an important source of vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron, and even calcium.
Dandelions are rich in Vitamin C, rose petals in Vitamin E; lavender has Vitamin A and some flowers such as pumpkin flowers contain Vitamin D. Calendula and elderberry aid digestion, chamomile, lavender and California poppies are known to reduce stress levels and support a good night sleep. But the most exciting compounds in flowers are the phytochemicals that are responsible for their vibrant colors, for example antioxidants and flavonoids.
These compounds can fight cancer, lower cholesterol, and prolong our lives by preventing coronary artery disease and strokes. Roses and dandelions are considered rich in antioxidants but hibiscus is one of the healthiest flowers as it contains substantial amounts.
Daisies steeped in wine with sage and southernwood used to be considered a cure for insanity if the mixture was drunk for fifteen days. It can’t hurt, so bottoms up!
Roses are red and violets are blue/Are you in need of a love potion? Because I’ve got one for you: Ancient apothecaries used mustard flowers for their supposed aphrodisiac powers and sold them to hopeful hearts.
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