If you visit a fancy restaurant nowadays you may well get a sprinkling of flower petals on your food as ‘decoration’ but flowers are not a normal staple of the modern larder. However, long before the supermarkets sold bags of mixed salad, the use of flowers, picked from the garden or wayside was a common addition to summer diet.
One that many people are familiar with is the versatile marigold, Calendula officinalis. When you are not rubbing its leaves on your insect bites its petals, which handily contain vitamin C, are a colourful addition to any salad or garnish.
Leona Woodring Smith tells us in her book The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery, published in 1973:
To prepare marigolds: Pull entire petals from the stem, and as you hold them firmly in your hand, with scissors cut off the white (or pale greenish) “heels,” as this could give a bitter taste if not removed.
If you grind/pound the petals they give a rich, deep golden colour which makes them an excellent, cheap alternative colouring agent to Saffron. For this reason we often see them included in simple casseroles, cheeses and even biscuit recipes.
The petals also make a good digestive tea and can be used to make a simple condiment jelly.
A more unusual flower in modern culinary use is the pale blue flowers of Borage. Their colour alone does not immediately present them as something that would be possible to eat. The plant was introduced to Britain by the Romans and the saying ‘Borage for courage’ is the rough translation of the old Latin verse “Ego borago gaudia semper ago”. It is said that Roman soldiers drank Borage tea before going into battle – the medicinal property that may well have led to its popularity in this situation is most probably that it dilates the blood vessels, acting as a slight sedative, thus should be ingested in moderation. Later in history the phrase is still used, as men were urged to drink it to gather courage to propose!
As well as its leaves being used for tea, Borage has a long culinary history and the flowers and stalks are also edible. With a taste reminiscent of cucumber, the flowers are an unusual decoration for any dish, while its leaves are good in salads, yoghurt or cream cheese mixtures. The leaves are also a popular addition to a summer cocktail.
A Mediterranean plant by origin, it is not surprising that the majority of traditional recipes we find it in are from places such as Italy, Crete and Spain. In the Spanish regions of Aragon and Navarra it is boiled and sautéed with garlic, then served with potatoes and in the Italian region of Liguria, it is used as a filling for a traditional ravioli pasta.
Finally we take a look at a flower that is a fairly familiar starter on restaurant menus and is slowly re-emerging in household kitchens, with the growing popularity of ‘grow your own’. The trusty courgette is one of the few vegetables whose flower creates a dish in its own right.
Courgettes were developed in northern Italy from squash brought from Central or South America.
The first known reference to them is found in 1901 in the Italian book, Orticoltura by Domenico Tamaro. Tamaro called the courgette (known in Europe and the US as zucchini) the ‘zucca quarantina vera nana’, which translates as ‘the forty-day true dwarf zucca’, zucca being the Italian for pumpkin or squash.
The fried flowers are delicious, dipped in batter and flash fried and taste a bit like a cross between really fresh cucumber and slightly wilted lettuce. They are often stuffed with a mixture of soft cheeses, mint and chilli or other spices, giving them a slightly exotic twist.
There are many more flowers that can be used from Nasturtiums to Lavender, Roses and Hollyhocks and their preparations are wide and varied. However, a good guide to the properties of plants and their toxicity is always advisable before adding any of them to your table. It is worth noting that many have medicinal properties and it is always worth checking these before you indulge in any quantity. Also care should be taken if you are pregnant, have asthma or severe allergies. Too many Lime flowers in your tea and the old saying was you would ‘not even wake to the beat of a drum’!