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The Flower Chef of Girona
Photo Abigail King

The Flower Chef of Girona

Chef Iolanda Bustos cooks with flowers and she's on a mission to encourage others to do the same

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When I was invited to eat flowers on a recent trip to Costa Brava I really didn't know what to expect. Being a young lad from Northern England, eating flowers is something you just don't do. Curry, steak, sausage, beer (only in pints) and pies, it seems you can eat almost anything in the North but flowers is most certainly a no no.

With this upbringing I can honestly say that flowers have been used for birthdays, apologies and the odd Valentine's day. They have even made it onto the table, but only as a decorative feature - never an ingredient.

I had been told about the La Calendula restaurant and chef Iolanda Bustos on my trip to Girona. I'd been told how she was working her way through the flowers in the region to map out their flavors and cook them in her food. So, feeling like I had maybe missed out something during my sheltered upbringing, I was keen to try to her food.

Iolanda has been picking up quite a reputation in Girona for her weekly flower foraging trips and her exciting menus that incorporate local ingredients with wild flowers, herbs and whatever else she can get her hands on in the valleys of Costa Brava.

As she explained: "The restaurant was born three years ago specializing in flowers. I come from the fields and I'm a romantic girl. My family and I have always cooked with flowers but usually we did it for their medicinal characteristics.  

"Now I use flowers in every recipe for example instead of pepper I use cappuccina - it's a flower that actually tastes a lot like pepper. I want people to remember encountering these flowers and the emotions they had when they taste my food."

Like her cod soup with the freshest green peas and sauco - rich and creamy with a zesty kick from the flower. Then there's her herb and mixed flower salad served with salmon and balsamic vinegar and her juicy duck served with a mint risotto and raspberries - what might be the boldest flavor combination ever tried, yet something that seems to work.

Each dish is trying to represent her region, artfully crafted and each with it's own story and meaning: "In Girona we are very lucky because we have a great variety of landscapes - I can get herbs from the sea, herbs from the woods, the valleys - I go three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and at least once a weekend. I go alone and get my inspiration in the field where it's quiet.

"When I pick the flowers in the field I think about the kitchen and the recipes I can create but when I'm in the kitchen cooking the dishes my head is always in the fields.

"I have taught myself about the flavors I have done a lot of botanical courses and have lots of botanical friends. I also learned it from my mother and grandmother - they have a little restaurant."

However, Grandma and Mum don't share her philosophy, Iolanda explained that they thought she was a little crazy when she said she was going to cook with flowers. "My mother says, 'Iolanda what are you doing with these flowers in the dish and in your restaurant? They're only for the us not for them, they do not want to pay for flowers you pick in the field'. She thought they had a poor reputation but now she sees it differently."

And so do the locals, when she first opened Iolanda admits that customers were often very surprised at the flowers on their plates. Especially when she told them they were for eating and not decoration. However, Iolanda is extremely passionate about the food she is cooking and claims to have a goal.

"I have a mission - I think that years ago people in Catalonia would eat herbs and flowers. We stopped because now we are very rich and we don't need to go to the fields to collect and the knowledge is lost. The grandmothers don't communicate to their sons and communication is broken.

"My mission is to get all the farmers and people who grow vegetables, the markets, vegetable growers to start producing flowers again. They used to do this years ago and I think it will happen one day, I'm an optimist. I write lots of articles, I have a book with all the plans on how people can use flowers. I'm very active and want people to learn more about flowers in food."

The work Iolanda is already doing in the kitchen is helping her mission, documenting all her findings in the hope of publishing them for other chefs to use. "I am doing a table for all the different tasting flowers - bitter, sweet, salt, spicy. This flower is like garlic etc.  I am doing this at the moment and perhaps it will be available online."

This kind of work from a chef who has grown up and is cooking the food from her region is amicable and plays into the growing trend of chefs going out to discover what ingredients are available around them. Iolanda is on a mission and who knows, if she's successful, maybe one day we'll all be eating flowers. 

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