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Imagine making a gift to a well known chef of a splendid bouquet of nasturtiums, carnations, violets and bee balm. It is certainly an unusual combination of blooms but you will be justly proud of its colours and scents. Well, don’t be too surprised if the chef, before your very eyes, detaches the corollas one by one and starts to munch them: he is simply enjoying the best examples of edible flowers. Amazed?
Edible flowers have been used for centuries in cooking all over the world, in particular in Asian, Middle Eastern and European cuisine but we also have documented evidence of their consumption as far back in time as Ancient China and Ancient Greece.
Initially, they used to be eaten for therapeutic reasons, but then it was discovered that some of these flowers had an excellent flavour as well. Modern cuisine has rediscovered them and uses them, not only for their taste, but also to create bold and intriguing blends of fragrance and colour.
A perfect example is the marigold (pictured above), known since antiquity for its antispasmodic properties and for its peculiarity of only flowering on the first day of each summer month. It doesn’t take long to develop a liking for its excellent flavour either, since it is very similar to another far more expensive ingredient, saffron. Down through the centuries, it started to appear in various dishes, such as soups, to which it adds colour.
List of Edible Flowers
Which are the best flowers to use? There is a vast choice and it very much depends on personal tastes and requirements. However, some of the better known varieties are aniseed, apple blossom, artichoke, garlic and onion flowers; bee balm, begonia, marigold, chamomile daisy, carnation, chicory, daisy, geranium, gladioli, violet, lavender, mint, marjoram pansy, oregano and thyme.
What about a recipe? Nothing beats a simple salad: flowers, a generous dose of olive oil to add flavour and lustre and a few grains of smoked salt. Are you ready to fill your flower boxes?
Everything on the plate has to be eaten
Bee balm, on the other hand, rose to fame during the Boston Tea Party in 1773: when all the black tea had been used up, it was decided to adopt this flower as a substitute and its flavour, when used raw, was immediately appreciated.
Each edible flower has a story behind it, owing to the enormous difference between different species: in brief, there is no fixed rule when it comes to eating flowers and the only real requirement is, quite obviously, to avoid toxic varieties.
Then, the taste may be more or less intense but, very often, an edible flower is only used for decorative rather than olfactory purposes, according to the principle that “everything on the plate has to be eaten”. There are annual, biennial and perennial edible flowers, but they can also be found on bushes, trees and vines. Such variety is a precious resource that can be exploited to diversify each dish but it is important to follow a few basic guidelines when you decide to grow and gather edible flowers.
How to grow (and buy) edible flowers
First of all it is advisable to use soil with a pH value in the range between 5.5 and 6.5, with a preference for slightly acidic types. This should then be covered with a couple of centimetres of mulch, ready to retain moisture, which has to be constant and kept at a high level. Then, comes the hardest part: no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Edible flowers have to be grown naturally, also because they should not be washed.
If, on the other hand, you decide to buy some, it is advisable to check their origin (give preference to those grown locally), and make sure they are traceable. Flowers of this type must be gathered, or bought, only when they are in full bloom and fully opened, so they must be freshly gathered and sold on the same day.
To keep them fresh once purchased, put some absorbent paper moistened with water into a well sealed plastic bag and pop the flowers into it. Alternatively, they may be frozen but you will have to use them as soon as they come out of the freezer, possibly on top of a hot soup which, in the meantime, reduces them to room temperature. Another possibility is that of drying them, so long as you use them in dishes sure to rehydrate the flowers. No one enjoys chewing dried petals!