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As the latest trend in haute cuisine, edible flowers have brought new botanical species to our plates. But if this is a recent discovery for foodies, the world’s great chefs have been using flowers as ingredients for more than a decade now: from rose petals to lavender, to more reassuring flowers like those of thyme, dill, coriander, chives or violets.
In the kitchen, flowers get used in the preparation of salads, gelatins, soups, flans, desserts and ice creams, and their use is not solely decorative: each one adds a unique, precise flavour to a dish. Calendula, for example, is slightly spicy; violet adds scent to everything; begonia has a citrus flavour and some spices like cloves can be immersed in wine, caramelized or used as decoration for cakes. And chrysanthemum flowers will add a pleasant bitter bite to your delicacies.
Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to try a dish called Water Lilies from Ferran Adrià of elBulli, will probably never forget the experience, or walk through a garden in the same way: cashews are served over a soup of tea, geranium leaves and begonia flowers. When it comes to botanical cuisine, Spain’s chefs have been leading the way. “If I want rosemary I can use its flowers, which have a fabulous aroma, rather than rosemary as such. Another thing we like about them is their texture,” the Catalan chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who’s been using edible flowers for years, has said. And its phrase that perfectly sums up the philosophy of those who go grocery shopping in the garden. This kind of approach is why flowers are so perfectly suited to the new kind of avant-garde cooking that seeks to satisfy all senses, not just our sense of taste.
Much more than just a “touch of colour” or a passing fad, starred chefs also use edible flowers as a tool for communication. In 1990, two French chefs, each with three Michelin stars, Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat began experimenting with flowers in order to safeguard a philosophy of cuisine that emphasizes the environment and sustainability. Themes that we all know well now, but that seemed almost radical twenty years ago.
Although really, nothing comes from nowhere: if we think of our grandparents or great-grandparents, it’s not hard to imagine them gathering nature’s bounty and bringing it to the table. And besides, botanically, vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and even artichokes are all actually flowers. The precious spice, saffron, is comes from the stamen of the crocus, and capers come from the flowers of this Mediterranean bush. Before trying your hand at experimentation, however, remember to wash flowers carefully before eating, don’t use anything bought at a florist’s, and don’t gather from the sidewalks. Use only the petals, and throw away the green parts. The darker ones are usually organic and are easily ordered online.
But how should you use them if you’re not necessarily a great chef? The easiest way is to mix them into a salad and dress to your liking. Just one last tip: the best moment to pick them is in the early morning, when the dew has just formed on the petals. Place them gently in a basket as if they were made of crystal. It will do you good both for your spirit as your mind.