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An illustrated guide to edible flowers

An illustrated guide to edible flowers

by Great British Chefs 07 February 2017

A bouquet of flowers is all well and good, but why not incorporate some petals into your cooking? Here are some of the prettiest and most flavourful.

Edible flowers are cropping up everywhere these days, from restaurant plates to cupcakes, and it’s easy to see why. They’re a simple, elegant way of bringing colour to any dish and nothing says ‘fancy’ like a few petals strewn throughout a salad or a blossom-bedecked dessert.

Yet edible flowers are so much more than a garnish. They’re delicious as well as beautiful, offering unique flavours and aromas that makes them much more than window dressing.

Technically speaking, broccoli, artichokes and capers are all edible flowers but the more decorative types – the ones that would work in a vase as well as on a plate – have also been eaten for centuries. They can be steeped into teas, pickled, rolled into pasta dough, stuffed, turned into jams and preserves or used as flavourings.

Edible flowers are available online and at farmer’s markets or many can be picked wild or grown in the garden. There are just a few rules: know what you are eating as some flowers are poisonous, remember to check carefully for insects or dirt and never pick anything that has grown by the roadside or in public parks as they could be contaminated by traffic fumes or pesticides. Flowers are best used as fresh as possible but can be kept in the fridge for up to a week, wrapped carefully in a damp paper towel inside an airtight container.

Here are a few of the most popular edible flowers and how to eat them.

Borage

Borage

Also known as starflower, borage’s tiny, five-pointed blossoms are usually blue but occasionally come in pink or white. They have a mild cucumber flavour with a hint of honey and are a lovely addition to many dishes, particularly salads and desserts.

The flowers can be candied to decorate cakes by brushing gently with egg white and sprinkling with sugar. They can also be infused into a simple syrup for use in cocktails, look beautiful frozen into ice cubes and are a popular garnish for Pimm’s.

Camomile

Camomile

Daisy-like chamomile has a slightly sweet, apple flavour. Their best known use is probably in tea which can be made with fresh or dried flowers and is thought to have a stomach-settling and mildly soporific effect. Many children’s introduction to the idea is probably Peter Rabbit being given a dose of this soothing tincture after his run in with Mr McGregor! The flavours pair well with honey and lemon and can be baked into cakes and crumble toppings, used as a flavouring for creamy desserts such as panna cotta or stirred into porridge as it cooks.

Cornflower

Cornflower

The cornflower’s beautiful blue colour is very striking and remains nearly as vibrant even when the petals have been dried. It grows as a weed in grain fields, hence the name, and has a sweetish, spicy flavour, sometimes described as clove-like. Fresh, it makes a beautiful garnish for salads or the dried petals can be used in baking.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus

The large trumpet-shaped and brightly coloured flowers of the hibiscus plant are usually found dried. Steeped in water they make a tangy tea with a flavour not unlike cranberries, which is high in vitamin C and antioxidants. In Egypt this is known as karkade and drunk either hot or cold, while in Mexico it is a popular flavour of agua fresca.

The dried flowers can also be used to make ice creams, sorbets, jellies and syrups for cocktails (a preserved bloom sits beautifully in the bottom of a Champagne flute), or blitzed into a powder and incorporated into meringues.

Rehydrated flowers can also be added to savoury dishes including soups, stews and tacos. Their high levels of tannins makes them a useful addition to marinades for meat. The fresh flowers are milder in flavour and look beautiful in both fruit and savoury salads.

Marigold

Marigold

Also known as calendula, marigolds are easy to grow but only the petals can be eaten. Fresh, they have a spicy, citrusy flavour, sometimes with bitter notes, and can be scattered over salads. Cooked they don’t taste of much but add a beautiful golden hue to all sorts of dishes including soups, pastas and risottos. Historically marigold petals were used to colour butter and cheeses and were known as ‘poor man’s saffron’.

Nasturtium

Nasturtium

Yellow and orange nasturtium flowers are a classic addition to summer garden salads. With their distinctive peppery flavour, they have real impact – something hinted at by their Latin name which translates as ‘nose bite’. The whole flowers can be stuffed (cream cheese works very well) and the leaves are edible too. They can be used in salads in place of watercress, in omelettes and potato salads or as a base for canapés. Even the seed pods can be eaten, pickled and used in place of capers.

Violas

Viola

Flowers of the viola family, including pansies, violas and violets, come in a variety of sizes and colours. They are some of the most popular edible blooms with a mild, grassy flavour that makes them suitable for use in both sweet and savoury dishes. The exception is scented Parma violets whose heady, perfumed flavour will be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the sweets of the same name as a child and only really works in desserts. Sugared or fresh, they make classy decorations for cakes and a few crystallised petals are a nice addition to a cocktail or glass of Champagne. The heart-shaped leaves can also be eaten, either fresh in salads when young or lightly cooked if a little older.

Rose

Rose

All varieties of rose are edible and petals are widely used as a flavouring across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, most obviously in desserts, ice creams and sweets (think gulab jamum or Turkish delight). The petals look stunning on cakes and trifles and make lovely jams, both on their own or combined with strawberries or raspberries. They can be infused into a simple syrup for use in cocktails and a few petals make a great addition to a G&T.

Roses can make an appearance in savoury dishes, too; the dried petals are used in ground spice mixtures like ras el hanout which are then used in tagines and to flavour grilled meats (rose is a particularly popular partner for quail). The more fragrant the flower the stronger the flavour will be, so go easy with it to stop your dish ending up with a soapy air.

Wild garlic

Wild garlic

Wild garlic can be pricey at the farmer’s market so it’s a joy to come across on a woodland walk. It flowers between April and June and the tiny, white blooms have a delicate garlic scent and flavour and are a pretty addition to salads. The leaves are delicious too; raw, they retain their mild garlicky flavour which recedes into a gentle allium sweetness when cooked.

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