Saying it with edible flowers

Edible flowers are one of summer’s biggest food trends, writes Joe McNamee.

Saying it with edible flowers

Edible flowers are one of summer’s biggest food trends, writes Joe McNamee.

When my daughter was younger, she had a particular stunt that was always good for a giggle, never bettered than the morning she pulled it on her Montessori teacher, fetching up at the school door, cute, curly, and doe-eyed, clutching a bunch of flowers in tiny fist, a stray waif from a mawkishly sentimental Hallmark card. ‘Oh!’ teacher gushed, ‘are those flowers for us?’ Silently locking eyes with said teacher, daughter then proceeds to take a monstrous chomp, filling mouth with flower heads and settling into some pretty remorseless masticating as teacher shrieked in horror, subsequently refusing to try one even when it was explained that these were three cornered leek flowers, an edible allium.

Now eight, she rarely if ever does it for shock value but rather for sheer pleasure and will happily take a new friend for a tour of the garden and some extended floral grazing. One mother was astonished when her own picky eater proceeded to in turn demonstrate all these newly discovered tastes. As she declined to join in the sampling, I fancied this picky ‘apple’ may not have fallen far from a picky ‘tree’, an echo of my own cheffing days almost 30 years ago when I’d send out salad bowls with nasturtiums and marigolds (calendula) yet flowers would return untouched. But change is most definitely afoot as Irish diners grow more open to new experiences with Irish chefs responding in kind and before eyes are cast too far heavenward, keep in mind, humans have been eating flowers for thousands of years.

Apicius, a Roman collection of recipes from the 1st century AD, includes rose pie, custard and pudding along with fried frog’s legs served with a salsa verde and fennel flowers. The Romans named calendula thus having observed it blooming on the first day of the month. Indeed, calendula petals served as a poor man’s saffron, which is derived from the crocus sativa, cultivated for culinary and other uses others for over 3,000 years.

It remains the most expensive spice in the world, retailing for anything up to $5,000 per pound, hardly surprising when you consider a pound requires the cultivation and harvesting of at least 75,000 flowers. Floral teas including hibiscus, rose and jasmine have been drunk for hundreds of years and Irish home bakers have been frosting rose petals and violas for flavour and edible decoration for generations. When I (quite deliberately, to subsequently make a point) served the aforementioned picky mother and child a glass of elderflower cordial, they guzzled it back without batting an eyelid.

Michelin-starred chef Martijn Kaijuiter, of the Cliff House Hotel, in Ardmore, Co Waterford, has been adding flowers to dishes for almost two decades, beginning at Restaurant de Kas, in Amsterdam, sited in a plant nursery.

“The flowers I use, usually reference the dish or plant. It is always a visually striking addition to any dish but in terms of flavour it is like having an orchestra playing on the plate: all the main ingredients are playing and then suddenly there is a tiny sound, like a ping that goes almost unnoticed but without it, something is missing; that is the flower.

“Between the cosmetic, edible and functional characteristics of the flower, there’s always a bit of tension. I learnt my lesson. I flowered the living daylights out of dishes when I was younger but it overwhelmed them but I’m getting a little bit older and wiser now. At the moment I am working with rosemary flower. When you put it on a lemon sorbet with a bit of sea salt, it gives it such nuance, a lovely flowery tone that gives it so much depth.”

A of colourful edible flowers and gourmet baby leaf mix and a bunch of edible pea flowers grown at Bumblebee Farm.
A of colourful edible flowers and gourmet baby leaf mix and a bunch of edible pea flowers grown at Bumblebee Farm.

But before you start chowing down at the nearest vase, remember sourcing is of crucial importance — not all flowers are edible, even supposedly ‘edible’ ones. Mags Riordan along with daughter Emma Riordan Davies own and operate Bumblebee Farm, in Drimoleague in West Cork, and count some of Ireland’s top chefs amongst their clients. A former fashion designer, Mags moved west in the 90s and developed her ‘addiction’ to flowers.

“I trained to become a professional florist in the late 90s and started working with commercial flowers but developed an awful allergy on my hands to the toxins in the sprays used on them. I started researching and it horrified me what goes into them, so I began growing my own.”

Mags was selling flowers and plants at markets as well as supplying flowers for weddings when a bride asked her for a bouquet for a two-year-old flower girl with a serious oral fixation, whereby every single thing she handled went into the mouth for additional testing. “I researched and learned about 60% of my flowers were edible and because I was growing organically they were fit for human consumption. You CANNOT eat flowers from garden centres, even edibles like marigolds or violas, because they are not grown as a food crop and are sprayed and are full of toxins — even the seed could be treated—but mine were fine in that respect. I really started researching then and got hooked and it was at a time when edible flowers were coming back again. [Chef] Bryan McCarthy [of Greene’s restaurant, in Cork] gave us our first break. In the first year or two he kept that side of the business going — he loved them and his support was invaluable. We’ve learned to target our market and we now supply all sorts — Nasturtiums, calendula, cornflowers, aquilegia, roses, snapdragon antirrhinum (snapdragons), alliums, borage, along with unusual pea and bean flowers — to the likes of Greene’s, Takashi Miyazaki, Dylan McGrath and Ashford Castle.” Daughter Emma, having deferred her law degree in UCC to work full time with Mags, is currently developing a range of floral syrups for use in cocktails that are set to take the country by storm.

“When I first started working with Mum, I thought they’d look lovely in drinks and started playing around with them as garnishes but I realised I could make syrups and because of how we grow, our flavours are ten times as potent as anything similar you might find in the supermarket.

“The quality of what I was producing was better than anything else out there. It was like bottling the flower farm: the smell was divine, the taste incredible. We have been working exclusively with Tipperary Boutique Distillery but I am doing the Supervalu Food Academy to help develop a range of Bumblebee Farm cordials and syrups to bring to market later this year — and the only reason this is possible is because Mum is growing such a wide variety of exceptionally high quality flowers just outside our door.”

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