I sprinkled thyme, sage and rocket flowers and little purple chive blossoms over salads and starters plates. In late spring when wild garlic was in season we enjoyed the pretty star (allium ursinum) and bell like (allium triquetrum) flowers in a myriad of ways.
Gradually I discovered that lots of garden flowers were also edible so I became more daring and flamboyant. I distinctly remember the first time I saw nasturtium flowers in a salad rather than a flower vase — what a revelation.
We were having supper with artists Anne and Louis Le Broque at their house near Ardgroom in Co Kerry. It was a memorable meal for several reasons, the boys had caught a bucket of fresh mackerel so Anne decided to salt and warm smoke them for supper.
While they were smoking she cooked some new potatoes from the village shop — they were freshly dug, floury and beautiful. While they were still warm, Anne chopped them into chunky cubes, seasoned them with salt and freshly ground pepper and tossed them in good extra virgin olive oil, wine vinegar and lots of chopped scallions and freshly snipped herbs.
Then she gathered some red, yellow and orange nasturtium flowers and sprinkled them over the top of the green flecked potato salad. Warm smoked mackerel, potato and nasturtium salad, followed by strawberries and thick rich cream for pudding — exquisitely simple but nonetheless a perfect feast.
I’ve just realised it was more than 30 years ago. Since then I’ve discovered there are literally hundreds and for all I know probably thousands of edible flowers — I discover more all the time and new ways to use them. As I sit in the garden writing this article I see six or seven edible flowers around me, daisies, red roses, day lilies, marigolds, pansies and the small johnny jump-ups, lavender.
On a recent trip to Cornwall, cook and garden photographer Melanie Eclare, who lives in Devon, also put the flowers of Pink Campion and Stitchwort into our salad for lunch — yet another discovery. I’ve added them to my ever growing list.
Flowers are of course more plentiful in Summer but even in the depths of Winter there are fragrant violets and early primrose blossoms and you’ll find some gorse flowers virtually year round. They too are pretty scattered over salads and make a delicious wine provided you are patient enough to wait for the best part of the year to drink it.
Here’s a short list to whet your appetite. Violets, primroses, dandelions flowers, daisies, jasmine, hyssop, elderflowers, rocket flowers, day lilies, nasturtiums, chrysanthemums, marigolds, lavender, violas, zucchini blossom, camomile, pansies, pinks, borage… Let me know your favourites and how you use them
Seek out organic flowers where you can — a word of caution, don’t use flowers that have been heavily sprayed for obvious reasons.
Pour a little of this rose petal syrup into a champagne glass and top up with Cava or Prosecco to make a gorgeous perfumed aperitif. Stir well and float a rose petal on top.
Makes 800ml (1½ pints)
225g (8oz) fragrant rose petals from an old variety of unsprayed roses
500ml (18fl oz) water
700g (1½lb) white sugar, warmed
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put the petals into a stainless-steel saucepan with the cold water. Bring to the boil over a medium heat and simmer gently for 20–30 minutes.
Strain the petals through a sieve, pressing to get out as much of the liquid as possible. Add the warmed sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice, bring back to the boil and simmer, uncovered, until thick and syrupy. Pour into bottles and seal.
This recipe comes from Sarah Raven’s new book Food for Family and Friends with photography by Jonathan Buckley — published by Bloomsbury.
A couscous or bulgur wheat salad makes a good change from new potatoes and goes with almost any meat or fish.
Serves 4-5, ready in 15 minutes
500ml good quality vegetable stock (of bouillon powder)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Large handful fresh mint, chopped
Large handful fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
Grated zest and juice of one lemon
Grated zest and juice of one lime
Large handful edible flowers, such as runner bean and chicory flowers, marigolds, violas, rocket flowers and nasturtiums
Put the stock in a saucepan and bring to the boil, or dissolve the bouillon in boiling salted water according to pack instructions.
Put the couscous into a deep bowl, pour over the olive oil and stock or bouillon and stir just once to combine. Cover and leave for 10 minutes to allow the grains to soften before forking it through.
Done this way, your couscous should be dry, with each grain separated rather than a claggy mush.
Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the herbs, lemon and lime juice and zest.
Transfer the couscous to a serving bowl. Sprinkle over the edible flowers and serve.
This magical recipe transforms perfectly ordinary ingredients into a delicious sparkling drink. The children make it religiously every year and then share the bubbly with their friends.
2 heads of Elderflowers
560g (1¼lb) sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4.5L (8pints) water
Remove the peel from the lemon with a swivel top peeler.
Pick the elderflowers in full bloom. Put into a bowl with the lemon peel, lemon juice, sugar, vinegar and cold water.
Leave for 24 hours, and then strain into strong screw top bottles. Lay them on their sides in a cool place.
After two weeks it should be sparkling and ready to drink.
Despite the sparkle this drink is non-alcoholic.
The bottles need to be strong and well sealed; otherwise the elderflower champagne will pop its cork.
When to Pick: Flowers in profusion in early summer but you’ll find some blooms almost all year round.
As the old saying goes, ‘When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion!’
The ubiquity of gorse — or furze as it is called in Ireland — around the Irish landscape, meant that it was once widely used as fuel, as fodder for livestock, to make fences, hurleys and walking sticks, for harrowing, for cleaning chimneys, to fuel bakers’ ovens and limekilns.
We love a few blossoms added to salad, steeped in boiling water for tea or dropped into a whiskey glass for a fragrant tipple.
Look for the spiky bushes growing near the sea, with yellow flowers that stay in bloom nearly all year.
Wear gloves to harvest the flowers, as the thorns can be very sharp.
We love this recipe — it makes a fragrant, slightly effervescent, very refreshing summer drink. It comes from Roger Phillip’s Wild Food — a book no serious forager should be without.
Makes about 4.8 litres (8 pints)
2 litres (3½ pints) gorse flowers
About one teaspoon general purpose non-GM yeast
1kg (2.2lb) granulated sugar
Juice and zest of two organic lemons
Juice and zest of two organic oranges
Pick nice fresh flowers that have come out fully.
Activate the yeast by stirring into a little tepid water.
Simmer the flowers in 4.5 litres (one gallon) water for 15 minutes then dissolve the sugar, pour into a bucket and add citrus juice and zest.
Allow to cool to blood heat, add the yeast and let it stand with a cloth over it.
After three days, strain off the solids and pour into a fermentation jar, fit an airlock and allow it to ferment until it is finished. Rack off into a clean jar, making it up to the full amount with cold boiled water.
Leave for a month and then filter, or leave until completely clear then bottle in sterilised bottles.
Honey and lavender is a particularly delicious marriage of flavours. We make this richly scented ice cream when the lavender flowers are in bloom in early summer. Lavender is at its most aromatic just before the flowers burst open. Serve it totally alone on chilled plates and savour every mouthful.
250ml (9floz) milk
450ml (16floz) cream
40 sprigs of fresh lavender or less of dried (use the blossom end only)
6 organic egg yolks
175ml (6 fl oz) pure Irish honey, we use our own apple blossom honey, although Provencal lavender honey would also be wonderful
Garnish: Sprigs of lavender
Put the milk and cream into a heavy bottomed saucepan with the lavender sprigs, bring slowly to the boil and leave to infuse for 15-20 minutes. This will both flavour and perfume the cream deliciously.
Whisk the egg yolks, add a little of the lavender flavoured liquid and then mix the two together.
Cook over a low heat until the mixture barely thickens and lightly coats the back of a spoon (careful it doesn’t curdle).
Melt the honey gently, just to liquefy, whisk into the custard. Strain out lavender heads.
Chill thoroughly and freeze, preferably in an ice-cream maker.
Serve garnished with sprigs of fresh or frozen lavender.
This is the solution my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen created for keeping the ice-cream cold on the sweet trolley in Ballymaloe House. “In desperation I produced an ice bowl. It turned out to be a stunning and practical presentation for a restaurant trolley or a party buffet”
Take two bowls, one about double the capacity of the other. Half fill the big bowl with cold water. Float the second bowl inside the first. Weigh it down with water or ice cubes until the rims are level. Tuck some leaves in between the two bowls. Place a square of fabric on top and secure it with a strong rubber band or string under the rim of the lower bowl, as one would tie on a jam pot cover. Adjust the small bowl to a central position. The cloth holds it in place. Put the bowls on a Swiss roll tin and place in a deep freeze, if necessary re-adjusting the position of the small bowl as you put it in. After 24 hours or more take it out of the deep freeze.
Remove the cloth and leaves for 15-20 minutes, by which time the small bowl should lift out easily. Then try to lift out the ice-bowl. It should be starting to melt slightly from the outside bowl, in which case it will slip out easily. If it isn’t, then just leave for five or 10 minutes more. Don’t attempt to run it under the hot or even cold tap, or it may crack. If you are in a great rush, the best solution is to wring out a tea-towel in hot water and wrap that around the large bowl for a few minutes. Altogether the best course of action is to perform this operation early in the day and then fill the ice bowl with scoops of ice-cream, so that all you have to do when it comes to serving the ice-cream is to pick up the ice bowl from the freezer and place it on the serving dish. Put a folded serviette under the ice bowl on the serving dish to catch any drips.
At Ballymaloe, Myrtle Allen surrounds the ice bowl with vine leaves in summer, scarlet Virginia creeper in autumn and red-berried holly at Christmas.
As you can see I’m a bit less restrained and I can’t resist surrounding it with flowers.! However you present it, ice-cream served in a bowl of ice like this usually draws gasps of admiration when you bring it to the table.
In the restaurant we make a new ice-bowl every night, but at home when the dessert would be on the table for barely half an hour, it should be possible to use the ice bowl several times. As soon as you have finished serving, give the bowl a quick wash under the cold tap and get it back into the freezer again. This way you can often get two or three turns from a single ice bowl.
Don’t leave a serving spoon resting against the side of the bowl or it will melt a notch in the rim.