Garnishes in salads or on top of dishes are the most popular method of using flowers yet all too frequently they remain uneaten, simply due to a lack of knowledge concerning their edible nature. Produce Business UK investigates
Janet Billington of Maddocks Farm Organics believes that chefs should be taking more notice of flowers and see them as an opportunity to innovate. “I see people on MasterChef putting a stem of borage on food,” she says. “The flowers are edible but the stem is not. People do not realise that and it ends up as a garnish, which gets thrown away at the end. I despair because there is such a missed opportunity to create something special with the flowers.”
The sight of flowers in food creates a very attractive appearance and smaller flowers in particular are popular for their decorative effect. But even larger plants, such as cornflowers for example, can be dissected and petals spread around a plate.
Billington says: “There is a huge opportunity to use edible flowers in many different ways. There’s a wide range of flowers that can be used as ingredients with intense aromas, tastes and colours. There are flowers that will give an intense heat like a mustard, which are perfect with meats, or beautiful citrus flavours that work well with fish and chicken. Each type of begonia has a different taste while Sweet Woodruff used to be known as fairy ambrosia and is ideal for infusions or used in panna cotta.”
History and diversity
Using flowers in cooking is nothing new – they have been used in this way for centuries. Elderflowers have traditionally been used as a sweet or turned into cordials. Candied flowers such as pansies, rose petals, and angelica stems are equally popular. “Making elderflower gin and other flower-based products was common in Victorian times Billington says. “The tide seems to be turning and these things are coming back. There is more of a trend towards using old fashioned herbs and flowers.”
The scope for innovation is certainly immense. Matt Mason, head chef at The Jack in the Green in Rockbeare, Devon is one of the innovative proponents of edible flowers. He says: “One should use edible flowers as a worthy component on any given dish especially in season. Sweet Woodruff makes a divine vodka jelly, while American land cress and mustard flowers are more mustardy than mustard. Lavender makes a delicate crème brûlée and we make the most beautiful violet sorbet that tastes like Parma Violets. As an experiment we are infusing chamomile to our brûlée custard base. One of our breads this summer is a focaccia using rosemary flowers, seasalt and local honey with roasted garlic. Oxalis is so lemony and is beautiful with any fish, tagetes is so vibrant in colour and stunning to taste on our passion-fruit cheesecake, and nasturtiums make a wonderful pesto to go with a chilled summer tomato soup.”
Scaled up demand
Nurtured in Norfolk is one of the biggest mass producers of edible flowers. The company has noticed a steady increase in demand, with sales already rising from 20% to 25% of turnover this year. It is not just violas and pansies that are in demand – premium packs of mixed flowers that include apple blossom, nasturtiums and orchid buds are increasingly popular.
And James Seymour, marketing and development manager at producer Westlands is finding some restaurants are getting more adventurous. “Chefs are asking for plants no one else has used,” he says. “This is the first year we have included English roses in our selections. We have noticed a lot of interest in historical recipes using flowers. We have seen demand grow from a niche product to a mainstream offer with supermarkets including flowers in their bagged salads.”
Growers find a niche
And conversely, the fact that these flowers have begun to make an impact on chefs, has not gone unnoticed by savvy growers. Niche food producers are quietly turning to edible flowers to create innovative products. Eat my Flowers is a Welsh company that has developed into producing crystallised flowers and flower lollipops. “One of our first customers was Harrods,” says owner Sarah Hughes. “The demand for the lollies is growing every year. We have a special way of manufacturing which means we can maximise the shelf life which means they are becoming more and more popular as corporate gifts as well as among our established customer base as wedding and event favours.”
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the award-winning Uncle Roy’s Comestible Concoctions has a range of unique flower-petal seasonings such as Moffat Meadows and Flowers of Scotland that are used to add colour and flavour to pastry, mashed vegetables, coleslaw, sauces and confectionery. These seasonings combine masses of brightly coloured flower petals with herbs and country flavours such as wild garlic.
Edible flowers are widely used at special events such as weddings and other functions. Cakes are decorated with real and crystallised flowers, while flowers are frequently added to drinks. The drinks sector is increasingly regarded as a major growth area for the use of plants with companies using all kinds of flowers including tagetes, which has a citrus flavour ideal for cocktails. Edible flowers have also begun to appear in ice creams and Ronaldo’s in Norwich offers lavender flavoured ice cream in season.
Not a bed of roses
Although awareness of the possibilities presented by edible flowers is increasing within many sectors of the food industry, there is also a downside caused by lack of knowledge. Often people have little awareness of seasons or even what is available; growers have had requests for roses that match dress fabrics in shades such as teal.
There is also the hygiene issue. It is not a matter of simply going into the garden and picking a few flowers. Not all flowers can be used, and these must be of food grade quality as Billington points out. “A lot of brides go to local florists and buy flowers to put on top of their wedding cake. But 80% of the flowers sold in the UK are imported and are routinely sprayed during growth, and are also sprayed with insecticides on coming into the UK. The chemicals and insecticides pass down into the cake. I recently saw a wedding cake with Euphorbia stems poked into the cake itself. Every aspect of this plant is poisonous!”