Flora cuisine – using flowers in everyday cooking

Flora Cuisine has become a visible food trend in recent times and Capital Hotel School’s head of department for Professional Cookery, Chef Alicia Giliomee provides some insight regarding the history and practice on the use of flowers in cooking:

Where did the practice of using edible flowers originate from?

It is as old as mankind itself. The gatherers used roots,fragrant scrubs and leaves (herbs), bark and seed (spices) as well as flowers(known for their pleasant pungeant aroma) to draw and infuse in potions. Some were used in ancient rituals and some just for the sheer enjoyment of it,but flowers (just as herbs and spices) have always held some mystical power of adornment.

Normally people aren’t sure if the flowers are there for decoration or to be eaten – what would you recommend using edible flowers for?

Firstly, as with any food item, herb or spice, make sure you know if it is to be used for medicinal or consumption purposes. If you are going to eat a flower in its raw form, gently nib off the calyx and stamens which are unpleasant and bitter to the taste. Then start experimenting with different flavour combinations by testing a few varieties. It’s like finding a good bottle of wine: the fun is in the tasting

Use fresh in salads, dressings, creams and coolers. Use dried and draw as an infusion for your favourite ice tea or stir into sauces, jellies and risotto just before service for a Avant Garde approach to dining.

What would be the need to use these flowers in cooking? Is it for presentation or taste?

I suppose you can ask the same about any other food item for that matter. The question is not what or why, but why not? Our global palate has been subjected to deeper, lingering aromas and flavours. So yes, there is a consideration and misconception with diners that Flora cuisine might not stand its own ground. However, a better understanding of how to use this delicate ingredient will prove that the pretty flower can sing her own aria on the plate (and not just look the part…).

Can you recommend some of your favourite edible flowers you use in your dishes? Both meals and desserts?

The Pungeant Lavender,Rose,Camomile and Jasmine petals and stems are very versatile indeed. I use them for sweet and savoury. They pair beautifully with beef,lamb,chicken and even pork. Shellfish stand up well to these pungent petals and pairs well with a slight heat element of chilli or a splash of white /rose wine.

Gentle infusions come from the Viola,Snapdragon,Sweet William  as well as Wisteria(to name but a few). These petals work well with lemon and can be used for sweet and savoury as well(as in the case of the Pungent flowers).

What is your favourite dish you make using edible flowers and why?

So much to choose! One of my favourite ones was a dish I prepared as Plat du Jour at Die Ou Pastorie,Somerset West years ago. It was a Tulip stuffed with White Choc Mousse, with mock Baklava sheets and a Vanilla-Jasmine infused Honey drizzle.

Another one would be a classic Lavender Bavarois with Raspberry-rose Coulis and Pistachio Melba.

How long have you been cooking with these kind of flowers?

For over 16 years. As with most chef,the fascination began with a simple recipe for Rose Petal jam from a Margaret Roberts book I read to within an inch of its life in the CJ Langenhoven Library in Oudtshoorn while still in high school

Is this kind of cooking/garnishing season specific?

As with any ingredient, there are certain season limitations. However, famers/urban growers have identified the gap in the market and with green houses, humidity and temperature control, the demand has been met.

Most important, when it comes to working with plant matter (as with animal matter), try to use virgin plants/blooms-untouched by pesticides and additional hormones. These components inherently cause a resistance barrier with the cells and it affects final flavour extraction during cooking. You can really taste the difference on the leaf structure-it is coarser has a slight bitter aftertaste.

To give people a better idea of why we recommend using edible flowers in their dishes – can you tell us what they taste like? It is fruity, bitter, sweet?

Every person’s palate will differ, as we all have certain preferences, but here are some of my flavour favourites:

  • Tulips-tastes like watermelon & dust combined. Torn leaves go great with watercress and chevin (goats cheese).
  • Marigold-slight pepperiness and gentle hint of dusty honey. The pepperiness pairs well with Malay-style curries and works well with Beef tartar.
  • Hibiscus- slight musk & redcurrant flavour. Pairs well when drawn for a tea or made into Tempura Hibuscus petals with a Lemon Verbena Emulsion.
  • Lavender-Sweet, lingering earthiness with a great deal of tannin. You need to be careful here (just as with a pungent herb like rosemary), for cream/jelly infusions when you need to heat up the lavender, only use the leaves and young stems. The blooms turn the mixture bitter. One such infusion that requires care is Napoleon’s Aphrodisiac- basically a deep and dark hot choc drink flavoured with lavender and a few other secret spices…
  • Rose-believe it or not,this petal’s sweetness is in the aroma. The fresh petal is actually quite bitter. So, when using the petals fresh in a salad or dessert, remember to nib off the white eye of the petal where it tapers down to the calyx.
  • Wisteria-just like plumbago it tastes of sweet nectar with a slight grape flavour.  Great with Brie and asparagus Quiche or turn it into a heavenly jam and serve with scones and clotted cream.
  • Sweet Williams (those mini single layer carnations)-musky pepperiness. Great with Sashimi and ginger. Also refreshing as the heat element in a summer Watermelon & Feta salad.
  • Nastursiums- pungent and slightly numbing on the tongue. Pairs well with white meats,fish and shellfish. My favourite is a Salmon and Nastursium Terrine paired with freshly grated radishes and tenderstem asparagus.
  • Borage-from the Celtic word “courage”, it was traditionally brewed into a tea for the men who went off to war. Now it creates peace on the plate with its deep blue regal petals and gentle cucumber flavour. Too delicate to endure heat-use fresh with Panna Cotta or a Chicken & Duck Terrine.

How does the flower enhance the meal in terms of taste, flavour, texture of dish, etc.?

The type of flower (as with herb/spice) will influence the listed measures above.

Used correctly, it can contribute to the final composition holistically and not just as window dressing. For example, lavender (as with saffron or cloves) is used sparingly-incidentally both Saffron and cloves are direct flower components (saffron-the stamens from the crocus flower; cloves-the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree).

When it comes to texture, the leaves are delicate, but as with some you can turn them into tempura/crystallized petals and it immediately turns the tables 180 degrees.

How would you prep to use an edible flower? Can it be used as it or is there certain parts of the flower that need to be removed before consumption?

Rinse in a light saline solution (salt water to kill or ward off unwanted insects or bacteria), rinse then under clear water very gently, gently shake off additional moisture droplets/place on paper towel. Before consumption remove the calyx with stamens.

Separate from eating the flowers, how else do you use these flowers to decorate? Ie: Freeze whole small flowers into ice rings or cubes for a pretty addition to punches and other beverages.

Sure, the ice-cube trick always impresses. You can line terrine or jelly moulds with petals

Crystallize petals by lightly brushing with raw egg white and then dusting with castor sugar, leave to dry and harden.

Dry in the windowsill and place in a salt grinder with some Himalayan salt, Pink Peppercorns and garlic flakes for a delicious savoury grind

Dip rose petals in chocolate and use as cake/dessert decoration

What are some of the most popular edible flowers you have noticed people using more often?

Violas, snapdragons, sweet Williams, Pansies, roses, lavender, jasmine, calendula

Do you have any of your own tips and tricks for the public on using edible flowers in cuisine?

As with all herbs/spices,there is two things you need to consider. What is the purpose of the product in the dish and at which time during the cooking /preparation/service time do I add it?

Knowledge and timing is key,but then again,all knowledge is there for the taking if we want to wake up and smell the roses…