Flowers to dine for
The gentle art of using culinary flowers
The blast of sun and heat this balmy Easter weekend super-charged the daffies and got the green blood flowing in every gardener’s veins. With flower power growing every day, there’s no better time to think about getting these gorgeous things out of the vase and onto your dinnerplate – even check out those Easter bouquets for edible options.
If you think you’ve never eaten a flower, you’re probably wrong. Most of us love artichokes, which are simply immature flowers, and likely the biggest flowers we’ll ever eat. Then there’s good old broccoli. Those tiny green buds eventually open into yellow flowers, often in your crisper drawer if you forget them at the bottom.
Flowers can go flamboyant or international. Candied violas garnish creations in patisseries throughout France. Rose water lends a lovely fragrant note to East Indian sweets. Day lily petals are integral to Chinese hot and sour soup. Or they can come in a very humble form – you’ve likely tried simple herbal teas replete with flowers. Chamomile, hibiscus and orange blossoms are common favourites.
So why did dinner guests on one festive occasion squawk like geese when they spied the calendula petals on a chocolate cake I was serving?
"People just haven’t been exposed to the idea of eating flowers," says Bernard Casavant, the creative wizard behind Chef Bernard’s Café, and a longtime advocate of using culinary flowers. "They are used to flowers as the centerpiece on the table. You will see a lot of people use them as a garnish, but few actually eat them."
Perhaps the reticence stems from certain preconceptions: we eat vegetables, which are practical, and not flowers, which are precious. Some people might even think that flowers are harmful, since no one has taught them otherwise.
The practical bits of flower eating
First and foremost, know thy source. Ensure that your flowers come from a place free from herbicides and weed-and-feed fertilizers. Chef Bernard goes one step further and cautions against using everyday flowers, even for garnishes. Once edible flowers are in season, usually around Father’s Day, he only uses reliable sources like Lillooet Lake Herbs, on the way to Lillooet, and Across the Creek Organics, in Pemberton Valley. Culinary flowers are those that are second-generation herbicide/pesticide free. So even if you grow your own flowers from seed, you really should use them only after the second generation since seeds are often treated with fungicides and other chemicals.
When it comes to flower tasting, think of it a bit like wine tasting. Once you’re sure your flower is free from contaminants, including bugs, nibble a petal. Close your eyes and savour the flavour. You don’t usually gobble down the whole thing; it’s more a petal-by-petal experience.