Flowers, flowers everywhere: in gardens; in meadows; in our dear moms' bouquets for Mothers' Day this Sunday; and, if you'll give them a try, flowers on your plate.
Such a sweet time of year, with the promise of summer to come, and nothing says it sweeter than flowers you can eat. Visually sweet, yes, but also sweet in sense and sensibility when they're served up as a dash of festive colour in a salad of spring greens or as an alluring finishing touch on just about anything you'd care to add them to.
They can also be sweet on the palate, or a bit piquant. Then there are the ones that are somewhat shy and retiring in flavour, like a violet, or violas, to be exact, which Pemberton's North Arm Farm has been supplying lately to Whistler and Vancouver chefs at CinCin, Pidjin, Aura at Nita Lake Lodge, and Vancouver Club.
The latter alone wanted two pounds. But edible flowers are, after all, nothing if not delicate, so that would be one heck of a lot of flowers to use before they fade into wilting wallflowers.
"They're highly perishable," says Trish Sturdy on a Bluetooth call from her van while heading south on Highway 99 to deliver clamshells of the fresh-faced violas. Co-owner of North Arm along with her husband and local MLA, Jordan Sturdy, she first encountered edible flowers at the Northwest Territories pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver, where they served a salad sprinkled with blue, orange and pink wildflower petals.
"Even now as I pick them, I mist them with cold water because they need to be kept cool and moist," she adds. Would-be flower pickers take note: The fragile flowers are transported carefully to their restaurant destinations inside a cooler.
But if you're lucky enough to have your own edible flowers growing in pots or your garden, just go out and pick them right before eating. Violas, or Johnny-Jump-Ups as they're also called, are a lovely and easy-to-grow edible introduction. With their charming faces, mild lettuce-y taste, and flamboyantly coloured offerings — yellow, white, orange, blue-violet, deep indigo or a mixture of any or all of the above — you can't go wrong. Plus they're hardy and self-seeding so they come back year after year.
Chefs, however, are better off growing their own flowers, says Trish, because they start to deteriorate the minute you pick them. And that's exactly what Aura executive chef Paul Moran is doing at Nita Lake Lodge, where they have a large rooftop garden, thanks to Jesse Fromovitz at Good Time Farming in Squamish.
"We grow a lot of aromatics and the way we design our garden we aren't obsessed with cutting our herbs down so they don't go to seed, because that is actually the goal," Paul says.
Later, when the garden gets growing, they'll be using a host of edible flowers from parsley, fennel, arugula, chives and radishes as well as mustard flowers that grow wild in Pemberton Valley. But until his rooftop flowers bloom, he's using North Arm Farm's violas to add visual zing to a lovely radish and creamy goat cheese appetizer you can treat mom to on Mothers' Day.
It starts with a dollop of Okanagan goat cheese thinned to a nice consistency with farmhouse cream from Agassiz, then topped with a variety of radishes North Arm has expertly stored over the winter — black ones, green ones, watermelon ones with red insides and green exteriors — plus a few young spring radishes with the green tops still attached, which he gets from Good Time Farming (don't throw out those fresh radish greens. They're tender and edible, too, perfect for salads and sandwiches).
Chives and sorrel are sprinkled on top, with a final dusting of viola flowers to pull your eyes, along with your palate, into the start of a great meal.
"The flowers are there for a reason. The visuals are definitely part of it... they draw you into the plate, really," Paul says. But they're also there to add freshness, and a light sweet note.
This dish is easy to prepare yourself for friends and moms, plus it's a real showstopper, says Paul. For the goat cheese and cream mixture, use about 25 per cent cream, then mix in some pepper and lemon zest because the cheese is quite salty. Using the guide above, the rest is up to you.
But don't stop your exploration with flowers there. When they're available, try cooking with dandelion buds, just before they open (sauté them like you would asparagus). Wild elderflowers are just coming into season; these you can dip into tempura batter and fry like tempura. Dip them in tempura sauce or dust them with confectioner's sugar and have them for dessert with ice cream.
Borage; lavender; calendula and bachelor button petals. Nasturtium blossoms with their beautiful shape and distinctive peppery flavour. Squash blossoms and day lilies you can cook — all of these flowers lend a special, flamboyant touch to your plate, not just your centerpiece. Or try steeping your favourites, like wild rose or salmonberry flowers, in an infusion. Heat your water to 80 degrees celsius and steep them as long as you like.
The bigger joy of all this is that flowers may actually be very healthy.
Flowers have been used in cuisine and teas for centuries in China, where chefs are considered to also be a kind of medical practitioner. A recent Chinese study of 10 flowers traditionally eaten, including tree peony, Japanese honeysuckle, China rose, safflower, French lavender and a variety of hibiscus, showed that several had high levels of phenolic compounds, which are associated with high levels of antioxidant activity.
"I didn't know there were health benefits — I just thought they looked nice on your plate. You can certainly eat them, so all the better," says Trish.
If you would like to learn more about the joys of edible flowers and where to find them — in this case wild ones — Paul is leading sustainable foraging expeditions starting at Nita Lake Lodge, 9 a.m. to 12 noon every Wednesday. You'll learn how to forage in the wild without destroying the plant. That night you'll enjoy a long table dinner with all the foraged wildflowers you've found. Reservations recommended: 604-966-5700.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who encourages you to dine with fresh flowers.