Diana Henry’s new ways to cook with flowers
They’ve long been used to add a heady perfume and sweetness to recipes – here, Diana shares new sweet and savoury recipes using a variety of flowers
Ihave a scent addiction. Some of the friendships I’ve made on social media – especially with those living in other countries – have been built on this shared passion. I stumbled into a network of perfume lovers one day – in that strange rabbit-down-a-hole way that is Twitter – and, as this network expanded, I realised that nearly everyone was also into food. That scent and food lovers overlap shouldn’t surprise: smell and taste are great sensual pleasures, and if you’re tuned into one, chances are you’ll be tuned into the other.
I was intrigued by the idea of using flowers in cooking when I was young. At a school fête, I became intoxicated with a cake covered in ivory-coloured icing and showered with crystallised rose petals. This cake could have been made by Snow White, I thought. It was first prize in a raffle that I didn’t win. To ease my disappointment, my mother bought me a bottle of violet perfume. If purple had a scent, I concluded, it would smell like this. Flowers and flower waters in cooking have gone in and out of fashion. Roman cooks flavoured wine with roses and violets. Flower waters were much used in Spain during the long period of Muslim occupation and in the cooking of medieval England, France and Italy. Salads scattered with primroses, violets, borage and daisies were served in the 15th century, and the fashion continued through the Tudor and Stuart periods. When I started to cook with flowers and flower waters, however, it provoked a slight curl of the lip. It was deemed old-fashioned, sickly-sweet. I carried on regardless, making lavender syrup in which to poach apricots and adding orange blosson water to marmalade ice cream. Then, just as I started to write about food, Middle Eastern cuisine started to become popular here and, gradually, flower waters became desirable again – they seemed exciting and new. Flower waters can be used in savoury as well as sweet dishes. A drop of orange blossom water in a Moroccan tagine of lamb and apricots gives a tantalising background note that you can’t quite put your finger on. Rose and orange blossom waters have to be used carefully, though – too much and your dish can taste soapy. And it’s a good idea to balance them. Even to something as simple as a flower water-flavoured cream to serve with fruit, I add some lemon or lime juice to cut the perfume just a little. Apart from the beauty they impart, I find flowers so nice to cook with because floral smells can do the same thing as good poetry. Poetry deals with the unsayable, the elusive – you want to pin its meaning down. Scents also create a sensation that you want to capture, but it can be fleeting (if a flower water has been used skilfully, you may even think you’ve imagined its presence). Not many ingredients make for as subtle or as intriguing an addition to a dish.
Good Food contributing editor Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer. Her new book, How to Eat a Peach (£25, Mitchell Beazley), is out now. @dianahenryfood