Chefs have been using petals and buds to enhance their kitchen creations for centuries. The Romans regularly munched on petals as part of their diet; the humble dandelion got a mention in the Old Testament as a bitter herb, and edible flowers were all the rage with upper-class Victorians. Last seen in nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s, petals and buds are making a comeback, adding elegance and colour to menus, but this time more home grown than haute cuisine.
Edible flowers can be sourced online and in certain high-end green grocers. This year's surge in popularity has led to them being available, for the first time, on UK supermarket shelves. Waitrose has launched a range including violas and nasturtiums, which will be available until September.
Edible flowers come in various sizes, varieties and colours. Tastes vary from warm and sweet to spicy and savoury and many grow particularly well in the fabled English country garden.
Among the most popular are carnation petals, which are sweet, are used as a cake decoration and which were one of the ingredients in the French liqueur, chartreuse. Cornflower has a spicy, clove-like flavour and is usually used as a garnish. Dandelions are sweet when picked young, are good raw or steamed or made into wine. Roses have a sweet aromatic flavour - be sure to remove the bitter white portion of the petal - and there are many recipes using them. Chrysanthemums have a tangy flavour, ranging from peppery to a mild cauliflower taste. The petals should be blanched and then scattered on a salad. The leaves can also be used to flavour vinegar, but remember to remove the bitter flower base.
But before you start ravaging your flower beds, bear in mind these words of advice:
● Some flowers can give you a terrible bellyache - or even kill you. Buy a good reference book or look them up online.
● Do not eat flowers that have been sprayed with pesticide. Only those that have been grown organically are safe.
● Be aware that some flowers need preparation to render them fit for consumption.
● Don't overdo - edible flowers are not meant to be eaten with all meals.
● Wash all flowers thoroughly and remove pistils and stamens before you eat them.
One of the biggest supplier of edible blooms to the international market is Israel. Husband and wife Shimon and Shula Mizrachi grow and pack 35 varieties on 20 hectares in Beer-Yaakov, near Lod. They are the only grower of edible flowers used by Agrexco, the Israeli agricultural exporter.
The Mizrachis started out as courgette farmers. Courgettes have a beautiful yellow edible flower - delicious deep-fried. (As a matter of interest, the flowers are either male or female - the latter producing the actual courgettes.) Agrexco invited the Mizrachis to expand into growing more edible flowers. Over the years, their repertoire has grown to 35 different varieties, all of which must be ready to harvest at any one time.
Their flowers are grown in glasshouses, to ensure a continuous harvest and strict hygiene levels. With a six-day shelf life, efficient logistics are crucial and so the Mizrachi's organisation is based close to the airport. The company deals with bespoke orders and sources particular flowers, styles or colours for individual customers. They are air freighted to their destinations, which include the US and many European countries.