Edible flowers: a world of flavour

YEARS ago, when I was just developing an interest in growing plants, I found myself raving at the television about a programme on gardening. The presenter was encouraging us to eat edible flowers.

Even though I’d never eaten one, I just couldn’t see the point.

“Why would I eat something that doesn’t even give me the calories to chew it?” was one of my politer observations.

My now-wife ordered me outside to eat a nasturtium flower. I did as I was told, as I knew it would be awful. Of course it wasn’t. It was a revelation, genuinely unlike anything I had eaten before, unravelling in a series of flavours: initially very much like rocket, followed by honey as you get into the nectar, with a short sharp shock of peppery heat at the end.

I said my apologies to the television immediately and a few years later thanked Sarah in person for stirring my interest in a world of flavourful flowers I had not wanted to be without.

And nasturtiums are still the ones I would recommend as the perfect stepping stone for the sceptical – eat one of them whole if you have never tried them.

Courgettes, daylilies and nasturtiums are among the most substantial of the edible flowers – each delicious raw, yet also capable of being stuffed, battered and deep fried. All have an underlying pepperiness but each has its own character.

Courgette flowers, for example, have a clean, gentle mustard to their petals that is beautifully complemented by the fresh, sweet crunch of the base.

This combination makes them particularly good deep-fried, having been stuffed with either ricotta and chopped herbs or leftover risotto (see recipe below).

Picking them needn’t reduce your courgette harvest if you slice off the male flowers – those without a small courgette developing behind the base.

Daylilies are perennial, best grown from young plants.

While almost all of the plant is edible, it is the flower I like most. They were made to be eaten – beautiful as they are, the blooms last only for a day, so enjoy their looks while the sun is high before pinching them off to eat towards the end of the afternoon, just before they fade.

Batter and fry them by all means, but try them raw too – the flavour is somewhere between sweet lettuce and green beans, with a peppery freshness reminiscent of the best radish.

As with nasturtiums, the yellow-flowered daylilies tend to be milder than darker-coloured varieties.

Most of the other edible flowers offer a splash of colour and flavourful punctuation rather than a dominating presence: they are no less lovely for it.

My current favourite is Tulbaghia violacea, or society garlic. Although the leaves are edible they are often all heat and little flavour, whereas the flower itself is the reverse, with a fine whoosh of garlic without the harsh edge.

Fairy Star is the finest I’ve tried, but most are delicious and productive. A handful cast into a leafy salad is all you need to brighten it up and dot it through with garlic.

Every garden should have borage. It grows from seed with minimal encouragement, into a beautiful medium-size plant with blue or white flowers that draw bees and other beneficial insects to your garden.

It is so floriferous that you will be hard-pushed to make a significant dent in its numbers even if you love them as I do. The flavour of the young leaves and flowers is gently cucumbery, so they work well in a leafy salad or in summer cocktails – Pimm’s especially.

Use them fresh or freeze them when they are at their most abundant – half fill ice cube trays with water and freeze, before adding a single borage flower to each compartment and then topping up with water and freezing.

This keeps the flower in the centre of the ice cube. Now is a good time to sow a tray of peas alongside those for planting out.

Once they are beginning to flower, pinch off some of the flowers and add them to salads – they give a quick return and carry a bright, fresh version of the usual pea flavour with a succulent crisp texture.

You can also pinch some from fully grown plants – it will encourage the plant to produce more, too.

Viola heartsease was also one of the favourites – easy to grow from seed and prolific in flower, its sweetness wakes up a green salad and works equally well if crystallised (brush over with egg white and dust with icing sugar) for fruit salads and cocktails.

Many of us use saffron now and again. While it is relatively easy to grow your own, it can be tricky and time-consuming to grow a sizeable harvest. Marigold (Calendula officinalis) makes a fine substitute.

Easy and prolific from seed, the petals of this “poor man’s saffron” can be sprinkled over salads or made into a paste using half a handful of petals with two tablespoons of oil – add it to paella for the final simmer, in place of the usual saffron.

Most herb flowers are edible, carrying something of the characteristic flavour of the herb itself.

Generally speaking, flowers from soft, annual herbs are best eaten raw, as cooking tends to kill their flavour, whereas those from woody perennials are usually better when their flavour is allowed to infuse.

I discovered perilla flowers recently and found myself using them, as well as the leaves, to scatter a little minty, cumin magic through salads and as a garnish with chicken and other meats.

Chives, coriander, chervil and basil are the other herb flowers I use most, wherever I want a little beauty to go with flavour. © The Telegraph

Risotto stuffed courgette flowers recipe

12 courgette flowers, stamens removed

Leftover risotto, or 400g ricotta with a handful of chopped herbs (chives and mint are good) stirred in

85g plain flour

35g cornflour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

200ml ice-cold sparkling water or beer

Sunflower oil for deep frying, in a deep-sided pan

Two-thirds fill each flower with rice or ricotta/herb mixture. Add a minimum of 7cm oil to a pan, ensuring it comes no further than half way up the side of the pan. Warm over a medium heat. Sift the flour, cornflour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and whisk in the water – don’t be too fussy, a few lumps adds to the crispiness. Drop a cube of bread into the oil – it should lightly brown in a minute or so when the oil is at the correct temperature. Twist each flower to close it, dip into the batter and lower carefully into the oil. Fry for a few minutes, turning them with a slotted spoon to brown evenly. Lift out with the spoon, drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and, if you fancy, a sweet chilli dipping sauce.

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