A blooming good way to eat for springtime

Timothy Barber
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LOTS of us have aspirations of turning our gardens into allotments and impressing dinner party guests with all manner of home-grown delicacies. Since that requires time, effort, good soil, advantageous sunlight and – at the very least – a garden, not many of us actually manage it. But a form of garden produce requiring a little less effort and a little less garden – a window box will do – is the humble garden flower, and this is the time of year to start making the most of the exotic taste and colour they can provide.

The use of flowers in cooking is as old as cooking itself, and they still hold a place in certain Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. In London they’ll be finding their way back to restaurant tables over the next few weeks as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (25-29 May) gives chefs the perfect excuse to create dishes full of colourful floral inspiration (see box, right).

The possibilities flowers offer the cook amount to more than merely sprinkling a few petals over a dish to make it look pretty, says Mikko Kataja, chef at The Avenue restaurant in St James’s. He’s launching an entire menu based around edible flowers, and has already been using them in dishes for the past few weeks despite the unseasonal cold.

“It’s not just about the colour and decoration, a tiny flower can give so much amazing flavour and really inspire you to use your imagination,” he says. “The season for each one is so short that you have to use it while you can and keep coming up with new things.”

Beware though: flowers from florists shouldn’t be eaten, since they tend to be heavily doused in pesticides and chemicals. While lots of garden varieties are good for eating, you don’t have to be green fingered to find flowers to use in food. First Leaf (www.firstleaf.co.uk), a company based in Pembrokeshire, sells freshly-picked edible flowers by mail order from June to September. For those who really want to get closer to nature, companies such as Forager (www.forager.co.uk) – which supplies wild food to many leading restaurants – and Wild Food School (www.wildfoodschool.co.uk) offer courses in how to find the best wild delicacies.

Perhaps the simplest way to use flowers is in salads. Pop a few nastertiums into a spring vegetable salad and you get florid colour, peppery flavour and a healthy vitamin C boost from one of the most common garden flowers. Primroses – just coming to the end of their season – marigolds and pretty blue borage are also good for salads.

Just coming into season, if you can find them, are the flowering wild herbs, such as chives, dill and rocket, which Kataja recommends using to garnish a savoury main course. “It looks lovely, and they’ll add amazing, delicate flavours to meat or fish.”

It’s in sweet food that flowers can really come into their own. Kataja’s signature dish at Avenue is a cherry blossom parfait, for which he leaves the flowers in water to infuse it. He also uses them for ice creams and sorbets, and crystallises rose petals in a sugar syrup to go with a rose-infused panna cotta.

Joel Bernstein, co-owner of Marylebone’s luxurious chocolatier and bakery Cocomaya (www.cocomaya.co.uk), has an especially unusual use for flora – replacing cake icing. Flowers for this include carnations, roses, bougainvillea, lavender, nasturtiums and honeysuckle, all designed to be eaten along with the cake. “It’s just a much nicer way of decorating a cake than using piles of buttery icing,” says Bernstein. “They feel exotic, and it really does add to the pleasure and drama of eating.”

For Kataja, using flowers in food evokes the natural environment at the time it comes into its own.

“It takes your mind out of the city and back to the countryside.”

Which, when you think about it, is what spring should be all about.

Daphne’s, the esteemed Italian restaurant and Chelsea favourite will be running a set lunch full of floral goodies during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Dishes include focaccia with mozzarella and courgette flower, pan fried chicken with violet artichokes and salsa verde, and elderflower and spring berry jelly. 112 Draycott Ave, SW3 3AE. www.daphnes-restaurant.co.uk.

Chutney Mary, Chelsea’s famous Indian restaurant, is serving flower-based dishes including a lamb biryani infused with screw pine flower and a trio of elderflower, jasmine and violet jellies, plus a Bombay Rose Blush martini using fresh rose. Menu available from next week. 535 Kings Road, SW10 0SZ www.chutneymary.com.

At St James’s restaurant The Avenue head chef Mikko Kataja is launching a dedicated edible flower menu next week, mixing early summer vegetables with garden flowers. Dishes include cherry blossom parfait, elderflower, rhubarb and yoghurt sorbet and pea risotto with flowering wild herbs. 7-9 St James’s St, SW1A 1EE www.theavenue-restaurant.co.uk.

Westminster’s fine-dining modern Indian restaurant, The Cinnamon Club has created a six-course Garden Menu combining exotic flowers and aromatic spices, and it’s all vegetarian. Tuck into yoghurt and chive flower kebab, asparagus spears with kadhai spices and citrus morel with saffron sauce. Available 17-31 May, £60 per person. The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith Street, SW1P 3BU www.cinnamonclub.com.

Piccadilly’s exceedingly grand Criterion restaurant is launching a summer menu taking inspiration from the highlights of the English social season such as the Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon and Polo in the Park, including a Chelsea lavender panna cotta with elderflower and champagne jelly and flower petals. £20 for two courses, £25 for three courses with a glass of champagne. 224 Piccadilly, W1J 9HP. www.criterionrestaurant.com.

Dukes Bar at the ever-so-smart Dukes Hotel in St James’s has a reputation for classic martinis, to which it’s giving a floral makeover, incorporating rose vodka, elderflower and strawberry liquors, and rose petals. 35-36 St James’s Place, SW1A 1NY. www.campbellgrayhotels.com.

Luxury chocolatier Artisan du Chocolat already has a range of rather sensational flower-flavoured chocolate truffles including violet, lavender, rose and Moroccan mint versions. It’s also produced a no-less aromatic orchid and orange blossom bar (below) specially for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show’s charity gala preview on 29 May, which is also available from all Artisan du Chocolat shops for £2.50. www.artisanduchocolat.com.

The Dorchester Hotel is offering a Floral Champagne Afternoon Tea or the week of the flower show. Alongside the usual scones, sandwiches and pastries will be a lychee, raspberry and rose mousse, and strawberries covered in vanilla with handmade petals, all served with a berry-flavoured Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé served in a cherry-blossom glass. If you book a tea by 19 May you can be entered into a draw to win a pair of tickets to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Promenade, The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, W1K 1QA. www.thedorchester.com.