As well as providing a plethora of tasty vegetables, the Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden furnishes us with flowers to add colour and flavour to our dishes.
The eating of flowers was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and here at the Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden, we have been discovering many new things that were popular in the past, but are less well known today. Alexander buds (Smyrnium olusatrum) are one such ingredient, often called for in a historical salad but rarely used nowadays. The plants grow wild around the coastline (but please make sure you identify positively if you intend on foraging this from the wild as it does have some poisonous relatives) but have thrived in our kitchen garden. They flower early in the year, in April, providing a welcome addition to the diet in a traditional time of scarcity. The flower buds have an intense flavour, a bit like spicy, slightly soapy carrot. These can be scattered over a salad a bit like a condiment – which in turn is what the seed heads were used for in Elizabethan times – when they were ground up when dry and used as a pepper substitute.
But Alexanders are not the only multi-functional crop. All members of the squash family, which includes courgettes, gourds and pumpkins have edible flowers as well as fruit. When barely open, the giant, yellow flowers can be battered and deep fried, or stuffed with a flavourful rice mix then baked. You’re not detracting from your courgette harvest either as you can use the male flowers (those without a small fruit behind the flower), leaving the females to form your courgettes or pumpkins.
Other multi-functional plants are pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and Annual Rocket (Eruca sativa). After cutting the leaves a couple of times, rocket will inevitably start rocketing up to seed, but the pretty, white, cross shaped flowers are also edible and very pleasant in salads. Pot marigolds are more than just a salad ingredient, as its old name of ‘poor man’s saffron’ attests. It was used in days past as a yellow food colouring and will add a saffron like colour to rice dishes, preserves and soups.
In the growing season we make up mixed bags of salad leaves to sell once a week to garden visitors. Floral additions to this include nasturtiums, whose peppery flavour adds a welcome kick, rose and pot marigold petals for the contrast against the green and red lettuce, borage flowers for their sweetness and startling blueness and small quantities of broken up lavender florets, which add an interesting, aromatic quality to the salad.
Our spring salads could also include the flowers of sweet violets, which have a delicate fragrance that is best when the sun hits the flowers. However, a far better use for these is to steep them in strong spirits with sugar to make a liqueur with the taste of the childhood sweet Parma Violets. Alternately you can crystallise them by lightly brushing with egg white, sprinkling with caster sugar and putting them in a super low temperature oven for a couple of hours. These make lovely cake decorations.
The best thing about many of these ingredients is just how ubiquitous or easy to grow they are. Nasturtiums, borage and marigolds are all annual plants that will freely self-seed themselves around the garden without making a major nuisance of themselves. Lavender and roses are a feature in many gardens and there are few veg patches without a squash of some sort. Though these may all be fairly common garden plants, they will transform your plate into anything but.