There are ups and downs in the world of edible flowers. By her own admission, Jan Billington, who grows and sells them from her organic farm in Devon, “smells amazing”. On the downside, she is regularly stung by Italian honey bees and is badly allergic, “although it’s just a matter of swelling”, she says. “It goes down eventually.”
Billington sells seasonal flowers to chefs and cocktail-makers, but more recently she has begun selling to amateur cooks who are hoping to inject a little personality into their cooking. Edible flowers are in the spotlight, or rather the polytunnels (thanks to the frost), because of Instagram, where they are used to zhoosh up food shots, and because of the rise of veganism, where they provide a bit of textural variation.
To me, edible flowers look nice but lack purpose. Part of the issue lies with a long and tasteless association with the sort of haute cuisine that shouldn’t survive in this economy. An example being Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes’s once-famous 12-course tasting menu at Viajante that cost more than £200. One course involved a plate of flowers paired with a white wine, the net result being that I left early because I was tanked and hungry and it seemed unlikely another two courses would resolve either.
But I am curious again, so Billington sends me a £13 box of early spring flowers (the polytunnel means they flower a month early), which includes primulas, violets, pansies and dried rose petals. Historically, her flowers have also been used in cocktails, perfume and animal photos (she mentions someone ordering roses for a photoshoot with a giraffe). Food is the biggy, though, so I head to Instagram for inspiration and find plenty. There are flowers on cakes, obviously, but also pansies with smoked salmon, violets on pancakes and nasturtiums on cheese. It turns out that the rules of edible flowers are that there are no rules. Inspired, I make a nice one-pot pasta dish adorned with violets, which quickly dissolve gently into the broth. The next morning, a bowl of bran flakes is instantly transformed into a matrimonial bed with a small scattering of rose petals.
Billington’s business is also on the uptick because people don’t want to die – with a worrying number of people getting poisoned by picking the wrong plants. James Wong, a botanist who has a column in the Observer magazine, recently posted a withering, warning comment after someone scattered toxic narcissi on some breakfast bircher. Others stick stems into cakes or buy flowers online that have been sprayed in pesticides. One vlogger poisoned herself when she ate the wrong sort of agave.
The main thing, says Wong, is to do your research. In short, nasturtiums taste peppery, pansies like lettuce and borage flowers like cucumber. Buy sensibly, and if you’re unsure don’t eat it – remember meadows are actually minefields.