25 October 2010

cooking with flowers

cooking with flowers ; Smells have the power – more than music or photographs – to take you back to a particular place and time. Sometimes, while walking the children to school or sorting out drawers of clothes, a scent will come to me that reminds me of a time I had completely forgotten. Smells can take you by surprise and leave you marvelling at how the human brain stores the details of our lives. Of course, smell is crucial in the kitchen and provides one of the main pleasures of food. Strong coffee, warm brioche, a pot of chicken stock, all these will make me feel happy even if I am not going to eat them. I got hooked on flowers and food early on.

At a school bring-and-buy sale my mum got me a raffle ticket to win a cake. The cake was pure fairytale stuff for a six-year-old – tiered, covered in ivory icing and scattered with deep-red rose petals and little buds. It smelt of heaven, and the only way I could get enough of that scent, I thought, was to eat it. We didn't win the raffle but the gift my mum bought me to ease the disappointment was also floral. It was a bottle of African violets – my first perfume – in a little china capsule. If the colour purple has a smell, I thought, then this is it. I could almost have drunk it.

For many people floral scents are old-fashioned, cloying, suitable for perfuming granny's clothes but not assertive enough for anyone else. Not me. I have always thought the subtlety of flowers rendered them mysterious, foreign and desirable. Few things have tantalised and seduced like scents. The Romans scattered rose petals on their floors, Cleopatra anointed her hands with oil of roses, Roman gladiators rubbed oil of flowers into their skin before combat and Napoleon used to spend time before a campaign deciding which pair of scented gloves he would wear. Making love to Antony while smelling of roses? The lavender-scented loins of burly men? I would say that makes floral scents pretty sexy.

The trend for wild food and growing our own, along with a growing love of Middle Eastern food, has brought cooking with flowers into vogue. In an age when the most exotic spices have been made familiar the smell of blossoms in our pans still has the power to transport. Food is always more than something to sate hunger. It is also about pleasure. Adding a whiff of rose or orange-blossom water to a syrup to drench a cake or dusting lavender sugar over a plate of meringues makes you into a perfumer as well as a cook – a conjuror of the senses.

Click on the links to the left for Diana's delicious flower-filled recipes: Turkish rose and cardamom ice cream with pistachio biscuits; brown-sugar meringues with lavender cream and blackberries; and orange and ricotta cake with oranges in flower-water syrup

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