Fruit and flowers in the kitchen
At this time of year I am to be found on Hampstead Heath in north London, a stone’s throw from our top-floor flat in a converted Victorian stucco-fronted house, gathering armfuls of elderflowers (sebuqa kbira in Maltese, for which information I am indebted to the excellent www.maltawildplants.com). And if I am lucky, I will have my husband, Tom, with me as he can reach the higher blossoms which catch the sun while I just grub around in the undergrowth.
The first priority is bottles of elderflower cordial, which I use throughout the summer in fruit salads, sorbets and cool drinks, with slices of lemon, sparkling water. I use the dark glass bottles I have hoarded through the year, some from half bottles of manzanilla and one a most useful litre bottle which once contained artisan-brewed beer from Lille; the dark glass helps prevent the syrup discolouring and fading over the months. Then I make elderflower and fruit jelly; it might be gooseberry or rhubarb, but I have also made it with strawberries, using jam sugar for the set. The tiny star-like elder flowers are also very pretty to scatter on a lettuce salad.
When my Scented Kitchen was first published five years ago, I cooked several flower-themed dinners at various venues, including one of London’s finest food shops, La Fromagerie. The evenings always got off to a flourishing start after we served a pair of cocktails, Patricia Michaelson’s own Violetta (prosecco and liqueur de violette), and my rose martini which reminded us all of Turkish delight.
It is a wonderfully summery drink, and more potent than its delicate scent might lead you to believe. Gin or vodka is mixed with lemon juice and a little rose petal syrup and shaken over plenty of ice. The rim of the glass is dipped in rose water and then icing sugar, and the cocktail poured in. The finishing touch is a spritz of rose water just before serving. Pink grapefruit juice or blood orange juice can very well replace the lemon juice.
I have come across severalviolet-based desserts in Spain. One was a delicate preserve served with goat’s cheese, another was a delightful tri-coloured dessert of set yoghurt, violet jelly and macerated strawberries. At London’s Sloane Club, strawberry and rose petal jam is the teatime speciality with clotted cream and freshly baked scones.
Rose petal ice cream served with sliced strawberries is a favourite dessert at home at this time of year. And syrup made with orange flower water is delicious poured over a salad of dates orange and strawberries. The flowers used for orange flower water and other preparations are those of the bitter or Seville orange, or indeed the Maltese orange. Oil of neroli is the essential oil of the bitter orange, used in perfumery. The fragrant water is the by-product of the distilling process, used to obtain the more costly fragrant oil.
While writing the book originally, I came across a fascinating history entitled Parfum de Cour, Gourmandise des Rois – Le commerce des oranges entre Malte et la France au XVIIIe siecle by Alain Blondy, published by Editions Bouchène et Fondation de Malte 2003. In the 18th century, Malta was the main supplier of oranges and orange flower water to France. The crowned heads of Europe were accustomed to receiving both as gifts from the Knights of St John. In addition, oil of neroli was produced, as well as jasmine pommade, and a pommade à la gazia, which was an acacia flower, or mimosa, oil.
A fascinating correspondence of the period, between a Parisian grocer and his son, Louis Savoye, a young cleric attached to the Knights, shows a rather impatient father urging his son to make sure the orange trees are only watered every fortnight, that he chooses only the very best oranges, and that he packs them carefully in wood chips, or wrapped in cotton. He even gives detailed instructions for making the orange crates. Sometimes he wants the neroli oil decanted from the orange flower water and sent separately, sometimes he says he will do it himself. Very rarely is he satisfied with what his son sends.
Little wonder, then, that orange flower water is still used today in traditional Maltese desserts, such as mqaret, kwareżimal, and figolli. I am always surprised to notice that although southern Spain and the Algarve is now Europe’s orange grove, there is surprisingly little use of orange flower water in Iberian cuisine. Similarly in Sicily and southern Italy, where one still sees traces of Arab irrigation systems in the orange and lemon groves planted in private houses, the fragrant water is scarcely to be found in the kitchen. Instead, one has to move further south to Morocco, and further east.
There is, however, a multitude of old English recipes using orange flower water which deserve to be revived, especially as good quality orange flower water is increasingly available, and one of my favourites is the recipe for ‘fairy butter’, which I include today.
But cooking with flowers need not be restricted to preserves, cocktails and desserts. In the revised and enlarged edition of The Scented Kitchen I have included a recipe for lavender-scented foie gras, and one for confit of lamb shoulder scented with lavender; this is, indeed an excellent flower to use with lamb, much as one would use rosemary. And fennel flowers are classic with pork in the Italian recipe which slowly cooks the pork in milk over several hours. Day lilies are very pretty in salads, and have an agreeable flavour not unlike courgettes. Marigolds and nasturtiums I use when cooking fish, and also in risottos, omelettes and scrambled eggs.
The revised and enlarged edition of Frances’ The Scented Kitchen published by Serif Books is now available online, postage-free to Malta, from www.bookdepository.co.uk for £9.47.