In focus: edible flowers

Categories: Expert guidance

Emily Watkins, chef-proprietor at The Kingham Plough and member of the Slow Food Alliance, on edible flowers of all forms

What’s in season?
This is an amazing time for florals, with the more common edible flowers such as rose, violets and primula coming in, as well as all the vegetable and herb flowers. Most people are familiar with courgette flowers, but I would encourage people to make use of the less common ones as well.

Rocket flowers are wonderful, pea flowers are stunning—like a really fresh little pea that just pops in your mouth. Orange broad bean flowers can be a little bitter, much like broad beans, so perhaps aren’t to everyone’s taste. Runner bean flowers are delicious. Cucumber flowers have a slightly odd texture—they can be a little bit hairy!

One flower I am using a lot at the moment is rapeseed. The fields in the Cotswolds are covered in yellow at this time of year, and the flowers taste like the delicate leaves of sprouting broccoli.

What do you use them for?
Using flowers for me isn’t just about the look on the plate—it’s got to be justified in terms of flavour. If you blind taste a vegetable or herb flower, you should be able to tell where it came from, as its flavour will be reminiscent of the plant. This means you should pair the flowers with other flavours in the same way that you would the corresponding herb or vegetable. For example, spring lamb goes beautifully with pea flowers. I do an asparagus dish with whipped lardo and chopped chives, finished with chive flowers, which really bring the flavours together. I also make a cured meat dish with radish remoulade and radish flowers.

The more flowery flowers such as violets and primulas don’t have a particularly strong flavour, so be careful not to overpower them with more intense ingredients. At The Kingham Plough, we have a dessert of rhubarb with baked custard trifle and primula flowers, which is lovely. The stronger-tasting elderflower and apple blossoms work well in infusions, as do rocket and courgette flowers. Flowers don’t need cooking; they’re definitely more of a last-minute garnish. You could perhaps cook with pea flowers, as they’re a bit stronger, but generally they are better when raw and fresh.

How should we store them?
Flowers are best kept in a damp, squeezed out j-cloth, at the bottom of a container with nothing over the top. They’ll keep for several days in the fridge like that—in fact, they keep better like that than they do in a vase with the stalks in water.

Where can I get them?
If you have herb boxes that have gone to flower, pick them while you can—all herb flowers have a really strong, identifiable flavour. Coriander flowers are delicious, as are rosemary flowers.

Thyme flowers are amazing, though they come out a little bit later. You can find courgette, nasturtium, borage and marigolds at Chegworth Valley, all grown on their farm in Kent, or head to Turnips for more exotic varieties (foraged items require 48-hour notice). Exquisite Deli also does a range of dried flowers.