Edible flowers and the cycles of fashion

Zucchini flowers

Zucchini flowers

Though subject to the whims of fashion, flowers are no mere frippery, writes Paulette Whitney.

I got my crimper when I turned 11 and a high side ponytail was the only hairstyle to have. After submitting to Mum's painful ministrations, smelling the burning hair as she crushed strands between the waffle iron-like blades, I left for school, my pouffy hair bouncing at every step. But when I walked into class my heart broke. Georgia, the "popular" girl, had traded her crimped ponytail for a teased fringe three inches high. As the week wore on and more puffy fringes appeared, my crimper, so longed for, was now deemed daggy and shoved shamefully to the back of the bathroom cupboard.

When we first started farming, edible flowers were the crimpers of their day. I remember eating a crisp-fried ribbon of potato topped with eel cream and piled high with radish, heartsease, chervil, borage and calendula flowers at Garagistes. It was a perfect bite.

The plate placed before you, you took a moment to gaze with reverence for the work put into what you were about to eat and the reminder of the season those flowers celebrated. When you did bite into that crunchy, creamy little garden, the brassica-sweet radish flowers, cucumbery borage and anise-scented chervil worked beautifully with the smoky, rich eel. Sure, the heartsease and calendula had negligible flavour, but the rich purple, yellow and orange were beautiful to look at.

Another dish saw raw calamari dressed in olive oil with a few clove-scented dianthus petals strewn on top. The intense perfume of the petals was reflected in the calamari, revealing a flavour I'd never noticed before in that cephalopod. Slivers of wagyu tongue were glazed with a sweet infusion of shungiku petals and grilled. In the warm months, the sweet-oniony allium flowers of chives, garlic chives and society garlic were scattered over myriad savoury dishes.

We became better at growing flowers, found plants with different flavours that flowered in every season. We grew pale-pink lemon bergamot in autumn. Despite the name, it tasted of thyme more than lemon, and it was beautiful.

In winter, it was fruity, bright-red pineapple sage - a plant native to mountains in Mexico yet somehow happy in Tasmania - that bloomed generously, attracting chefs, nectar-slurping children and honeyeaters alike.

Spring was a bonanza, with everything wanting to reproduce. Radishes and mustards threw up long, succulent flower stalks, candy-sweet anise hyssop bloomed and we shook off bumblebees as we picked them into punnets. We chose which pea and broad bean varieties to grow based on the colour of their blooms and every harvest was a bee-buzzing rainbow.

In summer, we'd wake at dawn to gather flowers of borage, garlic chives and shungiku before the sun wilted them.

Then the wheel turned. Flowers were out. Of course, there were exceptions - some plants that paired well with favourite dishes survived the purge, and a few chefs still share my love of whimsy and the stories flowers can tell.

Some flowers are beyond fashion. Zucchini flowers are always in demand, but the delicious flowers of their brethren are neglected. Pumpkins and cucumbers often produce male flowers - which never form fruit - early in summer, long before any female flowers open. I love to fold pumpkin flower petals into an omelette for their subtle flavour and neon-yellow colour. Cucumber flowers, unsurprisingly, taste of cucumber and look wonderful in a salad or sliced and stirred into yoghurt along with mint for a green-and-gold approximation of tzatziki.

Eating flowers is no new thing. People have long enjoyed rose petals set in jellies, desserts scented with orange blossom and cakes topped with sugared violets.

One of the oldest references to eating - or, in this case, drinking - flowers I have found, is that of Celtic warriors drinking wine with borage for courage before battle. Perhaps a measure I may need to take now that my 10-year-old daughter has dug out that crimper from the cupboard and is begging for higher and higher ponytails.

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