There's something about eating flowers that is truly special, that makes an ordinary meal or recipe sparkle. Is it the romanticism? The hazardous adventure of eating something you didn't realise was edible? (Oh, do be careful though, not all flowers are edible!) Or perhaps it is the sensory experience: With flowers, what you're actually “tasting” is really what you're smelling. Maybe it's also a little about the fact that you can't buy these flowers (flowers destined for florists are often sprayed with chemicals that you don't want to ingest), so you have to forage for them—and that secretly makes the hunter-gatherer in us jump for joy.
Regardless, your life isn't complete until you try dipping flowers in batter and deep frying them, like the Italians do.
The most popular flowers of choice for eating fried (in either a tempura batter or in a traditional batter for fried squash blossoms) are in season in late spring: black locust (also known as false acacia or Robinia pseudoacacia, which Italians simply call acacia) and elderflowers (Sambucus nigra), both of which have some of the most intense, heady aromas, somewhere between jasmine and orange blossom. Squash blossoms are perfect for being battered and fried too, but hardly seem exciting after you've eaten fried black locust flowers, with their intoxicating perfume and the hint of honey and spice that lingers beyond that first crunch.
They make similar fried flowers in France. Jaques Pépin macerates the flowers in Grand Marnier and sugar before tossing them through the frying batter with vanilla. Mimi Thorisson not only fries them up but puts them in and on cake, too. And I've heard they are also wonderful folded through pancake batter.
Meanwhile, elderflowers can either be dipped in batter and fried as they are (their long stems come in handy for this). Or simply pick off the tiny perfumed flowers and fold into this ricotta mixture for castagnole, then fry the dough as fritters and roll them in sugar. This isn't a new idea. Ricotta and elderflower fritters are actually a recipe that I stumbled across while flipping through Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi's Opera from 1570.
A traditional Bavarian recipe for elderflower fritters includes dipping them in beer batter and pan-frying. The British like to make elderflower cordial. And if you've missed the flowers blooming, don't worry. Be patient and wait for the little black elderberries to appear in their place later in the season and make elderberry syrup them like David Lebovitz does.
Fried flowers make a great snack or a pretty antipasto. Fried black locust flowers are often served savory as well as sweet; for the former, simply sprinkle with sea salt. But if going the sweet way, you can either sprinkle with powdered sugar, granulated sugar, or drizzle with honey (locust honey, naturally). And serve them straight away: When hot, the flowers' perfume, and therefore flavor, is at its best.
Black locusts and elderflowers bloom for a short period only so make the most of it when you see them.
Once you've tried this, you may want to eat every flower that comes your way. You can also batter and fry wisteria flowers (which look similar to black locust flowers) and lilacs. Then look at what you can do with lavender and try infusing sugar with elderflowers or black locust flowers, too.
A few tips for foraging and preparing these flowers for eating:
- Go armed with a sturdy pair of garden scissors and a basket.
- Avoid possibly polluted areas (such as trees that line busy roads) when picking flowers.
- Pick flowers in the morning, when they are at their freshest and have the most perfume.
- Don't pick wilted or “old”-looking flowers, as they will have lost their scent.
- Eat only the flowers and not the stems or leaves, which can be toxic, but for ease of preparing and presenting, cut the flowers with their stems intact.
- Don't wash the flowers if you can, as this can cause them to lose some of their fragrant pollen. (This is another reason you want to avoid polluted areas!) But do check for insects; some like to chill the flowers in the fridge for 15 minutes to encourage bugs to leave.
If you are foraging, be very, very careful! Here is a helpful guide to which blossoms are edible—and if ever you're not sure, pass on them.
Do you cook with flowers, too? Which ones? Tell us about what you do with them in the comments.