Barbora Ormerod examines the use of garden herbs and flowers in both sweet and savoury dishes…
The use of plants as flavouring is as old as cooking itself and is responsible for many of the world’s favourite dishes. Over time, some trusty combinations become ever more popular and familiar, to the point where alternatives rarely get used. No matter how delicious they are, such conventions should be challenged. Not only to keep food interesting but also to fend off those who value style over substance.
The use of herbs and flowers in British cooking is a good example. Despite the phenomenal variety available, we have a habit of using only a handful of staples in ways which are safe and familiar. Trendy restaurateurs meanwhile, have a tendency to overreact in the opposite direction, with attention-grabbing dishes that fail to live up to their visual impact. A simpler way to break new ground is simply to upend conventional assumptions every now and then. Instead of seeing herbs as savoury ingredients and selecting flowers for their appearance rather than their texture or flavour, try reversing both. You may be surprised by the results.
Start with herbs. Mint is already a familiar pairing with ice cream, chocolate and sweet fruit, but other candidates include rosemary, thyme and basil. They all bring deep earthy flavours together with a certain bite; great at highlighting sweetness and making it seem stronger and more nuanced. Anyone who has tasted salted caramel will know that this can work brilliantly.
Basil conjures up familiar images of pizza, pesto and salad, but also works beautifully with sweet, soft fruits such as raspberry and peach that have been roasted or made into pie. Rosemary has a depth of flavour that works well with chocolate, whilst its aromatic qualities make it suitable for lemon drizzle cake and citrus-based desserts in general (cooked apple and rosemary is a particularly delicious combo). If you don’t wish to confine yourself merely to everyday herbs, then other interesting pairings include fennel with white chocolate, bergamot with creamy dessert and verbena with sweet citrus.
When it comes to flowers, although they often pack more flavour than one expects, they remain subtle and tend to work best in milder dishes or where there are lots of different flavours on the plate. Flowers typically have a pleasant crunch and a refreshing green taste rather like a salad leaf, but with more interesting and concentrated flavours. This makes them obviously suited to salads, or as a more powerful substitute to round out a dish in much the same way. More specific pairing recommendations include cucumber flower with salmon, oregano flower in a Greek-style salad, and peppery nasturtium blooms with robust flavours like cheeses and fried meats. Wild leek flowers and other blossoms from the allium family (chive, garlic, spring onion etc.) bring a welcome pungency and a gentle garlicky burn to rich or meaty dishes, from scrambled eggs to roast lamb. Edible flowers are easier than ever to get hold of. Many are fashionable enough to appear in supermarkets, and countless more can be sourced from specialist retailers, not to mention grown in your garden.