Edible Flowers… Weeds and By Products

14th July 2017

Think that edible flowers are a millennial ‘thing’, much like avocado on toast and snapchat? Niche, luxury, perfect for garnering Instagram likes? Think again, the history of edible flowers is long and complex. 

The first recorded mention of edible flowers was in 140BC and all ancient cultures have documented their use of edible flowers and herbs. The Romans ate violets, roses and mallow and medieval monks renamed the calendula ‘the pot marigold’ due to their use of it in their soup pots. The humble dandelion beats them all however, with a mention in the Bible as a bitter herb!

The Victorians adored flowers. The Victorian era is where many of the flower forenames currently in vogue for girls originated from and they had a complicated ‘language of flowers’ in common use. Flowers were no less popular on their menus than their birth certificates and they ate flower encrusted sweets, pastries, salads and even candied flowers.

Since the introduction of food production on an industrial scale edible flowers have become less common. They cannot withstand supply chains of much more than a day and standardised in spec crop is hard to achieve. We do still manage on some crops however – saffron, beer and elderflower cordial are all common foodstuffs.

Are we missing a trick though in terms of crop utilisation and edible by products? I know that every post I seem to post on this blog this year seems to bang on about food waste but full crop utilisation is a golden ticket to addressing some of our issues around food and production energy waste.

This post was triggered by Raymond Blanc. He was interviewed on Radio Four this Monday about edible flowers and he said that although courgette flowers were good his personal favourite was the rocket flower.

I talk about rocket all day every day. I wonder around farms of it on a regular basis. I like to think of myself as quite the expert on this peppery baby leaf crop. Yet, I have never eaten a rocket flower. In fact, as much as I think about them at all, I find them annoying as they are an out of spec measurement on rocket crops (and are super hard to control in the shoulder periods and in the cold dark atmosphere of a lorry…).

Yet, here is a very famous chef suggesting it is nicer than courgette flowers. Mind both blown and humbled. Apparently, it is a pretty flower and tasty to boot and perfect for adding a ‘zingy garnish’ to a plate.

Edible flowers are the obvious example of how we are overlooking edible by products in our supply chains. What about another pesky out of spec bone of contention – weeds?

The closest to home example of that for the JWE Italian team is portulaca. Portulaca is a red stemmed weed that grows freely in the south of Italy (In English we call it purslane). Again, to us in our global supply chain farming world it is an out of spec annoyance and the scourge of all our rocket growers but to many it is an edible, flowery delicacy.

I don’t know how we can capture edible weeds and by products in our industrialised food production systems if I’m honest. If you are purchasing a bag of rocket leaves a rocket flower will always be an out of spec foreign plant. It does somehow seem like a missed opportunity though.

Maybe one thing we can do is start foraging local edible weeds and using them in our cooking. In keeping with this idea over the next few weeks our resident JWE recipe queen, Marta, will be suggesting ideas for incorporating wild plants in our meals. Let us know if you manage to try out any of her recipes and what you think of them.