May 21, 2011
With May in full bloom, now is the ideal time to take advantage of an unusual source of nourishment – flowers. That familiar classic, Elder – Sambucus nigra, is of course bursting into blossom and after venturing into the woods, hedges and fields many of us have enjoyed fritters, cordial and ‘champagne’ from that particular plant. However, there may be several interesting and slightly exotic species close to home that also require our attention.
Currently, the False Acacia – Robinia pseudoacacia in my garden is laden with pendulous racemes of white Wisteria-like flowers, more than I can remember, and probably at least two weeks early. A flower bud plucked from one of these bunches tastes deliciously like mange tout, while the freshly opened blossom has the added sweetness of nectar and a divine perfumed fragrance. The flavour and the pouty-lipped petal shape tell you that this is very much a member of the Pea Family – Leguminosae. Perversely, legumes are largely toxic to some degree or another, though often with the exception of their blooms. Broom and Gorse are two more examples where the flowers may be eaten.
Robinia flowers are good eating raw once removed from their central spike, with many additional options when cooked. Also known as Black Locust, this tree originated in the Appalachians of North America but is widely planted or naturalised and common in parts of Europe, particularly France and Italy where much culinary use is made of it. If you find one, take care when plucking as young branches, especially, bear large triangular spines.
When cooking, try to ‘branch out’. Subtle, fragrant flavours often go well with fish; try adding elderflower or Robinia blossom in cakes also. Here is an Italian-style acacia fritter recipe.
Robinia Flower Fritters
1 cup Robinia pseudoacacia flowers
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape) berries or 1 small sour apple
1 cup of condensed milk or 200ml double cream + tablespoon of Demerara sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or flavouring
a little vegetable oil
Pick approximately 10-12 racemes, shake off any insects and finished flowers and use only the opened fresh flowers and a few buds.
Combine the cream, egg yolk, vanilla and salt. Then stir in the flour and baking powder. It should be thick but not too dry. Add a little milk if necessary. Add the blossom and berries (or chopped sour apple) and mix thoroughly.
Heat some oil in a frying pan. Scoop up some of the mixture and pat down onto the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes until a skin forms on the underside. Flip and pat down until that side seals. Turn once more on both sides until golden brown and cooked through.
Got Red-hot Pokers (Knipophia )in your garden? Then you’ve got a ready-made energy refuelling station, used by some smart birds, and canny folk in the know. Brush against one by accident and you will find out.
Copious drops of sweet high-octane nectar will splash out. Just lick it off your fist and taste those natural sugars or go round the flower bed and fill a small jug to top your fritters with. Our Blue Tits often pause on a flower spike to refuel on the way back from feeding their young, unwittingly taking on the role of Sunbirds in The plant’s native South Africa. Lovely stuff.
And finally, for now, there is the Day-lily (Hemerocallis fulva).
Big, lily-like blooms open up for a day then wither but in the big fat bud stage are delicious picked and eaten straight. A glutinous, slightly pea-like flavour with a spicy aftertaste. They are extensively used in the Far East, from whence they originate. Plenty of potential for cooking, and I suspect, pickling – something I intend to try when they are a bit further on.