The sweet refreshing scent and deep mauve flowers of the lavender plant have ensured its popularity as a garden shrub for hundreds of years. The therapeutic properties of lavender are well known, but it was also much used in cooking in the past, where it added both flavour and colour to a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. Gerard, in his famous herbal of 1597, stated that â€˜the young and tender sproutings are kept in pickle and reserved to be eaten with meat.â€™
Lavender flowers were scattered over the tables at medieval feasts to sharpen appetites as well as to perfume the air. In the seventeenth century the flowers were crystallised in sugar and were used to decorate fruit dishes or were eaten as a sweetmeat at the end of a meal. Dip some stems of lavender flowers into lightly beaten egg white and sprinkle on both sides with Golden Caster sugar. Place on non-stick baking paper on an oven tray and dry out in a very low oven for about ten minutes until crisp.
Lavender flowers were used extensively in kitchens in the past. Fragrant jams and jellies were served as an accompaniment to meat and game; a calming tea was made from the flowers and the flowers were also crystallised in sugar and eaten as a sweetmeat. Crush a few flowers lightly in your hand to release their volatile oil and scent before scattering over salads and fruit dishes. Just a few flowers added to creamy desserts such as rice pudding and custard for trifle before cooking, impart a delicate fragrance to the finished dish. Add a few flowers to double cream and whip until thick; this is delicious served with scones or fruit, particularly strawberries. The flowers can also be scattered over fruit pies before baking and are especially good with apple or rhubarb pies. To make a scented icing for a plain cake stir a few finely chopped flowers into some sifted Golden Icing sugar and a little water (you can add a few drops of blue or pink food colouring if you wish) Lavender sugar is delightful â€“ use it instead of ordinary sugar when making cakes or custards. Place ten flowers in a jar of Golden Caster or Golden Granulated sugar and seal tightly. Leave for a few days before using.
Savoury dishes too are enhanced by lavenderâ€™s aromatic almost spicy scent. Make a delicious aromatic butter by beating two teaspoons crushed lavender flowers with 75g/3 oz unsalted butter, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme and a few drops of lemon juice â€“ serve with lamb chops, roast chicken or white fish. Beat a few chopped flowers into cream or cottage cheese and serve with crisp biscuits. Add a few flowers to stuffings for poultry, pork, beef and lamb. Lavender has a particular affinity with lamb â€“ in fact the French graze their lambs in lavender fields whenever possible so that the meat develops a unique, elusive flavour. Scatter rosemary and a few lavender flowers over a leg of lamb before roasting to impart an intriguing flavour. Lavender is good for the digestion too, as it aids the flow of bile.
We can thank Queen Elizabeth I (who spent lavishly on her favourite lavender water) for the extensive cultivation of lavender in England- Some sources credit Saint Hildegard (1098-1179) Abbess of Bingen in Germany with the invention of lavender water. She was a renowned herbalist whose four treatises on medicinal herbs included Causae et Curae (“Causes and Cures of Illness”), in which she spoke highly of fragrant herbs-especially of her favourite, lavender.
Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill fated Charles I, planted rare white lavender in her gardens at Wimbledon and huge bowls of dried lavender were placed throughout the palace to scent the air. Queen Victoria was a great fan of lavender water and also instructed that her linen cupboards should be polished with lavender oil.
During the Second World War, everyone who had a lavender bush in their garden was asked to give the flowers to the local medical unit, where their antiseptic properties were used to treat wounds and other conditions.
The essential oil, distilled from the flowers and leaves, has powerful healing and therapeutic powers and is extensively used in aromatherapy for its calming and tonic effects on such diverse conditions as insomnia, nausea, muscle cramps, headaches, travel sickness, sinus trouble, earache, eczema, ulcers, anxiety and rheumatism. Long before the vogue for aromatherapy, country medicine recognised these properties and used lavender in poultices, teas and waters to treat many ailments.
NB: Never use blooms that have been sprayed with insecticides. Gently shake the stems of flowers to dislodge any insects, before washing gently and drying carefully and thoroughly. Dry the flowers in kitchen paper immediately after washing to preserve the fragrance. Only a few flowers are necessary to impart their heady scent â€“ too many will give a bitter flavour to food. You can use fresh or dried lavender flowers â€“ use the same amount, as fresh lavender is actually stronger than dried.
Lavender cordial is a pleasantly refreshing, lightly scented drink, ideal on a hot summerâ€™s day, diluted with sparkling mineral water
50 lavender flowers
300 ml/10 fl oz water
110 g/4 oz Golden Caster sugar
Put the water and sugar into a pan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved completely. Add the lavender flowers and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat; cover the pan and leave to infuse for 30-45 minutes. Strain the liquid into a pan and reheat, stirring all the time, until the mixture is syrupy. Cool completely. Pour into sterilised bottles, seal tightly and leave to cool. Store in the â€˜fridge’.
110 g/4 oz butter
50 g/2 oz Golden Caster sugar
150 g/5 oz plain flour
1 teaspoon lavender flowers, lightly crushed
Cream the butter and sugar until soft, then stir in the dry ingredients until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Press the mixture into a buttered 20cm/8 inch round flan tin and prick all over with a fork. Mark into triangles and bake for 30-40 minutes Gas3/160C/325F. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin. Remove when cold and break into pieces.