Updated: Nov 9, 2021
I like to read the newspaper whilst enjoying my early morning cuppa. It's a few moments of calm before the general madness of the day and a recent article caught my eye. This featured the front cover of a well known food magazine which showed a very pretty cake, made by a runner up on The Great British Bake-Off, which was decorated with fresh flowers. "Nothing wrong with that" you might say, except that the flowers adorning the cake were toxic ranunculus blooms which can cause blistering in the mouth and intestines and an upset stomach 😱😱.
The trend for using fresh flowers in food is booming these days and none more so than in the cake world where I see endless pictures of beautiful cakes carefully decorated with delicate blooms. I discussed in this post the risks involved in using fresh flowers on cakes but having seen this news article I thought this would be a good time to revisit the subject as there is still a lot of ignorance out there about which flowers you can safely use and which are potentially deadly.
Flowers have been used for culinary purposes for hundreds of years. The Romans, who introduced so many of the herbs that we eat today, also used flowers in their cuisine. They used lavender in their sauces and also to flavour honey. They even scented their wine with rose petals!
Flowers really came into their own in this country in the 17th century and they were imbued with all kinds of significant meanings. Shakespeare's plays are full of references to flowers. In Hamlet, Ophelia tells us that Rosemary is for remembrance and Laertes likens love to the violet because they are both impermanent and fragile. Every household in Shakespeare's time would be hung with great bunches of herbs and flowers drying for winter use and the big houses had great gardens where many kinds of herbs and flowers were cultivated for medicinal and culinary purposes. The lady of the house would spend a great deal of time in the garden or the still room where she would extract, or distil, the oils, juices, flavours and essences of the flowers and herbs. She would have her own store of receipts (as recipes were called in those days) and her culinary skills were considerable. Preserved flowers would appear in tansy cakes, primrose & English cowslip puddings, violet creams, ratafias and strong liqueurs. Flowers also appeared in tarts and custards, as decoration for meat and fish dishes, fresh in salads and scattered through soups and stews.
As mentioned earlier, the use of fresh flowers in food has become very popular again (particularly elderflower since a certain royal wedding!) but we still don't make full use of all the beautiful flowers that we grow, preferring to use them for decorative purposes rather than a food ingredient.
Getting back to the pretty cake with the ranunculus flowers, I really hope that nobody was ill as a result of eating that cake. When using flowers in cookery, whether for consumption or decoration, it is very, very, VERY important to ensure that the flowers you use are, in fact, edible as some flowers can be quite deadly, so if you have any doubt at all about the identity of a flower then don't use it! As I mentioned in my earlier post, even if they are not eaten, some plants have fine hair irritants that can get into your food or the toxins in them can leach out and subsequently be eaten, which could make people very ill.
If you fancy giving edible flowers a go, the RHS have published a list of a few here. I also have a great way of making a flower ice bowl for serving ice creams and sorbets. These are beautiful to look at and a novel idea for special occasions and dinner parties. You can download a pdf of the instructions on how to make one here.
The most obvious use for fresh flowers is to decorate cakes, and I can help you there. I also have great cake recipes that use rose petals or elderflower so if you are looking for a show stopping celebration cake then why not contact me for a no obligation quote:
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