Things to do with spring flowers

I finished off a thesis chapter recently and took a week off to clear my head, which meant that I had plenty of time to, uh, do research and look for ideas in various on- and offline sources. Spring, long time coming, also finally arrived properly, and we had some lovely sunny days. This meant that fields, woods and roadsides suddenly flared up with flowers: dandelions, coltfoots (coltfeet?) primroses, violets, anemones, cowslips. They arrive earlier than leaves in trees, and they were a very welcome sight after the late winter. I thought about how our ancestors would have delighted in them as well, and how they might have wanted to use the beautiful flowers not only as decorations to look at, but also as pleasing edible treats. You could put them in salads, use on top of cakes, or you could use them to make sweets of sorts.

I found a recipe for candied flowers in a modern foraging book, but a quick peek at Stefan’s Florilegium confirmed that I could consider them reasonably period. One of the best known historical sources for them is Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies (a wonderful work in general). Its first edition admittedly dates from 1602, but while it’s possible the good Sir might have possibly invented some of the recipes himself, I’m positive that he, like any cookery writer ever, also just writes down what has been known and done for a while. Sir Hugh was born in 1552 and died in 1608, so most of his life and experience belongs to the SCA period.

In various recipes concerning edible flowers, Sir Hugh lists rose, violet, gillyflower, marigold, rosemary and borage. He also includes the significant ‘&c’, which gives leeway to anyone to use whatever non-poisonous flowers they might like.  I was attracted by the notion of candied primroses and violets in my modern recipe, and as they were also very easy for me to obtain, I decided to go for them. I set off with my faithful hound and picked a bunch of these flowers from sites well removed from motor traffic.

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At the same time, I gathered dandelion flowers. I had found a book on brewing ciders and country wines in my local library, and its recipe for dandelion wine looked both doable and interesting. I ended up with four litres of dandelion flowers and the pleasure of extracting all the yellow petals off them at home. It ended up taking several hours.

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I appeared to have unending energy that day, so besides gathering the flowers, plucking the dandelion petals off and setting the wine to ferment, I also started out the candying process. Sir Hugh makes a syrup out of the sugar and dips the flowers into it. I followed the modern recipe, which suggested that you paint the flowers in egg white and then paint them again with caster sugar. I found that with some patience and nimble fingers, dipping the flowers first in egg white and then in mounds of sugar worked fine.

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The outcome was perhaps coarser and less sophisticated than when done by painting, but somehow it felt right to me nonetheless. I’ll try the syrup method at some point in the future, perhaps when summer flowers arrive.

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The flowers needed to dry out for quite some time, 24+ hours, before they could be packed away. I found that a seasoned baking sheet was the best surface for them. The recipe recommended a grid, but when I placed some of the flowers in the gaps of metal implements, they got stuck very easily and were ruined when pulled off. I was, however, able to neatly pack most of them in a box, with baking paper protecting the layers, and bring them over to an event to be consumed there. They mostly tasted of sugar – Sir Hugh makes his syrup with rosewater, which is probably a good idea, to add flavour – with a very subtle taste of flower afterward, almost like a sigh.

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