Our gardens and hillsides are awash in hues of yellow, orange, purple and blue this month as wild plants such as fennel and elderberry and cultivated rows of lavender and roses unfurl their buds and release a bouquet of heady scents.
For many chefs and mixologists working in Wine Country, those petite petals and flowers can not only serve as vibrant garnishes but as delicious vehicles to add flavor, texture and seasonality to the plate.
Cooking and garnishing with flowers has ebbed and flowed through the centuries, from the Roman times through Queen Victoria’s reign, but the nearly lost art has been revived recently as a way to add elegance and authenticity to farm-to-table cuisine.
Perry Hoffman, the chef at the Healdsburg SHED, has always worked at restaurants with large gardens and farms, so edible flowers have become a natural part of his culinary repertoire.
When he first started cooking at Auberge de Soleil in St. Helena in 2000, edible flowers were trending.
As a creative chef, Hoffman found incorporating the garden was a seamless way to connect all the components of a new dish.
“It was easier to conceptualize a dish when I looked outside,” Hoffman said. “Plums aren’t in season, but there are plum flowers … wow, this would be great with pickled plums from last year.”
Later, at Étoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville — where he was the youngest chef in the U.S. to win a Michelin star — Hoffman would cruise through the extensive gardens and pick the flowering rosemary to top foie gras and other savory dishes.
Now as culinary director of the Healdsburg SHED, Hoffman likes to play in the kitchen with petals that he forages at various locations and sources from the restaurant’s 30-acre Home Farm.
The flowery accents perk up everything from salads and desserts to the SHED’s award-winning line of condiments, such as the Raspberry Rose Jam.
Along with the wide variety of microgreens that he grows himself, the house-grown blooms provide Hoffman with an additional arsenal of vegetal and floral flavors to surprise and delight diners.
“Edible flowers are an extra that invoke the sense of something special and different, but they’re hard to spend a lot of money on,” he said.
“The only way to do it is to grow it yourself and have a portion of your farm dedicated to flowers, which is beneficial for insects like ladybugs and bees.”
At SHED, Hoffman likes to use the flowers from leafy greens such as Swiss chard and the brassica family — kale, broccoli, radishes, mustard greens and arugula — along with wild lovage blooms, which he forages up near The Geysers at 2,500 feet elevation.
The wild lovage has little yellow flowers that taste like celery and parsley crossed with cinnamon and tropical notes.
“It’s one of the things that really tickles me inside — those wild herbs that are so special,” he said.
“The wild lovage is more hardy, it’s a perennial, so it comes back year after year.”
But you don’t have to head to the hills to find most of the edible flowers that cooks have been using for thousands of years, from the chrysanthemum petals first plucked by the Chinese to the rose petals incorporated into Indian food and the squash blossoms stuffed by the Italians.
Look it up: If you are in doubt, research a flower to see if it is safe to eat and always refer to its botanical name to identify it exactly.
The good and bad: The flowers of most vegetables and herbs are safe to eat, but avoid the flowers of tomato, potato, eggplant, peppers and asparagus.
Clean eating: Eat flowers you have grown yourself or from a farmer you know. Avoid eating any flower that has grown on the roadside or been sprayed with chemicals or pesticides, which means most flowers from florists and nurseries.
Pick it: Harvest flowers during the cool times of day such as early morning or late afternoon.
Know your flower parts: Not all parts of the flower are harmless and/or edible, so don’t assume you can eat all parts. For example, rhubarb stems are a delicacy but its leaves, root and flowers should not be eaten.
Petal power: Some flowers, like nasturgium and borage, can be eaten in entirety. For roses and lavender, only the petals are edible so separate them just prior to using. Roses and marigolds have a bitter white portion at the base of the petal where it attaches to the flower, so trim that before serving.
Pollen a problem: Pollen can detract from the flavor of the flower, so remove pistils and stamens and use the edible parts.
Clean it up: Gently rinse flowers before consuming and use within a few hours. To keep them fresh, place on moist paper towels and refrigerate in an airtight container.
Serving advice: When serving flowers fresh, add them to you dish just before serving, as you would fresh herbs.
Go easy: Some flowers, like lavender, have a strong taste and are best used in moderation. Also, some flowers, such wild pea blooms, can cause digestive issues when eaten in large quantities.
Dining out: Not all chefs know their edible flowers, so it’s up to you to educate yourself. Some flowers may be on the plate simply for decoration.