It maybe something you associate with the bathroom cabinet or your Aunty Mable, but using lavender as a culinary herb is pretty much as old as time. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Elizabethans and Victorians were all in the know, using it freely throughout both savoury and sweet dishes. Now more and more modern day chefs are taking the floral herb seriously. Produce Business UK takes a look at why lavender is making its way onto all the top menus
Great in shortbreads, cocktails, jellies and with game, lavender has an in-depth floral taste similar to violets and has been used in all sorts of dishes, both savoury and sweet, throughout the world since the Middle Ages, with cooks in the Middle East being particularly keen. A member of the mint family, it’s a clever little herb with a year-round appeal and an amazing versatility that means it can bring the wow factor to pretty much any dish.
Lavender is probably more accessible than you think too. ‘Culinary’ lavender is basically any lavender you can eat. You can eat any kind of lavender as long as it has been grown for consumption, since purely aesthetic plants may have been treated with chemicals hazardous to human health (also not great in shortbread).
You can use lavender fresh and its long, strong stems with tiny purple buds are sometimes used to flavour roast and stews, like the herb rosemary would, but generally it is dried lavender that’s used in the culinary world, as it’s more durable and flavoursome as a dried herb.
Recently there has been a resurgence in UK chefs using fresh lavender in dishes and farms are growing it accordingly. Fresh flowers are said to have a sweeter flavour and are stronger than dried flowers or buds, which adds a more of an aromatic, holistic taste to a dish.
Latin name: Lavandula is a genus (or family) that has 39 known different species.
Varieties: Lavendula angustifolia, including Munstead and Lavender Lady, Lavandula officinalis, Lavandula vera, True English Lavender, White Ice, Rosea, Hidcote, Grosso and Provence.
Season: The lavender flowering season runs from late June until the middle of August in the UK and the northern hemisphere in general.
Production: A member of the mint family, lavender is mainly grown commercially in Kent and Yorkshire in the UK. It’s also cultivated across Europe, France especially, as well as Africa, Asia and India. The most commonly grown species of lavender is Lavandula angustifolia and belongs to a group of lavenders referred to as English lavenders.
Although any lavender can be used in cooking, some varieties are more widely used, particularly the Munstead cultivar of Lavandula angustifolia, because it has a sweeter fragrance than most, which brings on great flavour in cooking. English lavenders are thought to be the best for culinary use as the flavour is more mellow and less pungent than some others.
Grown in outdoor fields in sub-shrubs, lavender can reach 3ft in height and diameter, depending on the variety, and has grey-green foliage. All lavenders will thrive in very well drained soil in a location with high light levels and good air circulation, bringing few pest and disease problems if the conditions are right.
William and Caroline Alexander decided to grow cosmetic and culinary lavender for drying in 1987 at their farm, Castle Farm in Kent, near Stevenage. With more than 95 acres of lavender and lavandin, it’s the biggest lavender farm in the UK and now serves local restaurants with the herb. The lavender fields are in full bloom in July from when the fresh herb can be harvested and delivered, while dried bunches are available throughout the year.
Taste: With its strong and bitter with overtones of pine, lavender is a flavour enhancer with fragrant lavender buds that give off a delicate floral flavour. Some detect a minty taste to some varieties, as well as a note of citrus. Lavender can also be sweet and sometimes medicinal. It’s a good idea to do a bit of experimenting in the kitchen with lavender before you commit it to a recipe, as it can be very overpowering.
Cooking: The early Greeks and Romans where partial to more than a bit of lavender in their food, and in England the trend remained popular until the 19th century, when lavender jelly or preserve was commonly served as a relish for game, meat, and fruit dishes. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth I insisted on a pot of lavender preserve being present at every meal. It was also felt that lavender tea was key to solving the Queen’s migraines.
Although technically a herb, lavender is so much more. With a distinct taste and a strong smell, it can take over a whole dish, and over time it has been used in the classic herb rub and mix, herbs de Provence. When it comes to cooking, mainly the flowers or buds, whether they’re fresh or dried, that are used, but the leaves and stems of lavender plants can be cooked in roasts, broths, stews and salads.
Very much a dual-purpose ingredient, lavender has traditionally been used to flavour the sugar or milk in baked goods or where rosemary would be used, such as in roast dishes, like lamb or oily fish. It’s a firm favourite in scones, cakes, jams or chutney, as well as vinaigrettes, soups and sauces, and you can use it to make homemade ice cream or to flavour milk or cream-based desserts like crème brûlée.
And proving there are more ways to preserve lavender than drying, chefs are adding that lavender buzz to dishes via lavender bud oils, lavender salt, lavender honey and lavender jelly, like Matthew Pennington’s rabbit confit with lavender jelly.
Chefs that love lavender:
Cinzia Ghignoni and Shaun Alpine-Crabtree (The Table Café)
Arnaud Bignon (The Greenhouse in Mayfair)
Lavender dishes and nibbles:
Lavender panna cotta with roasted white peaches and cantuccini
Coconut and lavender cake
Roast lamb with garlic and lavender
Apricot and lavender jam
Lavender and elderflower marshmallows
Lavender and vanilla bean infused panna cotta
Lavender and blackberry sorbet
Grilled feta and peach with lavender
Foie Gras “cuit a la torchon” with peach and lavender compote
Lavender Earl Grey ice cream
White bean soup with lavender
Lavender macarons with honey buttercream
Did you know?: French sheep farmers apparently send their young lambs to graze in fields of lavender in order to tenderise and give flavour to their meat.