As both consumers and chefs increasingly experiment with new concepts, there remains a considerable opportunity for lavender to be grown and marketed as a sweet or savoury ingredient. So says Caroline Alexander, who, together with husband William, has led the way in reviving commercial production of the herb in the UK at Castle Farm near the village of Shoreham in Kent.
”There is still great potential for lavender to be developed as a savoury ingredient; people are experimenting all the time,” Caroline Alexander tells PBUK.
“The season for fresh lavender is very short but the dried flowers and essence are popular throughout the year.”
With 95 acres under production, Castle Farm is now the largest commercial grower of lavender in the country. Despite much of the crop being distilled to produce Kentish Lavender Oil for use in the toiletries and the perfumery industry, The Hop Shop at the farm is seeing considerable growth across its culinary lavender range.
“We have experienced a significant increase in online demand for our culinary lavender products,” Alexander reveals. “Our Kentish Lavender Essences, teas, chocolates, biscuits, fudge etc. are ever-popular.
“Visitors to The Hop Shop always try the lavender ice cream – and come back for more. It seems to appeal across all age groups, and not just to women. We’ve just opened a seasonal coffee cart at the shop and Lavender Affogato was being requested in the summer sunshine.”
While lavender has always been part of the traditional Herbes de Provence blends, Alexander says it’s important to remember that there are two distinct types – lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia).
“Lavender is a soft, sweet, rounded flavour – best suited to desserts and delicate flavourings,” she notes. “Lavandin has a sharper camphorous element (similar to rosemary) so is perfect for roasting with meat, potatoes or pumpkin.”
Culinary lavender is appearing more in drinks too, including lemonade, gin and cocktails, according to Alexander. “It’s perfect with a sharp apple juice or citrus flavours, and works well with slightly acidic foods such as gooseberry and rhubarb,” she says.
Following the drinks trend, The Hop Shop, working in liaison with a master tea-blender, has developed a range of lavender-based teas designed for different palates at different times of day.
“Morning Booster is a white tea that includes the invigorating, uplifting qualities of Kentish Lavandin flowers along with herb and citrus flavours,” Alexander continues.
“Lavender Grey was an obvious choice for an afternoon tea, while peppermint and Lavender Tea is a great after-dinner choice because of its refreshing and settling qualities. And our popular Sleepy Tea with hops, chamomile and lavender is perfect for its calming, relaxing properties.”
What is culinary lavender?
Generally it is considered that lavender oil itself is not suitable for direct use in food because the oil can leave a bitter sensation on the tongue and it tends to be sensed as a smell rather than a taste.
In the past, therefore, lavender as a food flavouring had been achieved by storing the flowers in sugar, steeping them in a sugar syrup or simply adding them as a dried ingredient.
In search of a faster application, a more authentic flavour and a product that would fully integrate with other ingredients in a recipe, Castle Farm commissioned a specialist flavourist to configure two culinary essences made from an extract of lavender oil – one for hot and one for cold use.
“These were designed to be easy to use and to give the true flavour of lavender,” Alexander explains. “We were then able to trial the flavour in a range of products from ice cream to cakes, biscuits, fudge, jams and even savoury products such as chutneys.”
By producing a Kentish Lavender Essence which could be accurately measured in drops, Alexander claims home cooks can now enjoy the simplicity of experimenting, while chefs or commercial producers have the facility to accurately replicate the flavour in large batches of food.
“The effectiveness of the Lavender Essence has seen it used by celebrity chefs and popularised on television programmes such as Masterchef,” she points out. “Public confidence in the concept of lavender as a flavouring has therefore grown and producers are even more happy to develop new products.”
How to use culinary lavender
In addition to lavender essence, chefs are adding lavender to dishes via lavender bud oils, lavender salt, lavender honey and lavender jelly.
“The combination of lavender flowers ground with salt is great fun for roast dishes,” says Alexander. “Lavender honey is gorgeously delicate and beautiful for basting something like barbecue chicken. Lavender jelly is a perfect accompaniment to fish.”
However, Alexander is quick to point out that she has never used lavender bud oils in cooking – and does not plan to develop the concept either.
“The only time we use oil in a recipe is for making chocolate,” she notes. “Kentish Lavender Oil is good with milk chocolate where it gives a perfumed floral character. However we advocate the use of Kentish Lavandin Oil with dark chocolate because it perfectly complements the chocolate’s bitter richness.”
* All pictures copyright Thomas Alexander.