Matching Cuisine and Nature
Pansy. Toya Legido /© Icex
Author: Raquel Castillo/©ICEX. Traslation: Hawys Pritchard
Among the culinary trends of the past few years, edible flowers have emerged as a badge of avant-garde cuisine. Spain's top chefs, gastronomic pacesetters at the start of the new century, use flowers for their color and plasticity, but more importantly for their flavors and aromas. Their myriad nuances and textures contribute an extra dimension, turning dishes into edible gardens and landscapes, recreations of nature. In response to increasing demand from the culinary world, some Spanish companies have focused their attention on growing and marketing flowers. They use sustainable, organic methods and are experimenting with recovering lost plants and flowers (mainly herbs and salad leaves such as purple basil and pimpernel) and adapting species brought in from abroad. All in all, it is a specialized market and, judging by recent performance, an expanding one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of contemporary cuisine is its ability to evolve and reinvent itself. At the turn of the century, there was an explosion of new culinary tendencies, and the ideas and approaches of world-famous trailblazers like Ferran Adrià became popular. Something similar happened with flowers. In the 1990s, two French three-star chefs, Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat, started experimenting with flowers in their cooking, as an expression of their culinary philosophy of engaging with nature. Since then, flowers have caught on in the upper echelons of the restaurant world, though lower down the scale they are still used timidly, in a rather token way.
There's nothing new about eating flowers, we've done it for thousands of years. Some are familiar: artichokes, cauliflower and broccoli. Saffron is a flower, or at least a flower pistil. But what we refer to here is using flowers to conjure garden evocations - splashes of color, subtle hints of flavors, silky or crunchy textures, and unexpected aromas. It's a new approach and explains why flowers fit perfectly with avant-garde cuisine and its commitment to please all the senses and transcend taste.
Flowers in Contemporary Spanish Cooking
Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in Rosas was one of the first to use flowers. Examples from his repertoire include an attractive, supremely delicate flower paper; mandarin flower, marrow oil and mandarin pip iced cream; a dish called Water lilies, in which cashews are served over a soup of tea, geranium leaves and begonia flowers; and a flower canapé with a pine meringue base topped with elder and borage flower sorbet.
For the past four years, the Roca brothers (of three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Catalonia) have been developing desserts in tribute to well-known perfumes, breaking each one down into its components to create parallel fragrances on the plate, with flowers a staple. They use them in savory recipes too, their dish The Plant: root, stem, leaf and flower, is a layered creation, consisting of truffle, fennel, lemon flowers and bergamot - an edible "landscape" generally conducive to Proustian recall.
Edible landscapes have become an innovative culinary concept in which flowers play a vital role. One exponent is Quique Dacosta of the restaurant El Poblet in Denia, Alicante, whose Bosque animado (Enchanted forest) uses wild thyme and rosemary flowers and sprigs of greenery and flowers in a dish of complex flavors and aromas.
The archetypal exponent in Spain is Andoni Luis Aduriz, owner/chef of the two-Michelin-star Mugaritz in Rentería (Basque Country). "When I came to Mugaritz in 1998," he explains, "I wanted to work from one idea: simplifying. Until that time, Spanish cuisine had been constructed on foundations consisting of complicated dishes with lots of ingredients. Herbs were used in the French way, dishes were 'finished' with sprigs of parsley - a nonsensical gesture, since no one ever ate them."
Flowers to Communicate
He started collecting plants and created his own kitchen garden, experimenting and working with botanists. The next step was flowers, because it was a natural step to use a product that is an expression of nature and beauty. "When we started to work with them we had to ensure that all the flowers of aromatic herbs possess the character of the parent plant, but in a very subtle form. If I want rosemary I can use its flowers, which have a fabulous aroma, rather than rosemary as such. Another thing we like about them is their texture."
Andoni doesn't think that flowers in cooking are a passing trend. "I don't put flowers in all my dishes; I use them to communicate something. I'm very into the flowers of resinous rosemary. If flowers have essential oils, I like to sprinkle them on at the end, placing an accent on the dish. Big flowers can be stuffed or cooked, while little ones are more delicate and melt in the mouth."
Montse Estruch has emerged as standard-bearer for cooking with flowers. From El Cingle near Barcelona, she creates dishes in which flowers play a significant role. A one-Michelin-star holder since 2004, she took her first steps in this trend 15 years ago. There was a tradition of making elderflower buñuelos (fritters) in Catalonia; in the process of reinstating the custom, she started experimenting. "Nasturtium has a hot mustardy zing that I love with chocolate. Lavender has an evocative smell that triggers all kinds of recollections. For appearance, I use rose, orchid, calendula and pineapple sage, which is a very pretty red. For texture the pansy, which is delicate and velvety; orchid has a certain fleshiness about it; nasturtium is subtle; violet is delicate; rosemary flower tastes of the forest; pimpernel is piquant and clover is bitter."
Málaga-based chef José Carlos García of one-star Café de París has been using flowers for years, at first for purely aesthetic reasons and then to give a new take on dishes; hence his use of borage flower in an avocado and prawn dish; garlic flower in ajoblanco malagueño (cold almond soup); and orchid alongside a dish of char-grilled fruit and vegetables. Yet he has no illusions about the likely reaction of the man on the street. "You can't go serving him too many flowers. They're not completely accepted yet; they're for very specific customers."
Herb and Flower Producers
In response to increasing demand for flowers from restaurateurs, various Spanish companies have cropped up. What they produce reflects the results of researching products and growing methods, experimenting with both rehabilitating native flowers and plants and acclimatizing herbs and flowers from all over the world to local terroirs and climatic conditions.
One of the most firmly established is family-run Pàmies Hortícoles, in the province of Lleida (Catalonia). Proprietor Josep Pàmies, says they present new products on a regular basis and fulfill commissions from chefs.
Using sustainable farming methods to grow plants as yet unknown in cooking, they produce about 70 commercial and experimental varieties, which they sell all over Spain. "I'm not in favor of exporting because I believe that each country should supply its own local markets; we should consume what our own country can provide." Based on his commitment to seasonality, quality and freshness, his motto - an unusual one in business - is to not grow too much. "I want to keep in touch with the soil and not just be an executive." Even so, the company has grown considerably over the past few years and now supplies Spain's top chefs.
Aroa, in the Basque Country specializes in authentic guisantes lágrima (teardrop peas): rare, expensive and 100% gourmet, and others: baby broad beans, leeks, baby chard, baby carrots and tomatoes. These vegetables brought them to the attention of the Basque Country's big-name chefs, under whose influence they added other products: mustards, shiso or Japanese savory, pimpernels, seeds, sprouts, aromatic herbs, flowers and a range of salad leaves. Production is organic, though not marketed as such. They sell throughout Spain and export to France, Sweden, Italy, the US and Japan.
"When haute cuisine starts using flowers and herbs, there's a knock-on effect as others follow suit," says owner Jaime Burgaña. "But flowers aren't a product that goes down well in middle-of-the-road restaurants - customers don't see the point, and flowers are expensive!" For example, 100 g (3 1/2 oz) of mallow are listed at €7 at distributor's prices, and most trays of flowers, containing about 10 each, cost between €2.50 and €3.50 wholesale.
Sabor y Salud grows its products in the warm climate, clean air and sunshine of Málaga (Andalusia). Started four years ago by German couple Peter and Tekla Kurpjuweit, it aims to grow plants in a climate mild enough to enable them to maintain constant production levels. Though both enthusiastic exporters, they concentrate on the Spanish market because of transport and the problem of keeping flowers in top condition. Their product list includes over 40 flower varieties, with which they supply Spain's most famous chefs.
Raquel Castillo heads the gastronomy section of the financial paper Cinco Días, and writes for specialist journals in Spain such as Vino y Gastronomía, Vivir el Vino, Vinoselección and Sobremesa, among others.