Friday, March 17, 2006

Daynty Sirrups and Grand Sallets

Today, March 17 …

According to the mediaeval calendar, the flower of today, dedicated to St Gertrude of Nivelles, is the Sweet Violet (Viola odorata). Violets have a long culinary and medicinal history in Europe, and these were often one and the same thing – the idea of food as medicine is hardly new. The herbalist John Gerard said: 'It has power to ease inflammation, roughness of the throat and comforteth the heart, assuageth the pains of the head and causeth sleep' – and if it can do all that and taste and look good, why are we not all growing it in our backyards?

An earlier OldFoodie considered the marigold, a flower whose culinary value resides solely in its intense colour; the violet has this and more. Its intense heady perfume and intrinsic sweetness can be imparted to wine, vinegar, sugar and ‘daynty sirrups’; its flowers are just the right size for crystallising, and the leaves are also useful in salads.

Why has our use of flowers as food fallen off so? Has the fragrance been bred out of them as the trade-off for longer vase-life? Is it the pesticide residue? Have the awful Parma Violet sweets in the cellophane roll poisoned our appreciation of the real thing?

We think we are being terribly adventurous today if we toss a few nasturtium flowers into our green salad, but one eighteenth century recipe for ‘A Grand Sallet for Spring’, suitable for a “great feast’, contained violet leaves and flowers as well as strawberry leaves and cowslip buds along with water-cresses, almonds, raisins, and many other ingredients. A fourteenth century recipe for something called “Mon Amy” which is a dish of creamy curds thickened with egg yolks, flavoured with saffron and decorated with “vyollettes” – how amazing does that sound?

To impress your guests and comforteth their hearts, you could keep some violet syrup on hand, to flavour your custards and “Oriental Sherberts”. This one is from John Nott’s ‘Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary’ (1724):

Syrup of Violets.
Beat a Pound of pickt Violets in a Mortar, with a little Water, just to moisten them. In the mean time boil four Pounds of Sugar till it is pearled; take it off the Fire, let the Boiling cease; then put in the Violets, and temper all well together. Strain all through a fine Cloth into an earthen Pan; when it is cold put it in Bottles.

On Monday: The expense of a sugar offence.

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