Monday, February 04, 2008

Primrose Day.

February 5

The flower of the day, according to the much quoted but perhaps mythical medieval monks’ calendar, is the primrose (Primula vulgaris), and it is dedicated to the saint of the day, St. Agatha.

The only common culinary use of flowers nowadays seems to be a few tossed into a salad for colour. A number of things have contributed to the decline in the use of edible flowers – the habitat of wild flowers is shrinking, cultivated flowers have been sprayed with pesticides, roadside flowers are tainted with vehicle exhaust fumes, and they are not generally sold in supermarket produce departments. ‘Tis a pity, for they were once used widely to make wine and spirits, pickles and jams and confections; they were added to composed salads and to 'made dishes' for both their flavour and colour. It seems unlikely that flowers will ever have such widespread culinary use again.

Flowers also used to be used medicinally. The primrose was a veritable panacea for a wide range of problems including rheumatics, paralysis, gout, wounds, headaches, insomnia, chest problems and hysterical disorders. Sadly or otherwise, its value in these complaints has long since been superceded by modern medicine - but modern medicine offers no substitute for one other very important attribute of the primrose.

It used to be said that eating primroses enabled you to see fairies, and surely we need more fairies to be more visible in our lives? Certainly there are other substances known to give the gift of seeing fairies (or little green elephants, or perfumed music, or Elvis leaving the building etc), but these are associated with other risks, not the least of which are toxicological and legal. Those of you who live in temperate primrose-growing countries are very lucky. If you have access to huge amounts you can make:

Primrose Vinegar.
To fifteen quarts of water put six pounds of brown sugar; let it boil ten minutes, and take off the scum; pour on it half a peck of primroses; before it is quite cold, put in a little fresh yeast, and let it work in a warm place all night; put it into a barrel in the kitchen, and when done working, close the barrel, still keeping it in a warm place.
[The Mysteries of Trade, Or, the Source of Great Wealth … David Beman, 1825]

If a handful of primroses is all you can manage, you can make a tart, and perhaps it will be enough for a single fairy visitation. The recipe (a variation of a ‘Tansy’*) uses only the leaves, so you can use the pretty flowers in an accompanying salad.

To make a Spring Tart.
Gather such Buds, in the Spring of the Year, that are not bitter, also the Leaves of Primroses, Violets, and Strawberries; take also a little young Spinage, boil them, drain them in a Colander; then chop them very small, and boil them over again in Cream; add to them Naples Bisket grated, and so many Yolks and Whites of Eggs as will make the Cream very thick, colour all green with the Juice of Spinage; season with Salt, Nutmeg, Cinnamon and Sugar, and bake it in Puff-paste or otherwayes.
[The cook’s and confectioner’s dictionary, 1733]

*There are other flowers in other stories:

Marigolds are HERE
Lime Flowers are HERE

Violets are HERE
Woodruff is HERE
A conserve of Flowers is HERE
Borage flowers (and marigolds and cowslips) are HERE

Tomorrow’s Story …

Air Force One.

Quotation for the Day …

How many flowers there are which only serve to produce essences, which could have been made into savory dishes. Charles Monselet (1825-1864)


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Wonderful post! Flowers are a long forgotten ingredient here and it is fascinating to read some of those historic recipes. The tart sounds charming.

The Old Foodie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Old Foodie said...

"Sandra" emailed me with the following comment, and has given permission for me to post it, as technical issues prevent her from doing it herself:

"I'm not entirely sure "primrose leaves" actually refers to the leaves. Rose petals are frequently called rose leaves in older works. Then again, "strawberry leaves" pretty much always really does mean leaves, so how do you know?"

Good point, Sandra. Any primrose recipe experts out there?

Anonymous said...

Very nice post!
I never know the story behind the primrose.
Primrose vinegar and tart sounds yummy!
Thanks for bringing such a nice post to the fore.

Heiko said...

I've just found your wonderful blog while searching for a primrose recipe. Here in Italy people eat both leaves and flowers briefly boiled then covered with some olive oil, lemon juice and salt. I must try this recipe. Any idea what they may have meant with Naples bisket?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Heiko - I am delighted that you found the blog and like it. Naples Biskets were a sort of dry sponge biscuit, similar to the savoiardie or sponge fingers we use in trifle. They were very popular. Maybe I will do a post on them soon as I have had a couple of questions - so keep watching and reading!