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Cooking with Lavender

The flower long admired for its soothing fragrance adds a delicate flavor to surprising dishes.

By Erin McKay

Hobby Farms explains how cooking with Lavender can enhance your cooking
Courtesy Lavender at Stonegate
Royal Velvet lavender is a good culinary option.
Back in the 1960s, a movie and television series came out with the odd name, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. It was a reasonable-sounding request at the time, but nowadays, edible flowers are a delicacy—even those considered weeds, such as dandelions. Someone should make a film called, Help Yourself to Hibiscus or Gorging on Gladiolus

Hobby Farm HomeToday, we know many kinds of edible flowers, including nasturtiums, marigolds, roses and day lilies, to name just a few. Although the culinary use of flowers stretches back to Roman times, it was all the rage during the Victorian era. One of the most popular edible flowers is lavender, long valued for its healing properties as well as its flavor. 

In her book, Cooking with Lavender (Rio Grande Books, second edition, 2007), retired research scientist and New Mexico resident Suzanne Smith points out that lavender has had many medicinal uses, treating everything from colic to eczema. A relative of mint and rosemary, the plant originated in the “dry mountainous regions of southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa,” eventually spreading through Europe to the British Isles, Mexico and North America. In Tudor times, lavender was a popular medicine and food ingredient. “England’s Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) especially liked lavender conserve, and she also enjoyed its flavor in savory foods,” Smith writes. Henry VIII was a fan, too.

Like other trends, the use of culinary lavender waxes and wanes.

“Lavender flowers, leaves and stalks are used extensively in French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines and moderately in the cuisine of England,” Smith writes. “Chefs throughout the ages have used the lemony-tasting flowers and bitterly pungent leaves of lavender in appetizers, salads, vinegars, jellies, sauces, main dishes, desserts and beverages.”

The Provence region of France is well-known for its “real” herbes de Provence, which is a mixture of five to eight herbs of various proportions, including lavender buds. Like rosemary, lavender leaves are savory, but with less of a “pine-y” flavor.  Teena Louise Vannucci-Downs, a personal chef in Cortez, Colo., notes that lavender is great in sweet, baked goods and with leg of lamb. In 2008, she wrote about cooking with lavender in her Cortez Journal newspaper column “In Good Taste.”

“I’m trying to educate people and introduce them to different flavors from all over the world,” Vannucci-Downs explains. “As the world gets smaller and smaller, our tastes are broadening so much and becoming more international.”

Culinary lavender has a romantic appeal, with flavors reminiscent of summer and exotic origins. Many dining establishments have caught on to this notion and now incorporate culinary lavender into their menus. For example, Julie Cleveland, owner of Sauvie Island Lavender Farm near Portland, Ore., supplies culinary lavender to Elephant Bar Restaurants (based in California), a relationship that began because they were looking for lavender powder to use in one of their desserts. 

Lavender is Complicated
Certain varieties of lavender lend themselves to crafting and aromatherapy. As such, they may be treated with preservatives or solutions designed to enhance their fragrances. Plants are sometimes sprayed with chemicals that are not safe to ingest.

“Not all lavender plants are good for culinary use,” Cleveland observes. For example, the Lavendula x intermedia variety contains a camphor oil that is not great for cooking because it tends to have an unpleasant taste.

Therefore, it’s critical to cook with culinary lavender. Although all varieties of lavender are edible, not all of them are tasty. According to Cleveland, the most popular culinary lavender variety is Provence (L. x intermedia).

“Provence, a hybrid, tastes exactly like it smells,” Cleveland said.

English Lavender has a sweet flavor. Buena Vista, Royal Velvet and Melissa lavenders are good culinary lavender options, Cleveland says, with Melissa lavender having a peppery kick. 

The website for Valley View Lavender Farm in Buhl, Idaho, states, “Most cooks and culinary chefs prefer the English L. angustifolias because they are sweet both in aroma and taste. The rule we use is, the lighter color the flower, the more delicate the flavor.”

The owners of Purple Haze Lavender Farm and Store in Sequim, Wash., maintain that the English lavender, Melissa, “is the No. 1 choice of the cooks at Purple Haze for savory recipes with meats, salad dressings and marinades. We use Royal Velvet in our lavender sugar, our lemonade, and in dessert dishes that need both color and flavor.”

Winning Lavender Combinations
Culinary lavender pairs well with a wide range of foods, including fruit, game, chicken, salmon and dressings. Pat Ford and Tim Welsh, co-owners of Beehive Cheese Company in Uintah, Utah, have been repeatedly honored for their “Barely Buzzed” lavender-and-espresso-coffee-rubbed cheddar. It placed first in the flavored cheddar category in the American Cheese Society competition in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Barely Buzzed is also one of Beehive’s best sellers.

 Many entrepreneurs have capitalized on another match made in heaven: Dagoba and Love Bird Chocolates are but two companies selling lavender-and-chocolate confections.

If curiosity has the best of you, you won’t have to look far to try a lavender product. For example, Purple Haze Lavender Farm offers cookies, salad dressing, honey, pepper and coffee—all flavored with lavender. Sauvie Island Lavender Farm sells lavender sugar, a lavender salt rub and lavender tea. Visitors to the farm may partake of this tea or lavender lemonade with lavender-lemon shortbread cookies. 

A number of events across the country—in Washington, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania, to name a few—provide opportunities to sample lavender. The annual Lavender in the Village Festival at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Cultural Center in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M., features fresh bread with lavender jelly. Just up the road in Santa Fe is a living history museum, El Rancho de Las Golondrinas (“The Ranch of the Swallows”), that also offers lavender food products during its annual Herb and Lavender Fair. Both events take place in July, at the peak of lavender season.

Assuming your encounters with lavender are positive, why not try your hand at cooking with this herb? If you don’t have your own culinary lavender, look for buds, leaves and powder in your local grocery, specialty or health-food stores. Other sources include the Atlantic Spice Company in North Truro, Mass., or Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene, Ore.

Alternatively, many independent lavender growers like Valley View Lavender Farm sell culinary lavender. Willow Pond Farm in Fairfield, Pa., grows more than 40 varieties of culinary lavender and sells it in 1/2-cup, 1-cup or 2-cup quantities or in bulk. The certified-organic farm is inspected and registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. 

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Cooking with Lavender

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Reader Comments
I recently made a salad with fresh basil, oregano, thyme, cherry & pear tomatoes along with lavender leaves all from my garden. Romaine lettuce, feta cheese, lemon & olive oil dressing completed it. The simple salad got raves from everyone. The lavender gave it a lovely pungent flavor
Jane, Las Cruces, NM
Posted: 9/17/2013 12:09:47 AM
I have a very small lavender farm in southwest OK and was so excited to see your cover, and story I posted the link for my readers to follow. Thanks for featuring lavender. Love it!
CL, Lawton, OK
Posted: 4/9/2010 11:08:13 AM
I love the fragrance of lavender, but I am still not a fan of the taste when it is used in recipes.
J, montreal, QC
Posted: 3/26/2010 8:56:08 PM
such a pretty cover this month, of the lavender.
wendy, round rock, TX
Posted: 3/23/2010 7:04:34 PM
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