When the railway line at Dawlish washed away back in 2014, the last things on most people’s minds were little purple flowers. A century ago it would have been a different story. The spring ‘violet train’ would have been unable to pick up Dawlish’s sweet-smelling harvest. Eliza Doolittles at Covent Garden would have had nothing to sell and the fashionable ladies of Edwardian London’s salons would have gone without their corsages of Devon violets.
Would-be salonnières of today can heave a sigh of relief the line has reopened with those famous violets back nestling along its hedgerows, though sadly World War II and changing tastes saw the end of Dawlish’s violet boom. This could still change as the trend for wearing this most delicate of blossoms turns to eating them instead.
Spring flowers have been eaten for centuries, darting in and out of style as tastes for the exotic compete with traditional country treats. Both flower and leaves of viola odorata or sweet wood violet are edible. Although the petals are mainly used as garnishes the heart-shaped leaves can be added to salads and soups, or fried like courgette-flower fritters.
In the fourteenth century petals were ground with rice pudding, flavoured with almonds and served with cream. A simple form of Edward I’s favourite – violet sugar – can be made by layering blooms in a jar of caster sugar. The longer it’s left, the stronger the flavour will be.
The Tudors loved the delicate, pastel shades of violets, primroses and cowslips, adding them to ‘sallets’ to relieve the dull, green monotony of spring’s ‘hungry gap’. The Good Huswife’s Jewell recommends, after washing the flowers, to ‘swing them in a strainer’ before tossing with sliced cucumber and lemons, oil, vinegar and a ‘scrape’ of sugar. Elizabethans also candied the delicate flowers to flavour creams, curds, egg dishes and tarts and strewing the sparkling blooms as garnishes. Queen Elizabeth ate crystallised violets to sweeten her breath. It didn’t work of course; her teeth were blacker than ever after all that sugar.
In France violets have always been used to garnish meat dishes, especially veal, though a reputation as a funeral flower that has dogged the violet since antiquity is never quite forgotten, especially after bloody revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte smothered Josephine’s coffin with purple petals as a final, passionate tribute. The French are still passionate for the flower, especially the Provençal village of Tourrettes sur Loup, who rejoice in the nickname Cité des Violettes. Pairing candied violets with the sharp yellow of crystallised mimosa will lend a traditionally chic South-of-France breath of sunshine to a spring tea.
France is also the birthplace of Crème de Violette, currently being rehabilitated by mixologists reinventing jazz-age cocktails for the 21st Century. Where 1920s revellers just used a dash for colour, these days the violet’s flavour is important too. Tom Walker, bar tender at the Savoy’s American Bar is a fan, though he realises he’s battling prejudice. “People assume it will be like grandma’s pot-pourris,” he says, “but actually it works really well with citrus and gin”. Walker’s version of the classic twenties ‘Aviation’ cocktail involves “clever, punchy” Portobello Road London dry gin, and modern Crème de Violette by The Bitter Truth.
Violets might have been made for the sentimental Victorians. The complex Victorian language of flowers told romantics blue blooms meant ‘Faithfulness,’ white, ‘Modesty,’ and yellow, ‘Rural Happiness.’ Violet wafers with lemon balm sauce were served as appetisers at nineteenth century banquets to compliment stronger flavours like melon, apricots and cream cheese.
By Edwardian times, the upper classes were enjoying violets in a new form – chocolate. Prestat’s violet creams, enjoyed by Sarah Bernhardt in the 1920s and the 1950s debutante’s ‘seduction chocolate of choice’, are still one of the Royal confectioners’ biggest seller, the combination of floral sweetness and dark chocolate more popular than ever.
Each individual sweet is topped with a purple sugared flower. After ‘wilderness years’ spent out of favour as ‘old people’s cake decorations’, crystallised violets are now finding their way back onto pretty spring bakes. They look stunning against a drizzled white glacé icing but also go well with lemon and chocolate, both in looks and flavour. Some even serve a crystallised violet or two with after-dinner coffee as an alternative to petits fours. They’re fairly easy to get hold of but for the very best, just check out these by Laduree
The practicalities of violet cookery may partially explain why commercial products are so rare. An old American recipe for violet sugar involves mincing six cups of fresh violet petals, pounding the result with three cups of granulated sugar and leaving in a cool place for at least a week before using in recipes.
It has been calculated that one cup holds approximately 200 violet petals – requiring 1,200 blossoms for each batch of sugar. The crystallisation process is even more complicated.
This version preserves the ‘look’ of the flower and is ideal to decorate a cake, but is not suitable for storing.
Perfect violet flowers, stalk included
1 egg white, room temperature
Gently wash the violets. Using a plant mister, supporting the flowers on a sieve, will help them keep their shape. Allow to dry on a paper towel. Arrange on cling film then, with a fine paintbrush, coat each flower with lightly-whisked egg white. Sprinkle with fine caster sugar, lay on waxed paper to set in a warm place for about 24 hours. You can speed the process by putting in a very low oven for an hour or so. When dry, snip the stalks away for use on cakes, puddings, ice creams, etc.
This method creates a darker, ‘blobbier’ version, of the kind used in confectionary. The flowers last longer than the first method; store them between layers of caster sugar for use as required, within a month.
20-50 perfect violet flowers, stalk included
110g caster sugar
1tsp rose water
Extra caster sugar for dusting
Wash the violets very gently and allow to dry on a paper towel. Heat the sugar with the water and rose water until completely dissolved. Dip each flower into the solution, using the stalk to handle it. Dust each flower with sugar, making sure it’s completely coated, then arrange on waxed paper or a silicone baking sheet to set in a cool, dry place. When they are completely dry remove the stalks with sharp scissors.
A version of this feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…