These are recipes that reward the lonely forager
Primrose Flowers - Where to Look?
Woods, Hedgerows and Grassy Banks
Primroses. I can't think of any flower that shouts "Springtime" or Mothering Sunday or Easter more loudly from the hedgerow - making you glad to have survived the long winter doldrums. Now, as I may have mentioned before, I am married to a botanist and so I am required, even in the kitchen, to use the correct latin names for plants. So, just to demonstrate to him that I do listen, I do remember and I do know it (not a bad recipe for a long marriage) the primrose is Primula vulgaris. And look, I use the correct italics for the latin name.
So that's the nomenclature out of the way. On to the deliciousness and delicacy of anything you manage to make with primroses. I say delicate because whilst they may seem all hardy perennial - as in they grow back every year - do something to these flowers that they don't like once back in your kitchen and you really will have to start all over again.
After several weeks of forward planning, including trawling old recipe books and online blogs looking for mouth-watering primrose recipes, I came up with almost nothing. Primrose jelly. Which I can see would have a novelty value sitting pretty as a centre piece on the dining table on Mothering Sunday but who will actually want to eat it?
No, I need recipes which are delicious in their own right and which happen to include some botanical twist or madness that shouldn't but does work on the palette. And I need recipes which reward the lonely forager who - whilst others have sat around coffee shops nattering with family and friends on a weekend - has taken to the highways and byways armed only with a prayer that it won't rain...just yet.
Actually, I don't forage alone. If it is the weekend, the botanist will be out and about with me. If it is mid week, I take the dog. I have actually spent a few weeks now trying to train her to forage - if a dog can win TV's Britain's Got Talent and sniff out drugs on command for its police handler, then I am sure mine can be trained to find me a hedgerow flower.
Laika is an Australian Kelpie. This means she is a People Pleaser and highly biddable. She is three years old now and so her brain should be at its very best. I showed her a primrose in situ in the hedge and said PRIMROSE in my "Listen Laika, this is important information" voice. She sat. I picked the primrose and repeated the name, wafting the delicate flower under her nose. PRIMROSE. PRIMROSE. She stood back up. And then she did that can't-really-be-bothered-but-I-might-as-well-show-willing thing that dogs who want to please you do ... and tried, half heartedly, to eat the flower. NO LAIKA! SNIFF IT. She turned away, spotted a pheasant minding its own business in the opposite hedge and chased it into the brooding sky.
I can see this training lark is going to take some time and it is definitely going to rain so I ignore the dog (except when I hear the rattle of a muck spreader heading our way) and pick as fast as I can. Here are my picking rules. I made them up but they're not bad:
Foraging for non botanical beginners:
1. Do a preliminary reconnaissance of where and what you want to pick. You'd be amazed how often you might espy a plant, eye it up for your supper or jam pot and go back a few days later only to find something or someone has beaten you to it. Or it has simply exploded into all its glory and, by the time you get there with your trug, has already wilted and died.
2. Pick mid morning if you can. And as soon as you can after spotting the plants you want to cook with. The dew will have dried off which should make the flowers/plants more workable once you are back in your kitchen.
3. Forget the trug bit. You'll only lose half your forage and, if it's a windy day, spend most of your precious foraging session trying to hang on to the flowers you've already picked: Take something sturdy with a lid in the event of inclement weather, especially rain.
4. If you really want to have a relationship with the plants you introduce to your kitchen, there's a lot to be said for the quitely engaging notion of foraging alone. Before long, you will get your eye in and soon spot the plants or blooms you are after, even when they are hiding under other leaves. You will SLOW DOWN because you can't forage in an express train kind of rush. And anyway, why would you want to? That would defeat the deeper purpose of wanting to reconnect with food/flavours growing under your nose.
5. Keep notes. You don't want to start over like a novice at the same time next year and if you keep a note of where you found your favourite wild ingredients, when and how things worked out for you in the kitchen, you can use the following year, and the one after that (and the one after that one), to experiment with different plants flowering or growing at that same time of the year. This is called Smart Foraging.
And here are the botanist's rules, which are also quite good:
1. Don't forage (steal) on private property - the owners can sue you for 'profiting' from their chattels.
2. When you spot your plant, take a small selection. Don't clear the patch. It's not good manners to leave nothing for others in your wake.
3. If in doubt (about identity) leave it out. If you have seen the film Into The Wild you will know never to take a risk when it comes to plant ID.
4. Don't forage in that spot if there is a muck spreader over the hedge or lorries trail up and down the highway. Use common sense and seek more out of the way and less polluted places to pick your plants
Mrs Grieves, who is not my Maiden Aunt but the author of one of my favourite plant books A Modern Herbal - first published in 1931 so modern as in only the last century - talks of the whole primrose plant being dried and used in the old days as a remedy for arthritic conditions, including gout and to help tackle insomnia. And an infusion of the flowers, made into a tea (10 parts of the petals to 100 parts of water) was used to calm nervous hysteria. In other words, it works as a relaxant which also means it could then be a good substitute for those Rescue Remedy flower essences and a whole lot cheaper!
But in cooking, it was the flowers that were the chief ingredient in an old dish called Primrose Pottage, which featured rice, almonds, honey, saffron and ground Primrose flowers. Think Hilary Mantel's Booker-prize winning novel, Wolf Hall...I am still on the hunt for a version of this recipe!
Working with your Primrose flowers
This is the crucial bit. Foraging for a flower as delicate as the Primrose is labour-intensive and if you get it wrong at this stage you will have to wait to make the dishes until you can go out again and pick more primroses. When you do pick, pinch the flower head between your finger and thumb and gently pull the flower out of the calyx (the green sheath the flower petals sit in) leaving the stalk and the ovary behind. It should slide cleanly out without damaging the delicate petals. The Botanist explains that this means a flower that has already been pollinated can still produce seed and reproduce despite you having picked it. So no need for guilt. Plus you won't be cooking with the stalks so it also saves having to snip them off in your kitchen.
The golden rule once you are back at your house with your flowers is do not wash them. The slow baking/drying process will destroy any 'nasties'. (Actually, I discovered you can also do a blast bake at a higher temperature which will turn the blooms caramel brown giving you a primrose treat which tastes of sweet toffee. Not to everyone's taste but I have made a note to find a use for this version of cooked primroses in the future.)
Sort your flowers by size and perfection keeping the best for crystallising and the ropier blooms for your primrose curd or honey.
What you are aiming for with the recipes below is a dry, papery crisp, still yellow and intact primrose flower head that you can flake into cakes or meringues or keep whole, depending on how subtle (or not) you want to be.
Bake your primrose flowers in batches of 20 so that if anything does go wrong, you still have flowers left to work with. Place the flower heads face down on a baking tray with lots of space between them. Bake in a pre heated oven on a very, very, very low heat (40 degrees) or use the warming drawer of your Aga for 15 -20 minutes or until the flowers have curled, dried and become papery to the touch. The oven temperature needs to be so low you could almost remove the tray without oven gloves (don't do this but it makes the point that the oven needs to be barely warm). Once you remove the tray from the oven, let the baked petals stand for five minutes to continue drying out. They will have shrunk. A lot. Don't panic. This is normal. Depending which recipe you choose and what effect you want in your finished dish, leave the baked petals whole or flake them once completely dried.
What went wrong:
Let's get the bad bits out of the way. I wasn't entirely happy with my Primrose Flower & Black Pepper shortbread biscuits (recipe coming online later this week). See if you can guess why? Here is a multiple choice to help you:
(a) They burned in the oven
(b) The black pepper made everyone sneeze
(c) You couldn't see the delicate primrose flower flakes in the biscuit once baked because they were TOO SMALL and camouflaged by the flour.
The correct and very dispiriting answer is (c). Which is what led to the Primrose Meringue Nest and actually keeping the baked flowers whole, instead of flaking them. The Botanist also suggested we make chocolate biscuits so you can better see the yellow primrose flakes. I said: "You're alright" which means you should be so lucky (that I make another batch for you to take in your lunch box).
What Went Right
Baking the flowers. Eventually. So after a wee bit of tweaking, I found the right way to bake the primroses and the results were beautiful. The papery fragility of the baked petals really influenced the rest of the cooking. You will need to work carefully, gently and with finesse.
The keyword for working with these flowers is: Delicacy.
Cooking With Primroses: The Recipes
The Botanist and I have devised a selection of original recipes that allow you to cook with primroses whether you have a small handful of flowers or several buckets full. We'll start with the Mothering Sunday weekend treat of a Primrose Meringue Nest which we made yesterday and post other recipes, including a Primrose & Cardomom Curd, Primrose & Black Pepper Biscuits and Primrose Flowers for decorating your cakes over the course of the coming week (March 11-15, 2013). Incorporating the primroses in these recipes is not an exact science so do trust your own judgement and do what you like the look of.
Primrose Meringue Nest
This really is a Springtime weekend treat. After all the hard work of foraging, baking and preparing your primroses, you will want to really showcase them and the snowy white of a homemade meringue cake is the perfect delicious backdrop. Put this on the table for a family meal and you'll be scraping the crumbs before you can say "The important thing about foraging is .... "
In any case, nobody will be listening. They will all be asking if there is any more!
x3 medium size eggs white (keep the yolks for another dish)
175g caster sugar
x3 tablespoons of dried, baked primrose flowers
x13 dried, baked primrose flowers to decorate the top of your meringues. Reserve the ones that have maintained the whole shape of the bloom best of all
Primrose honey to drizzle (see recipe below)
Whisk three large egg whites until they form stiff peaks
Using a metal spoon, gently fold your dried primroses into the snowy white mix
Line a baking tray with greaseproof baking paper (you an secure the four corners with a small blob of your meringue mix)
Spoon the primrose/egg/sugar mix onto the tray to make a large meringue circle
Sprinkle the top with your reserved baked primrose heads; try and make these look scattered
Bake in the oven at 150F or the equivalent for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 140F and bake for another 50 minutes.
Turn off your oven and leave the meringue to carry on drying out for two or three more hours
To assemble your Primrose Meringue Nest
Lift your baked meringue off the parchment and break into large pieces (slabs) that you will use to build a nest on a plain white plate or cake stand. As you break the meringue, you will see that the yellow from the primrose flowers will have seeped through the white of the cooked meringue (you will see yellow streaks) whilst the flower heads themselves will have caramalised. The pre-baked primrose flowers topping the meringue will have stayed intact and yellow so make sure you build a nest that showcases these.
Whip your cream and dollop around your nest, especially where there are 'gaps' between the meringue pieces.
Drizzle homemade primrose honey over the nest and scatter your reserved dried primrose flowers over the meringue cake.
Serve immediately as a pudding or with a nice cup of English afternoon tea!
This is an optional extra (but well worth the small additional effort) and is brilliant for using up any primrose flowers you have left over, any that were crushed in the journey from hedge to home and any that were damaged in any other way.
The only skill you need to make this delicious flower syrup is patience ...
Whatever primroses you have left over, aim for half a cup
200g caster sugar
1 pint water
Warm the sugar and water and stir to help the sugar dissolve.
Add your primrose flowers and bring gently to the boil
Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and leave to reduce for three hours.
The syrup will become a sticky caramel colour, like a darkened honey
The flower petals will form semi-solid marmalade-style pulpy 'clumps' which means once you have drained the syrup to use as you would normally use honey, you can keep this solid matter back and use as a sweet spread for toast, cake fillings or to top ice cream.
Even Better If:
I had more time. More flowers. It hadn't rained the next day.
Susan Clark is Associate Editor for Resurgence & Ecologist. She has written books on Cookery and Natural Health and books that combine the two.
You can follow her @suzresurgence