Please DO eat the lavender

And you thought lavender was only good for freshening ladies’ panty drawers!

Well, it is good for that, but people have been using lavender in food preparation probably for as long as they have been making soap and sachets with it — it’s said, for example, that Elizabeth I decreed that the royal table should never be without lavender conserve and therefore she ordered her gardeners to make fresh lavender available year round.

The edible part of lavender is the dried flower buds, which contain the essential oil that imbues food with flavour. As a member of the mint family, lavender imparts a piquant, slightly sweet taste to food. It can substitute for lemon or mint in sweet dishes and for rosemary in savoury dishes. Lavender is also considered a traditional ingredient in herbes de Provence, a mixture of dried savory, fennel, basil and thyme (although the Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine & Cookery does not list it as such. The story is that spice wholesalers created herbes de Provence and added lavender to it in the 1970s). Whatever the case, thousands of cute little French lambs graze in the lavender fields of Provence, all the better to make their meat both tender and fragrant, especially when the chops are rubbed with olive oil and herbes de Provence.

Lavender oil is also used to flavour beverages, ice cream, chewing gum and candy. And if you are into eating flowers, lavender blossoms make a lovely and fragrant garnish for sorbets or ice creams, and they look beautiful — and taste good too — in a glass of champagne.

Lavender has been cultivated for thousands of years in Mediterranean countries (the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead with it, and various other peoples have employed it as a folk remedy for ailments from acne to insomnia). It is also cultivated in places like Bulgaria and South Africa as well as, perhaps surprisingly, Canada, though the Canadian industry is quite young. Lavender has been grown in the Okanagan Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands since the 1990s. And about a decade ago farmers in southwestern Ontario began to adopt lavender as a replacement crop for tobacco, and now fields of short, bushy lavender shrubs, which love southern Ontario’s hot summers and tolerate its humid winters, have replaced many former tobacco fields. The largest lavender farm in Canada is Bleu Lavande, which is located in Quebec’s Eastern Townships; it opened its doors to the public in 2004.

If you would like to try cooking with lavender, don’t simply rip open a potpourri. As Kevin Beagle, of Weir’s Lane Lavender and Apiary, outside of Dundas, Ontario, told me, “The lavender used for sachets and the like is usually the Grosso variety; it is high in camphor, which makes it quite aromatic, but not very tasty. The best lavender for cooking is a gentler English lavender, such as Munstead.”

Your best bet to obtain culinary lavender is to take summer holidays in BC, Ontario or Quebec, especially in July when the lavender blooms and the fields are at their loveliest. A cheaper option is to check out various websites of the BC Lavender Network, the Ontario Lavender Association or Bleu Lavande.

So, don’t be afraid to add this ancient herb to your cooking, but be judicious — lavender is strong and a little goes a long way. And remember — if your dish ends up tasting like something you might put into a sachet for your unmentionables, you’ve used too much.

Karen Virag is an Edmonton writer.

Lavender recipes

We are big fans of the Okanagan Lavender Farm (4380 Takla Road, Kelowna, BC, 250-764-7795). It’s a beautiful place to wander among the bushes enjoying a fragrant immersion. Two Lavender Discovery Days are scheduled this summer: Saturday July 7, Explore the Culinary Side of Lavender and August 1, Distillation of the Essential Oil.

The site was once an apple orchard, and in a lovely Okanagan two-degrees-of separation, home to some of the first vineyards of the Stewart family (Quails’ Gate). The site proved to be better for lavender than grapes — the views remain spectacular.