Lavender in the kitchen

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lavender lib INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Its thought that lavender, like paxil, has an effect on brain chemicals involved in anxiety. Picture: Jason Boud

London - Swathes of lavender fields under a Mediterranean sky evoke heady, food-fuelled holidays, the kind of perfect culinary fix we surely all crave as an antidote to our unpredictable summer.

With perfect timing, stealthily, lavender has become fashionable again.

Its early apogee was many centuries back: Queen Elizabeth I, allegedly, insisted a jar of lavender preserve should be on the table for every meal. It has nostalgic appeal, haunting fragrance and, most interestingly, bats both ways. Lavender has an “androgynous” aroma and flavour - both savoury and sweet, with a distinct herbal edge, akin to rosemary and thyme and is even more versatile for savoury treatments. Though, when the flower buds are infused with sugar, cream, butter or chocolate, endless evocative desserts open up.

Despite lavender being synonymous with Provence in my mind (after all, herbes de Provence includes crushed lavender flowers and there are a few French classic recipes involving lavender such as crème brûlée à la lavande), it is English lavender, varieties of angustifolia, that are best for culinary use as the flavour is more mellow, less pungent.

For those with their own supply, harvest the lavender buds when they are still closed (as this best preserves their essential oils), being sure to wait to pick on a dry day. Hang buds upside-down in bunches (secured with a rubber band to allow for shrinkage as the stems dry) in a dark place for two to three days to absorb all their moisture and store in an airtight jar away from direct sunlight (otherwise their colour and fragrance will fade).

Follow Frances Bissell's advice in her gorgeous Scented Kitchen book and make lavender salt in the same way as celery salt. Use about one part flowers (ensure they are absolutely dry) to 10 parts coarse sea salt and grind in a spice mill or with a pestle and mortar. Add a refreshingly unexpected flavour to new potatoes by tossing in butter and lavender salt or use to season duck breasts before grilling. Lavender works surprisingly well with fish, too: stuff a few lavender buds - do go easy, it should be subtle - inside seabass or grill red mullet over lavender stalks, preferably over the barbecue.

Try a lavender take on dukkah, an Egyptian side which combines ground toasted hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin seeds with lavender flowers, salt and pepper and use as a crust for chicken or fish. Or simply infuse lavender in heated olive oil or add several springs of lavender to a bottle of white wine vinegar and leave to allow to infuse for at least a fortnight.

Bought lavender honey (mono-floral honey produced by bees that have only fed on the nectar of lavender) can be a bit underwhelming flavour-wise. For a more distinctive scent, prepare your own. I used half a jar of lovely Melvita clear honey (from Ardeche) heated with four sprigs of lavender until nearly boiling, then left it to infuse until cold. It made a sybaritic match with duck: rub duck breasts with lime juice, soy sauce and lavender honey and roast for 20 minutes.

Daniel Galmiche, head chef of The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire, swears by roast lamb with garlic and lavender. Prepare the night before by crushing four peeled garlic cloves with six lavender sprigs and mixing with 100ml of olive oil. Rub into the leg of lamb, wrap in cling film and leave in fridge to infuse overnight. To roast, poke a couple of garlic cloves into the lamb (don't be tempted to add lavender buds: the flavour would be too strong), and cook until golden brown outside and pink within. De-glaze roasting juices by adding 100ml of water and returning to oven to reduce for three minutes and serve sprinkled with a few extra lavender flowers.

Restraint should be exercised when imbuing sweet dishes with lavender. Quite the best way is to add some properly dry, crumbled culinary lavender buds to caster sugar and use this to flavour desserts. It makes wonderfully delicate lavender shortbreads.

I followed Sally Clarke's recipe:

cream 200g unsalted butter with 100g lavender sugar, add 300g sifted plain flour with a pinch of salt. Roll out, cut into circles and bake for about 25 minutes until just beginning to turn brown. Should still be soft when taken from the oven. - The Independent

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