The idea of eating flowers is not new. Research shows the Romans used flowers in cooking, as did Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures. In Ancient Rome, the edible flowers of violets and roses were used in dishes, and lavender was used in sauces.
Now researchers are looking into the health benefits of edible flowers. In a greehouse near Nice, in the south of France, edible flowers are the star of the show. Scientists are ranking various varieties according to certain characteristics such as taste.
The ANTEA project is a cross-border initiative between France and Italy supported by the EU Cohesion Policy. The policy aims to strengthen economic and social cohesion by reducing disparities in the level of development between regions. Here it aims to strengthen the emerging edible flower sector. Edible flowers are a very fragile product with a short-life span. Scientists are looking at different ways of conserving this product including cold storage in fridges or drying the flowers with either solar or electric driers.
Barbara Ruffoni is a project manager at ANTEA. She agrees the use of flowers in cooking in some cultures has existed for a long time.
"Flowers have always been a traditional ingredient in our grandparents' recipes found both in Liguria in Italy and on the French side, especially in the valleys," she explains. "In the beginning we had few producers associated with the project. But now, in Italy and France, we have between 60 and 70 producers."
With the floriculture sector in crisis, flower producers like Marco Ravera are looking at ways to expand their business. He has dedicated 15% of his organic farm to edible flowers.
"We are integrated into the ANTEA project and we reproduce all the experiments that have been carried out in the laboratory," he explains. "We test them on the farm all year round, depending on the season."
He is currently working on begonias and violets and the impact of LED lights on growth.
For ANTEA researchers, the feedback they get from chefs about how they use edible flowers and related products in their cooking is important.
Christophe Dufau is a renowned Michelin Chef in Vence in the south of France. His restaurant Les Bacchanales is famous for its unconventional mix of flavours made entirely with local produce. He is a fan of edible flowers which he prepares in his own fashion.
"I like to strip down my flowers, petal by petal, put them in the food, really include them in the dish, so people don't linger over removing each little petal and then they eat them and, there, my job is done," he concludes.