The Fragrant Pantry

We are very happy to announce today that Frances Bissell’s The Fragrant Pantry: Floral Scented Jams, Jellies and Liqueurs is now available to buy from the Serif Books website.

The book is the third volume in Frances’s acclaimed trilogy of books on floral cooking. You can read more about the book here, and below is an interview with Frances.

Could you tell us how you first came to be interested in cooking with flowers?

My cooking has always been more about taste than elegant presentation, and I use flowers as I do herbs and spices, as another flavour profile, and rarely use them as garnish and decoration. That said, one of the most glorious flower-strewn dishes I have ever tasted was at a lunch Alice Waters and I had together at Chez Panisse many years ago; a salad of tiny leaves and flowers, including rose petals, borage flowers, marigold petals and Johnny Jump-ups, the wild pansies that I know by their English name of heartsease.

When I started to use scented flowers in the kitchen, I began by infusing vinegars and sugars; lavender vinegar was the first floral recipe I produced and I have included one or two floral-scented recipes in every book I have written.

What do you think are some of the common misconceptions around using flowers in cooking?

It puzzles me that claims are constantly made that cooking with flowers was an important part of the Victorian kitchen. I have found no evidence for this. The great Victorian cookery writers, Eliza Acton, Isabella Beeton and Agnes Marshall virtually ignore the use of flowers and floral essences in the kitchen, apart from a few desserts. One has the feeling, on reading them, that these are modern women, writing, at the beginning of the industrial era, for other modern women of the new middle class, with no time for the still room and gathering wild flowers in the meadows. But perhaps they were being realistic too, recognising that the emerging middle classes very often lived in the new red brick mansion flats of the period, and did not have access to gardens.

Further evidence of the Victorians’ ignorance of, or lack of interest in, using flowers in the kitchen comes to light with a study of manuscript household receipt books. In the archives of Birmingham Library, for example, there is a collection of small note books, written between 1779 and 1883 by local ladies. If cooking with flowers was part of the Victorian repertoire, these manuscripts, and others like them, would be exactly where one would find the recipes. But nothing.

Another misconception is that flowers only have a place in desserts and sweet dishes. My first book in this trilogy on floral cooking, The Scented Kitchen, includes many savoury recipes, including stuffed chicken breasts with roses and cucumber, mousseline of scallop roe with saffron sauce, lavender and cider baked ham and spring vegetables in elderflower jelly. In the second book, The Floral Baker, I included recipes for wild garlic flower and cream cheese tart, marigold, olive and Manchego scones, fennel flower, pancetta and Parmesan muffins and many other savoury recipes. As for the floral-scented preserves in The Fragrant Pantry, I wanted to appeal not just to those who love making traditional jams and jellies, but also cooks who like to experiment with unusual combinations; pear, star anise and fennel flower mostarda, sage flower and hazelnut pesto, jasmine tea cured salmon, tapenade with lavender, for example.

Are there any particular cookery authors who inspired you when writing The Fragrant Pantry?

I see The Fragrant Pantry, and the trilogy as a whole, as a continuation of a strong English tradition, at its richest, perhaps, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but also part of English cookery in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. John Evelyn’s Acetaria and Robert May’s An Accomplisht Cook are two of my favourite books, with ideas and recipes that are so modern and appealing, that they speak to me from four hundred years ago.

Patrick Süsskind’s brilliant novel, Perfume, was a perhaps surprising source of inspiration, in that it explains the ‘enfleurage’ technique, of extracting flower scents in neutral oils. This made me realise that floral butters could also be prepared in a similar fashion.

The Queen’s Closet Opened and A Book of Fruit and Flowers will also be enjoyed by those who love to cook with flowers and are interested in the historical aspect.

How would you gauge the popularity of cooking with flowers? Have we seen an increase in interest in floral cooking? 

Cooking with flowers will probably never be more than a minority interest. I remember discussing my writing on floral cookery with my friend Julia Child. A sceptical “Hmmm”was her response, but when I sent her a sampler of my recipes and introduction, she approved, and said she could not wait to see the books in print. Sadly she died before the first one was published.

And there is no doubt that there is now more interest in exploring new flavours and new methods of cooking. Only a few years ago, one had to seek out specialist suppliers to obtain floral essences and edible flowers. Now it is possible to buy excellent rose and other flower waters, as well as floral sugars, edible dried flowers and crystallised flowers from many supermarkets. And, of course, the internet is invaluable for searching for these ingredients.

If you could recommend just one recipe from The Fragrant Pantry which would you choose?

For the traditionalist, I would recommend my strawberry and rose petal jam. This is the jam that might have made me a small fortune. I developed the recipe for afternoon tea during my first guest chef promotion at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Guests loved it with my warm scones and clotted cream, and the chef patissier and I started to make enough to sell in the famous Mandarin Oriental Cake Shop. It has been a constant seller ever since, at more than £20 a jar. Imagine …hundreds of thousands of jars at a modest royalty. Only I never thought to ask for a royalty.

For the non-traditionalist, I recommend one of my ‘good things in bottles’, the elderflower, cucumber and lemon gin.

Read more about about the book here. The Fragrant Pantry is also available as an ebook