Susan Clark introduces the art of botanical cooking.
One of the unexpected hazards of living with a botanist is that you are never quite sure what you will find when you open your fridge – especially in those scrunched-up, mud-splattered bags hidden on the bottom shelf at the back where your everyday vegetables are supposed to be.
I have learnt – mainly the hard way – that the best approach to this is to always expect the unexpected and then make the best of these free ingredients by finding delicious ways to cook, bottle and preserve them. I say the ‘hard’ way, because what I have actually learnt is that foraging and wild food cooking – both of which have become über-cool – is all very well, but unless you step in, you are in danger of being offered something that whilst green, often looks fairly bedraggled and, if I am completely honest, doesn’t taste much better than it looks.
So I have spent the last few years on a mission to find and create recipes that benefit from the vitality of wild and foraged foods but actually TASTE NICE too – and the result is this new column, which combines the joys of cooking up a storm using ingredients from the hedgerow (or the botanist’s fridge) alongside other things that taste good, in order to make dishes that are 100% Foodilicious!
We’ll make tinctures and tisanes, stews and scones, jams and jellies, puddings and pies – anything that I think is worth taking the time and trouble to plan for, to prepare, to cook and to share and all of which I have made myself. It won’t be a ‘bish-bash-bosh, that will do and let’s slop this in the pan as quick as we can’ style of cooking, because that’s not why or how I cook.
I cook to connect with Nature, with the people I love and with strangers who may be just one delicious meal or gift pot of jam away from becoming friends and loved ones. I cook because it is one of the things I love most of all to do, and doing what you love is the fastest track I know to reconnect to a deeper sense of what really matters. (Ten years ago I wrote a series of books about natural health under the umbrella title What Really Works. Today, I’d change all their titles to What Really Matters.)
I like to cook in old-fashioned, time-consuming and slow ways: ways that get the beta waves of my brain settled into a quieter and more gentle rhythm. I won’t say meditation, but I will say mindful. I like to cook to music, not noise. And I am never happier than when a recipe says “pick a pound of these and then spend an hour stirring them slowly around a battered old pot that has seen you through so many different stages of your life”. I like to cook with ritual and that usually starts with putting my apron on and giving thanks for the time to cook, the food to cook and the knowledge gleaned over years, some from experimentation and much from others, on how to cook and what to do with these amazing ingredients. I think of this as a kind of gentle and genteel ‘botanical cooking’, and for me, often the way it starts is like this:
A specific plant – its leaves, its flowers, its fruits or its seeds – will catch my eye and then start to demand my attention. I may see it in the hedgerow or it might be in a book or even part of a company logo. Before I know it, I am seeing this same plant everywhere – I call this the ‘eyeing-up’ stage – and this goes on until I begin researching and daydreaming about how I can use it in the kitchen.
This is the start of getting-to-know-you, a bit like dating. I like to read about the plant, its folklore, its medicinal properties and its traditional culinary uses. I like to see how botanical artists have painted it, and I may even have a go at drawing it myself. I like to learn what the Maori think about it and how European herbalists use it, and to discover its role, if any, in Ayurveda or other disciplines. I have an eclectic library made up of herbals and pamphlets and magazine cuttings and I use all of this – and more – to make a lasting relationship with the plant I am going to work with.
And only then am I ready to take what I have learnt into the kitchen.
Into the Kitchen – Summer Scented Rose Petal & Black Pepper Biscuits
These are biscuits unashamedly for grown-ups: biscuits with not one, but two botanical twists. A rich, buttery shortbread dough flecked with a delicate smattering of highly scented rose petal flakes, and then, on the tip of the tongue, the unexpected hard kick of a crushed smidgeon of black pepper. They capture a summer mood, retrospective, even a little sad; the fleeting intensity of a barely remembered English summer and all its clichés: Wimbledon 1976 played out on a teenager’s tinny transistor radio, the hard thwack of the cricket ball on the bat just before they call tea, and then the sound of scalding, over-steeped tea poured high from a delicate spout. Serve them with Devon clotted cream on the side for an afternoon tea performance to feel proud of.
To make about 20 biscuits
200g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
320g plain flour
A handful of scented Rosa rugosa petals, baked for a few minutes on a low heat to a papery crispness and flaked
2 tsp crushed, coarse black pepper
Cream the butter and sugar. Sieve the flour into the mix, add the flaked rose petals and black pepper and work all the ingredients into a dough with your hands. Do this slowly and enjoy the process! Wrap the ball of dough in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Split the biscuit dough in two and roll each half on a lightly floured surface until it is about 5mm thick. Cut the biscuits out and bake at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 until golden. This will take 15–20 minutes.
Allow to cool on the trays before transferring to a wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin.
Vitality notes –
Rose petals are uplifting and soothing, especially for tired or irritated skin
A homemade rose water is soothing for the skin, especially after exposure to too much sun. It is also good for dry and more mature skins, which is why you often find rose as the key ingredient in expensive body lotions and moisturisers. To make your own rose water, simply infuse 100g of rose petals with 300ml of boiling water. Leave to cool for 15 minutes. Drain. Use the rose water as a skin tonic.