Sunday, June 17, 2007

Love for lavender

I've always had a thing for lavender; it brings back all kinds of (mostly food-related) memories of the South of France. And when I saw an HGTV backyard makeover show in which a California couple filled their fallow meadow with lavender plants, I figured, Hey, I can do that, albeit on a greatly reduced scale.

The two bushes I planted last spring survived winter remarkably well, and are now blooming enthusiastically.

But what to do with all those flowers, apart from hanging them in every closet in the house?

The French bistro Pigalle in Boston has a signature cocktail called the Garden Party. A blend of muddled fresh cucumber, Hendrick's gin, lemon and lavender, it's crisp, refreshing and bright, with a seductive floral note. The perfect summer drink.

The restaurant's pastry chef is responsible for the flowery part, so I asked her for details.

"Oh, it's easy," she said. "Just a simple syrup with lavender flowers. I make it myself."

As this was coming from a woman who was turning out flawless creme brulée and molten chocolate cake on a daily basis, I suspected we had different interpretations of the word "easy."

But as it turns out, she was right.

The first thing to do is pick a good fistful of flowers and hang them upside-down to dry. It helps to have a friend who can lend a hand.

Pull the blossoms from the stems and add about a tablespoon to a pan with a half-cup of sugar and a cup of water. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, then let simmer for a couple more minutes. Set aside to cool, and then strain the liquid into a glass container (I use a salad-dressing bottle with a cork stopper).

The syrup will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks--you can also freeze it in ice-cube trays for longer storage.

Of course, the lavender liquid isn't only good for prettying up a martini. It's fab drizzled over vanilla ice cream or lemon sorbet, adds an unusual touch to homemade lemonade (I suspect it would work well with ginger beer too) and it's a nice alternative sweetener for iced tea (especially if you use Earl Grey).

And it looks as though this flower is finding favor in other areas, too. On Friday I went to pick up a log of goat cheese with Australian ginger from the Crystal Brook Farm stand at the Copley Square farmers' market. But then I saw they also had a version with lemon and lavender; how could I resist?

The flavor is subtle: a whisper of citrus and flowers against the creamy-lightness of the cheese. Perfect crumbled over salad greens and apples.

So are there other uses for lavender?

Yes, says the
Napa Valley Lavender Company.

Of course, says the
Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm.

Looks like I'm going to be busy for a while ...

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