Cookery Editor, Sue, visits Britain’s largest lavender farm in Kent to gain ideas for using lavender in cooking.
Over the past couple of weeks as I’ve been travelling into work I’ve been looking out of the train window at the beautiful purple hue of the lavender fields which are now in full bloom. Furthermore, I knew it was time to visit The Hop Shop at Castle Farm at Shoreham, near Sevenoaks, Kent. When I got out of the car there was a scent in the air of the lavender which is being harvested, and also the distillery is extracting oils from the plants, so there’s an even stronger aroma than usual, and it’s very relaxing.
This year is a very good year as the conditions have been perfect for the plants to produce high levels of the precious oil. As last year was very wet, it wasn’t good conditions for lavender but as this summer has been more like the Mediterranean climate, it’s been more like areas where lavender is traditionally grown commercially. A hot dry climate is best for lavender, because the plants produce oil to protect themselves so that they don’t dry out. If it’s wet then the plant just soaks up the water, and it’s “self-preservation” mechanism doesn’t kick in, and the plant doesn’t produce much oil, but this year, as it’s been so dry, they are producing more oil.
It’s particularly the culinary products that I’m interested in, and I’m already a huge fan of the lavender essences that they produce. There are 2 essences, 1 for use in foods that are going to be heated like biscuits, and the other for cold foods, such as ice-cream. In the past I’ve had a long chat to the flavour technologist who helped to develop these essences and he explained to me why it was necessary to have the 2 different types, to give the best flavours when using them, rather than just 1 product for all uses – so I always have both at home.They also have culinary lavender flowers which are ideal for recipes such as my recipe for Lavender Fairy Cakes as you know that they will be safe to use as the plants haven’t been sprayed with any harmful chemicals (as lavender is a natural insect repellent, it doesn’t need much spraying anyway). A new item that they are now selling is Coriander and Lavender Salt Rub, which I’m looking forward to trying on some lamb.
A recipe that I cooked at home a couple of weeks ago on the BBQ was to mix some chopped lavender leaves with a little honey and mustard and then I coated a couple of pieces of neck of lamb with it, let it marinade and then grilled it, and served it sliced with some griddled potato wedges and it was delicious. The owner of the Hop Shop said that she’d never cooked with the lavender leaves, as there’s more oil and therefore move flavour when using the flowers (which are used in their Salt Rub), but it’s making use of all the plant!
In the shop as well as having lavender ingredients, they also have a range of ready made products, including preserves. I bought the Tomato and Lavender Chutney to try, and although I couldn’t say that it was easy to tell it was lavender, it did have a different flavour and was extremely nice, and I enjoyed it in a sandwich with some Cornish Quartz Cheddar (which is on offer this week from Ocado).
So look out for lavender being used in more recipes next summer – now that I’ve stocked up on supplies, I’ll be experimenting with it in some more recipes now.