The location was the dining room of Sooke Harbour House, an extraordinary inn nestled, facing the sunrise, on southern Vancouver Island. The beauty of this flower strewn property was, and still is, close to overwhelming. Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Mountains were washed in pink and blue and purple. The sea called as the waves met the rocky, seaweed tangled shore. Seals lay on boulders in a bed of kelp that filled the bay below the inn. As evening deepened, the smell was of wood smoke and the ocean and the kitchen.
The dish that began one strand of my culinary odyssey was an impressionist salad made entirely of flowers and wild, newly gathered greens – some might call ‘weeds’. One brushstroke, one petal, one leaf at a time, I tasted the possibilities of Canadian ingredients, foods that are as exotic and as sexy as any on earth.
Now, as spring sweeps, often too slowly, across Canada, my garden is once again beginning to be populated by some of these sensual tastes. As any guest in my dining room will attest to, there are always edible flowers in my seasonal salads. If I can, I gather a few wild greens first – perhaps the fat leaves of purslane or maybe a bit of chickweed or lemony sorrel. I love the small young leaves and flowerbuds of oxeye daisies.
Then I head to the flower bed. Tulips, begonias, day lilies, spritely violas…at one time or another their richly coloured, delicious petals are scattered across the foods that I serve. Lavender may be rubbed onto a good roasting chicken that I’ve brushed with butter to fill my home with an aroma so rich and familiar that just walking in the door my mouth waters. Nasturtium flowers and leaves are both peppery and pungent and perfect in all sorts of salads. Scarlet runner bean blossoms are crisp and taste like the tenderest legume. Any herb flower, from chives to rosemary, can be added to baking. I love them in home made biscuits or simply used as a hit of flavour on top of everything from buttermilk-mashed potatoes to grilled steak. Lilac, old-fashioned roses, pineapple sage and true lilies are best reserved for garnishing or infusing into desserts, a tradition in the Persian kitchen.
It was at Sooke Harbour House – literally decades ago – that I first tasted the cultivated greens that are now considered foundation plantings in what we call ‘mesclun’ mix. Cornsalad or mache; mizuna, tatsoi, pak choi, gai lohn, red and purple shiso, flowering kale, salad burnet, shungiku, roquette or arugula, and radicchio or Italian chicory were all being cultivated.
Since I ate that first flower salad in 1987, the Sooke Harbour House philosophy has had a huge impact on the food life of Canada. The passion and dedication of innkeepers Frederique and Sinclair Philip is legendary. Their generosity has inspired a legion fine chefs and growers. They’ve always believed in harvesting locally and supporting their neighbours…then telling the world. There are few places in Canada to dine as locally or as authentically. This is, in fact, the essence of Food Day.
A note on edible flowers: Remember that they must be organically grown and that one should never experiment without first checking the toxicity of a plant. African violets and lily of the valley are beautiful, but toxic. Most of the greens can be found in speciality seed catalogues but I’ve had the most luck shopping on line at Richters Herbs.