Langoustine and veal in daisy gravy, carnation and herb salad, nasturtium sauce -- Paris' top cooks are into flower-power and petals are on the plate.
"Flowers have been used for centuries in the world of cuisine, but only in a very secondary way", culinary historian Patrick Rambourg told AFP. "In the Middle Ages for example flowers would be strewn on the floor during banquets to perfume the room."
Ancient recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries mention "salads of flowers" and nature's spring creations traditionally have served to decorate plates. But while flowers have long been used in sweets and health products "there was never a proper school of cooking flowers," Rambourg added.
"Around 15 or 20 years ago varieties of nasturtiums were introduced onto plates but mainly to please the eye," he said. "Now we've gone a step further, from flowers as decoration to flowers as part of the meal."
Several top French chefs are whipping up petals, such as Michelin three-star giant Yannick Alleno at the top-end Meurice hotel, or Jean-François Rouquette, chef at the Park Hyatt Paris.
Rouquette offers diners a special "flower" menu featuring mussels with foie gras, saffron and nasturtiums, or an "avocado and crab fantasy" spiced up with borage flowers and hot shellfish oil.
"We've tried to create proper dishes, not simply place a bunch of daisies in the middle of the plate", said Rouquette, adding that he had analysed each flower and selected it before creating a new dish in order that it "fit into the grid of a dish."
Borage for example has "an iodized taste" that blends perfectly with seafood, while nasturtium flowers have "a slight taste of Espelette pepper" that make them ideal with mussels and panned foie gras. Hibiscus brings "a tomato-like freshness" perfect to accompany mullet. But taste and aroma aside, cooking with flowers can be a problem.
"Flowers are even more fragile than herbs," said Rouquette, who brings his supplies in on a daily basis from the southwest French Basque region bordering Spain. "After 48 hours in the fridge, they lose their taste," said Benoist Rambaud, chef at the Jardin des Cygnes restaurant at the classy Prince de Galles hotel. And both chefs admit to occasionally using "natural aromas" to boost the taste of flowers used variously as petals, decoctions or infusions.
Flowers mixes too are to be avoided, culinary specialists say. "These are very subtle ingredients, if you mix too many together you don't know where you are," said Jean-François Foucher, the head pastry-baker at the Park Hyatt Paris, who makes an ylang-ylang ganache (a whipped filling). The popularity of floral cuisine is also growing among home-cookers and other culinary neophytes.
"I use them almost every day," said Pierrette Nardo, who runs floral gastronomy workshops where she underlines what 20 to 30 flowers have to offer for gourmets. From begonia soup to green terrines using chrysanthemums and hemerocallis quiche, Nardo grows her own flowers and says the new cuisine "is easy for anyone." Flower-power food is "part and parcel of the general return to what is natural and vegetal," she said. As for Rambourg, he opined that another factor might be the growing influence of Asian culture on all things French.