By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America
One of the loveliest flowers of spring is the Viola odorata or as it is commonly referred to, the “Sweet violet.” Violets have been used in herbal healing remedies for centuries, in fact St. Hildegard of Bingen, the famous 12th century German mystic and healer, was said to have made a healing salve of violet juice, olive oil, and goat tallow for its use as a possible anti-bacterial.
I use violets whenever I can for their healing virtues, and they are also an absolutely delicious ingredient in salads, drinks, and desserts. Back in the day, violet flowers, and leaves mixed into salads were one of my favorite spring remedies for pre-menstrual melancholy. When chopped liberally into extra virgin olive oil with some fresh comfrey leaves, they make a poultice that can soothe rashes , irritations, sore muscles, and tender breasts.
When infused into a simple syrup they enliven fresh lemonade or an elegant champagne cocktail. You can also use a delightful crème de violette in place of the syrup. If you are going to make a lavender lemonade, freeze some violet flowers into ice cubes to use in your glass. There’s really nothing prettier.
When I was 23, I met Jim and, shortly after we married, we bought a small farm in Burton, Ohio, complete with a century home, small barn, and several acres of unspoiled land. It was nestled on a little bit of hillside with an artesian spring that bubbled up by a little oak grove, providing me with fresh watercress whenever I desired.
We named the farm “Windesphere,” the place on earth where the winds and waters meet. We moved in that December and I’ll never forget that first spring. As the snow thawed, I began to see treasures in the gardens. First were the snowdrops that dotted the hillside like a blanket of down and the soft catkins of the pussy willows. Next flowering buds started to appear everywhere. I found a quince bush and several heirloom apple trees and a blackberry grove.
Then there were the violets. I’ll never forget when I found them. It was on one of those warm, early spring days when you’ve just shed your coat and begun to think that maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to put away your long underwear for a bit. I decided that it was a good day to go for a walk in the back just to see what was budding. We had a beautiful back porch made of fieldstone and the steps that went towards the back yard were hand hewn and lovely. As I walked, I began to notice the fragrance…something just a bit sweet and very green.
When the fragrance was so strong that I couldn’t ignore it, I looked down. In the grass all around me were the most beautiful little violets in shades of deep purple, lilac, and white. The smell was intoxicating. Over the years I picked them for little bouquets, crystallized them for desserts and made them into massage oils, tinctures, vinegars, and syrups. They appeared every spring, growing more abundant every year. I will always remember my son Alex lying face down in a huge patch of them and whispering for me to join him and the violet fairies.
In honor of all these memories I’ve made a violet ice cream with a lovely Fortnum and Mason tea from England that features roses and violets. I’ve also added some of my thick and sticky homemade blackberry jam just to gild the lily. This ice cream is rich, creamy and just perfect for spring. See the recipe below.
If you’ve never had them, crystallized violets are absolutely beautiful, sparkling little jewels and much better than candy. I became addicted the first time my sister brought these treasures home from Paris. Fortunately for me, they are so easy to make. All you need are fresh violets, beaten egg white (not quite frothy), superfine sugar and a soft, sable paintbrush.
Be certain to harvest your blooms from areas that haven’t been touched with pesticides or animals because you will not be rinsing them. Paths through the woods are usually the perfect place to find them.
After harvest, separate flowers from the stems. Then, dip your paintbrush into the egg white and gently apply it — very lightly — to the violet. Cover the entire flower or petal. Then turn the violet upside down, and while holding it over a plate, sprinkle with the superfine sugar to coat it evenly. Place each violet on a tray lined with parchment and allow to completely dry. You can hasten the process a bit by putting the tray into a 150-degree oven with the door left ajar or you can simply leave them in the oven with the light left on overnight. Whatever you do they won’t be around for long because they are absolutely delicious. Once completely dry store for up to six months in an airtight jar.
VIOLET ICE CREAM
1 pint whipping cream
2 cups sweetened coconut milk
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons crème de violette
1/4 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
3/4 cup Fortnum and Mason Rose and Violet Tea
4 ounces Ghirardelli white chocolate baking bar
4 tablespoons candied violets, (handmade or purchased)
3 tablespoons blackberry Jam
2 organic egg yolks
Combine the cream and coconut milk in a saucepan and bring to a shallow boil. Whisk in the honey, crème de violette and vanilla, then turn off the heat. Add the loose tea and let it infuse for at least 15 minutes stirring occasionally. When the flavor is as bright as you want it to be, strain the milk mixture through a fine mesh strainer and press the tea through the strainer to extract the maximum essence. It will still be quite warm. Put the milk /cream mixture into a high-speed blender and add the chocolate, candied violets and jam. Turn the blender on and adjust to one of the highest settings. Add the egg yolks and blend for a minute or two.
Pour the custard blend into a dish suitable for freezing or if you¹re lucky enough to have an ice cream maker use that. Freeze until solid, scoop into pretty bowls or glasses, garnish with candied violets, a light shortbread cookie and enjoy.
This recipe will easily serve about 6 reasonable people or two very greedy ones…you decide!
Note: Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs may increase the risk of foodborne illness.