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A-Z of Vegetables: Violets

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 27 Oct 2023, 15:24

Roses are red, but violets are better. The classic in the world of British chocolate making is to have pink-dyed rose fondants sharing the box with purple-dyed violet fondants, but in my experience there are always too few violet ones... because they’re not all violet ones. 

Rose is far too common a flavour to genuinely feel exciting: they’re the wtf flavour of so many hand-creams and perfumes, and their gaudy can-can petals make them popular in gardens all over the place. No wonder violets shrink when confronted with so much ubiquity. If Forrest Gump was British, the box of chocolates metaphor would mean the path well-travelled (rose) versus the individualistic, hedonistically fulfilling and unexpected option (violet).

Another fascinating thing about violet flavour is that the particular scent of the flower – that is to say, what it smells like in the wild – has chemicals in it which numb the receptors in your nose. This gives violet its magical, fleeting quality, the sort of miracle you forget the majesty of, thus keeping it secret and special. Unfortunately, this forgettability seems to be driving violets out of existence, culinarily speaking. Crystallised violets, for instance, used to be a common and popular garnish for sweet things like chocolate cake or poires belle Hélène, and now you will be hard-pressed to locate it in a shop which isn’t either online or Fortnum & Mason. And since I don’t have the sort of budget which covers frequent forays into a wedding-cake-masquerading-as-a-Mayfair-department-store, I have to make do with alternatives. Namely: online shopping. Ugh (says the blogger).

In a high-stakes game of most important flavours, violet would easily be at the top. I associate it with happy holidays: the crystallised violets which my baking-fan sister got in a box of fancy cake decorations, which included crystallised roses, coloured sugars and dragées; the violet shortbread which I picked up on my very first visit to Fortnum & Mason, in its own embossed purple tube; the aforementioned violet fondants which was my introduction to expensive chocolate, when my father bought Prestat one Christmas as a special treat (and then taught us all a valuable lesson in sharing); lastly, and perhaps most importantly for me, glace à la violette, which I ate in Brittany and remains for me the very nicest ice cream flavour.

It seems, like so many other foodstuffs, that we have to rely on the French for the continued availability of violet flavour. In order to continue the use of violet in my sweets, I buy concentrated violet flavour or the more accessible violet Monin syrup, which I use in the recipe below. You can also use the Monin syrup to make no-churn glace à la violette: just whip 300ml double cream, 50g icing sugar, 2 tbsp lemon juice and 125ml violet syrup to firm-to-stiff peaks, then stick in a tub and freeze. It helps to whip the first three ingredients whilst pouring in the fourth in a steady stream.


Violet and chocolate shortbread

  1. This recipe is adaptable! Hallelujah! Preheat the oven to 160ºC fan and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream together 100g vegan baking block and 50g white sugar. This means beating it until its light and fluffy – I must have read that phrase a million times when researching baking as a teen.
  3. Carefully incorporate EITHER 3 tbsp violet syrup OR 6 drops concentrated violet flavour. Obviously, concentrated violet flavour varies by brand, so you will have to taste-test this now, before you add other ingredients. Therefore, it needs to be stronger than you would want, but not so strong that you go ack before you add the flour. Don’t be tempted to add more syrup if you’re using syrup though, because otherwise your biscuits will have no structural integrity.
  4. Slowly and carefully incorporate 175g flour, until you have a shortbread dough. 
  5. Incidentally, if by some miracle you have actual violets you can cook with, add these now. Don’t use crystallised violets, they will go burned and horrible. 
  6. Chop up 50g chocolate and add this in, being unafraid to knead a bit. I won’t tell you not to use milk chocolate but I only ever use dark or white with violet: dark because it’s a classic combination, white because the violet might be shrinking and the diminished intensity of white chocolate coddles it back into excitement. In this scenario, white is my favourite.
  7. Just using your hands, make little balls of dough and press them down into the tray to make rounds. Aim to get them all the same size. Bake the biscuits for 15 minutes – they won’t colour much, but shortbread is meant to be pale. Leave to cool on the tray for at least 7 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool down.

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Fruit

A-Z of Vegetables: Lambs lettuce

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:26

I suppose a lot of people don’t feel they have time to wash vast amounts of salad leaves, which have the highest volume-to-weight ratio of any vegetable on the planet – which is where the washed-and-ready-to-eat packets of ‘designer leaves’ come in. They’re easy, and eating food out of a plastic sack gives the pleasing vibe of being an astronaut. Incidentally, they’re the easiest vegetable to eat with pizza-box-level slobbishness: simply tear open a small hole at the top of the bag, pour in salad dressing, shake the bag and then eat the salad straight from the bag with inappropriate chopsticks. You’re welcome. Careful, I think you just dropped a beet leaf on the cat.

Broadly speaking, salad leaves taste of leaves. There’s nothing very much to say about them. However, lambs lettuce is something of a special case. Compared to watercress, pea shoots, beet leaves and all the rest of the elfin salads, lambs lettuce has the brilliant whimsy of being named after an animal’s ear shape. I know! And it’s alliterative! I know! How great is that? The leaves cluster like four-leaved clovers just sprouting from the field, dancing across the platter like metal jacks (add balls of vegan feta and cherry tomatoes and you’ve edibly got yourself a game). My initiation into the ways of lambs lettuce was at Christmas, and it is quite the most party-ready instant salad you’re liable to have, by virtue of looks and name alone. But let’s talk about it’s flavour. 

Um. It tastes like leaves.

Ok, I’ll try to be more specific. Whereas watercress tastes like ditchwater, and rocket tastes like sour peppercorns, and beet leaves have a very faint flavour of beetroot, and pea shoots taste like peas, and spinach tastes metallic (try it raw and undressed and it tastes like chewing cans), I think you’ll find that lambs lettuce tastes the most appealingly green of the lot, with a sprightly pepperiness which doesn't shout so much as suggest. When all you want from a salad is for it to taste fine on its own, so you can eat vast quantities of it without feeling overwhelmed but with feeling pious, lambs lettuce is the leaf to go for. And the funny thing about lambs lettuce? It tastes like fresh grass. That’s right: lambs lettuce is exactly what you’d expect lamb’s food to taste like. Who’d have thought?

Don’t let this stop you. Are you one of those people that walks past a fresh-mown lawn and things it smells incredible? Then lambs lettuce is for you. I think that if you like a smell, then that flavour in something edible is a present from the gods of good taste. Which is why I got a bottle of jasmine-flavoured syrup. I thought maybe sorbet. But as I doubt you’ll want to do that with lambs lettuce, let me suggest an alternative.


Lambs lettuce, lemon and loveliness salad. Serves 1 but upscale once you get used to the concept.

  1. Trust me. I ate something like this in a restaurant once, but it was with spinach and quite frankly, I think lambs lettuce is just nicer. However, if you can only get spinach, then you can of course use that instead.
  2. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon thoroughly. Put the juice in the fridge, you won’t be needing it. What? Lemon juice has loads of uses, just stick it in a tomato sauce or soup or something. Or drink it neat if you’re hard enough! Do step 5 in the small saucepan from step 3 if you’re low on time.
  3. Now you have a shell of lemon rind, slice it into long strips of rind (cut away the membranes for extra Brownie points) and simmer in a small saucepan for 30 minutes. Or steam until soft in the microwave. I don’t have a microwave, hence my blasé instructions in this bit. They should be as soft as a ripe pear. The lemon strips, not the microwave.
  4. Whilst the lemon is cooking, soak 2 tbsp sultanas in 3 tbsp apple juice and wash minimum 100g lambs lettuce. Of course, you may have bought washed-and-ready-to-eat lambs lettuce, which makes life infinitely easier.
  5. Toast around 15g almonds (which is 15 almonds) in a frying pan without oil, i.e. dry-fry them, stirring continuously. This should take about 5-10 minutes, depending on the obstinacy of your nuts. They should smell fragrant and be catching slightly. Tumble into a cool dish so they don’t continue cooking. Pre-roasted almonds also exist.
  6. Now everything is ready, tumble the lamb’s lettuce onto your serving plate (wide and flat is easier than tending-towards-teacup). Artfully arrange the lemon strips on top and artfully scatter over the almonds. Drain the apple juice from the sultanas (into your mouth) then artfully scatter the sultanas also. Drizzle the lot with 1-2 tsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tsp runny honey, then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and eat. With inappropriate chopsticks, obvs.

Notes: Substitute other nuts, other citrus rinds, other dried fruit to suit the mood. Hazelnuts, lime and ginger syrup instead of honey? You can add vegan cheese (vegetarian options available) if so desired. Also, has anybody ever thought of cooking polenta in apple juice? I bet that tastes good.


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