At a potluck last week I was eager to taste the lavender lemonade, something I’d never made myself and drunk only once or twice before. But the drink was sweetened to a child’s taste; I guessed it had been made with twice the volume of sugar as lemon juice, before lavender syrup was added. And because the lemonade was already so sweet, apparently, only a little lavender syrup was included, so little that I could barely taste the lavender.
It occurred to me that the culinary use of lavender was a growing trend that I’d been nearly ignoring. I use lavender for repelling moths in closets and dresser drawers, and I’ve stirred the flowers into blackberry jam for a mysterious resinous touch, but the smell of lavender never makes me hungry. I actually like looking at my hardy, tidy, deer- and drought-resistant lavender plants more than I like sniffing them.
Lavender has traditionally been little used for cooking. The name of this herb, after all, comes from a Latin word for washing, and lavender is still most beloved as a scent for soap. Although southern France is famous for its lavender production, most of the oil is used in perfumery. The famous herbes de Provence, typically rubbed on meats for grilling, sometimes include lavender blossoms, but lavender has no place in the certified label rouge mix, which comprises only thyme, rosemary, savory, oregano, and basil. French cooks do sometimes infuse lavender flowers in milk to flavor ice cream or custard, and the flowers are occasionally used in tisanes and in vinegar or vinaigrette, but other culinary uses seem rare in France.
Americans, in contrast, are experimenting freely with lavender in foods. I’ve eaten both lavender meringues and lavender shortbread. Alma Chocolate, in Portland, makes caramel sauce and caramel candies from cream infused with lavender (the candies are coated in bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with salt). Sundance Lavender Farm, also here in Oregon, recommends using lavender stems as skewers for fruit or shrimp kabobs; freezing the blossoms in ice cubes; infusing honey and jams with the flowers; adding lavender sprigs to pink champagne cocktails, lemonade, or punch; and sprinkling the flowers over salads, fruit, and desserts. Renee Shepherd puts lavender sugar in hot or iced tea; makes a syrup with lavender, dessert wine, and orange juice to pour over cut fresh fruit; rubs lavender blossoms in lemon juice and olive oil on pork or lamb for grilling; and tosses lavender stems, leaves, or flowers over the hot coals while grilling lamb, pork, or salmon. American bartenders, likewise, are making their own lavender syrup and adding it to cocktails.
If I wanted to experiment with fresh lavender this year, I knew, I had to hurry. The flowers are best harvested while still in bud, and mine were beginning to open. The day after the potluck dawned sunny and dry, so in the cool of the morning I sniffed my various specimens of Lavandula angustifolia—“narrow-leafed” lavender, true lavender, or English lavender—and chose the intensely fragrant, deepest blue flowers of Sharon Roberts, a Nichols Garden Nursery introduction.*
I wanted to make lemonade that tasted more of lavender than sugar. But how should I instill the lavender aroma? I could flavor the sugar, as Renee Shepherd suggests, by burying several lavender spikes in a jar of sugar and closing up the jar for a week. Or I could make up a batch of plain lemonade, add lavender flowers or spikes, and chill the lemonade until the flavor seemed right. Alternatively, I could make a batch of lavender syrup, which I could keep on hand for making lemonade or cocktails by the glass, with the lavender syrup standing in for sugar (in the case of lemonade) or plain syrup (in the case of cocktails).
I chose the last option. Now I had to decide how strong the syrup should be, in both sugar content and lavender aroma. I decided on the typical sugar-water ratio for a bartender’s simple syrup: 1 part sugar to 1 part water. A 1:1 syrup needs refrigeration or pasteurization for long keeping, but it won’t tend to crystallize, as a 2:1 syrup will. And I would use plenty of lavender, more than was called for in any recipe I could find.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons fresh lavender buds
Bring the ingredients slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the pan form the heat, and cover it.
After 30 minutes or longer, strain the syrup through a fine strainer. Press the flowers in the strainer to extract as much syrup as possible.
Makes about 2 ¼ cups syrup
My syrup turned out nearly colorless, with a silvery tinge, a strong floral aroma, and a mildly bitter taste. Even without alcohol, it would make a grown-up lemonade.
Lavender Lemonade, by the Glass
About 6 ice cubes
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lavender syrup
¾ cup club soda or plain water
Put the ice cubes into a 12-ounce glass, and pour the lemon juice and lavender syrup over them. Add the club soda or water, and stir.
As I’d hope, the lemonade turned out more aromatic than sweet, and slightly, refreshingly bitter. My husband would have liked an even stronger lavender flavor, but I don’t advise using more than a half-cup of flowers in your syrup. My son Ben suggested adding gin to the lemonade (I sent him home with a jar of lavender syrup, which he says he’ll try in various cocktails, such as a Lavender Aviation, with lavender syrup replacing the crème de violette). For me, though, club soda makes this drink celebratory enough, and with plain water it’s a fine accompaniment to meals.
*”English” lavender, like other lavender species, is native not to England but to southern Europe, although unlike other species it is hardy enough to grow in England. My “Spanish” lavender, L. stoechas—the species whose fat flowerheads are each amusingly topped with four large violet-pink bracts—succumbed to last winter’s extreme cold. Toothy-leafed “French” lavender, L. dentata, also lacks cold-tolerance. In any case, these species are too bitter and camphor-like to use in cooking, as is the powerfully aromatic L. latifolia, also known as spike lavender. Yet another kind of lavender is lavandin, a cross of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. Because of its high productivity, lavandin is now the most cultivated lavender in Provence, but it is better in perfume than in food.