CARPINTERIA, Calif. — Up, up, up a winding road to Paradise Farms, high above the Pacific Ocean, lavish carpets of yellow, orange, red and pink flowers line the scaling cliffs.
But these flowers are not only for smelling. They're for eating, too. Boutique farmers from Sonoma County to San Diego, who see profit in culinary trends, are growing edible flowers by the giant bouquet to fill the new demand of chefs who are beginning to introduce them to the consumer.
Jay North, a former hairdresser, and his artist wife, Pamela, who own Paradise Farms in Carpinteria, are such farmers.
The Norths are typical of the new-breed, back-to-the-land farmer emerging out of the health-conscious movement of the '60s and '70s, which ultimately played an important role in shaping the unique character of the California cuisine.
Fresh baby vegetables and herbs and goat cheese began, for the most part, as cottage industries by backyard dabblers, and today are the symbols of the California cuisine.
And now there are edible flowers, an extension and possibly a result of the baby vegetable rage. Many edible flowers are, after all, the blossoms of herbs and vegetables.
The road to edible flowers was not an easy one for the Norths. In 1972, the couple operated a walk-through-and-pick-your-own-vegetables garden in Carpinteria. They grew basil on a small scale, supplying a few of the restaurants locally. When wholesalers expressed interest in other herbs, the couple expanded their repertoire to include several varieties of herbs.
A local chef or two whose cooking bore the influences of French nouvelle cuisine (in which edible flowers are used heavily), requested nasturtiums from the distributor who handled the Norths' produce. "We didn't grow nasturtiums per se, so we foraged for them and were able to fill the order that day. We thought it would be such a great idea selling edible herb flowers, so we immediately planted seeds," Jay North said.
But wholesalers saw no viable market for edible flowers.
"That killed us because the flowers were so pretty and really had great flavor. So we sent out samples of herb flowers as available, then it all started catching on," North said.
It was then that Pamela, who has a penchant for research, spent days in the public library and at UC Santa Barbara to determine the edibility of flowers. A UCSB horticulturalist was hired as a consultant, and their edible flower business began to blossom.
Today, the Norths grow 37 acres of herbs, flowers and baby vegetables and 65 acres of citrus groves in Carpinteria.
"So far we grow 20 different herbs and over 35 edible flowering herbs or simply edible flowers. (See the list of edible flowers and their uses on Page 12). By the end of this year we plan to have over 100 edible flowers on hand," North said.
Clients who purchase the Norths' products through distributors across the nation include Balducci's in New York, and numerous restaurants in Los Angeles (Biltmore, Spago and Hotel Bel-Air among them). And the list grows.
"So far, we work strictly with wholesalers around the country, and one of our major jobs has been to educate them as to (the flowers') uses. People are simply not aware you can eat flowers when they have been told for a long time to beware of them. European chefs have knowledge of edible flowers, but American chefs are still looking at them as a decorative item," North said.
Edible flowers, though beautiful to look at and lovely to use, do cost: $3.75 to $16 (wholesale) for a small pint-size basket, depending on the flower. Flower of Juda, a once-a-year violet-rose-colored bloomer, which tastes like a pea, is the most expensive.
Pamela has spent time not only in the laboratory with a horticulturist but in her own kitchen developing recipes and ideas that could be suggested for the flowers' use. One of the challenges of working with flowers is experimenting with flavors. Not all edible flowers lend themselves as flavoring anymore than other ingredients do. Some portions of edible flowers are more palatable than others and some scents work better with other ingredients than others. Chefs willing to experiment with flowers are on the increase, however, and there is no telling what culinary happenings will occur as a result, thinks Pamela.
Nor are all flowers meant to be eaten.
"I want to stress that not every flower is edible and florist-bought flowers are not edible either," said North. "They have been grown for decoration and are treated as such. Chemicals are used in all phases of their growth and these chemicals are not made for human consumption."
Cautioned Against Using Chemicals