If you live in the Pacific Northwest, violets are likely popping up their lovely blue little heads somewhere near you – right now. (Unless you’re like me and are blanked under a foot of snow). But if not and you’ve left your Valentine Treat to the last possible minute (as I have) well, violet sugar is the perfect solution!
No fussing, no cooking, no baking, no crystallizing or distilling, violet sugar can be sprinkled on practically anything (or even sinfully spooned directly into the mouth) allowing you and your sweetheart to indulge in one of the most beloved culinary flavours and romantic scents of the past 2000 years – tonight!
And what could say “Be my Valentine” better than the violet? In ancient Greece its aroma was said to “torment young men beyond endurance” and it was used by courtesans to scent their breath and erogenous zones. Affiliated with Venus, Aphrodite and love from time immemorial, the violet (according to the American Violet Society) was the original official flower of Valentine’s Day – not the rose. St. Valentine’s is said to have crushed the violet blossoms growing outside his cell into ink that he wrote the first valentines, good-bye notes delivered to his loved ones by a dove. By the 18th century, the violet was the undisputed star of Valentine love missives and postcards from Europe to the Americas.
Violets, of course, have a long use in love spells, and in the magical language of flowers, violets represent lust as well as faithfulness, protection, peace and healing. Violet flavoured chocolates and creams (apparently a favourite of Sarah Bernhardt) was a favoured treat and they remain a top seller for Valentine Day today in England. In France, violets are used in liqueurs, creams and to garnish meat dishes, especially veal, and the Victorians loved to serve violet wafers with lemon balm sauce as appetizers for 19th-century banquets.
There are hundreds of species of violets but the most common in the Pacific Northwest are Viola sororia and Viola odorata. Both share similar characteristics, both are a few inches high and are found in shady forests or wet areas each spring. They appear so frequently in urban lawns that they are often targeted as invasive weeds. Both feature five-petalled flowers with a white centre and can range in a variety of colours from dark blue to mauve to occasionally pink and white. Each appears on its own leafless stalk and is surrounded by velvety heart-shaped leaves.
Viola odorata is native to Europe and Asia but brought by early settlers it has now naturalized in North America. It was once given a special place in every turn of the century garden, whether ornamental or kitchen and cultivated in special frames to protect them from “inclement weather” and were subject of detailed growing instructions in 18th and 19th-century gardening manuals. Today they have proven themselves in no need of cosseting as they have escaped domestication and grow profusely anywhere there is a damp patch of grass. Which is where I found mine, in the early morning mist, a few steps from my door.
I chose a simple shortbread to showcase my violet sugar because it’s pretty fast and simple to make and only requires three ingredients. Which means these sweethearts – from harvest to serving plate, took me less than two hours. But that said, you’ll need a food processor otherwise be prepared to be mincing and mortaring for another hour at least! It took me 10 minutes to harvest just under half a cup of blossoms. And while it was almost painful to whiz these beautiful blossoms up in the food processor with 1/2 cup of sugar, the deed was done in less than 30 seconds.
The cookies all told took me an hour and because they were tiny, they cooled very quickly allowing the application of an icing sugar glaze to lay the base for the sugar. I decided I liked the violet sugar as fresh as possible. Once it dried it tends to lose some of its fragrance and flavour, and the colour becomes less vibrant. Once dipped in the sugar the cookies are ready for eating, and one bite is all that is necessary to understand why the violet is one of the most popular edible flowers in the world.
Wild Violet Sweethearts
- 1⁄2 cup violet blossoms
- 1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
Remove stems. Wash blossoms, pat dry, place in food processor with sugar and whir until flowers and sugar are well blended. Sugar will be moist and crumbly.( Once dry it will be paler in colour and can be whirred again for a violet sugar powder.)
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1⁄2 cup cane sugar
- 2 1⁄2 cups flour
- 1⁄2 cup icing sugar (for dipping glaze)
- Cream butter and sugar.
- Add flour, mix well. Knead until holds together.
- Roll out and cut into desired shapes with small (1 -2 inch) cookie cutter. Place on parchment paper.
- Bake at 350°F until pale golden – about 7 minutes
- While cooling, mix the icing sugar with water to form a thick glaze for dipping.
- Once cool, dip or brush cookies in glaze then roll in violet sugar. Serve!