Parma Violets have long been a favourite British confectionery flavour, loved by children and adults alike, and what is the history of using violets in sweets?
Violets have always been a symbol of delicateness and aesthetics, and unequivocally a sign of approaching spring. No wonder then that these aromatic little blooms are a the embodiment of an Italian spring garden, a Lavolio and an edible flower favourite.
Violets grow in the shade, and are recognizable by their soft purple petals, even though some varieties also have grey, yellow, deep blue or light purple hues.
The Viola Odorata, or sweet wood violet, is commonly the one that grows in the wild, with blue petals and heart-shaped leaves. The flavour profile is sweet to mildly “green”, and the best way to assess this is always to taste. Highly perfumed violets work best in beverages, teas and desserts. Both the flowers and the leaves of this variety are edible; even though they taste better when eaten raw (with the stems clipped off -they tend to be quite grassy), you can boil the leaves in water to create an infusion which presents a number of health benefits, including curing respiratory inflammations; the infusion of its petals helps to decrease hydric retention, thanks to its diuretic properties.
Violas and pansies (especially Viola Tricolor, also known as ‘Johnny Jump Ups’ or Heartsease) tend to have multiple-coloured petals with thin, serrated leaves on stalks. The fresh flowers are edible and they have a greener flavour (think of it as resembling slightly the flavour of green peas -bright and crunchy, with a hint of pepper). Although they work fairly well in sweets, they are less aromatic than violets; they are wonderful in savoury dishes such as salads, soups, fish dishes or even deep-fried like you would a courgette flower; in France, these beautiful flowers have often been used in meat dishes, especially veal.
The ancient Greeks used violet petals in their wine; in the 14th century, petals were used in a popular dessert with rice pudding, almonds and cream. It is said that violet sugar was king Edward I’s favourite, simply achieved by layering the flowers in jars of caster sugar (if you do try this at home, make sure that the violets are free of chemicals and pesticides; the longer you leave them in the sugar, the stronger the flavour will be).
The Tudors and Victorians loved to use violets to garnish salads, whilst the Elizabethans favoured candied violets to flavour creams, curds and tarts. By Edwardian times, violets were being enjoyed paired with a new ingredient, chocolate. The combination of floral sweetness and chocolate is popular to this day: just think of Prestat’s dark chocolate and violet creams, one of the royal confectioner’s best sellers, or our own Lavolios with creamy white chocolate infused with violet oil. Violets work especially well with lemon and chocolate, both in flavour and looks.
Thanks to their vibrant pastel colours, violets are a beautiful garnish. Crystallised and frosted violets are coming back into fashion, along with many more edible flowers, to decorate cakes, ice creams and other desserts, and even to serve with coffee and tea as petit fours (which is why Lavolio Fondant Lovelies have a wonderful violet flavour).