Violets! My favorite harbingers of Spring!

One of the loveliest flowers of spring is The Viola odorata or as it is commonly referred to, the "Sweet violet". Violets have been used in herbal healing remedies for centuries, in fact St. Hildegard of Bingen the famous 12th century German mystic and healer was said to have made a healing salve of violet juice, olive oil and goat tallow for its use as a possible anti-bacterial.  I use violets whenever I can for their healing virtues, and they are also an absolutely delicious ingredient when used in salads, drinks and desserts. Back in the day, violet flowers and leaves mixed into salads were one of my favorite spring remedies for pre-menstrual melancholy and when chopped liberally into virgin olive oil with some fresh comfrey leaves, they make a poultice that can soothe rashes , irritations, sore muscles and tender breasts.

When infused into a simple syrup they will enliven fresh lemonade or an elegant champagne cocktail. You can also use a delightful Crème de Violette in place of the syrup!  If you are going to make a lavender lemonade, freeze some violet flowers into ice cubes to use in your glass. There's really nothing prettier!

When I was 23, I met Jim and shortly after we married, we bought a small farm in Burton, Ohio complete with a century home, small barn and several acres of unspoiled land. It was nestled on a little bit of hillside with an artesian spring that bubbled up down by a little oak grove, providing me with fresh watercress whenever I desired. We named it Windesphere, the place on earth where the winds and waters meet. We moved in that December and I'll never forget that first spring. As the snow thawed, I began to see what treasures were available in the gardens. First there were the snowdrops that dotted the hillside like a blanket of down and the soft catkins of the pussy willows.  Next the flowering buds started to appear everywhere. I found a quince bush and several heirloom apple trees and a blackberry grove that was to produce the most luscious berries that I'd ever tasted.  I will always be able to conjure the vision of my young son running towards me covered in sticky purple juice and holding out his little hands that were cupped and tenderly cradling the warm berries that he'd picked to share with me. 

Then there were the violets. I'll never forget when I found them. It was on one of those warm, early spring days when you've just shed your coat and begun to think that maybe just maybe you'll be able to put away your long johns for a bit. I decided that it was a good day to go for a walk in the back just to see what was budding. We had a beautiful back porch made of fieldstone and the steps that went towards the back yard were hand hewn and lovely.

As I walked,  I began to notice the fragrance…something just a bit sweet and very green.

All of sudden the fragrance was so strong that I couldn't ignore it and it was then that I looked down. Hidden in the grass all around me were the most beautiful little violets in shades of deep purple, lilac and white and the smell was the most intoxicating thing that I'd ever experienced.  Over the years I picked them for little bouquets, learned to crystallize them for desserts and  made them into massage oils , tinctures, vinegars and syrups. They appeared every spring growing more abundant every year and I will always remember Alex lying face down in a huge patch of them and whispering for me to join him and the violet fairies.

In honor of all of those memories I've made a violet ice cream with a lovely Fortnum and Mason tea from England that features Roses and Violets.  I’ve also added some of my thick and sticky homemade blackberry jam just to gild the lily. This ice cream is rich, creamy and just perfect for spring! If you've never had them, crystallized violets are absolutely beautiful, sparkling little jewels and much better than candy. I became truly addicted to them the very first time that my sister brought them home from Paris. Fortunately for me,  they are so very easy to make.  All you will need are fresh violets, beaten egg white that's not frothy, superfine sugar and a soft sable paintbrush. Spring is the time of year to make them because you can find fresh violets everywhere you roam. Just make sure to harvest them from areas that you know haven't been touched with pesticides because you will not be rinsing them. Paths through the woods are usually the perfect place to find them!

After you’ve harvested them, dip the brush into the egg and gently apply the egg white very lightly to the violet, covering the whole flower or petal. Don't use too much, only enough to allow the sugar to stick. Then turn the violet upside down and while holding it over a plate, sprinkle with the superfine sugar to coat it evenly. Place them on a tray that you've line with parchment and allow them to completely dry. You can hasten the process a bit by putting the tray into a 150-degree oven with the door left ajar or you can simply leave them in the oven with the light left on overnight. Whatever you do they won't be around for very long because they are absolutely delicious. Once they are completely dry you can store them for up to a year in an airtight jar.

You will need:

1 pint of whipping cream

2 cups of sweetened coconut milk

1/4 cup of honey

2 tablespoons of Crème de Violette

3/4s of a cup of Fortnum and Mason Rose and Violet Tea (available

1/4 teaspoon of organic vanilla extract 

1 4oz Ghirardelli  white chocolate baking bar

2 organic egg yolks 

4 tablespoons of candied violets

3 tablespoons of Blackberry Jam

Combine the cream and coconut milk in a sauce pan and bring to a shallow boil. Whisk in the honey, crème de violette and vanilla, then turn off the heat.  Add the loose tea and let it infuse for at least 15 minutes stirring occasionally.  When the flavor is as bright as you want it to be, strain the milk mixture through a fine mesh strainer and press the tea through the strainer to extract the maximum essence.  It will still be quite warm. Put the milk /cream into a Vitamix or other high-speed blender and add the chocolate, candied violets and jam. Turn the blender on  and adjust to one of the highest settings.  Add the egg yolks and blend for a minute or two.  Pour the custard blend into a dish suitable for freezing or if you¹re lucky enough to have an ice cream maker use that!  Freeze until solid, scoop into pretty bowls or glasses,   garnish with some of the candied violets, a light shortbread cookie and enjoy!

This recipe will easily serve about 6 reasonable people or two very greedy decide!

Note: Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs may increase the risk of foodbourne illness.

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