Ask your children to munch on a dahlia and they might well look at you as if you’d gone stark raving mad. Mine did. I admit… I have been known to become a tiny bit agitated when misguided rugby balls torpedo into the cut flower beds, crushing a seasons growth in just a few fleeting seconds, so it must have come as a bit of a shock when I placed a trug of freshly snipped dahlias on the table last weekend and excitedly announced we were going to eat them.
The source of this newfound enthusiasm for the culinary delights of dahlias came about quite by accident, or perhaps not if you’ve managed to unravel the mysteries of Google’s search engine algorithms, which ever increasingly seem to predict what I’m going to think before its thought. I’d set out to order bulbs and bare-rooted roses, but suddenly found myself in the depths of an article on Aztec cooking, and, as is often the case, one click led to another and the next day, with a bit of gentle reassurance that they wouldn’t be poisoned, the children and I were nibbling our way through a bouquet of dahlias on the kitchen windowsill. What do you make of me now Google?
The multicoloured petal munching degustation that ensued was, I should point out, a first, and perhaps something you shouldn’t undertake by a window if you live in a built-up urban area with overlooking neighbours.
We took a vote and started with a gorgeous pastel pink bloom tipped with apricot. The texture was as you’d imagine a petal to be; smooth surfaced and slightly crisp, but the flavour was far from floral, it tasted like legumes: earthy, fresh and subterranean. Each flower was different. Some tasted like freshly picked parsley, others like celeriac, carrot, and, if I’m honest, bland potato.
Interestingly, the explanation lies in their history, and that’s where the Aztecs come in.
It was the Aztecs who overlooked the dahlia’s flower and cultivated the sweet tubers which were brought to Europe from Mexico in the 16th Century as an alternative to the potato. Not unlike their cousin the Jerusalem artichoke, the tuber can be eaten either raw or cooked, but, as is the case so often in life, beauty won out, and the goodness that lay beneath was forgotten. By the 1840’s dahlia mania had reached heady heights, buoyed by the Victorian’s love of cut flowers which led to the cultivation of the varieties we now buy at our local florist; the big and the blowsy, those tight intricate pompons, and some as large as dinner plates. Sadly, today’s dahlias have been bread more for their good looks than their tasty tubers, however, there are still commercial breeders like Lubera in Switzerland or the seed savers exchange who’ve ensured the older eating varieties are still available.
The flowers of the modern day varieties are still edible, although the taste varies, depending on their growing conditions and variety—wherein lies the fun of tasting a petal or two, provided you know where and how they’ve been grown.
This chocolate cake is based on a hastily scrawled recipe I was given many years ago. My daughter Annabelle; the master cake baker in our family, has altered it, adding warm freshly brewed coffee to enrich the chocolate flavour.
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but this is a rich, moist, buttercream frosted chocolate cake. Unlike the dahlias that adorn it, it’s probably not particularly good for you but I offer no apologies. It’s for celebrations and birthdays, not every day. Amidst an influx of pins and posts on clean eating, green smoothies and detox diets I maintain my mantra. If you want to eat cake, buy the best ingredients you can afford and cook it yourself. Eat a small piece sitting at a table and savour it with good company and conversation. Most importantly, enjoy it. There’s too much guilt and anxiety associated with what should simply just be an occasional indulgent pleasure.
Fear not. This recipe doesn’t involve digging up your flower garden. The dahlias are merely a garnish; something to induce conversation and coax cautious eaters out of their comfort zone. It does, however, require home grown, pesticide free dahlias.
If you don’t have any dahlias, embellish as you will. Roses would work equally as well.
- Disclaimer. Never eat commercially grown flowers that might have been sprayed.