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The Ultra Violet Scandal

The Ultra Violet Scandal

Sandra Lawrence gives us the lowdown  

It’s a cut-throat business, the violet world. For something so genteel, underhand tactics only now coming to light reflect a scandal rife across the business.  

“Twice in three years, the world-wide supply of crystallised violet petals ran out,” says doom-laden Bill Keeling, co-owner of Royal Confectioners Prestat. At a time when violets are the latest flavour to hit favour, the sweetmakers responsible for supplying violet creams to the Royal Household were seriously concerned they’d not be able to meet demand.  “It’s a worrying by-product of global warming – the violets are soaked and don’t crystallise well when it rains in the growing season”, he says.  

 “I went around the stores surreptitiously buying up supplies before anyone else noticed the trend,” he says. “I stockpiled what was left so we survived when others ran out.”  

   

It would appear that other, unnamed, firms were forced to cheat – the little purple decorations on the top of their violet creams being crystallised lavender “Though to be frank, it’s all so small and sugary it’s a bit difficult to tell…” he admits.  

Sally Clark, owner of Clarke’s Delicatessen in Kensington Church Street , has experienced similar supply problems. One of her products is the much coveted violet liqueur, which comes in delicately hand-painted bottles and is used as a vermouth substitute in trendy cocktails, and then there are the delightful violet lollipops which, when she can get them, “just fly out of the door.”

A turbulent past

The violet has had a turbulent life for such an unassuming little flower. In Roman mythology Venus, jealous of a group of beautiful maidens when Cupid could not deny they were lovelier than her, beat the girls until they were black and blue before turning them into shrinking woodland flowers. And spare a thought for cult-worshippers following-in-kind the even more gruesome legend of minor god Attis castrating himself, his shed blood turning to violets.  

Voilets were the national flower of Athens . Persephone was gathering them when she was abducted to the underworld. The Greeks strew violets on graves, a custom continued “for remembrance” through the Middle Ages and beyond – Napoleon covered Josephine’s coffin with them.  And they remain a common theme in sympathy cards today.  

Inevitably, they became a flower of ill-omen - portents of epidemic or death. And though it is said that wearing violets around your neck will prevent drunkenness (not a recommended precaution on its own) they will also apparently encourage fleas into the home.  

By the Renaissance violets were getting a better press –

“When daisies pied, and violets blue,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue,
And Lady-smocks all silver-white,
Do paint the meadows with delight” waxed Shakespeare in “Loves Labours Lost.” “Violet is for faithfulnesse, which in me shall abide,” warbled the popular songbook “A Handfull of Pleasant Delites” in 1566.


Not so humble

The 19th century saw the zenith of the humble violet. The sweetness of the violet's deep blue eyes, Kissed by the breath of heaven, seems color'd by its skies,” wrote Byron, and in the complex Victorian language of flowers, blue blossoms said “faithfulness”; white represented “modesty,” and yellow, “rural happiness.”  

Variously known as “Johnny Jump Up,” “Bird Foot” and “Hens and Roosters,” the violet gradually acquired softer connotations as flowers to be gathered by children to deck maypoles, string for garlands and wear as crowns. A potpourri made from violets was said to cure sorrow and foster romantic love. By the mid-20th century, violets were celebrated rather than reviled - the Provençal village of Tourettes sur Loup rejoice in the nickname "Cité des Violettes," based on their biggest export.  

Medieval monastery gardens grew violets to protect against evil spirits. Folk remedies had violets cure everything from headaches to tumours and 17th century herbalist Thomas Culpeper used them to “cool any heat or distemperature of the body either inwardly or outwardly.” Violets have been used in holistic treatments for cancer, and their qualities are being seriously researched as possible remedies for rheumatism, cystitis and stress.  

Fashionable food

Both the flowers and the leaves of violets are edible, and they are also high in vitamins – the leaves are allegedly higher in vitamin C than any other domestic green vegetable, and also contain vitamin A.  

In the fourteenth century violets were ground with rice pudding, flavoured with almonds and served with cream. In France , after the revolution they were used to garnish meat dishes.  Veal and violet wafers dressed with a lemon balm sauce were served as appetisers at Victorian banquets, their delicate taste said to compliment stronger flavours such as melon, apricots and cream cheese.  

Today’s chefs are rediscovering this tradition, using violets as a garnish and for flavouring. If you see violet petals on the plate, remember they’re not just for show. You can eat them too.  

The real home of violet cuisine is in sweets. Bill Keeling is “consistently amazed” at the demand for violet creams, until recently regarded as “a little kitsch.” “But kitsch is fashionable now and we’ve noticed the age profile of our customers has gone right down,” says Keeling. “They are our biggest selling chocolate by a long way. We order 30% more each year but we still run out.”  

Prestat started making violet creams in the early 20th century. Actress Sarah Bernhardt insisted on having the chocolate inside her sweets, but finally settled down to little fondant creams lightly flavoured with violet, hand-dipped in dark chocolate. They start life very soft, and gradually become harder as they dry out. Opinion is divided as to the optimum time for consumption. For Keeling, it is somewhere between the two stages – “firm, but with a little tongue of gooey softness in the centre.”  

The practicalities of violet cookery may partially explain why commercial products are so rare. An old American recipe for violet sugar involves mincing six cups of fresh violet petals, pounding the result with three cups of granulated sugar and leaving in a cool place for at least a week before using. It has been calculated that one cup holds approximately 200 violet petals – requiring 1,200 blossoms for each batch of sugar.  No wonder they are in short supply.  

Violet liqueurs and lollipops from Sally Clarke at www.sallyclarke.com

Prestat’s Violet Creams can be found at www.prestat.co.uk  

A version of this feature first appeared in The Times

 


 

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