Lavender is one of those scents that tends to linger in the memory. It might be the subtle, chalky afterthought of hand soap in your grandmother's bathroom, an old sachet in a dresser drawer, dried flowers from Southern France drying in a windowsill or an essential component of your mother's verdant herb garden.
Lately, lavender has been popping up as a hot ingredient in restaurants and bars all over the city -- i.e., goat cheese with lavender honey at Fig in Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar and the madeleines made with lavender butter at Comme Ca. But to use it successfully in food and drink takes considerable thought and skill. The last thing you want to be reminded of as you sip a lavender-infused martini is the essential oil your roommate used to wear as perfume back at the college co-op. Cooking with edible herbs is an art.
Lavender shies away from sexy; it is neither aphrodisiac nor stimulant. The early Egyptians, Ancient Romans and Greeks used it as a perfume and to soothe aching muscles, burns and wounds. We have yet to come across lavender oysters or lavender lattes, although we wouldn't be surprised to see it show up as an adjective on a chalkboard menu in a coffee conservatory in Silver Lake to describe the bouquet of an exotic espresso. [Editor's note: Speak of the purple devil -- we just found Purple Haze Lavender Blend Coffee, made with certified organic lavender and, from SLO Roasted Coffee, another Lavender Coffee made with Nicaraguan Ground Fair Trade beans and Central Coast-grown lavender. And leave it to Heston Blumenthal at Britain's Michelin-starred wonder The Fat Duck to come up with a way to serve oysters not only with lavender, but passion fruit too.]
Lavender is a softer, more innocent essence, and when added to shortbread, or lemonade or chocolate, it has the potential to spark somewhat Proustian side effects.
My first introduction to the most recent wave of edible lavender was at the Trails café in Griffith Park, a small walk-up spot that serves avocado sandwiches sprinkled with soy-bacon bites and sprouts, goat-cheese-and-tomato tarts, and apple pie with a crust so curvaceous it might as well be a study in the geography of pastry. On a pastry stand were several unassuming discs that looked to be topped with coarse sugar or salt.
"That's the lavender shortbread," my friend Samantha explained. A Silver Lake native, she knew that the shortbread, an almost supernatural combination of salty and sweet, scent and flavor, is a beloved local treat.
Trails' pastry chef Jenny Park admits that mastering the art of lavender in food is "all about the proportions." Park, who graduated from the Cordon Bleu in 2007 and worked a six-month stint at Spago after she graduated, has had her way with the purple herb. An assignment of lavender ice cream at school jump-started her experimentation and since then she has made lavender-lemon ice, panna cotta with lavender and her own lavender extract.
"It's a subtle flavor that you shouldn't go overboard with," Park says. "Otherwise, it will taste like soap."
According to Park, people ask for the recipe daily, and she's not willing to give it out, but she did share a few tips about her shortbread. Number one: she uses the actual flowers, which she buys at the Nature Mart Bulk Bin on Hillhurst in Los Feliz. Number two: she uses a combination of brown and white sugar (instead of the traditional powdered sugar). Number three: Butter. Number four: Kosher salt. Some days they bake two dozen, others five. It all depends on demand.
Over at the Hungry Cat, bartender Danielle Motor was mixing up lavender lemonade with Tru Vodka for Earth Day. Normally, the organic vodka company plants a tree for every bottle sold, but on Earth Day they agreed to plant one for each cocktail ordered. Motor, who "likes being creative and using fresh fruit juice," says she was trying to think of a good drink for Earth Day and was inspired by an English lavender bush in her backyard and her neighbor's Meyer lemon tree. Originally from New Orleans, Motor never went to culinary school, but fell into a job as a pastry chef at Keith McNally's Balthazar in New York and then continued to pursue food and bartending. She's worked at the Hungry Cat since it opened over four years ago and runs her own organic bartending catering company on the side called Big Shot Motor Co.
For lavender lemonade, Motor muddles English lavender (straight from her garden) in the bottom of a glass and then adds ice, homemade Meyer lemonade and sugar mixed with pressed lavender leaves. The leaves don't have much of a scent, Motor explains, but add flavor.
Lisa Beaumont, the mixologist at Akasha in Culver City, makes a similar drink called the Lavender Lemon Drop, a tangy drink with roasted lavender seeped in agave, homemade lemonade and Tru Organic Lemon Vodka. The rim of the glass is dusted delicately with lavender sugar.
Nic's in Beverly Hills is doing its lavender savory: crisp, lavender-infused duck with pomegranate, bok choy and smoked bacon hash. Over at Pastis, you can find a lavender creme brulee. Noe is mixing up a martini made with lavender-pear-infused vodka. Sumi Chang at Euro Pane has been baking lavender macarons that look and taste so deliciously surreal you may think back to the last time your lips touched marijuana -- or you might just feel like you are next to Veruca Salt sampling one of Willy Wonka's inventions. At Euro Pane, you will also find devil's food cupcakes with lavender frosting in a shade of purple that seems almost too pretty to eat.
There is something satisfying about finding the fingerprint of spring gardens on our tongue and letting the bright floral notes of something purple ease us into the Los Angeles heat.
Where to find culinary lavender:
2074 Hillhurst Ave.
L.A., CA 90027
8777 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(Flowers, lavender essence, lavender syrup, lavender honey and lavender sugar)
921 Meridian Ave., Unit B South Pasadena, CA 91030
(Flowers, lavender salt, lavender honey)