Sunday, February 10, 2008

Violet Pleasures in Food and Drink

Fragrant flowers that arouse the senses enter the vocabulary as words for color, inspiring expressions of love and beauty. This weekend the city of Toulouse celebrated La Fête des Violets, a yearly festival which pays homage to the diminutive bloom cultivated in greenhouses and used in confectionary and scented products. The Parma violet was allegedly introduced to the region in the 19th century by Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Luigia of Austria, Grand Duchess of Parma. Floral, sweet, cool and woody viola odorata asserts a distinctive olfactive presence, articulated brilliantly in the last two stanzas of “Ode to a Cluster of Violets” by Pablo Neruda:

Fragile cluster of starry
tiny, mysterious
of marine phosphorescence,
nocturnal bouquet nestled in green leaves:
the truth is
there is no blue word to express you.

Better than any word
is the pulse of your scent.

Violet pleasures exist in food and drink, though true gustative and olfactive creations are rare. Essential oil of violet is extremely costly to produce and nearly impossible to work with when it comes to flavors. Synthesized ionones inspired by violets and berries (the molecules exist in both) are commonly utilized in flavor and fragrance and are less volatile, permitting lasting sensory impressions. Only one of the products reviewed in this article is built around violet petals—Pierre Marcolini’s Violet-Infused Praline.

Lavender Violet Vanilla Bean Sugar, Savory Spice Shop
Smelling Lavender Vanilla Bean Sugar and tasting it are two distinctly different experiences. The aroma possesses a vanillic bravura that is woody, slightly anisic and lavender-infused, generating the sense of violet as a color rather than a flavor. When eaten out of hand, notes of violet float over vanilla and transition into lavender, inspiring thoughts of application in pastry.

Violette-Infused Praline, by Pierre Marcolini
Heartbreakingly beautiful, this violet-infused chocolate is truly a labor of love. Chocolatier Pierre Marcolini cold infuses fresh cream with violet petals in order to preserve the fragile flower’s delicate flavors. He combines the flavored cream with melted chocolate to create a ganache filling and the result is true artistry. At first bite, aspects of naturally occurring ionone flirt with the palate, massaging the taste buds with notes of strawberry, raspberry and blackberry. As the chocolate melts in the mouth, the floral aspect of violet begins to show itself, gently lingering in the finish. Warning: A trip to Pierre Marcolini’s store in New York City may induce chocolate ecstasy.

Rothman and Winter Crème de Violette
There is no cream in Crème de Violette, but its smoothness warrants the title. Delicate and complex it is delightful sipped neat or added to cocktails, (distributor Hauz Alpenz provides drink recipes on their website). Like absinthe, violet liqueur is making a comeback and is much preferred to the cloying contents of Monin® syrup bottles favored by bartenders and baristas.

Bêtises de Cambrai, Violet Flavor
This French candy is a doppelgänger for Caron’s Violette Précieuse fragrance. Delicate, vaguely woody and slightly citric it refreshes the palate with a sweet floralcy that is extremely addictive. Though difficult to find outside of France, it is worthy of pursuit.


“Ode to a Cluster of Violets” can be found in the bilingual edition of Odes to Common Things, a precious and beautifully illustrated book. You can read the poem here.

Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette is available at Astor Wines and Liquors in New York City. They are located at 399 Lafayette Street at East 4th Street. 212-674-7500

Pierre Marcolini is located at 485 Park Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in New York City. 212-755-5150

Photo of Candied Spring Violet Cake is from Mirabelle Catering.