Mothering Sunday brings relaxation of the rigour of Lenten and in days of yore, servants returned to their mother church often with cake and sweet violets Viola odorata for mother. The majestic colour of the tiny, sweet violet brightens up the hedgerows in spring and breaks up the more natural greens and whites of the countryside. Violets aren't always easy to see; perhaps this is why the Victorians associated the flower with modesty - the shrinking violet. I've often found them under the leaves of less bashful celandines. Once located, there is usually a mate or two on the patch. Violets are steeped in history. In Roman times the flower was associated with mourning and put on to graves as a demonstration of continued affection.The Empress Josephine and Napoleon are said to have had a passion for the flower and there are countless relics from their Victorian heyday - in The Gentle Art of Cookery there is a recipe for Violet Nosegays.
The Sweet Violet is not to be muddled with the common Dog Violet, so named because it is not only common but without fragrance - only fit for dogs. I have used Dog, Heath and Sweet Violets in recipes. Dog violets have flavour albeit not as fragrant as the Sweet Violet, which is found in more open habitats, including churchyards. I admit to having foraged in the full view of the Kirk Minister and congregation. Take a small jam jar with a lid for violet collection.
You will find Violets in flower from March - May, in woods, on grassy banks and on mountains (even on grassy rocks). Rather ironically, they aren't always violet but may be blue, white and red, although red is a rarity. The tiny, heart shaped leaves can be used in salads or cakes and were used to thicken sauces and broths. Mark Twain said of the Sweet Violet, 'Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heal that has crushed it.' Cooking with violets is one of the most destructive things that I do, destroying the beauty of the countryside for selfish deliciousness but my bottles are small as are my glasses of pink gin.
For the candy loving girl there is Charbonnel et Walker violet creams or an inexpensive 'Parma Violet' fused with the memory of childhood. Crystallized violets and syrup will extend the season of spring in your store cupboard. Devon has a long association with violets and if you can't pick your own violets, the plant and violet products are available from Sweet Violets
Here is one of my favourite violet scented recipes from The Forager's Kitchen
This recipe was discovered by accident whilst making violet syrup. When violets are steeped in gin, the gin goes orange not violet, but when I added tonic, on a waste not want not basis, my gin turned pink.
What to forage and find:
6 handfuls of scented violets from two pickings
Tonic water (optional)
Rinse the violets in water and carefully pat them dry. Pour the gin into a measuring cup and add three handfuls of violets. Cover with a plate.
The following day, add the 2nd picking of violets to the gin and cover. The violets with colour will float and as the violets lose colour, they sink -- fascinating and I haven't an explanation for this. After three to four days, the violets will be white and the gin orange /light brown. You can strain the violets if you want to, but I leave the violets floating in a clear bottle and strain the gin as I use it.
To make pink gin:
Mix 2 scant tablespoons (25ml) of strained violet gin with 150ml of tonic water and watch it go pink, it isn't immediate. I'm told that violets are an indicator.