It's not entirely new, but it sure is special. Especially in the way that PUURgroenten does it: sugar covered, edible flowers. Janny van der Heijden, who is a member of the jury of the Dutch version of the Great British Bake Off, sure got excited, and along with her several pastry chefs.
This remarkable product 'could be very big', which is a good thing, because the Dutch nursery which specialises in growing and selling edible flowers, herbs, mini-vegetables, micro-vegetables and saline vegetables, has the intention to grow. "We have a broad assortment, but this is just 0.0001 percent of what's possible."
Anna Koster (writer of a book about cooking with flowers), Han Lammers, Janny van der Heijden and Saskia Lammers
20 colours of violets, 400 varieties
It was mainly a coincidence that Janny came by and across the sugar covered violets, because that's what they are. A group of interns was just finishing a project in which they were looking for the right recipe and method to produce the sugar covered flowers.
The visit to the greenhouse of PUURgroenten was planned, however. In the middle of the greenhouse giants and big floriculture companies in Middenmeer, since 2012 an ever growing assortment of herbs, mini-vegetables, micro-vegetables and saline vegetables are grown on ponds. And of course the edible flowers.
Han and Saskia Lammers, arable farmers with a background in potato cultivation, started out with 3 ponds of 120 square meters each. Forty kinds of remarkable vegetables and herbs, and over the years even more varieties were added. "Just looking at the violets, we have 20 colors and 400 varieties. Larger growers usually limit themselves to two varieties", Han says.
Back to the sugar. Sugar covered flowers were usually imported from the United States by chefs, Saskia says. "And one person in France was working on it."
Most sugar covered flowers were hardly recognizable because of the thick layer of sugar. With the right recipe and the right way of applying, Lammers is able to keep the flowers' own color and shape. For now, everything is done by hand, but 'the process' has to be shaped further, so that, to quote a very enthusiastic pastry chef: 'This could be very big!'.
The edible flowers are cultivated on water, like all other products specially grown for chefs, the catering business and pastry chefs. "It's a very variable market. I can't just put 500 yellow violets and expect to sell them all", Han tells.
"No, that's certainly not the case", Saskia adds with a smile. "The chef orders today, but he needs it yesterday. He wants yellow now, and blue tomorrow. That's just how this market works and that's why you need to have your antennae up. Staying in touch with the chef to be able to match your cultivation with their wishes. That's part of the charm, too."
PUURgroenten growing for chefs, doesn't mean they work solely for star restaurants. "It's not just star restaurants buying our products, but also beach clubs or companies that really think about where to buy their products. Instead of importing big buckets of leaves from Italy, they'd rather choose us. As a matter of fact, I just added the 326th restaurant today", says Han, at the end of January.
What surely helps, is Han and Saskia trying to make it easy for chefs. If he wants exactly 50 evenly shaped leafs, he can be sure that that is exactly what he finds when he opens the box. The deliveries go by mail. "The labor pressure in the kitchens increases, staff is harder to find and we can respond to that. That means extra work for us, but we can make it work", says Han.
By closely working together with chefs, the assortment keeps growing. "We are practically the chef's vegetable garden", says Saskia. "We have a lot of contact with young chefs who go on internships abroad and work in foreign kitchens with products we don't have in the Netherlands, at least not fresh. They send us a picture with a thumbs up on social media, and we Google to find out what type of flower it is, where the seed comes from, if we can grow this crop in our ponds, etcetera. And we come across a lot of new products ourselves, too."
There's growth in all segments, whether it's herbs, mini and micro vegetables or edible flowers. And the demand keeps increasing too. "With the edible flowers, the hobby chefs find their way to us too", as Saskia experiences. "They want to be master chefs themselves, in their own kitchens. That comes with using special, exclusive products like ours."
But what if the economy goes south again? "As long as you're growing quality at the top of the market, you don't get into trouble very fast. There's always a market for quality products, and we are broadly oriented, we can shift fast, and more importantly we grow our products on water, a cultivation system that's increasingly popular, even with the consumer.
"That's why we want to expand our pond acreage from 2200 square meters of freshwater and 80 square meters of salt water. With little corners per product on our ponds we can shift in about eight weeks of time.
The calendar for this spring and the summer is already full. We start growing more lettuce and leafy greens when it gets warmer, and in winter we choose for cabbage, tubers and bulbs. Yes, that includes tulip bulbs. In Roman times it was exclusive, and when we let people taste them on fairs and our annual inspiration day, they're always positively surprised.