‘Fritto di fiore di zucchini in tempura ricotta e gamberi, pomodoro e origano’ was the dinner menu’s opening gambit one June evening.
The preliminaries to another superb meal from chef Andrea Constantini and his kitchen crew in the hotel in the Italian town of Garda to which we repair every year. And, since my Italian is almost non-existent … shamefully, considering how many times I have visited the country … I shall also quote the hotel’s English version of this delicacy. ‘Fried courgette flower in tempura filled with ricotta and prawns, tomatoes and oregano.’ Further, if you, gentle reader, are not over-familiar with a couple of the terms in common use in the language of international chefs, tempura is, and I quote from Wikipedia, ‘a light batter made of cold water (sometimes sparkling water is used to keep the batter light) and soft wheat flour’; and ricotta is ‘a creamy white, mild, fresh cheese with a soft texture and a slightly sweet flavour.’ to quote the online site Organic Valley. But courgette flower?
Let’s go back to Wikipedia. ‘Zucchini or courgette (the French name for it) is a summer squash which can reach nearly a metre in length, but which is usually harvested at half that size or less. … In a culinary context, zucchini is treated as a vegetable; it is usually cooked and presented as a savoury dish or accompaniment. Botanically, however, zucchini is a fruit, being the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower.’ In other words, we usually eat courgette (or courgettes? I am uncertain whether to refer to it in the singular or the plural) as a vegetable accompaniment to a main course. But Andrea has used the flower in his delicious dish, filling it with a mix of cheese, prawns, tomatoes and oregano before frying it in batter. I should stress that this dish is a starter to a meal, a light and delicate preliminary to the principal dishes which are to follow; so it is more eye-catching and tasty than substantial.
Courgette plants carry both male and female flowers, allowing a single plant to be fertilised by any insect which transfers pollen from one to the other. The female version takes the form of a golden flower on the outer end of each tiny, emergent fruit. The male flower is to be found growing from the plant’s stem in the leaf axils – the angle between the upper side of a leaf or stem and the stem or branch that supports it. Both flowers are edible and are often used as a decoration to a meal or to garnish the cooked fruit.
However, young flowers … both male and female … which are just starting to open out from their bud stage can be cooked and eaten, having been ‘filleted’ by having their internal components removed. (In short, we eat only the petals.) Some cooks prefer to leave the flower stems in place as a convenient way of handling the delicate flowers while they are preparing and cooking them, breaking the stems off immediately before serving. By far the most common way of presenting courgette flowers for human consumption and enjoyment is to deep fry them in a light batter … often stuffed in Andrea’s manner, although seldom with a stuffing as exotic as his … but they can also be sautéed, baked, or used in soups.
Fried courgette flowers are not common on restaurant menus where the chef must rely on buying fresh produce in the market-place and, when they do make an appearance, are usually very expensive for the simple reason that the flowers are very delicate and so very difficult to transport. I don’t know where Andrea sources his fiore di zucchini but, since courgettes are easy to grow around Lake Garda and since the wise grower removes many of the flowers to limit production of the fruit, I suspect some local grower delivers the fifty or sixty flowers Andrea will need direct to the hotel for his use and for my taste-buds’ delight.