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Flower Power

She appeared like an apparition on an achingly hot day in August. I was nosing around a food market on the Cote d’Azur, tasting the tapenades and eyeing up the olives.

Suddenly up ahead I saw a young woman in a straw hat, balancing a balcony basket in which nestled small punnets of the tiniest strawberries. In one hand she held an upside down hat in the bowl of which rested bouquets of courgette flowers. She seemed to have wandered off a French film set with her blouse open to reveal a firm bosom onto which sweat slowly dripped. She was a captivating sight, equally as tasty as her wares.

As her hands were occupied holding her goods, it was not immediately apparent how to pay her the two euros requested for the courgette flowers. I tried to slip the coins into the pocket of her apron but she resisted. ‘Non,non’ she insisted. I stood confused for a moment. Surely she did not want the money in her brassiere! There seemed no other resting place. ‘Comme en eglise,’ she continued. It was then I noticed a small cardboard container in her basket – like a collection box in church! Relieved, I placed my coins as directed. If she went round the congregation with the collection plate, her church would be the richest in the land.

The courgette flowers were a deep yellow, the strength of the colour belying the delicacy of the petals. I carried my booty home gently and placed the bunch in water to await the evening meal.

Stuffing a courgette flower is a task to be approached with a gentle touch. First the stamens must be removed.  The folds of the large fragile petals are carefully parted in order to detach and remove the mini phallus-shaped, bright yellow organs that are buried deep within.  Taking care not to tear the flower, the stuffing is placed inside, the petals enfolding the light filling of sheep’s cheese, lemon zest and whipped egg whites.

Each flower is laid down in a lightly buttered baking dish and scattered with melted butter and freshly grated parmesan. Lastly it is baked until golden and slightly puffed. Nestling the yellow flowers in an enamel dish of the deepest blue, the dinner began to resemble a Van Gogh if he had tired of painting sunflowers and turned his hand to courgettes. On our plates rested a mouthful of food the colour of sunshine.  We ate with reverence, our eyes closed to savour the glory of nature. We were eating the holy trinity of taste, texture and titillation.

The next day I returned to the market to seek out the mysterious flower seller, hoping to capture her on film. She was nowhere to be seen. Some experiences are too ephemeral to repeat. Perhaps I had imagined her.


Stuffed Courgette Flowers

If you are lucky enough to have your own vegetable garden you can grow courgettes and harvest the flowers yourself. If not, you will have to get them from a farmers market. This makes a light starter.

You will need:

4 courgette flowers per person

A soft sheep’s milk cheese. If this is not available you can use a soft goat’s cheese

2 egg whites

Zest of a lemon, preferably unwaxed

50g fresh breadcrumbs

A handful of finely chopped parsley

Parmesan cheese

A pinch of salt

Black pepper

A thick slice of butter, melted

Begin by making the stuffing. Mash the cheese with a fork and add the lemon zest. Add about 50g of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Now add the breadcrumbs which you can make by whizzing bread – crusts removed – in a food processor. Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks and fold in gently. Add a pinch or two of salt and a grinding of black pepper.

Now you need to carefully stuff the flowers. Give the petals a gentle wipe to remove any little bugs that may be nestling in the folds. Taking care not to tear the petals, stick your finger into each flower and break off the stamen that you will find at the base of the flower. You can discard these. Using a small teaspoon or your fingers, place some stuffing inside each flower and then roll up the petals so that the filling cannot fall out. Butter a baking dish just large enough to fit the flowers in one layer. Lay down the filled flowers. Pour over the melted butter and grate over some more parmesan cheese.

Bake at 180C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed up.