FRANCES BISSELL: Cooking with lavender brings sensational results

As regular readers will know, I need very little excuse to cook Italian food. These last few days I have not even needed a trip to Bologna to inspire me, but simply a walk down to South End Green to eat a first meal at Osteria Emilia. Any restaurant that

As regular readers will know, I need very little excuse to cook Italian food. These last few days I have not even needed a trip to Bologna to inspire me, but simply a walk down to South End Green to eat a first meal at Osteria Emilia.

Any restaurant that puts pike and rabbit on its menu is worth taking seriously and this new venture from the Giacobazzi family is very serious indeed. From the first bite, you know that the pasta, ravioli filled with seabass served with a delightful salsa cruda of ripe tomatoes, was made by an expert, and Emilia Romagna is acknowledged to be the home of the best fresh pasta in Italy; kneaded and rolled many times to get just the right texture, silky yet still slightly resistant and of the thinnest, finest texture. Heaven in a bite.

And the polenta! The saltimbocca! Very fine cooking, well worth every penny, from a chef who has cooked at The Neal Street Restaurant and the legendary Walnut Tree in Wales.

Well, back to my kitchen; after all, this is not meant to be a review, but I could not resist passing on some of the gems from the menu.

The Osteria's breast of guinea fowl cooked with lavender was bound to impress one who uses lavender frequently in the kitchen, and this was a lovely version, subtly perfumed, as delicately as rosemary perfumes lamb; it reminded me of a rabbit dish I used to do.

Lavender is an "androgynous" scent - savoury or sweet, with distinct hints of the herbal and medicinal about it, more so than, say, roses. The quality of its scent and flavour is more akin to that of rosemary and thyme, which makes it suitable for savoury dishes. However, when you marry the flowers with sugar, cream, chocolate or butter, for example, a whole new world of unusual desserts open up.

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The simplest way to capture the flavour is to use lavender flowers as herbs, with roast lamb, with lamb chops, with veal, and with poultry. Pushing a few lavender spikes under the skin of a chicken is a method I picked up in California from Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café.

Then, she was using a variety of herbs to perfume chicken. Lemon-scented herbs work well, as does lavender. Try it with chicken breasts, as well as the whole bird. Also quail are rather fabulous cooked with lavender. So, too, is rabbit.

o Frances' latest book, The Scented Kitchen, published by Serif at £9.99 is available from all good bookshops.

Rabbit with lavender

(serves four)

This is one of the first recipes I developed when writing for the much missed A la carte magazine, a series on cooking methods. The rabbit saddle is stuffed and steamed, which is an excellent method for dealing with this delicate meat.

Use the legs in a casserole and make some gravy with the trimmings and forequarters, which will leave you with enough cooked rabbit to serve as a sauce for pasta.

2 saddles of rabbit (use the legs in a rabbit and mustard casserole)

200g/7oz fresh white bread crumbs

100g/31/2oz soft goats' cheese

25g/1oz grated Parmesan

Finely grated zest of a lemon

2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 or 2 teaspoons lavender flowers

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 sprigs of lavender, plus extra for garnish

Carefully remove the two fillets and flaps from each side of the backbone, scraping down from the backbone and over the ribs with a sharp knife.

Place the two fillets from each saddle side by side, with the flaps overlapping, leaving a "channel" to stuff.

Slide seven or eight lengths of string under the meat, so that you will be able to tie the stuffed roll at intervals.

Mix the bread crumbs, cheese, lemon zest, parsley, lavender and a little seasoning, and if the mixture seems very dry, moisten it with white wine or mix in some lightly beaten egg, but not too much.

Spoon this into the channel, lightly pressing it to fill the space. Carefully bring the edges together and tie the stuffed fillets, pushing back any stuffing that escapes.

Stuff the other two fillets in the same way.

Put 600ml/1pint water in the base of a steamer together with the six lavender sprigs.

Put the stuffed rabbit saddles on the steamer rack, cover with a tight fitting lid and bring the water to the boil.

Steam the rabbit for about 35 minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to rest before carving into slices and serving. The bones and trimmings can be used to make a stock in advance, and then a sauce while the rabbit is steaming.

I like to serve this with its sauce, some wilted spinach and grilled polenta, and extra lavender heads for garnish.

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