The Herb of the Year for 2008 has its moment to shine
Calendula came to the rest of the world from the Mediterranean. It has been used for medicinal purposes since at least the 12th century. It was also used as a dye for fabric. It is a member of the daisy family. While a common family of plants in the world of flowers, the daisy family is not common in the herb world.
During Shakespeare’s time most flowers were being given common names. Something other than their very formal Latin names and calendula was no exception. The common name it was given was to honor the Virgin Mary. I often pose this to visitors at my store and ask them if they can give me the common name. The “good” Catholics are usually the most upset when I tell them it is the marigold. The usual response is, “I knew that.”
I only get to write an article about the “Herb of the Year” once a year. For 2008 the International Herb Association has named calendula the “Herb of the Year”. Calendula has many nicknames. It is called the pot marigold because it was so often used in the kitchen in olde English days. In those days, calendula was used to flavor as well as color food being prepared. It is also known as poet’s marigold; in Act 4 of “A Winter’s Tale” Shakespeare gives a recipe for a tea that includes calendula. For tea you can use the whole flower but in food dishes you will want to pluck the petals from the center and discard it. The center can be rather bitter when eaten.
I am often asked how you cook with this flower. You would use it much the same as you would roses, hibiscus, or lavender. Flowers can bring an interesting, though usually a discreet, flavor to almost any dish. You can use flowers in vegetable dishes, salads (e.g. egg salad), custards and puddings, herb butters, baked goods, in grain dishes (like rice, vermicelli, bulger, etc.), and in delicate soups. It gives a very mild floral almost fruity flavor. A lot of experienced cooks like to thinly chop or puree the petals as they can be a little on the chewy side.