PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am

It's associated with soap, perfume and aromatherapy, but lavender also has its uses in the kitchen.

What is it? A plant with fragrant, blueish-purple flowers. It grows in many parts of the world, including the warm regions of the Mediterranean (particularly in Provence), the US, China and Africa.

How is it available? For culinary purposes, the flowers are used to make tisanes, infusions, oils and herb mixes (including herbes de Provence: lavender combined with ingredients such as thyme and rosemary). Bees use lavender nectar to make honey.

What to look for? When buying lavender products to cook with - including fresh or dried flowers - make sure they're food grade, otherwise they may have been sprayed with pesticide. Aromatherapy oils shouldn't be used in cooking.

What else? Dried lavender can be just as good as fresh, as long as it has been dried properly. Buy fresh stalks, tie a string around the base then hang the stalks upside-down until dry. Lavender is used in aromatherapy as a sleep aid.

How to use: in small quantities or your food will smell like perfume. Lavender sugar is easy to make: remove the dried flowers from the stalk and store them with sugar in an air-tight jar for a few days. Use the sugar to make shortbread, scones, cakes and biscuits or add a little to whipped cream.

For lavender creme brulee, put the dried flowers in a saucepan of milk and cream, bring to the boil then turn off the heat and let it steep until cool. Whisk eggs with sugar then stir in the lavender-infused milk/cream. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve then ladle into ramekins and bake in a bain-marie until set. Sprinkle the top with lavender-scented sugar then caramelise with a blowtorch.

Herbes de Provence can be used to flavour roast meats. Roast chicken should be seasoned with salt and refrigerated overnight. The next day, rub it with olive oil, sprinkle with herbes de Provence and freshly ground black pepper, stuff whole garlic cloves and a quartered lemon in the cavity then roast until cooked. For leg of lamb or lamb shanks, season the meat with salt and pepper then brush with lavender honey thinned out with balsamic vinegar and warm water. Brush this lightly over the meat, sprinkle with herbes de Provence and grill or roast.