Until a few years ago, I had never seen a real poppy - only the red paper ones people wear on Remembrance Day. But on the way to a friend's wedding in the south of France, we drove past a whole field of them. The striking, bright red of the flowers under the vivid blue sky was one of the most beautiful sights I'd seen.
The poppy plant gives us not only beautiful flowers (which actually come in many colours) but also poppy seeds and opium. We won't dwell on the druggy aspects of the plant since they're of no culinary value (and anyway, opium is said to kill the appetite). But poppy seeds are useful in baking and cooking, although you should take care not to eat them if you're undergoing a drug test, because the seeds can result in a false positive.
Poppy seeds are very high in fat - a reported 50 per cent - which means they go rancid quickly. You should buy them from a reputable shop that has a high turnover, then store them in the freezer wrapped in a plastic bag, or in an airtight container.
The tiny, blue-grey seed has a slight, nutty flavour that's quite hard to distinguish except when it's eaten in quantity, so when they're scattered over the top of a bagel or a loaf of bread, it's more for decoration than taste. You get a lot more flavour if you grind them, or cook the seeds into a thick paste. Because the seeds are so small, they're difficult to grind - in a food processor, the seeds sometimes just whirl around the bowl, blown by the spinning blade. It's easier if you use a hand-cranked spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle. To make a paste to use as a filling for pastries, soak the seeds in milk or water, then cook with sugar until all the liquid is absorbed and the paste is thick. It should be stored in the fridge or freezer and used as quickly as possible.