At swank Chinese restaurants in New York, patrons pick their fish — live — from an aquarium. At Highland Lake Inn (outside Hendersonville), you pick your own edible flowers.
“Feel free to nibble on the day-lily buds,” Highland head gardener Pat Battle told a dozen visitors, who had come to savor that evening’s Harvest Celebration. The cozy extravaganza whets guests’ appetites with a garden tour, wine tasting and cooking demonstrations, before rewarding them with fine cuisine (like walnut-smoked hen, served with homemade rose-petal jelly).
We sipped herbal iced tea and followed Battle — a bearded fellow in a wide-brimmed straw hat — into the garden.
As our eyes explored the pretty mix of flowers and vegetables, Battle explained that he was serious about the day lilies: Highland chef Larc Lindsey often tosses the crunchy buds into his “spontaneous” stir-fries (impromptu combinations of whatever’s fresh from the garden that day). “Highland,” says Battle, “brings the garden to the table.”
And that includes the flowers. The evening’s salad would feature at least 10 varieties of blooms that tease the tongue and please the eye: peppery nasturtiums, purple chive blossoms, pansies and a delicate blue flower called love-in-the-mists. “You’re welcome, by the way, to taste things as we go along,” said Battle, pointing out the near-dozen kinds of lettuce we might later discover in our salads, including tango, salad bowl, red oak, romaine and red butterhead.
“Go ahead and graze — it’s wonderful,” he urged as we moseyed along, nibbling on golden purslane (quite a bite to it!), Italian parsley and marigolds. Battle also tossed gardening tips into the melange, mentioning that the blossoms on coriander — grown primarily for its seeds and tangy leaves — serve double duty, attracting beneficial insects to the garden and providing a tasty addition to salads.
Even okra flowers are edible, noted Battle, pointing out the tall stalks that had not yet produced okra pods. “The blossoms are sweet, but ever-so-slightly slimy,” he told us. When no one chose to try one, Battle sighed. “Slimy used to be more popular,” he observed.
More to our liking were the baby fava beans, once Battle showed us how to shell them from the pod, then slip off the bean’s fuzzy outer skin.
Battle also explained some of the organic-gardening principles in use at Highland, such as growing barley for ground cover to reduce the proliferation of unwanted weeds. Highland also uses the feathery barley stalks in flower arrangements and as a way to educate guests — kids especially — about what food looks like before it’s picked and prepared.
A few things in the garden, though, were definitely just for show: “Don’t try the foxglove flowers,” Battle warned, pointing to a row of tall blue blossoms that formed a hedge between garden rows. “Your heart would do some funny little things.” Foxglove, he noted, is the source of the cardiac stimulant digitalis. As for lavender — “the queen of edible flowers” — there’s no danger to your health, “But don’t overdo it, or you’ll think you’re eating soap.”
Just a touch of lavender, though, contributes to a tasty Highland specialty: lavender-lemon cheesecake, a regular menu item.
Another Highland staple is herbed goat cheese, sprinkled with green and red bell peppers, a touch of ground coriander, black pepper and a swirl of sour cream (to make it more spreadable). Chef Lindsey showed us how to assemble this delicacy, and we ate it smeared on Battle’s homemade bread (baked in Highland’s new outdoor clay oven).
As a more curious prelude to the upcoming multicourse affair, Lindsey showed us how to make a Provencal vinaigrette, using petals picked from flowers in Highland’s garden. “Lavender is the secret to Provence,” he explained. “Just a hint … gives the suggestion of something exotic,” he continued, sprinkling the blossoms onto his chopping board. Lindsey also grabbed a big handful of fresh herbs — thyme, tarragon, basil and sage — making no measurements, other than to say, “We’ll take this many.” He chopped herbs while asking us about our afternoon, so far. “What did you do in the garden?”
“We grazed,” one male guest replied.
“Pat will eat anything, Lindsey said with a laugh.”
For his part, Lindsey insisted that, “I never intended to [cook] for a living.” But there he was, sharing with us the simple pleasure of creating a fine salad dressing: Use a ratio of three or four parts extra-virgin olive oil to one part good vinegar, add mustard to create a creamy texture, whisk with dashes of salt and pepper, and sprinkle in your selected herbs. When a guest asked for more exact measurements, Linsdey replied, “Nothing is really precise: We’ll taste and adjust.”
Naturally, where there’s good food, there’s also good wine. Highland wine steward Ken Richards served us glasses of organic Zinfandel from France — but not before instructing us, in a sonorous voice as rich as amontillado sherry, “First, let’s hold our wine glasses properly: by the stem.”
Otherwise, your hand warms the wine and ruins the experience, we learned. Besides, with your hand around the glass, you can’t perform the first step in the tasting: the visual experience. The Zinfandel hinted at sunset pink.
“Next, do put your nose in your glass, please,” Richards intoned. He did so with his own glass — inhaling very audibly. He asked guests what we smelled: “Flowers,” said one.
“Ah, now you swirl,” he continued, “and sniff again. Your wine should now have a stronger nose.”
Finally, we got to taste — but not before Richards reflected that, in England, wine tasters sip while taking in air simultaneously (and making a near-gurgling sound), then spew it out right onto the red carpet. “In France, they spit it out on sawdust floors, but we’re going to drink,” said Richards.
Our effort was rewarded by the rich flavor: Some guests smiled, saying not a word. Others exhaled a very pleased “Ahh!”
Richards went on to paraphrase Alexandre Dumas, who once noted that food is good, “but wine is for the intellect.”
By the time our flower-sprinkled salad arrived, we were primed. And long before our main course — hen and seared steak, served with a ramp Bordelaise sauce — made its appearance, we were approaching a near-giddy state. Our vegetable course turned out to be one of Lindsey’s spontaneous stir-fry concoctions: baby white turnips, snow peas, asparagus, baby bok choy, new garlic and poke salad.
“A misunderstood thing,” said Lindsey, holding up a few leaves of the latter. Most of the plant is a tad poisonous, but the young leaves taste like a combination of spinach and asparagus, when cooked (and you must cook poke salad).
Misconceptions notwithstanding, we all asked for more of everything.
Then Richards playfully enjoined us to partake in another wine-tasting experience. Raising his glass, he toasted a woman across the room. “Make eye contact, tip your glass, and drink together … making eye contact all the while,” instructed Richardson, adding to the toastee, “We’ll meet in an hour in the corner over there,” before finishing a languorous sip.