Blueberry and Lilac Syrup Panna Cotta

When we first moved into the building that is now our home and atelier in northern France, it had been consumed by nature. Once the local café, the heart of social activity in a small mining village, it had been left abandoned and forgotten for almost 20 years. There was two inches of mud covering all of the floors, the windows had rotted away and the grounds had turned to jungle. We spent months removing the mud, cleaning the brick walls and cutting back foliage. There was so much overgrowth that upon our first visit we were surprised to find a second building on site that was not much smaller than the main building. It had been concealed by vines, trees and 20 years of moss growth. We ‘got the keys’ in a February, which is a symbolic phrase in this instance, as the front door had been left ajar for nearly as long as the building had been abandoned. One day, after months of cleaning and tidying we wandered into the garden and were overwhelmed by sight and smell. The entire planted front of our property was a vibrant purple blaze of blooming lilac. We had noticed the trees while clearing and decided to leave them not knowing what they were. We are so glad that we did. Over the years, we preserved the new shoots that spurt up from the undergrowth and now have a thick lilac forest in the garden. The bloom happens in May. The small flowers are perfect for about a week but then start to degrade soon after. The window for dining with fresh lilacs is small but greatly anticipated in our house.

Lilac has an appetizing smell, it is intoxicating, delicious and a wonderful, subtle floral flavor to add to sweet food. I make it into a simple syrup and use it in deserts, gelato and as a cordial after a long hot summer’s day in the garden. A couple of months ago I was browsing the internet and came across the website of Vincent Guiheneuf. He had made an exquisite blueberry and violet panna cotta with white chocolate and meringueI was captivated by the colour of the panna cotta. It immediately reminded me of my lilacs, so I decided to try it by substituting his violet syrup for my lilac syrup.

Making lilac syrup can give you all sorts of colour results but I find that I get a purple syrup if I use the darkest purple lilac flowers, within a day or two of them blooming. The warmer and sunnier it is, the quicker the lilacs begin to fade. The lighter the lilac, the less pigment available to colour the syrup. Of course, in a dish like this, the colour of the syrup becomes irrelevant. The blueberries do all of the work in creating this magical colour.

I serve this dish with a white chocolate ganache, typically in a small pouring vessel so that guests can manage their own serving. This is officially my favorite desert. The flavours are incredible. The texture divine. It is a show stopping desert. Guests will relish with delight at the plate laid before them.

I recommend that you make each element in the order that I have written them.

Ingredients

For the lilac syrup

  • 1 cup of lilac flowers – pushed in to the cup but not crushed and compacted
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water

For the panna cotta – makes two panna cottas as shown in the photos

  • 3 grams of gelatin sheet – see note at bottom of page
  • 200 ml cream full cream
  • 80 grams blueberries
  • 30 grams lilac syrup
  • 40 grams white sugar

For the blueberry coulis

  • 100 grams fresh blueberries
  • 30 grams white sugar
  • 10 ml lemon juice

For the white chocolate ganache

  • 60 grams full cream
  • 100 grams white chocolate

For plating

  • 5-8 blueberries per plate
  • A small handful of lilac flowers

Method

For the lilac syrup

Remove the individual lilac flowers from their stem. Be sure to only take the purple flowers, discard all brown flowers and green stems. Wash lilac flowers.

Place flowers, sugar and water in a saucepan. On medium heat, bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for 10 mins. Remove from heat and strain through a wire strainer. Use the back of a metal spoon to push as much colour and flavor out of the flowers as possible.

Allow syrup to cool to room temperature then refrigerate. Can be made a week in advance.

 

For the panna cotta

Place gelatin sheets in enough cold water to cover the sheets. If you haven’t used them before, don’t worry about the gelatin sheets dissolving, they will hold together as a sheet in the cold water but will become floppy.

Place cream, blueberries, lilac syrup and sugar in a saucepan. Over medium heat bring to almost a simmer. When you start seeing bubbles remove from heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Return to medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Take gelatin sheets from water and shake off excess water. Add to hot cream and gently stir until dissolved and well incorporated.

Strain the panna cotta mixture through a wire strainer. Pour into moulds and cool to room temperature uncovered. This will take at least an hour. Once at room temperature, cover and place in the fridge over night. Can be made a couple of days in advance.

 

For the blueberry coulis

Make the blueberry coulis on the day of serving. Add blueberries, sugar and lemon juice to a saucepan and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and simmer until the coulis has thickened. Similar to the consistency of traditional jam but not dry.

Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

 

For the ganache

Chop the chocolate into small pieces or shavings and place in a clean bowl. Set aside.

Put cream into a small saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Don’t take your eyes off it. Cream tends to boil over very quickly. Remove from heat and whisk it into the white chocolate. Keep whisking until the chocolate has completely dissolved and you have a smooth ganache. Pour into a small pouring vessel. Individual vessels per guest are thoughtful but if in a shared vessel, the fight over the remaining ganache can make things fun.

In terms of timing during dining, make the ganache as close as possible to serving. I put the saucepan with the cream in the fridge and I leave the shaved chocolate in the bowl at room temperature ready and waiting. When the main course is finished, I quickly make the ganache and pour it into the serving vessel. Then I plate the panna cotta.

 

Plating

Make sure that your utensils, plates and all ingredients are cool to room temperature. Putting anything warm on or under the panna cotta will melt it. Wash the fresh lilac flowers and blueberries and lay them on a towel to dry.

To remove the panna cotta from the moulds, take a sharp knife. Holding the panna cotta on its side, place the point of the knife between the inside of the mould and the panna cotta. Push the knife in slowly being careful not to pierce the panna cotta. The weight of the panna cotta will start to pull it away from the edges of the mould, let gravity help you. Once it starts to peel away, begin to roll the mould progressively until it peels completely from the edges. Place the plate against the opening of the mould while still on its side, precisely where you would like the panna cotta to be on the plate then turn the mould upside down with the plate underneath. Just as you would turn out a jelly. If you are having trouble getting them out you can quickly dip the bottom of the mould into very hot water, be careful not to allow any water into the panna cotta.

Using a small spoon, place some of the coulis on top of each panna cotta. Using the back of the spoon, carefully spread the coulis to the edge of the panna cotta.

Decorate each plate with blueberries and flowers. I often slice the bottom third off of one of the blueberries so that it looks submerged into the top of the panna cotta.

Don’t forget to put the ganache on the table!

….. Voila!

A note on gelatin: A great panna cotta has the quintessential ‘belly’. The less gelatin, the more ‘belly’ but also the higher the risk of the panna cotta collapsing or melting. If you are dining in a hot environment or if this is your first panna cotta, then use 3g of gelatin. As you gain experience in making panna cotta, you can reduce the gelatin to 2g. This recipe has been tested with as little as 1.6g of gelatin which produces an absolutely delightful texture and the plumpest ‘belly’. In the photographs I have used 3g of gelatin in order to buy time for styling and photography. For entertaining, I make it with 2g. This has proven to be manageable when plating up for a number of guests but also achieves the highly desirable panna cotta ‘belly’.

A note on the ganache: If you would like the ganache thinner, add more hot cream. If you would like it thicker add more shaved chocolate.

Beervelde, Belgium: Les Journées des Plantes – The Garden Days – De Tuindagen – Die Gartentage

It feels as if we’ve waited so long for it, but last weekend, it was hot! A searing, burning sun carrying bright sparkling light shone upon us all here in Western Europe. Happily, it also marked the weekend of the greatly anticipated Beervelde Garden Days, an utterly magnificent bi-annual outdoor garden and lifestyle event held in May and October. The sun, heat and very merry public made it all the more sublime. The Beervelde Garden Days are held in privately owned Beervelde Parc, located 18 kilometers East of Gent, Belgium. The event is impeccably curated and hosted by Count Renaud and Countess Valérie de Kerchove de Denterghem who open their home, for three wonderful days. Beervelde Parc is 25 glorious hectares of woodland, expansive lush meadows, flower gardens and a grand lake fed by a river. During the fair you are free to roam the grounds, with all of the buildings, including the ground floor of the stately villa and the coach house, being used by merchants. This Spring there were more than 220 specialist growers, producers, makers and manufacturers with an incredibly diverse array of superb quality produce and crafted product. We enjoyed browsing all of the plant and flower stalls, my favourites are always the peony and bulb growers. I’ve never seen so many different varieties of Iris. We also tasted many new things, the standout being a beautiful ice cream made from horse milk. Incredibly light and smooth and full of flavour. It was a very pleasant surprise.

The coach house is a complex of buildings that surround a courtyard with a large fountain. The buildings are made of red brick with subtle architectural details and have a very healthy vine sprawling across the facade. The stables have beautiful original wooden doors and a stone floor where a couple of antique dealers and a jewellery maker were installed. They were surprisingly intimate rooms and had a lovely feel. Here you will also find the barn and schoolhouse where antique dealer Anniek De Vlieger was selling exquisite antique earthenware vessels from Morroco originally used for storing water, oil and grain; large black marble plates from India and various other pots, bowls and planters from ancient Asia. Another happy find, nestled in the arched entryway to the coach house was Kopersporen, sellers of beautiful bronze garden tools made by PKS BRONZE of Austria. Shiny and new they are just lovely but their aged patina and wooden handles are really what makes them beautiful. The tools they had for testing were delightful and so very well made.

I bought myself a rose from Casteels Rozen. I am partial to double roses and this cupped, double rose called ‘Mary Ann’ is impressive in colour and petal count with a strong, delightfully sweet scent.

We also had the pleasure of meeting artist Christophe Annys. He works primarily with stone but also plaster and molding. I think his stone sculptures are wonderful. Textured, gritty and evocative. On this day however, he was demonstrating his skill in stone letter carving which he does under the business name Letterbeeld. His work is exact with no room for error. I loved that as I moved my way around the garden I could still hear his chisel sounding chink, chink, chink.

At the end of walled vegetable garden were Wenceslaus Mertens and Hilbrand De Vuyst from Reizend Bakhuis who make wood fired ovens. The two friends build their ovens using hand made bricks, clay, straw and tree branches. They use an exceptionally clever traditional technique of forming a skeleton made from woven tree branches that allow the oven to expand and contract during heating and cooling. We had a lovely long conversation about how the ovens were constructed and built to last and last. What astounded me was that they often build the oven inside a stand alone building designed as a bake house where all bread preparation, proofing and baking occurs. The installation of such a bake house constitutes a serious investment in wood fired baking and families do so as a multi-generational investment. Reizend Bakhuis reflect this attitude and ideal by providing a three generation warranty on their ovens. I was so glad to hear that this way of living and cooking is alive and well in Europe.

With his wares spread out over three enormous tables, and a view of the villa across a splendid meadow, we met Dirk Mortier and his wooden boards. Spectacular, solid, working chopping or cheese boards. At around 5cm or 2 inches thick, they appear built to withstand warping and hard work. He uses a range of wood types including French oak, American oak, European beech, European ash, plum and walnut and are made by himself, one by one, in his atelier in Belgium. You can see by the images above that these are boards with gravitas! He has a wonderful sense of celebration and feast with oversized styles that would require at least two people to carry when laden with gorgeous food. I can imagine a wonderful, characteristic grazing table at a family feast utilising different sizes, layered in levels creating a dramatic presentation.

Amongst the peony and rose sellers were master basket weavers Philippe Guérinel from France and Bruno Vloeberghs from Belgium. Both are masters in different weaving techniques and they gave us a wonderful tutorial in how their basket weaving styles differ. Philippe Guérinel forms baskets using an artful technique known as Périgord, from the Dordogne region of France. The basket is woven free form in a spiral structure which produces a very light but very strong basket. It appears from the range of baskets he had on display that the possibilities for shape are vast. He is able to form very flat, open, plate like baskets but also very curved and deep forms. I was captivated. They truly are beautiful objects. It takes great skill to produce a result such as this, a skill developed through a life-time of dedication and practice. You can see more of his baskets here.

Alpacas are fantastic animals, and like sheep, they can produce a wonderful fibre for making garments, accessories, blankets and other home textiles. We met the owners of Ecosnooze who bought along their alpacas for the show. Alpaca as a fibre has many interesting natural characteristics which make it an intriguing choice for clothing and bedding. Firstly it is free of lanolin which as I understand it, is the oil that gives sheep fleece its characteristic smell. It was expressed to us that a great deal of industrial cleaning and processing is required to remove the lanolin from the wool to ready it for the consumer, an unnecessary step in the processing of Alpaca. All protein fibres, meaning hair and wool, have micro scales on the surface of the fibre. These scales, depending on their size and the coarseness of the fibre can create an itchy sensation upon contact with the skin. Alpaca is apparently a somewhat smoother fibre which reduces the itchiness dramatically. Also, Alpacas over hundreds of years of evolution have developed a partially hollow fibre that keeps them warmer in cold climates and cooler in the warmer weather. It apparently also makes the fibre lighter in weight. But the fact that most surprised me is illustrated on the colour card above. Those shades are the natural colours of their alpacas, they don’t dye or colour their fleece. This results in a beautiful, soft palette of garments, also illustrated above. From chocolate brown to tan, cream and blue grey, they are absolutely lovely shades. The owner told us that when each alpaca is born the first question they ask is “boy or girl?” And, then immediately “what colour?”

All in all, we had a wonderful time at the Spring Beervelde Garden Days. The thing that stood out to me most of all was the overwhelming, majestic passion that all of the makers and producers had. They truly love what they do and enjoy expressing that through conversation. Great skill, knowledge and know how was demonstrated at every stall and tent and quality was evident throughout. It was a highly pleasurable weekend and I look forward to the Autumn event.

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