When it comes to edible flowers...
May/June 2008 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
After growing fresh, edible flowers for restaurants to use as a garnish, John Clemons is taking his beautiful blossoms to a new culinary level by turning them into candied treats.
Candied is dandy
These days, San Diego County farmer John Clemons doesn't have much time to stop and smell his roses. He's more inclined to eat them--along with his pansies, violas and snapdragons.
After more than 20 years growing fresh, edible flowers for high-end chefs and top restaurants to use as a garnish on their entrées, Clemons is taking his beautiful blossoms to a new culinary level by turning them into candied treats.
Sweetfields Vice President Diane Richards tastes a crystallized flower that the company is producing on a large scale for chefs, bakers and home users.
Chefs and bakers know them better as crystallized flowers, which have graced wedding cakes, fancy desserts and the like for many years. A number of cookbooks have published recipes on how to make them, but the process is time-consuming, tedious and messy.
After thumbing through one of those cookbooks, Clemons decided to take the old-fashioned idea and make it his own. It was then that his company, Sweetfields, was born.
"The art of crystallizing flowers has been around for hundreds of years," said Clemons, founder and president of Sweetfields. "There are recipes that date way back--just dipping a fresh flower in egg whites and coating it in sugar to decorate desserts."
It took him years, however, to figure out how to take this very manual, labor-intensive process into mass production. Today, with a four-person crew, Sweetfields is able to crystallize 1,200 flowers in an hour--the same amount of time it used to take Clemons to do 20 to 30 flowers in the kitchen by himself.
"It was a hobby at that point. It wasn't anything you could make money off of," he said of his early years experimenting with the recipes.
In many ways, Clemons came into farming more as a hobby than as a career choice. He was a computer programmer in his previous life until his brother, in the mid-'80s, talked him into growing herbs and selling them to local restaurants as a weekend job. When his brother left the business to pursue other ventures, Clemons decided to keep farming.
"I thought, I'm either going to sit inside a tiny cubby looking at a computer and thousands of pages of code, or go outside and get into the sunshine. It was pretty much a no-brainer," he said.
He got into edible flowers when a chef asked him to grow some. Within four years, Clemons had become one of the nation's top suppliers of fresh, edible flowers, growing 30 different varieties of flowers and specialty herbs on 33 acres of his family ranch in the foothills of Jamul, east of San Diego.
Sweetfields founder John Clemons and his partner, Diane Richards, pose inside one of the greenhouses where they grow an array of edible flowers that the company crystallizes into candied treats.
That family ranch, known as Sunset Farms today, was nothing but a hill of weeds when Clemons was growing up. It was a place in the country where he and his brother rode horses and motorcycles, went shooting, built forts and played war or hide-and-seek.
Today, Sunset Farms is still where his parents live but it is also home to a cluster of greenhouses that produce the rainbow of edible flowers at the heart of Sweetfields and Clemons' existing fresh, edible flowers business.
Clemons acknowledges that he's pretty much saturated the fresh, edible flowers market, which is very narrow, with restaurants and caterers as his main clientele. The commodity is also highly perishable. From the time they're picked to the time they're placed on the plate, there's a window of about four days before the flowers wilt and shrivel up.
"So that's why we're doing the crystallized flowers," he said. "That is the future. It's a brand-new marketplace. The sky's the limit and there are so many different directions to go."
By crystallizing them, the flowers are perfectly preserved and will not perish for years if kept dry. As a nonperishable item, the flowers could be sold to not only chefs and bakers but to home users who have no time or patience to mess with arduous recipes.
Although Clemons came up with the idea to crystallize his flowers more than 10 years ago, it wasn't until several years later, after much trial and error, that he perfected the technique and had a product beautiful enough to market to the consumer. It was also around that time that he met his fiancée and Sweetfields partner, Diane Richards.
"For our first date, instead of a bouquet of flowers, John brought me a box of crystallized flowers," remembered Richards, who is now vice president of Sweetfields. "And when I saw them, I just thought they were stunning. I said, 'Oh my goodness, these are beautiful. I want to do that.' Little did I know that I would actually have that opportunity."
Together, the two worked to expand the company's line of candied flowers. Clemons is now seeking a patent for his special crystallization method as well as the concept of his newer products, the newest being chocolate-dipped flowers, which the company plans to debut in July at the Fancy Food Show in New York.
In addition to the basic crystallized flower, Sweetfields offers a durable glazed finish that makes the flowers waterproof, allowing users to float them in a glass of champagne or other beverage. The coating is made of confectioners glaze, a food-grade shellac that gives the flowers a glass-like appearance.
For those with a bit more to spend, Sweetfields also makes a crystallized, semi-glazed version that is dusted with 24-karat gold, sterling silver or a custom color. These flowers also are waterproof. The company will even hand decorate their flowers to the specifications of a customer, such as painting initials on the petals.
"There's nothing like our product," said Shanna Johnson, chief executive officer of Sweetfields and Richards' daughter. "One of our hardest things right now is trying to get the point across to the end user that these are real flowers grown on a farm, and yes, you can eat them."
Richards said it's a matter of getting the product exposure and consumers used to the idea that flowers aren't just for vases.
"It's education," she said. "Our product is so new on the market that people honestly do not know that they're real flowers. They think they're something that we manufactured."
Many flowers are edible, although not all of them may be palatable. Broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes are technically flowers eaten as vegetables. But because some flowers are poisonous, Clemons said people should not eat flowers they are unsure of--which is why he researches his selections thoroughly. Horticulture specialists advise against eating flowers from florists, nurseries and garden centers or ones picked from the side of the road because they're usually treated with pesticides.
The flowers at Sunset Farms, on the other hand, are grown organically inside greenhouses, without the use of chemicals. To keep his crop disease- and bug-free, Clemons pulls the flowers out after about five months and replaces them with a brand-new crop and bed of soil.
In addition, Clemons said he grows only the most commonly eaten flowers that are known to be safe.
"The ones I am using are the safest ones--safest meaning that the largest percentage of the population will not have allergic reactions to them," he said.
Sunset Farms currently grows some 15 different varieties of edible flowers for the fresh market. Restaurants and chefs use them either as garnishes or ingredients in their recipes. Society garlic, for example, which has long, thin leaves and striking purple blossoms, has a strong garlic smell and can be used in salads in place of clove garlic. Stock flowers have a peppery-radish taste, while the petals of calendulas, more commonly known as marigolds, have a bitter taste and can be used to complement arugula salads.
But not all edible flowers crystallize well, said Clemons. The five that Sweetfields offers--violas, pansies, mini roses, rose petals and snapdragons--are the ones that work best, with pansies being the most popular, capturing 70 percent of the company's business.
The flowers are now available in a number of high-end specialty foods stores such as Draeger's Markets, Harvest Ranch and Bristol Farms. They may also be purchased through the company's Web site at www.sweetfields.com. Retail prices range from $12.64 for 10 crystallized pansies to $81.55 for 20 glazed mini roses to $142.93 for 50 gold- or silver-dusted violas. A customized pansy hand-pressed with 24-karat gold flakes retails at $50 a flower.
Some of the flowers are also showing up on other products. The company that supplies cakes to Costco is currently using Sweetfields' flowers on some of its cakes. In addition to its wholesale business, Sweetfields is also marketing the flowers to the wine-and-spirits industry, gift stores and other retail avenues.
"Our thing now is how to keep up," Richards said. "We're basically trying to keep up and expand."
Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.