Violets of love and candied violets
An ornament, an essence and a sweet. In Parma the violetta is deeply rooted in heart, history and cuisine.
Sweet, smooth and mauve.
This is Marcel Proust’s famous definition of Parma, a town imagined and imaginary, that the writer neither saw nor ever visited personally; a definition that still expresses the relationship between this violaceous flower and the town, that this very plant with heart-shaped leaves symbolises.
So strong is this bond, that every year in March and April the ducal town dedicates an event to the violetta including exhibitions, concerts, workshops, gardening lessons, guided tours. It is the Festival of Parma’s Violet. This appointment is the peak of a cult and of a culture that keep living all year through a variety of places – shops, museums, fairs, gardening exhibitions –combining history and the present time, knowledge and tastes, gluttony and botany.
Among the many varieties of smelling violas and violets, Parma’s violetta, the pallida plena, is the most fragrant. It has large, double, clear mauve flowers, with a persistent and encircling fragrance.
In England it used to be called the "Violetta di Napoli", while in Naples it was the "Violetta Portuguesa", whereas in France it was the "Violetta di Parma". Its history is closely linked to that of Duchess Maria Luigia d’Austria, that imposed the latter denomination.
This flower identifies the Duchess as well as the city itself.
These are the words of Francesca Sandrini, Director of Glauco Lombardi Museum, where all of Maria Luigia’s relics are kept, a sentence that perfectly portrays the relationship between the Austrian Duchess and the violetta, which even adorned her wedding dress.
The sovereign, the second wife of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, became regent of the Duchy between 1816 and 1847, governing wisely and spreading her love for beauty.
She dedicated herself personally to the cultivation of this plant, as is demonstrated by the words that she wrote in Vienna in 1815, before settling in Italy: "Please let me keep some plants of Parma’s Violets with written instructions on how to plant them and make them flourish; I hope they will grow well, because I am becoming a botany scholar and I will be happy to grow this graceful little flower ... ".
She showed unconditional love for this elegant flower that soon became her hallmark, to be found, engraved or painted, on plates, china, fans, thimbles, writing paper, even reaching the point of replacing her signature or monogram. Purple were also the garments and clothing of her servants and courtiers.
Not content with using violetta as a decorative pattern only, Maria Luigia even decided to make it her personal scent. Thanks to the patient work of the monks in the ancient convent of the Annunciation, the essence was extracted and the Duchess could bring her violetta everywhere, making of this scent the official perfume of the court. In 1870, after her death, the secret formula invented by the monks passed on to Lodovico Borsari, who produced and marketed the ducal essence transforming his company into the largest Italian nineteenth century perfume industry – and its success still continues today.
Besides being used for decoration and as a sedative and detoxicant in herbal preparations, the candied violetta is one of the ingredients used in confectionery to garnish desserts, ice-cream, cakes or simply to be enjoyed with coffee.
And now, the sweet conclusion of this story is the original recipe that women peasants used to prepare irresistible candied violets. After washing the flowers, they were made to dry in dark rooms and then treasured in glass jars away from light.
1 cup of violets (50 Flowers)
a sufficient quantity of water
a sufficient quantity of sugar.
Wash violet flowers without removing the stem and put them down to dry on a cotton cloth.
Meanwhile, put a saucepan with sugar and a few tablespoons of water on a low fire until it gets brownish; don’t let it get caramelized.
Take violets from the stem, dip them into sugar and place them on a plane surface, covered with wax paper. Once cooled, they are ready to be used according to your fancy.
A simple recipe, whose sweet and romantic notes preserve and embody the essence of spring and of Parma!