I was recently lucky to travel to Emilia Romagna for a few days and a highlight of that journey was time spent in Parma. I fell under the spell, while there, of the Parma violet and its association with the history of this town. You can nowadays find it in the soaps, the perfumes, the candies, and even the savory foods of Parma. Please enjoy!
Parma violets belong to the more exotic branch of the violet family. First appearing in Italy, in the 16th century, most types of parma violets have lavender flowers of varying sizes, which have an attractive fragrance.
The origins of the parma violet are unknown, though they have been shown to be derived from two different Viola alba strains, and more closely resemble, in flower colour and odour, Viola odorata. It was first imported into Naples in the latter part of the 19th century, when Filippo di Brazza took the plant to Udine. There are no records of his work, though it is widely believed that he deliberately crossbred to produce at least two varieties of parma. One of these is still available, whereas the other one is romantically believed to languish in some forgotten back garden somewhere, just waiting to be rediscovered.
Parma violets are widely believed to be sterile, and there is much store laid by their reproduction through cuttings. Armand Millet, a French violet grower, proved this belief to be a myth, however, and with the right conditions any sturdy violet could well produce a seed pod.
Parma violet is a deepish shade of violet descriptive of these flowers.
The delicate purple flowers of the parma violet plant also give their name to a delicate, violet-scented sweet Parma Violets, manufactured by Swizzels Matlow.
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.
Recipe for Candied Violets
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!