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The perfume was fleeting, but overwhelming. The parking lot at Crook’s Corner, the Chapel Hill restaurant where I was chef, had an enormous mound of honeysuckle growing beside it, and,

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The perfume was fleeting, but overwhelming. The parking lot at Crook’s Corner, the Chapel Hill restaurant where I was chef, had an enormous mound of honeysuckle growing beside it, and,

The perfume was fleeting, but overwhelming. The parking lot at Crook’s Corner, the Chapel Hill restaurant where I was chef, had an enormous mound of honeysuckle growing beside it, and, starting in late April or early May, its scent traveled on the breeze to our kitchen door. We’ve all tasted that one drop of nectar in the throat of each flower, and it would occasionally cross my mind to try to capture that flavor in food somehow. The result tends to silence people at first taste.

It took a while to figure out what to make with honeysuckle, and I learned a few things. Lesson No. 1: Don’t try to cook it. Lesson No. 2: Don’t keep it around forever. The flavor fades. Lesson No. 3: Write down what you did last time because although you think you’re going to remember, you won’t.

Bill Smith picking honeysuckle

Now, Bill Smith picks the flowers at home in Chapel Hill. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

In other words, the route to honeysuckle sorbet was long and circuitous. It wound through the Italian novel The Leopard to the writings on Sicily of Mary Taylor Simeti, who dropped the hint of infusing flowers in cool water. Then, like I said, I had to remember to write down what I’d done the last time.

My experimental batches were all small because I expected failure, and it’s a lot of trouble to pick all of those flowers for nothing. Thus, the first successful honeysuckle sorbet didn’t last long. It never made it to the dining room, in fact.

Word spread fast the first year that the sorbet was on the menu. People would line up at the door before we opened, because it became known that sometimes we ran out. We had to make a rule that at suppertime, those who only wanted sorbet had to sit at the bar, because we needed tables for people who were there for dinner. When we did run out, there could be tantrums. Customers began to order the sorbet as a first course because I had to quit letting them reserve it for after their dinner.

Honeysuckle growing on a vine

Emerging each spring around Mother’s Day and graduation, the honeysuckle smells — and tastes — celebratory. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

Eventually, I figured out mass production, and except for one year when for some reason there were scarcely any flowers, we almost always had enough. During that one lean year, we sometimes didn’t even put the sorbet on the menu. We would just sneak it out to regulars with the warning that they couldn’t act like anything was up.

The reason that we usually had plenty was that I had shown my kitchen staff how to correctly pick the flowers — no leaves, no stems — and I paid them $15 for every eight cups that they brought in. My cooks would take their children to the parks, and while the little ones played, their parents could gather the flowers that often festoon the fences.

The minute anyone in town saw a single honeysuckle blossom, I began to get phone calls.

People associate honeysuckle perfume with hot summer evenings, but in truth, around here it begins blooming in the middle of spring. This means that the flowers show up in time for Mother’s Day weekend — and, in the Triangle, graduation season. In the restaurant world, this is a time when complications are least welcome. Too bad. Everyone wants their mother to have some sorbet. You need the flowers to be blooming in full swing to make harvesting them worthwhile, but the minute anyone in town saw a single blossom, I began to get phone calls.

It may have been hectic, but, in fact, the fuss was flattering. I always gave the recipe out freely, and I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that once a year they take their children out to pick honeysuckle flowers. It’s a family occasion. One woman told me that she and her grandchildren make a batch every May. She liked the recipe because it taught the kids that sometimes, you have no choice but to wait for the good things in life.

Honeysuckle sorbet in an ice cream maker

The experience of serving and eating honeysuckle sorbet makes this labor of love worth it.  photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

Honeysuckle Sorbet

I hope you all will try this. Measure carefully — the sugar-to-water ratio really makes a difference here. The flowers must steep overnight. The trouble this takes will be worth it when you see people’s faces as they taste the sorbet for the first time.

4 cups (tightly packed but not smashed) honeysuckle flowers, leaves and stems discarded
5⅓ cups cool water
1⅓ cups water
2 cups sugar
A few drops lemon juice
A speck of cinnamon

Place flowers in a glass or stainless steel container and cover with the cool water. Weight down with a plate and let sit overnight.

Boil the sugar and other water to make a syrup until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup looks slightly lustrous. Cool completely.

The next day, combine the syrup with the water strained from the flowers. Add the lemon juice and cinnamon. Churn in an ice cream maker according to instructions.

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This story was published on Apr 26, 2024

Bill Smith

Smith was the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill for nearly three decades until his retirement in 2019. Smith is well known for his food writing — including the New York Times Notable and Food & Wine Best-of-the-Best cookbook Seasoned in the South and the bestselling Savor the South title, Crabs & Oysters.