Chablis and Pelargoniums for Mrs Dalloway



Study­ing the nov­els of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre at uni­ver­sity, I inves­ted in a pack­et of Gitanes and listened to Juli­ette Greco on vinyl; mov­ing on to James Joyce, I took up Guin­ness and spoke in impossibly dense sen­tences. D. H. Lawrence was out of fash­ion then, or who knows where that could have led. And then came Vir­gin­ia Woolf. Obvi­ously, I clumped about in sturdy brogues for a while; I also developed a new-found interest in flowers. I can still remem­ber read­ing Mrs Dal­lo­way on a sunny park bench in London’s Regent’s Park and being deeply impressed by Sally Seton’s icon­o­clast­ic approach to flower-arran­ging. (When will I ever get the chance to com­bine icon­o­clasm and flor­istry in a single sen­tence again?)

  • Sally’s power was amaz­ing, her gift, her per­son­al­ity. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bour­ton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hol­ly­hocks, dah­lias — all sorts of flowers that had nev­er been seen togeth­er — cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordin­ary — com­ing in to din­ner in the sun­set.

I thought of Sally Seton and her cava­lier scis­sors, snip­ping wildly at nev­er-before seen com­bin­a­tions of flowers, when I walked round my very clev­er friend’s newly-emer­gent wild­flower mead­ow today. If some gar­dens are in train­ing to be muni­cip­al round­abouts, my friend’s garden is limber­ing up to be a Garden of Eden trib­ute act. As I trailed from one bil­low­ing mound of flowers to anoth­er, it was rain­ing that very Brit­ish kind of rain that stealth­ily adorns everything in a glossy mist, while every­one says brightly that “it’s hardly wet at all.”


Sally Seton would have had a field day with her scis­sors in that mead­ow. And both she and Vir­gin­ia Woolf would have loved the rose-scen­ted cake, filled with whipped cream and Chab­lis and lem­on jelly that I made after­wards. The extra­vag­ance and lux­uri­ous­ness of Chab­lis is included for Vir­gin­ia Woolf, whose poor rations inspired her to write A Room of One’s Own. The cake, infused with leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­goni­um or gerani­um, is for Sally Seton.

Leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­goni­um smell as good as any rose, per­haps even bet­ter, because their fra­grance is more sub­stan­tial, less eph­em­er­al. George Eli­ot under­stood the rose pelargonium’s worth and made it a meta­phor for unselfish­ness in Scenes of Cler­ic­al Life:

  •  But the sweet spring came to Milby not­with­stand­ing: the elm-tops were red with buds; the church­yard was starred with dais­ies; the lark showered his love-music on the flat fields; the rain­bows hung over the dingy town, cloth­ing the very roofs and chim­neys in a strange trans­fig­ur­ing beauty. And so it was with the human life there, which at first seemed a dis­mal mix­ture of grip­ing world­li­ness, van­ity, ostrich feath­ers, and the fumes of brandy: look­ing closer, you found some pur­ity, gen­tle­ness, and unselfish­ness, as you may have observed a scen­ted gerani­um giv­ing forth its whole­some odours amidst blas­phemy and gin in a noisy pot-house.

Tuck­ing a few rose pelar­goni­um leaves into the tins, when mak­ing a sponge, infuses the cake with a flor­al fla­vour so subtle that it’s hard to know where it’s come from or if it’s really there at all. Adding the round, rich, but­tery fla­vour of Chab­lis to the lem­on jelly makes it the ideal match for the cream.



  • 2 lem­ons — peel and juice
  • 95g caster sug­ar
  • 10g sheet gelat­ine
  •  275ml Chab­lis
  • 450ml water

Pare the rind thinly from the lem­ons — in one piece if you’re com­pet­it­ive, but it really doesn’t mat­ter — and place in a pan with the water, wine and the sug­ar. Heat gently until the liquid starts to sim­mer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the juice from both lem­ons. Allow to infuse. Soak the gelat­ine sheets in a bowl of cold water for five minutes. When the time is up, squeeze the sheets out as though ringing-out a dish­cloth and whisk them into the water, wine, sug­ar and lem­on until dis­solved. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Cov­er with cling­film and place in the fridge. It will take around four hours to set. The con­sist­ency you’re look­ing for is that free­style, slightly unhinged wobble that looks as though it won’t be enough to keep the con­tents of the bowl under con­trol, until, at the last minute, its nat­ur­al sense of decor­um reins it back in again — just. There will be more than enough for the cake, so save the rest to eat later with some fresh ber­ries.


  • 8–10 fresh leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­goni­um
  • 230g plain flour
  • 4 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 230g caster sug­ar
  • 230g softened unsalted but­ter
  • 4 medi­um eggs
  • 150ml double cream for the filling
  • 2x20cm cake tins, greased with but­ter and lined at the bot­tom with bak­ing parch­ment

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Arrange four or five leaves on the base of each of the two greased and papered cake tins. Com­bine the flour, sug­ar, salt, bak­ing powder, but­ter and eggs, either by hand or in a mix­er at a slow speed. Divide the mix­ture between the two cake tins, pour­ing it over the leaves. Bake for 25–30 minutes until golden brown. When cool, remove the sponges from the tins and peel the leaves off the base of each. Whip the cream. Spread the Chab­lis jelly on one half and top with the whipped cream. Place the second half of sponge on the top and dust with lib­er­al amounts of icing sug­ar.


 The Chab­lis, lem­on and rose pelar­goni­um cake has the beguil­ing fla­vours of Turk­ish Delight, the charm of a wild­flower mead­ow. Eat it out­side on a Brit­ish summer’s day and you won’t notice the rain. If there are wild­flowers to look at while you eat, so much the bet­ter.

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