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.
CHABLIS AND LEMON SOFT-SET JELLY
- 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.
ROSE PELARGONIUM SPONGE CAKE
- 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.