It was to be a summer wedding, in an old tythe barn. A country wedding, meadow flowers, cottage garden blossoms, hessian, twine and lanterns. No actual milkmaids, but old zinc buckets, churns and lanterns. An illusional setting in the tradition of Le Petit Trianon, Sunday evening TV Hardy adaptations, but hopefully much happier outcomes than either.
And we needed roses, not in bouquets nor formal arrangements, but for their scent. And their romance.
Le Roman de la Rose. The title promises to explain everything, in a guide to courtly love that was written nearly eight hundred years ago, steeped in tradition and myth dating from more than a thousand years before that. The rose, symbol of love and commitment in Persian tradition, symbol of beauty, passion and sacrifice to ancient Greeks and Romans. And source of a perfume used by Cleopatra to ensure Marc Antony could never forget her.
That fragrance! Unlike so many of our flowers, whose sere pressed petals smell faintly of hay, but little more; dried rose petals keep their scent. Run your hands through a bowl of them and the fragrance rises, a transport to summer gardens. So there were to be baskets of rose petals, ribbons of petals strewn around the home baked cakes that were an alternative to canapés.
And rose petals have a flavour like their perfume. As a sugared petal dissolves on the tongue, at first the only taste is sweetness, and then, elusive but unmistakable, it is rose. So the wedding cake was to be decorated with drifts of sugared rose petals.
The roses in our garden bloom profusely in the last two weeks of May and throughout June. But not all the roses last so long, and we needed those with the strongest scents, like Rose de Dijon. And it took two attempts to convince me that dried, sugared, yellow petals nearly always looked too much like potato crisps for them to enhance a wedding cake. These, and the deeper pinks and reds, were best simply dried. As always then, less time to do everything than I thought.
I picked flowers when they appeared dry and fresh, no dew, and before any petals began to shrivel. Picked off the petals (it felt cruel) and spread them on wicker trays to dry in the sunny conservatory. One very hot day showed me that they mustn’t dry too fast, or you’re left with tiny, shrivelled, scentless litter. I stored dried petals in wicker picnic hampers, out of the light but so that air could still circulate. It’s important not to mix fresh and dry petals – or they will all rot.
I thought I knew about how to sugar flowers, I’d decorated a ninetieth birthday cake with primroses, and it was simple enough. But compared to fragile rose petals primroses are EASY! Not only are they smaller and easier to handle, you can leave the stalks on until they dry so they have useful handles. Rose petals took more care.
It was best to have an assembly line process. I needed one bowl of lightly fork-beaten egg white, not frothy, just beaten enough to make it less gloopy so it would spread thinly on the petal. A saucer of caster sugar. Another saucer, a large dinner plate, a paintbrush and a dessert spoon. Sometimes I used tweezers to hold the petals. Other days I couldn’t find them in time. And as the photos show, I usually worked outside (it was warm, and not windy). An umbrella food cover to keep flying insects away from sugary petals.
Put some sugar into the empty saucer.
Cover the petal with egg white (I used a mixture of dipping and painting).
Put the petal convex side down into the sugar.
Sprinkle more sugar from the full saucer over the concave surface.
Lift the sugared petal carefully onto the plate (the spoon is useful here).
Repeat until the plate is covered with petals, not touching each other.
The sugar can be poured back and forward between the saucers, unless you’ve used too much egg white. If it clumps then throw it away and use fresh.
Cover the plate with the food cover and leave to dry. (About 24 hours in a sunny conservatory).
The dried sugar petals were quite robust, I stored them in airtight plastic boxes in the fridge. Some ‘leftovers’ were fine a couple of months later.
Rose petals, no hidden thorns, no sharp surprises. Sweet, beautiful, yielding – no wonder Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi was created from rose petals. And certainly none of William Blake’s invisible worms in our creations. A year after his triumphal welcome, the sweetness of the roses was only a memory for Browning’s patriot , but today I opened a wicker hamper, stirred its contents, and inhaled last summer’s wedding.