Autumn is a surprisingly scented time of year, from the assorted woodland smells of foliage in various stages of decay to the tiny but sweetly fragrant flowers on eleagnus shrubs. Walking down by our local reservoir in the sunshine the other morning, I was blown away by the fabulous fresh scent of the newly fallen larch needles as I crushed them underfoot. Yet another of my favourites is the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), with its bronze-pink tinted autumn leaves and their amazing aroma of candy floss and burnt sugar – an absolute delight for the senses on a crisp autumn day. Viburnums and mahonias are other shrubs that come into flower in November, although we’ll probably have to wait until January for the heavily-scented daphnes to outmanoeuvre the opposition.
We had our first frost just a couple of weekends ago and fortunately I’d brought my last few tender plants inside the night before: the tuberous begonias had been lifted, wrapped in newspaper and put to hibernate in the shed, fuchsias are undercover in the cold frame, but the South American tibouchina and rose geraniums have to take shelter in the conservatory over winter. My rose geranium is “Attar of Roses”, a pelargonium really, with beautiful pale pink flowers and deliciously scented, crinkled, silvery-green leaves. It will survive quite happily in the conservatory, but it often spreads to cover a wide area over the summer, so I like to trim it back when bringing it inside. You can then prune it even more ruthlessly in the spring, using any promising cuttings to start off new plants, and allowing the parent plant to reshoot.
This year, I decided that I would put those leaf offcuts to good use and experimented with Rose Geranium Cordial on Sarah Raven’s recommendation. What a revelation: delightfully light and fragrant – an autumn variation on the elderflower cordial theme and equally good with sparkling water. I suspect it would also be delicious with Prosecco for a very unusual cocktail with a twist! This is based on Sarah’s recipe – do try it and see!
Rose Geranium and Lemon Cordial – makes 2.5 litres
2kg granulated sugar
1 litre water
large handful of rose-scented geranium leaves
juice of 6 lemons
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
30g citric acid
Heat the sugar, water, lemon juice and zest, plus the geranium leaves until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool and infuse. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin to remove the geranium leaves and add the citric acid. (You can omit it, but I’ve found with other cordials that they really don’t keep long at all without the preserving effects of the citric acid.) Pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles. Keep in the fridge once open.
Dilute to taste with sparkling water or soda.
Another good use of rose geranium leaves is to make scented Rose Geranium Sugar, along the lines of vanilla sugar, for sprinkling on biscuits and lemon drizzle cake to add an extra dimension. I just layer up caster sugar in a pretty glass Kilner jar, adding a few rose geranium leaves every so often. The only thing to watch here is that the moisture in the leaves can make the sugar stick together, so be prepared to crush it with a spoon when you come to use it!
My final idea for making the most of this heavenly resource is to make rose geranium shortbread biscuits – beautiful and unusual served with mousses or ice cream, or delicious with morning coffee or afternoon tea.
Rose Geranium Shortbread Biscuits
125g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling (or use rose geranium sugar if you have it!)
225g butter, softened
300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50g ground rice (or rice flour or semolina work just as well)
3-4 rose geranium leaves, very finely chopped
Zest of 1 lime (or lemon)
Line two baking trays with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter together in a large bowl. Sift the flour and ground rice (or rice flour/semolina) into the mixture, add the finely chopped rose geranium leaves and lime zest and mix together. Using floured hands, work the mixture together to form a smooth dough. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently until the dough is smooth. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Roll the dough out until 5mm thick and cut out biscuits using a round or heart-shaped cutter. Place the biscuits onto the baking trays, and sprinkle with a little extra rose geranium sugar. Leave to chill for a further 30 minutes in the fridge. Bake at 160°C/Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Cool on a rack, sprinkling with extra sugar if necessary.