Success of Jill's edible flowers crystal clear
Su Carroll meets a creator of crystallised edible flowers who is enjoying the sweet scent of success.
On a smallholding on the fringes of Exmoor, Jill Fade carefully selects and picks a few flowers from her garden. But rather than popping them into a vase, she quickly covers them in egg white, sprinkles on a coating of caster sugar and lays each carefully out to dry.
The result is a completely edible, exquisitely delicate product that has even caught the attention of Britain's best-selling cookery writer, Delia Smith, who lists Meadowsweet Flowers as a specialist supplier in her 2013 book Delia's Cakes.
It is a far cry from Jill's previous career as a television production manager in London and Bristol. A life-threatening illness prompted the change when, in 2008, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and rushed to hospital for a hysterectomy.
There were no signs that it had spread, but the mother-of-two was left "emotionally bruised" by the experience and in need of a new lifestyle.
"Physically I could not do anything for six weeks, but it was actually after it was all over that affected me more," she said. "The thought of going back to my previous work was difficult and that's what spurred me on to look for something I could do from home, something that would involve being outside among things I love. Crystallising is a very therapeutic process and it helped me get back on my feet."
She stumbled upon it by chance while searching for something to do in the garden. "I was looking at growing fresh edible flowers and got a couple of books on the subject. One contained a chapter about crystallising and I thought it looked interesting so gave it a go. It took about a year to properly get the hang of it and then I started to look at who else was doing it commercially."
Not all flowers are edible, so anybody thinking of giving it a go must check carefully beforehand. Jill was already a keen gardener, but has tailored the beds surrounding the farmhouse to provide an array of the best blooms for the practice. All are grown without the use of any chemicals or pesticides, and no flavourings or colourings are added during the crystallising process. The finished result has a crunchy, sugary texture without any strong flavour.
Even if safe to eat, certain flowers just don't take to it. "Some fade and lose colour almost immediately, while some – like daylilies – are too fleshy and turn into a soggy mess," explained Jill. "There are colours that don't do well too – reds, for example, are difficult because they tend to go black."
The crystallising stars in Jill's range include primroses, violas, geraniums, cornflowers, lavender and carnations. She takes particular pleasure in finding Devon violets in the hedgerows around her home, which are very popular with customers.
With its three straightforward steps, the crystallising process is, on paper, very simple. Jill said the Victorians used it to preserve fresh items for mainly decorative purposes and it has been suggested the practice goes even further back.
"It sounds so easy," said Jill, "but it takes a while to build up the knack and even after all this time I still have the odd disaster. The petals fall off, it doesn't dry quickly enough, it gets stuck to the paper..."
Speed is another key challenge. All of Jill's flowers are treated within an hour of being picked from her garden to stop them shrivelling or going limp. Once dispatched, the products have a best-before date of six weeks, but many will last longer.
Jill said: "Most of the flowers will last for much longer but as a natural product this varies from type to type. They also don't really 'go off' but will eventually fade and lose their vibrancy."
So far she has resisted calls to supply her products to shops, preferring to sell them herself at local food markets and online. "It's nice because people can call and actually talk to me, the only person involved in the production, and I can put a box together to fit exactly what they need," said Jill. "I've met and spoken to so many lovely people – I really enjoy the personal side of it."
Last year Meadowsweet Flowers was awarded a BBC Good Food bursary that enabled Jill to have a stand at their exhibition in Birmingham. "That brought a lot of exposure and things have been absolutely bananas this year," she said. "I think there's a fashion for both natural products and the vintage theme at the moment that has really helped. Sugar paste flowers are beautiful but people seem to like the fact these are real."
Following requests from customers, Jill now makes a range of chocolate gifts and favours topped with her flowers.
In addition to Delia's use of crystallised primroses on the simnel cake in her recent book, food writer and cook Rose Prince has used Meadowsweet Flowers to decorate a creation in her newest book The Pocket Bakery. This month, the international cosmetics brand Jo Malone also used Jill's pink cornflowers to adorn the canapés at the launch of its new Peony & Blush Suede fragrance.
Jill said: "It's thrilling for me to see the flowers in prominent places, knowing they've been grown, crystallised and sent off from my farmhouse. I also get so much pleasure just from hearing they topped off the perfect birthday cake or wedding favours. It all makes me feel very lucky."
Visit meadowsweetflowers.co.uk or 01598 740494.