Monday, July 21, 2014

A Picture Post

Well I'm back from my holidays and back from a typical Monday at work, it already seems like a long time since I was away - how is it that 24 hours can feel longer than 2 weeks? To get over the shock to the system coming back to Leicester always is I'm planning on a few picture based posts to remind me of time away (shamelessly self indulgent but there you go...).

My yearly pilgrimage to Shetland is partly because I love it there, in some way it will always feel like home, and they have a lot of Puffins (who couldn't love Puffins) but mostly it's also for the people. My father has finally slowed down enough for me to keep up with him (well almost) and there is other family as well as friends all of whom I'd like to see much more often than once a year. There's also a bitter sweet element to that though - we're all getting older (as somebody who's last birthday had a zero in it I'm a bit over sensitive about aging at the moment) but even so there's something about seeing someone hit 80 (and seeing 80 hit back) that's an effective memento mori. All of which was meant to be a breezy lead up to some photos of a fabulous Victorian house in Unst, which means you can add most northerly in Britain to it's general claims to fabulousness too.

To get to Unst you have to get to mainland Shetland, travel north, take a ferry to Yell, cross yell, and then take a final ferry to Unst (unless you have a private plane in which case everything is probably easier) it takes a while. Buness house isn't actually Victorian - that's just when it appears to have had it's last major redecoration. It belongs to the Edmonston's who have been there for something like 400 years and who believe the site goes back to Viking times - quite likely, Unst is stiff with Viking remains. It used to be a bigger house but the current owners mother decided it was more space than she needed so she had a wing blown up. It's currently a B&B but if you plan on staying in it bear in mind your host is now 80 and it's always been a little chaotic.

I've known the Edmondston's for 25 years but have only visited 2 or 3 times so just in case this was my last chance I took some pictures of the nursery which was decoupaged around 1900. From a distance it's stunning, light, bright, cheery. Up close some of the pictures are a bit more worrying...
 If anybody at all would like to take a guess as to what's going on in the picture with the naked girl tied to an alter, some worried looking puritan parents, and a monk... On second thought perhaps best not to speculate. And as for the young lady with the candle and the come hither look - she's definitely a corrupting influence for a young mind.
 After the nursery it had to be the library. It's mostly military memoirs and other equally gentlemanly books, including a lovely run of Blackwoods magazine from the 1850's. i wish i'd had a lot longer to explore (be blatantly nosy) but time was short so I settled for a few pictures and came away with a burning desire to read Wellington's dispatch notes.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Wool Gathering

As I start to write this post it's 11pm and deep twilight outside, the darkest I've seen it in the almost 2 weeks I've been in Shetland for, it's also delightfully cool so thinking about wool is quite appropriate, the idea of the temperatures back home aren't appealing to me at all at the moment...

One of the many things I love about Shetland (long light summer days and invigorating temperatures are two other things) is wool. Until recently dad kept sheep and as a child their needs punctuated the year (lambing, clipping, dipping, selling) now is clipping time which has given me every opportunity to observe wool from animal to jumper - a process I'm here to share!
It starts with a sheep, the ones at the top are being sheared with something that looks not unlike the clippers a hairdresser might use, but my father who still likes to keep his hand in favours his old clippers. They're a design which has been in use for god knows how long, I've seen identical ones looking ancient in museums.

Next raw wool goes to the wool broker where it will be cleaned, carded, and generally sanitised.

After which it might be dyed... I love these bales of coloured wool, this picture was taken in the loft of the local mill where wool becomes yarn to be turned into knitwear and tweed. It's a magical place for anyone who likes wool.


The lengths of tweed in the top picture are sadly only for sale in the mill and even then only when you ask to be taken up to the loft, they're left overs and sample roles of cloth that make me wish I 
could sew with some level of competence. The yarn in the boxes is mostly destined for knitting machines.




And finally some finished product. Tweed I couldn't resist (it was a bargain as well) and lace shawls on display in the knitwear museum. My favourite wool purveyors are  Here

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gavin Maxwell Centenary

Because I'm not always as organised as I'd like to be it turns out that it's 100 years and a day since Maxwell was born. Regardless of actual dates I wanted to take a moment to celebrate a remarkable twentieth century figure. Happily for the reading public there is a decent edition of his best known book Ring Of Bright Water from Little Toller, and of the book that remains one of my favourite ever - Harpoon at a Venture was happily resurrected by Birlinn last year. Their edition is splendid, complete with even more pictures than the disintegrating old Penguin I have cherished from new.

Maxwell was a troubled and troubling figure but his writing is magnificent, books which aren't in print are still easy enough to get hold of, read him!

An odd coincidence but as I published this post I looked out of the window to see an otter in the garden pond. I always hope to see them when I'm in shetland - they're reasonably common here, but it's still not often you get one in the garden. Unfortunately the almost simultaneous discovery that sheep had also got in and were happily munching on one of his prized trees meant dad had to rush out with the dog to evict them. It scared off the otter too so no pictures. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Baklava

Or the 'joys' of cooking in somebody else's kitchen... Maybe I'm getting stuck in my ways (I'm obviously stuck in my ways) but the moment I step out of my own kitchen, which fits me in much the same way as a favourite pair of shoes, I find myself at odds. New shoes aren't so bad but somebody else's shoes (or kitchen) feel very odd indeed. My stepmothers kitchen should be reasonably familiar, I've been staying here on and off for years, I worked for her in the past when she ran a hotel and restaurant, theoretically I know how she organises things and I can't complain about a lack of necessary equipment. In practice it's not so simple.

I offered to make Baklava for when friends were coming round, I haven't made it for years but the recipe I have is one that Bo (stepmother) faxed me (remember faxes....) many years ago and it was delicious. This would be easy I thought. The recipe we ended up using was new to me and comes from Silvena Rowe's 'Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume', Bo got the bits for me and I waited for them to go out before I got on with it having been armed with a foil tin and worked out where the scales, small saucepans, and a lemon squeezer could be found. Rowe's recipe turned out to be on the epic end of the scale (as was the packet of filo pastry - it said  approximately 14 sheets, I lost count somewhere around 20). Sometimes measurements on the page don't mean as much as they might to me but adding it up the Baklava uses over half a kilo of sugar, and feeds far more than the 12 it suggests.

Despite failing to find a pastry brush (hidden in plain site in front of me) turning on the wrong part of the oven twice (it's gas and has 3 options, unlike my electric oven which does not hot enough or to hot depending on its mood) and accidentally piercing a hole in the foil tray so the butter made a determined effort to escape the Baklava turned out quite well. Despite how horribly bad for you it must be it's something I could eat a lot more often so this is an adapted version of Rowe's Walnut and Rose Baklava. Make it at least the day before you want it.

For the syrup take 250g of caster sugar, 250ml of water, 5 tablespoons of rose water and the zest and juice of 2 lemons, simmer until it starts to turn syrupy (we love cinnamon so added a tea spoon to the syrup as well). Meanwhile melt 250g of unsalted butter and find a baking tray roughly 20 by 30 cm. Roughly chop 350g of walnuts and grind a further 150g quite fine. Mix 100g if caster sugar into the ground nuts along with a tea spoon if cinnamon if using, add another 100g of sugar into the roughly chopped ones. Set the oven to 180 or gas 6. Brush the baking tray with butter, and locate a pack of filo pastry (between 12 and 16 sheets ought to do the trick) lay down the first sheet of filo, brush with butter and sprinkle with the ground nut mix, repeat until half way through the pastry pack. Towards the middle put in a couple of layers of the roughly chopped nuts. Make sure the top layer is liberally buttered, cut into diamond shapes the size of a generous mouthful. Cook for about half an hour, when removed from the oven pour over the syrup and then leave to rest for about 24 hours.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Elsewhere!

The second issue of Shiny New Books is live (there's a lot to look at) including bits I've written. Please go and look at this bit http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/non-fiction02/the-new-sylva-a-discourse-of-forest-and-orchard-trees-for-the-twenty-first-century-by-gabriel-hemery-and-sarah-simblet/ for The New Sylva. It's one of the most beautiful books I've seen in a long time as well as being inspiring reading. The Shiny New Books review didn't have a lot of room for pictures so here are just a couple of snaps that I hope give a flavour of it.



Saturday, July 5, 2014

On holiday

After what I can only politely refer to as a challenging spell at work my holidays have finally arrived and I've decamped to Shetland for a couple of weeks. I've come up on my own to stay with family and with every intention of reading my way through a pile of books. I've also come armed with an iPad and good intentions regarding blogging but tonight it's all about the scenery. The view from my windows at home all look out the same way - onto a car park - and whilst I suppose there are possibly uglier car parks in the world I've yet to see a really pretty one. Most of the windows at my fathers house look the same way too. Not onto a car park though, and whilst there may be better views out there I like this one very much, by any standard it's better than a car park.
I don't come to Shetland for the weather which is just as well because it was tipping it down and a wee but nippy when I got here, but after months of city roofs a sky like this is still a relief, and after days stuck in a humid airless warehouse dealing with wine a bit of fresh air is welcome.
Not that I felt like complaining when it suddenly turned into this...

Or when we got back from a boat trip at 10.30pm and it was still like this...

Or even now an hour later when it looks like this. I will read all those books I packed just the moment I manage to stop staring out the window. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Kill - Emile Zola

A new translation by Brian Nelson.

'The Kill' is book two in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series and like 'The Fortune of the Rougons' is translated by Brian Nelson, my copy of the next one up ('Money') is translated by Valerie Minogue and I will admit I'm curious to see if I'll notice a difference, so far I'm a big fan of the Nelson translations. I did have one quibble with this book though and I'll get it out of the way now, it could have done with a Rougon Macquart family tree in it, 'The Fortune of the Rougons' has one which I referred to constantly whilst reading and there were times when I felt it would have been useful here as well.

'The Kill' moves the action from the Provencal town of Plassans to Paris at the start of the second empire, Eugene Rougon is safely ensconced somewhere senior in government and is prepared to do something for his brother Aristide on certain conditions. Eugene wants to keep a certain amount of distance between himself and his sibling to which end he suggests he changes his name. Aristide Rougon becomes Aristide Saccard, through his brothers good offices he finds himself an assistant surveying clerk, it's a modest position but one that will allow him access to extremely useful information.

After his initial disappointment over not being given a better job Aristide settles down to making the most of what's available to him, slowly he pieces together the scale of the second empires plans for Paris and starts to see how much money a clever speculator could make but what he doesn't have is the necessary start up cash. Just when you sense he's almost chewing the carpet with frustration his wife dies which paves the way for an advantageous second marriage. Aristide's sister Sidonie (I look forward to more of her in future books, she's a shadowy, grotesque, creature full of great potential) provides him with the perfect candidate - Renee is desperately in need of a husband, she's been raped and found herself pregnant, marriage is the only escape from total disgrace. Her aunt is happy to pay for a husband, and better yet Renee comes with a dowry of land in the heart of the areas being redeveloped. Aristide takes her. As Sidonie predicts the pregnancy ends in miscarriage but it's to late to do Renee any good, she's caught in her new husbands trap.

The key to Aristide's character is that along with his hunger for wealth and love of speculation there is a compulsion to scheme and cheat so that his swindles become ever more elaborate and unlikely to succeed. Initially all goes well for Aristide, the money pours in and it truly seems he has the golden touch but slowly he over reaches himself with increasingly expensive projects all based on credit and the threat of disaster constantly nipping at his heals.

For Renee a different sort of disaster beckons, encouraged by her husband to spend lavishly whilst he plunders her property she really has very little to do beyond being a wealthy mans accessory. A combination of boredom and curiosity drive her into an affair with her slightly younger stepson, an effeminate and depraved young man. By the laws of the day this is most definitely incest, to match the decadent and rotten flavour of the whole novel much of their affair is carried out on a bearskin rug in the fetid atmosphere of a hothouse. When Aristide eventually learns of the affair he shrugs it off, to him it's simply further leverage to hold over Renee and Maxime (his son).

Zola's disgust for the excesses of the empire are inescapable, everything is corrupted (if you could smell this book it would have the scent of a rotten peach) in the quest for money and sensation. Renee and Aristide live in almost unimaginable luxury - though  Zola gives us a faithful inventory of it - but none of it is based on any real foundation of wealth. Aristide is a spider at the centre of a web but  however monstrous the portrait he remains recognisable. Renee's moments if self awareness damn her more than all her transgressions do - all the more unforgivable because they seem to bring so little pleasure, and if Maxime is a true child of the empire - well no wonder it's doomed.

The clean moonlight world that Silvere and Miette marched off into in support of the Republic is utterly foreign to this vision of Paris where nature has been tamed into parks, (though there are echoes of the rankly overgrown Plassans graveyard in Renee's hothouse). There's also a lot that sounds familiar - it would be easy to find parallels with today's London for example, but I guess that's the nature of a classic; it captures and preserves some fundamental truth about human nature in such a way that it simply does not stale.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Cake and a Life Changing Revelation...

Last weekend my mother persuaded me to go along to a Shotgun and Chelsea bun club day - it's designed to introduce women to the joys of shooting - in this case clays - and confirm the joy of cake. If you are a woman and fancy having a go with a shotgun in a friendly environment with plenty of room for total beginners it's a very good way to do it. Post shooting everyone convenes for tea (or coffee) and cake which is possibly the most competitive part of the day. I threw together some brownies at the last moment which went down well but didn't win the cake prize (that went to a gin infused fairy cake with a boozy elderflower and lime icing - how could it fail!) clearly I need to up my game.

With this in mind I went home and pulled baking books off the shelf for a good browse and some inspiration. My current favourite is Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking', I've liked all her books so far but 'Seasonal Baking' is easily the best in my opinion, I also like Fiona herself who I've occasionally accosted in Waitrose (she's local) where she's been unfailingly polite. I've not been baking as much as I'd like recently, there just haven't been reasons or excuses too and one person can't decently live on cake alone which is basically what happens if there's nobody on hand to share with. Today though I had two excuses; a friend coming for lunch (I baked a cake I knew she wouldn't touch though so that doesn't really count) and I'm off up to my dad's next week for a while so I have ingredients which want using up before I go.

In the end the cake that best fitted what I had on hand (and which happens to be the kind of cake I love even of my sultana and raisin hating friend does not) was the earl grey, cardamom, and orange loaf - and this is where the life changing bit comes in. All my adult life I've thought of myself as someone who does not like earl grey tea. Turns out I was wrong. After bravely trying a left over cup I'm now forced to re-evaluate myself, I am not the same woman who got out of bed this morning, bergamot is no longer my enemy and I feel immeasurably more middle class.

So good things about this recipe - it let me break out the earl grey someone gave me and finally discover I like it, I got to use the ground cardamom I found in the international supermarket down the road (which is infinitely preferable to me than having to pod and grind it to an acceptable consistency and makes many of the Scandilicious recipes far more appealing), it's a fruit cake which is just a good thing however I look at it, and no sickly icing. There are no bad things. It's definitely a summer fruit cake - good and light with lots of juicy fruit rather than dense, damp, and wintery (I like both sorts) and is just as good with a cup of tea on a summer's afternoon as the recipe suggests.

Take 150g of unsalted butter, 180g of light muscovado sugar, 260g of mixed dried fruit, and 100ml of freshly brewed earl grey (or other tea) place in a small saucepan and bring to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to about room temperature. Toast 60g of nuts (recipe says pecan, I had hazelnuts that needed using so used them) for about 5 mins or until done. De seed 15-20 cardamom pods, grind in a mortar and pestle until fine and then sieve to remove any bits of husk (or buy a pre ground pack and never be put off by the faff again - I figured about a 1/4 teaspoon was about right). Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line a loaf tin. Measure out 200g of self raising flour, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and provide yourself with the finely grated zest and juice of an orange and lemon. Stir into the cooled tea and fruit mix then finally add 1 lightly beaten egg and the nuts. Mix until just combined then cook for 50-55 mins or until a skewer comes out clean.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Byssus - Jen Hadfield

Back in my student days, so basically pre amazon, I worked in one of those discount bookshops which specialised in publishers over runs and slightly damaged books. With the exception of The Works which was never really the same kind of thing those shops don't seem to exist anymore which is a shame. The shop I worked in had what I now realise was a really impressive poetry section - hundreds of slim volumes that inevitably got in a hopeless mess, so one day I decided I was going to sort them out. It took hours but eventually everything was alphabetised and perfect. Perfect that is until the next day, putting new stock away we realised that somebody had come in and reorganised the whole lot according to some system that clearly had a logic but one that baffled us. I was not pleased.

Years down the line I have some sympathy for that mystery book fiddler, it seems more likely that what they did came from a passion for poetry rather than a desire to annoy booksellers (it could have been both) which is somehow encouraging. At school I dutifully studied the Romantics (well suited to my 17 year old self) and at university I read quite a lot of Victorian poetry for background to the Victorian art I was studying. I have a slight acquaintance with some 20th century poets, and in theory I'm aware of how big a part of popular culture poets and their work have been - but it's somehow hard to realise that it's something that people make a living out of - that it's their actual profession (this is coming from an avid radio 4 listener).

I'm attracted to poetry for the same reason I love short stories and novellas, there's something positively intoxicating about an idea or an image distilled down into a handful of lines and a good poem (a good short poem) is the ultimate expression of that. I was attracted to Jen Hadfield's work when I heard she lived in Shetland and that 'Byssus' deals first and foremost with what it takes to find and forge a home (there was a radio 4 programme about her a couple of months ago which I thought was particularly good on dialect).

I've been carrying 'Byssus' around with me for weeks now, reading and rereading bits in both concentrated bursts and odd moments which has made it a companion read for the last 3 Peirene books I've read. All of them have demanded real effort from me as a reader (there have been corresponding rewards) but with 'Byssus' it has at least been possible to read things over and over again and find new things every time. Honestly I feel like I want someone to teach me this book, I want to be in a classroom arguing over what it might mean, and what it does mean to each person there. As it is - just me and the book - I find myself delighting over particular images and quietly in awe of how certain poems have been put together. The use of dialect words (there is a glossary at the back) anchors the collection to a specific place and they're just frequent enough to occasionally trip the reader up, but not so much as to seriously get in the way. In my case it meant enjoying the sound and feel of an unfamiliar of half forgotten word and then going back to properly test it and consider it's place in the poem. The arrangement of the words on the page does the same thing - forcing me to spend proper time on piecing out how they fit together.

In the end the only insight I feel I have to share is that reading this, and I'm still reading it, has been essentially rewarding - exciting even, but I'm stuck when it comes to writing about reading it. If I ever sort them out more thought may follow. Byssus, by the way, turns out to be the fibrous stuff that mussels use to anchor themselves to their surroundings.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Blue Room - Hanne Orstavik

Translated by Deborah Dawkin.

Thanks to Leicester book festival we got to hear Meike Ziervogel talk about Peirene Press and her own writing on Thursday night, she was absolutely inspiring and I came away with a lot to consider both in terms of how I think about translated fiction and my own family history. Basically it was a great night and if you get the chance to hear this woman speak don't pass it up.

I read the press release for 'The Blue Room' which argues that it comes from the same place in the female psyche as 'Fifty Shades of Grey' so decided some homework was in order. I've not read Fifty Shades beyond a few pages which made me feel like I'd really rather not but I know it was born out of fan fiction, so I went looking for fan fiction. It's a weird world out there but at least it's free, you can find short stuff, and you can cover a fairly wide range if fantasies quite quickly. Nothing I found was well written which is interesting in terms of the whole self publishing market, but that's a debate for another time. I'm guessing a lot of what I read was written by girls in their late teens or early twenties and a desire to be submissive certainly seems to be popular.

Hanne Orstavik's book is a world away from what I found online though - for a start it's extremely well written and crucially it isn't playing out a fantasy. The bare bones of the plot are this; Johanne, a student in her early twenties wakes up on the day she's planned to leave for America with her boyfriend to find herself trapped in her room. We spend the day in Johanne's mind whilst she reflects on the events which have lead up to this day. Johanne lives with her mother in a tiny Oslo flat, she has a room, the blue room if the title, but her mother sleeps behind a curtain in the sitting room. Their domestic life seems to have no boundaries - as evidenced by several conversations whilst one or other of them uses the toilet. That lack of physical boundaries carries through into every aspect of their relationship - or so it would seem from Johanne's narration.

Strictly speaking she's not a reliable narrator, but as we spend the duration of the novel in her head she's not precisely unreliable either; if she's telling lies she's telling them to herself. Initially the suspicion has to be that this mother daughter relationship is abusive, the devoutly Christian Johanne is given to breaking into disturbingly graphic fantasies of rape and violence which the reader feels have to come from somewhere. We're also left to wonder what has happened to her father and brother, the brother is apparently studying in America but there is no mention of what happened to the father at all. Towards the end of the book though early certainties fall apart.

Johanne says she's chosen to stay with her mother to save money, she has a future all mapped out, university followed by practice as a psychiatrist in an office to be built on her grandmothers land in space she still intends to share with her mother. It's easy to assume that the mother won't let go of the daughter but how much does the daughter want independence, and for that matter does her mother unambiguously want her there? Johanne's carefully laid plans experience a convulsion when she meets Ivar and starts a sexual relationship with him (or at least I assume she does and that this isn't more fantasy). Almost immediately he suggests they go to America together for 6 weeks, the day she's locked into her room is only two weeks into the relationship and later it seems that Johanne hadn't told Ivar that she intended to meet him on the way to the airport.

It's a slippery book, Johanne isn't the easiest character to warm to, and in the end you have to question her view point. Her mother is portrayed as steadily more sinister, her clothing becomes more provocative and we're encouraged to think she's having an affair with a married man, but maybe this too is one of Johanne's fantasies. Arguably it's quite responsible of a mother to try and prevent her daughter leaving the country mid term with a man she's only known for two weeks, but it's equally likely that Johanne had no intention of leaving - that what she's actually doing is manipulating her mother into keeping her close.

At heart popular rape and submission fantasies are a repudiation of responsibility; a desire to have your cake and eat it. When E. M. Hull wrote 'The Sheik' in 1919 rape meant her heroine could have exotic sex outside of marriage without being judged for it, I'm inclined to wonder if the continued popularity of rape fantasies, or fantasies about submissive sexual roles give tacit permission not to enjoy sex.  Either way there seems to be a reluctance to take responsibility either for pleasure or the lack of it when all you're doing is what you're told. Orstavik takes that to another level, Johanne's submission forces someone else to make her decisions for her, in this case it's her mother whose prepared to do that in a cycle that traps them both.

This is quite a dark book but it's undoubtedly one of my favourite Peirene titles, it genuinely does hold up a mirror to a part of the female psyche it's not always pleasant to explore honestly. I'm not sure I agree with Meike when she says it analyses the struggle if women to seperate from their mothers though, I read it more as the struggle some daughters make not to be separated.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Year at Otter Farm - Mark Diacono

The best thing about amazon, the thing I'd really miss, and the one thing which has probably done everyone in the book trade a favour (or at least no harm) is the advance notice of upcoming books. I spend a fair amount of time looking for new titles - especially from favourite food writers - and then quietly looking forward to publication with an ever growing sense of anticipation. That was most certainly the case with 'A Year At Otter Farm', I've been a fan of Diacono's writing ever since the River Cottage Veg handbook came out in 2009 (I can't praise that series enough) and also really liked 'A Taste of the Unexpected'  in 2010 which covered more of the unusual things that Diacono grows at Otter farm and what to do with them once you have them.

Part of the anticipation attached to 'A Year at Otter Farm' was to see what would be new about it, or at least how it would expand on the excellent books Diacono has already written - the rest of the anticipation was all about the simple pleasure of looking forward to a book by an author whose writing I enjoy. I haven't been disappointed in either score.

First things first - it's a lovely book to look at; the pictures are glorious, they don't cover every recipe but they do show livestock and plants in a way that really sells the pleasures of small holding. I'm particularly taken with some winsome looking sheep (not at all how my dad's looked, his always had a fairly disdainful come-on-then-if -you-think-your-hard-enough thing going on - quite often from half way down some ridiculous cliff from where they required rescue) and there's a particularly beady eyed cockerel who's a thing of beauty as well. Apart from looking good having pictures of the live animal is a useful reminder that meat does in fact start out as a living animal and if you're going to eat it you should want it to have had a decent life first. (Not that the core market for this book will need that reminder.)

The substance of the book is part memoir, part manifesto, part growing guide, and part cookbook all arranged by season. Something I really like about the styling here is that the recipe pages have coloured borders so they're easy to flip to - details like that always make me happy. I've looked at the recipes, bookmarked a few for use (particularly later in the year), and am really pleased to find quite a few cocktails and alcoholic infusions included. Having (responsible) fun with drinks is basically how I make my living and something I'm always happy to read about. Over all though it's the manifesto/memoir part of the book that's really sucked me in and that I've spent most time with.

I don't have a garden of my own anymore though I do have the use of one at weekends. Not being in it much has limited my planting ambitions, and seriously limited my ability to make use of what's been grown but it's better than nothing. Meanwhile I have a daydream where I win the lottery (or similar) and buy one of those huge Victorian walled gardens - ideally one with a gardeners house built into one wall - and plant it full of amazing things. A book like this absolutely feeds that fantasy, not least by adding hitherto undreamed of possibilities into the mix. Most intriguing to me is the concept of a forest garden, quickly followed by the perennial garden. The forest garden apparently mimics woodland, mainly using perennials which starts at a subterranean level carrying on up through ground cover, shrubs, and trees all linked together by climbers and planted to maximise mutual benefit. It sounds like a beautifully low input system. The perennial garden basically takes that concept and downsizes it to allotment or garden size losing the tree canopy. I'm not in a position to nurture a veg patch but I could (and to some extent do) have a garden which concentrates on things which are useful as well as beautiful. Smallholding isn't easy but the possibility of having some small part of the dream - well that's attractive.

What I really love about this book is how unbelievably easy it is to lose hours at a time in it; it's a page turner - which isn't necessarily what you expect from a cookbook - but then it's so much more than that. I find it thoroughly exciting that people are out there doing new and interesting things on the small holding/crofting/farming front; that it isn't all big business supplying supermarkets at terrifyingly low margins. We take cheap, industrially produced food for granted but I don't believe it's sustainable - or particularly desirable. There's to much waste and not enough understanding of how food arrives on the plate, not enough variety and not enough consideration for the wider environment, to many air miles and to much plastic packaging. (Can you tell this is a bit of a hobby horse for me.) Any book that makes people think about that a little bit more, which I feel this one does, and which provides inspiration and instruction for growing and cooking has to be a good thing, that it's also entertaining and engaging is a massive bonus.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Traditional Food in Yorkshire - Peter Brears

This has not been a great week work wise - due to some oversights far above the shop floor my own particular challenge is to find a home for 5 tonnes of wine before more turns up. More is always turning up, a lot more is turning up over the next few days. I have 7 cardboard inflicted cuts on my hands all in places guaranteed not to heal well and to sting like mad every time I wash my hands. Boxes of wine are dirty, I wash my hands a lot. There are also the cuts from where various bits of metal have attempted(with a  fair degree of success) to take their pound of flesh. Everything hurts, it's been hot, and frankly I'm grumpy.

Limping towards my flat tonight my eye was caught by what looked like a parcel in the doorway (hard to tell from a distance as the automatic light is currently promoting a mysterious atmosphere by only turning on after I've fumbled in the gloom with my keys and actually got into my flat) it was a parcel. A totally unexpected parcel from Prospect books and it contained a copy of Peter Brears 'Traditional Food in Yorkshire' it made my day. The aches and pains remain but the grumpiness has largely gone because a) I have a new book which always cheers me up, and b) I fell in love with Brears' 'Cooking and Dining in Medieval England' - which was a little bit unexpected.

'Traditional Food In Yorkshire' is about far more than just food, it's the life and food of the working people of Yorkshire between roughly 1800 and 1920 - a time of significant change in working patterns and life style. The chapters break down into farmworkers from different areas, the fisherfolk of the Northwest coast, West Riding coal miners, spinners and weavers, and workers in towns. There are chapters on the normal foody things arranged by ingredients and also for traditional feasts, celebrations, and general high days and holidays. The whole is illustrated by Brears; it looks like every aspect of working class life is covered in beautifully constructed cross sections of buildings and then there are the details of kitchen equipment - they're wonderful.

I've only browsed through this book so far (I've not been home that long) but it's something I'm so excited by that I couldn't wait to share it. Also the recipe for Surprise Potatoes sounds brilliant.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Au Reservoir - Guy Fraser-Sampson

One of the perks of blogging is that the longer you do it the more likely you are to be offered books to review. Sometimes they do not (to be kind) sound like the sort of book I would ever want to read (but it's still nice to be asked) sometimes they are books I've been getting quietly excited about and I feel like it's my birthday, and sometimes they're books that I'm a little bit on the fence about.  'Au Reservoir' falls into that last category - but there is always the chance that these are books which will turn out to be particularly rewarding, and they're hard to say no to for just that reason. Also I don't have much practice at saying no to books - it doesn't come naturally.

The dilemma with this book is that I like Guy Fraser-Sampson, I really like his publicity lady (she's charming) and I love Mapp and Lucia but I have a deep and abiding prejudice against books which re-hash other authors creations - or at least the creations that I already know and love. It's quite a bit of baggage to bring to a book that I finally picked up because I wanted something light that I could read quickly as an antidote to a really hellish work week (it was only Wednesday, that's how bad a week it's shaping up into). 

Guy Fraser-Sampson has written 3 (I think it's 3) sequels to Benson's originals and I guess they also take in the Tom Holt titles which I read back in the '80's and can now hardly remember 'Au Reservoir' is the last of his 3, and without giving to much away (there is the clue of the title) likely to be his final word on the matter. It is some time after the war, rationing is still in place but otherwise it all seems a bit of a distant memory - nevertheless the Tilling residents are aging, Lucia is even considering admitting to being 40 after at least 2 decades of firmly remaining in her 30's and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint is determined to have one last tilt at her enemy.

First of all the negative impressions. There are a lot of explanations of things that have happened in previous books - Benson may also have done this, I can't quite remember, but it's a pet hate for me. I'm assuming that the major market for this book will be Benson fans (and Guy Fraser-Sampson fans) followed by people who like the look of it and then may go onto explore Benson. In my opinion none of them/us need so many explanations, personally I find them a distraction. Second up is the reason I've yet to find a book like this that I really love - my reading of the characters isn't quite the same as Guy's so the direction he takes them in doesn't always ring true for me (particularly in the case of Georgie Pillson) though as this is the last in a sequence I haven't read this is maybe a little unfair as I haven't followed the journey all the way through. Finally the charm for me in the original books was the relatively small scale of goings on - deadly war waged over a recipe or the revamping of an old dress, the scale of this book is rather more lavish involving Noel Coward, John Gielgud, a priceless roman coin, and Georgie being taken seriously by the artistic establishment thanks to the revamping of the royal opera house - I think I wanted less.

On the plus side Guy is very good on wine (and drink generally, I bet he mixes a truly good martini) it's a small detail but it's a real pleasure for me to see someone get it so right, he's also interesting on money (which I believe is his day job) how Lucia handles hers is ingenious. The book is an undoubted page turner and I absolutely understand why plenty of Benson fans have enjoyed it very much indeed. For myself I'm glad I said yes to a copy, reading it felt like time well enough spent and it certainly improved my mood enough to lower my blood pressure sufficiently to get through a series of doctors appointments today (on Tuesday I suspect I would have been in trouble) and for that alone I owe a considerable debt of thanks.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mr Darwin's Gardener - Kristina Carlson

Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.

I spent most of last week working my way through two very short books and realising it's a long time since I've found myself reading anything so challenging. The other book is Jen Hadfield's latest collection of poems - 'Byssus'. I'm in the habit of reading books I find enjoyable, interesting, informative, sometimes provocative - but rarely ones that make me work this hard, but then Peirene books excel at making me work hard. The only downside is that most of my reading time is on the bus and during breaks at work where it's all to easy to get distracted. Ideally I would have read 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' somewhere quieter - it deserves the readers full attention.

Reading it alongside 'Byssus' was fortuitous though, both encourage a search for images and meaning, and both have their own ways of keeping the reader in line. In 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' it's the fractured narrative - it had me going back time and again to try and remember who was speaking and who they were. This is a whole village of voices and sometimes it feels like they're all speaking at once, each giving a little bit of insight into an interior life and all coming together in layers which are hard to untangle. Part of it is the business of living with others, along with all the attendant births, marriages, deaths and small scandals that make up community life but there's also the question of what to put your faith in.

Mr Darwin and his theories of evolution are a shadow over the village, we never meet him directly but he's there in the background as the villagers define what they put their faith in - god or science, though in the end you have to question if it really matters so very much. Regardless of belief when advent (or any celebration) comes:
 "There is hardly a moment to draw breath and one has to sweep snow off the steps, heat the house, do the laundry, starch, iron, darn, sweep, wax, polish dust, air, boil, crush, whisk, knead, roll, roast, ice, sew, go out for sugar, salt, flour, currants, cinnamon, almonds, soda, buttons, ribbons, candles; run to the shop and back, to the neighbour's, the church, the chicken coop, the shed, and back into the kitchen before a burning smell comes from the oven."
Put your faith into whatever you feel you must, one way or another life will carry on much the same.