Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Cakes

It's the winter solstice today which I guess is the true midwinter - theoretically spring is on it's way from tomorrow, though it hardly feels like that. The last couple of months have been such a blur of  work that it's hard to realise that Christmas is almost here. When I first started working in retail Christmas was exciting, even more so when I got my first wine job (it was 1999 and everybody was going to celebrate in style). That basically wore off  some years back and I'm increasingly ambivalent about the whole thing now. The rhythm of work horribly seems out of sync with the rhythm of the year, as I get older that's harder to cope with.

What I feel I should be doing is slowing down and taking time to appreciate friends and family, sharing the good things, and banishing the dark with light and colour - or embracing it with well fed and contented laziness. What I'm actually doing is bracing myself for the 3 busiest days of the shopping year, counting down the hours until I go home on Christmas Eve and reminding myself that I will survive it without ever once explaining to any of our more challenging customers that good manners cost nothing. Or at least nothing more than an extreme effort of will and years of practice/restraint.

Meanwhile I've baked and preserved my way to a more than usually home made Christmas and that at least has been deeply satisfying. Starting with jams and jellies in September, mincemeat in October, chutney cakes and puddings in November, and finally biscuits fudge and oranges in December I've watched the season turn. Making cakes and puddings has probably been the most pleasurable part of the process because I love what they represent. They feel both ancient and exotic; filled with spices which were once more expensive than gold and still need to come from across the world. I made my first proper fruit cake a mere 4 years ago but have truly embraced the tradition to the point that I'm getting evangelical about them.

I've given 3 away this year, each (more or less grateful) recipient has commented on how large they are (I do feel for the person who had to carry one a good distance home) but I think a Christmas cake should be big. Big enough to keep you going until the days are properly lengthening again, big enough to share liberally, and definitely big enough to make their presence felt on the table.

My favourite cakes this year are the 2 I painted owls on. Painting cakes turns out to be more fun than I expected, the icing goes very sticky so best suits something quite sketchy - which best suits my limited painting abilities but I think the results are effective. Once you've decided what to paint and had a bit of a practice on paper the whole process is fairly quick, and best of all mistakes can be sponged off quite easily.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The confessional cookbook post


As any regular reader will know I have a weakness for cookbooks and for my particular set of foody preferences this has been a particularly strong years I've acquired quite a few in the last 12 months (there are 19 in this picture, I'm not entirely confident that this is all of them but it's close enough, though it's likely a few more will sneak in over Christmas).

I've not written about all of these, or even had a good play with all of them yet but I will. Some are also very new - I found the 'Game' one in The Works today (bargain) and 3 of them  came from my Derbyshire haul a couple of weeks ago. Some are presents, some review copies, some bought in a moment of amazon weakness (though as they've mislaid a birthday gift of a particularly good sounding Belgian cookbook they're in disgrace with me at the moment). Some have been long anticipated, others were impulse purchases, all of them delight me.

I'm fussy about cookbooks (honestly), even impulse purchases. They feel as personal to me as perfume or cloths (neither of which I really trust other people to choose for me) probably because my kitchen is my haven; cooking gives me a deep sense of contentment.

It doesn't really seem right to pick favourites, all these books are great and though I've used a few of them a lot and others not at all that doesn't mean much over the short term. However it's the end of the year so some sort of list is almost mandatory...

Diana Henry's 'A Change of Appetite' is great, I've used it a lot, she is easily my favourite food writer these days - all her books are brilliant, that this one concentrates on healthy options is a total bonus.

I like 'Persiana' for it's focus on flavour. It's become my go to book when I want something simple but impressive. I also like the way that some of the recipes can be thrown together quickly and then left to marinate through the day before being cooked when you need them - perfect for mid week food with friends. It's very accommodating food.

Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Baking' is just a delight. It was also the final straw needed to make me bake sourdough bread - for which I'm exceptionally grateful. Full of nice things which are new enough to me to be exciting without being overly exotic. I can see this getting a lot of use.

'Marmalade' by Sarah Randell feeds my marmalade obsession and is just a pleasure in every way. Entertaining to read, attractive to look at, nice to handle, and full of good ideas.

Skye Gyngell's 'My Favourite Ingredients' has been out for years but I only bought it a couple of weeks ago. I like the focus on ingredients and I like the way she cooks. Her grouse in Barolo on toast was my birthday lunch - very good it was too - and again I can see a few things in here becoming regular favourites. It maybe helps that I picked it up for under a fiver in a bargain bookshop.

A Year At Otter Farm is on the list too for all round inspiration - growing as well as cooking, I haven't used it as much or as recently as the others, but I have big gardening plans for next year. It really is a brilliant book for so many reasons, not the least of which being that it's a particularly good read.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Marmalade - Sarah Randell

Today is my birthday, in a minute the writing if this post will be interrupted by (amongst other things - I can smell sausages) toast and marmalade along with a glass of champagne (or two, the interruption might be a lengthy one). After a certain age birthdays, like marmalade, are a bitter sweet event but at least one thing that getting older has bought me is an appreciation of marmalade and that's something I can wholeheartedly celebrate.

We're programmed to like sweet things so marmalade can be a challenging flavour for a child, it was sometime in my thirties before I found myself wandering around Sainsbury's thinking 'if only you could get some sort of tart orange jam...' But since then I've never looked back.

Once I'd realised it would probably be a good thing it seemed obvious to make my own (because I like doing that sort of thing) and having got into the habit of making my own nothing else will do. As a child life seemed full of ritual and tradition, not least because I grew up in a crofting community where the year was dominated by weather and sheep. As an adult living in a city and without children it turns out that ritual and tradition aren't the natural things I assumed they were. If you want them you have to put some effort into maintaining them.

Most of my rituals are food based, the appearance of Seville oranges in all there slightly mis-shapen glory towards the end of January are a promise that spring is around the corner. Whilst waiting for it there's the prospect of a day spent in a warm steamy kitchen boiling, chopping and boiling some more until a decent set is achieved and your marmalade is potted. It's a deeply satisfying process when it all turns out right.

However... I cleared out my cupboards earlier this year and found more than 30 jars of marmalade, some of an indeterminate vintage. Even having given a lot of it away I still have more than enough for the next years toast. As I like my late winter tradition the only answer is to find more things to do with it and that's what lies behind my principle interest in this book.

As well as recipes for a variety of different marmalades (blood orange and vanilla sounds intriguing though I worry it might be a bit sweeter than I care for, the lemon and gin marmalade is clearly a must make) there are plenty of recipes for things to make with marmalade; a thing I'm always on the look out for.

So far all I've actually made are some very nice chocolate apricot and marmalade muffins (the recipe is on the generous size, next time I'll need bigger muffin cases) but there are plenty of good things in here including cocktails. There are sections for breakfast and brunch, lunch and supper, puddings and tea time and it is an altogether very attractive proposition. There is also good advice on making marmalade, a collection of recipes and suggested variations on the basics including some (to me) fairly adventurous sounding combinations (orange cranberry and kumquat - which I love the sound of, and quince which I'll have a go at next year) and a bit about the history of the stuff.

The basic kit necessary for preserving is small, the only thing you might not automatically have around is a sugar thermometer and some muslin (for tying pips up in) and a small collection of jars. All of them are cheap to acquire. I finally bought myself a proper preserving pan this year (it's wonderful) but even that came in at under £30.

I'm delighted with this book, it's everything I hoped it would be when I first started eyeing it up months ago when it popped up on an amazon recommendation. It would naturally make a very good present for any cooks/marmalade lovers and is both a perfect introduction to the seductive arts of marmalade making and inspiration to the more practiced disciple. Basically it's a winner.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What I've been doing instead of reading

Mid December and really it's all about baking when I'm not at work. The baking binge is 1 part for presents, 2 parts stress management - on the whole it demands less concentration then a book so I'm less inclined to be distracted and it's a nice thing to do. My flat smells amazing.

My Christmas branch has gingerbread on it which I like both because it smells great when I through the door and because I can throw them away when the time comes without any guilt. I miss having a real tree but now they all appear to be around £40 it seems like a waste of money when I'm hardly home to see it. Trees are very much for sharing. Branches on the other hand are reasonably festive, considerably cheaper than a decent scented candle, and makes me feel like I'm not a completely miserable old bag. The glass decorations can sit safely tucked away in their boxes for another year.

The Christmas cakes are all iced now and just await a final decorative effort, plenty of mince pies have been consumed already (homemade mincemeat is a success, and far less inclined to bubble out of the pie welding both itself and the pastry to the pie tin than shop bought.)

I stuffed some hydrangeas into a bit of oasis to make a hydrangea ball, which if not festive is certainly decorative, my Christmas puddings are looking promising, so all that remains to do is make fudge, dip oranges in chocolate, eat a lot more mince pies and survive the next couple if weeks...

Monday, December 8, 2014

Ten books I haven't read this year...

I've been up in Derbyshire for the weekend where amongst other treats we visited the countries highest bookshop. It's a gem - a discount outlet place of the sort that is sadly harder to find these days. Every time I've been I've found a bagful of bargains, this visit was no exception. I also realised when I got home that last years purchases are still neatly piled up and as yet unread.

Like most of us (I assume, forgive me if I'm wrong) I have easily as many unread books as read ones so this is a list of the ten I'm cross with myself for not having got to in the last twelve months. (They deserve a bit of love for waiting so patiently.)

'The Penguin Book of Witches' is a review copy that I really wanted to read for Halloween but it arrived at exactly the same time as a huge wine promotion at work and then the moment had passed. I'll take it away with me at new year but meanwhile just look at it! It's basically an American book with an emphasis on the Salem witch trials (court documents and so on) written by a descendent of three of the accused women. It promises to be fascinating.

Marina Warner's 'Once Upon A Time' is also a review copy and something I'm very excited by. A short history of fairy tale is right up my street, I should have read it when I first got it, but didn't. I have a feeling it'll set me off on something of a journey so it's another one for the new year.

I bought 'Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst' back in the spring. I'm a fan of Vita, Sarah Raven, and Sissinghurst so am thoroughly ashamed not to have tackled this one yet. I'm not sure when I'll get round to it but it's sumptuous and has present for a gardener written all over it. If I were a more generous person I'd give it to a dear friend who would very much appreciate it this Christmas. I'm not. I'm keeping it.

I started reading Ronald Firbank's 'Vainglory' last December and utterly failed to finish it. I'm going to admit defeat with this one, the moment has passed. It came from a very nice man who reprints books he feels have been unjustly neglected. I have some later Firbank (unread) so thought that this, his first book, would be interesting. It's full of very clever one liners but not much plot. It is interesting, and when I get round to reading his more mature work I might well want to re-approach this book but for now it's finding a place on the shelf rather than by my bed.

'The Bloomsbury Cookbook' was another purchase from quite early in the year. It is intended to be my way into a greater appreciation of the Bloomsbury group, and from the occasional dip into it it's going to be really interesting. It has food, art, history, and gossip. All things I'm fond of but Bloomsbury has never really done it for me which has possibly stopped me from really getting stuck in. I'll make the effort soon.

R. F. Foster's 'Vivid Faces' is a book I've hoping someone would write for a while. I have Irish family and back in the days before a mortgage used to hop over to Dublin reasonably every so often (you could buy Pol Roger rose champagne in Dublin airport at a price that pretty much paid for the flight). Walk around Dublin and you can't help but be aware of the events that led up to independence but when I looked for a suitable historical overview I couldn't find anything. Vivid Faces promises to be the book I've been looking for. It surveys the lives and beliefs of the people who made the revolution and will, I hope, be illuminating. More shame for not yet having read it.

Belinda Jack's 'The Woman Reader' was an enthusiastic amazon buy. It says it's a complete history of women's reading and the controversies it caused from prehistoric caves to today. In my case, one day...

I was asked if I'd like a review copy if George Mackay Brown's 'Greenvoe' and when I realised I'd lost the copy I liberated from the school library in 1989 I said yes. I love his short stories which beautifully capture a time and place but haven't yet managed to read a whole novel despite one or two attempts. It's not good enough so I will read this (especially as I promised I would when I said yes to the book). Reading the back blurb it sounds more appealing than it did back in '89, I'll let you know.

The very title of this book mocks me... 'Belated' by Elizabeth Russell Taylor. It's another review copy and more importantly a collection of short stories with glowing reviews. I read one on holiday in the summer - it was great, but again I got distracted. I may even start again this week.

I really enjoyed Grayson Perry's Reith lectures last year, this is basically them in book form. I meant to read it the day I bought it. But didn't. This was lazy of me and will be put right soon. Probably...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Top Ten Books of the Last Twelve Months.

It's that time of year again... I've been savaged by cardboard boxes (fast aproaching death by a thousand paper cuts), overwhelmed by a tsunami of wine, and seem to have directed every second person I speak to towards the mulled wine. The only things missing to make it truly begin to feel a lot like Christmas are increasingly fraught conversations about an item we categorically do not stock/does not exist/the customer can only identify as being 'a wine with a whitish label, I think...' (It rarely ends well) and end of year lists.

December is a bit of a lost month for me (I assume this is common) between work, birthdays, Christmas related chores (enjoyable or dutiful) it disappears, so although my top ten list runs from November to November it didn't look like I did any meaningful reading last December at all. This one is shaping up to be the same.

I haven't read as much this year as I would have liked but there have been some amazing books. My long list had quite a few cookbooks on it which I've regretfully knocked off in favour of (mostly) fiction. If I get organised they'll get a post of their own. There might also be a post of the 10 books I wish I'd got round to by now (there time is coming).

First on a list which is basically chronological are L M Montgomery's Emily books. A bit of a cheat as there are 3 of them, but I'm sure they must have been published in a single volume some time and they're more than the sum of their parts. 'Emily of New Moon', 'Emily Climbs', and 'Emily's Quest' gave me a whole new view of a beloved childhood author. I'm sorry I didn't meet Emily as a child, she would have been a great role model, but I'm delighted Virago have reprinted these so they're easily available for a UK audience. It's Emily's uncompromising ambition for her chosen career along with Montgomery's love of Prince Edward Island, and her sense of humour that make these books so special.

Next is 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives' a collection of short stories edited by Sarah Weinman. Lots of authors I already loved in here along with more to look out for. Just a brilliant collection of suspense filled stories that I can't recommend highly enough.

Emile Zolas 'The Fortune of the Rougons' was a bit of a revelation. After 20 years skirting round him this turned out to be a brilliant read. I like books that give me really strong visual images and even now, months later, I can picture scenes in the old graveyard, or of moonlight marches as if they were places and things is seen. I plan to work through the whole cycle, realising how much I'm going to enjoy doing it was definitely a highlight of my reading year.

Eliza Granville's 'Gretel and the Dark' was an unexpected Joy.I read it because I was interested to see how the fairy tale element would work. Far better than I could have hoped for was the answer. Granville taps into something fundamental about the nature of fairy tales and story telling and creates something wonderfully dark in the process.

Stefan Zweig's 'Beware of pity' is the sort of book I feel I ought to read but rarely do. Once I'd settled down to it I felt like whole reading avenues were opening up for me. Of all the things to say about the most important is that it was utterly absorbing from start to finish.

Peirene books are always interesting and generally provocative. I was tempted to choose Hanne Orstavik's 'The Blue Room' (which is brilliant) but on balance Hamid Ismailov's 'The Dead Lake' had the edge. The environmental cost of the Cold War seems almost forgotten now but this book perfectly captures the paranoia I felt growing up in the 80's as well as the weird elements of places on the periphery of human habitation.

'Mystery in White' is the Christmas offering from the British Library's classic crime series and it's brilliant. Undoubtedly the perfect stocking filler for anyone who's as much as mildly enjoyed an episode of Miss Marple. The biggest mystery based on this is how Farejeon's work ever disappeared so completely.

'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' would have been a very easy book not to read (the title gave me an entirely inaccurate idea of what to expect). Anything with a mythic or fairy take element hooks me in, this has it in spades. It's also a book with a strong sense of terroir (to borrow a wine term) and I loved that about it too.

Helen Macdonald's 'H is for Hawk' is every bit as good as everybody says it is. I love it for the way it does, or is, a number of different things and works as all of them. If I had to pick a specific strand it would be how Macdonald tackles her reaction to her fathers death. Crippling grief followed by depression - it can't be unusual but I'm not particularly aware of people talking about it in the way Macdonald does. She shares enough to be helpful, but is not I think overly confessional, but in the end that's only part of a rich tapestry of a book which I look forward to reading many more times.

Last on my list is John Sutherland's 'How to be Well Read'. This is another one that is perfect stocking filler material for the reader in your life. I'm a big fan of Sutherland's books, it's the mix of humour and learning that I find irresistible (and maybe the list aspect too). This one didn't disappoint. I've been reading his books since I picked up a copy of 'Is Heathcliffe a Murderer?' In 1998 and keep going back to them.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas Spending

I've basically written this post before and am sure I will write it again (many times) but stuck with me - it's something I feel strongly about.

For the last 17 years I've worked in retail in everything from one shop independents with a workforce of 2 to supermarket chains with - well a lot more than 2. I remember book selling before amazon, buying wine before the supermarkets really got in on the game, and a time when Black Friday meant absolutely nothing in this country. I enjoy shopping; I like browsing and hunting for bargains, I love the moment when you finally get to buy something a little bit more than you can easily afford, and I really love choice.

My first Christmas in a shop was an eye opener, people spend so much money. Are under so much pressure to spend money to buy the perfect Christmas, and on the other side of the till we really need it. This is the make or break time of year where you hope turn over and margin will combine to provide enough profit to keep you afloat. There is nothing more dispiriting than working till you can physically do no more and realising you still haven't quite met budget.

Earlier in the year there was a minor outcry when a Sainsbury's branch inadvertently displayed a motivational poster meant for staff eyes only in a window. It set the goal of getting every customer to spend an extra 50p per shop. For a supermarket that turns into a huge amount of money, for the customer it wouldn't buy a Mars bar. At the other end of the scale working in very small outfits it only takes a few customers to make the difference between profit and loss so my point is this; as we all prepare to spend to much money on things we don't really need let's think about how and where we do it.

As customers it's no use complaining that big shops kill the independents if we're the ones abandoning the little guys. There are more important things than a bargain, for me it's choice, or when it comes to food, welfare (including that of the producer).

At this point last night when I was writing this I decided to delete it thinking that it might all come across as a bit preachy to people I assume feel much the same as I do. Then this morning radio 4 talked about cyber Monday (estimated 600,000,000 sales online), a discussion about the plight of dairy farmers continued on Facebook (high suicide rates as they fail to make ends meet) and finally a goodish news story - Waterstones say if they have a good Christmas they'll Break even for the first time in a while. It's important to think about how we spend, it determines how our high streets look, how people make a living, and the choices we want to make regarding those things.

In the end I'll still hunt for bargains because money is tight, but cost isn't the only element that determines value and I want the money I have to do as much good as it can.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Salad Anniversary - Machi Tawara

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

When this book turned up in my letter box I had no idea what to make of it - except that it was very pretty. It's a translation of an internationally acclaimed, best selling, collection of Japanese poems covering 'the discovery of new love, first heartache and the end of an affair' - which still left me at a bit if a loss, but it would have been rude not to take a look at it and once I started reading I didn't stop until it was finished.

Annoyingly I managed to throw away the press release before I read the book, I have a dim memory that it had some useful information on it. Fortunately there is a useful afterword which expands on anything that would have been in the release. The story of 'Salad Anniversary' is in itself remarkable.

It's 1987 and a young teacher (26) Machi Tawara publishes her first collection of poems in tanka form. Tanka are short poems of 31 syllables, have a tradition that goes back well over a 1000 years, but had (I'm getting all this from Juliet Winters Carpenters afterword) become stale and conventional dealing as they traditionally did in set themes and an out of date, self consciously literary language. Tawara's collection changed all that, she managed to incorporate contemporary language without sacrificing traditional tanka virtues. So much so that the afterword (written in 1989) says 2500000 copies had already been sold and a phenomenon started.

It seems incredible that a collection of poems would have this kind of impact, but it's profoundly encouraging to realise that it can happen. It works because the tone is cooly observational. We can all recognise the family relationships, progress of love affairs, and holiday emotions that Tawara shares, and that moment of recognition is immensely comforting. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Suspension of Mercy - Patricia Highsmith

I've been procrastinating over writing about this book for about a week now and I'm still not sure how I'm going to do it without spoilers (let's see how that pans out). Normally I'm not bothered by spoilers; I like knowing what's going to happen in advance and then trying to work out how as the book unfolds. In this case however I feel spoilers really would spoil.

Whilst I wrestle with that particular problem... This is the first Highsmith I've read despite meaning to have tried her for very many years. I've seen a couple of the Ripley films and enjoyed them very much, had her recommended a few times, gone as far as to buy at least one book, but it was a short story in 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives' that actually did the trick. After that seeing that Virago were reprinting her at this end of the year it was only a matter of time.

So here I am with 'A Suspension of Mercy' in hand, full of enthusiasm for it, and feeling particularly tongue tied.

Sydney and Alicia Bartleby met when Alicia was visiting New York, after a relatively short time they've married, with the qualified approval of her family, and they've moved to the UK. Thanks to the generosity of Alicia's family they've bought a house and are partly living on Alicia's private income of £50 a month (the book was written in 1965) and partly money Sydney has from a couple of published novels back in America.

Alicia paints abstracts (I imagine work which is competent rather than good) and Sydney is unsuccessfully trying to get a publisher for a 3rd novel and sell some scripts for television which he writes with his friend Alex. Their house is in the middle of nowhere and on the whole the marriage is foundering a little bit, perhaps because they spend so much time together.

A new neighbour highlights the tensions between the pair, and Sydney is weaving plot lines around murdering his wife. It's not a healthy situation, and then Alicia decides to go away for a bit, or at least that's what Sydney is telling everyone...

It's brilliant, tightly plotted, unexpected, tense, confusing (in a good way), and thoroughly satisfactory in every respect. I'm delighted I've got 2 more waiting for me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gin and Mince Pies

Now we're in the last week of November it's definitely alright to talk about festive preparations, mine continue apace. The Christmas cakes are baked, the puddings boiled, the chutney maturing - along with mincemeat, cranberry gin has been bottled, and I've started the Candied oranges. I'm really going for it with the homemade thing.

There are a lot of advantages to making presents if you like that sort if thing, the first being that if you like that sort of thing it's fun. From a financial point of view it's easy to manage over a few months, and in my circle at least not many of us actually need much. Not things that we can afford to buy each other anyway (I might be in want of a new oven soon, the washing machine is on it's last legs, and I'd quite like my bathroom ceiling replaced and the tiles done) and we all have enough general stuff. Edible gifts, or drinkable ones, on the other hand are generally useful. With all the coming and going someone's bound to eat/drink it at some point.

I will also say that after 15 years in retail I regard the festive season with a more than is healthy amount of cynicism; I'm not yet in the least bit cynical about baking so it helps redress the balance and gives me some rituals I can enjoy. That's important to me, I have neither children of my own or nieces and nephews. My partner and I have different family and work commitments to meet over Christmas so have never yet spent 1 together, and now my grandparents have gone there's no clan gathering (which, to be fair, were never much fun as my grandmother didn't really like having people in the house and my grandfather only emerged from the seclusion of his private sitting room to eat). It would be easy to ignore it all, but go that route and where's the joy?

Meanwhile I've been unsuccessfully searching for a panatonne recipe which looks like it isn't a massive faff to make, tastes the way I expect it to, and isn't for an industrial quantity and successfully making cranberry gin. I missed the damsons this year and find sloe gin a bit to medicinal so Diana Henry's suggestion of a cranberry version was timely, especially after I'd wildly over estimated how many I would need for chutney making purposes. I added some orange peel and used pine scented sugar - the sugar purely because I realised I had no idea what to do with it having made it, and it wasn't going to fight with the gin. I've bottled it after only 2 weeks as I'm happy with the flavour now, it's going to be brilliant either with soda water as a long drink or in possibly in some sort of cocktail (though the later will almost certainly mean a hellish hangover).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Unknown Ajax - Georgette Heyer

If you want to find Heyer in a bookshop chances are she'll be in romantic fiction which has never seemed particularly appropriate to me and even less so now when romantic fiction is generally somewhat more explicit than anything Heyer would have thought of writing. I've come to think of as much more an adventure stories for girls type if writer. Inspired by the Vulpes Libris Heyer week I thought I'd devote the weekend to rereading a favourite rather than struggling with how to write about a Patricia Highsmith without giving away to many spoilers.

Spoilers for a Heyer book aren't such an issue, partly because I assume that most people reading this will probably be familiar with her books already, but mostly because the joy is in the humour and detail of her work as much as it is the plot.

'The Unknown Ajax' is from reasonably late in her career when the quality can be a little bit patchy (the one thing I don't like about Heyer is when she goes over the top with contemporary slang) but this remains one of my favourites. I discovered Heyer when I was about 11 or 12 thanks to the suggestion of an excellent English teacher, devoured all her books in a mad binge over the next year or so, and reread them many times in my early teens. Over the years I've periodically turned to her for a comfortably entertaining read, and just as regularly been surprised by what I find.

My 12 year old self was more caught up in the romance - never sealed by anything more racy than a kiss, and only then at the very end - and took the rest for granted. 20 something me turned to these books in much the same frame if mind as I would an old black and white film on a Sunday afternoon. 40 year old me is delighted by the way that Heyer still stands up, though more aware of her class consciousness and ingrained snobbery.

There is a romance in 'The Unknown Ajax', it centres around the hero, Major Hugh Darracott - lately returned from the wars to find he's heir to a title, a falling down house, and all but bankrupt estates, and his cousin Anthea. None of the Darracott's can be convinced that Hugh, who they've refused to acknowledge/didn't know about isn't delighted by the prospect of joining their ranks. He for his part plans on escaping as soon as he can but finds himself increasingly taken with Anthea. She is a typical enough Heyer heroine, attractive, intelligent, capable, certainly aware of the restrictions placed on her by society and arguably slightly resentful of them, and fortunately gifted with a sense of humour. Hugh in turn is kind, honourable, trustworthy, and equally intelligent, as well as having that all important sense of humour. If nothing else an impressionable 12 year old can learn that mutual respect and shared humour are the bedrock of a good relationship. Beyond that there isn't much to say, there are some nice set piece exchanges between the pair and on Anthea's part a realisation that Hugh's presence is both comforting and disturbing in equal measure but she doesn't really figure that much in the story.

Instead what we have is a good old fashioned thriller type tale of smuggling. Anthea's brother, Richmond may be more involved than his family like to think, the family itself, held in thrall to a patriarch as autocratic as he is unreasonable are none of them very happy. The end result is an equal mix of genuine tension and farce as Hugh attempts to sort out a situation that could conceivably end with a hanging. Heyer is mistress of never quite overdoing it, everything is just feasible right down to the exciseman maintaining a strong suspicion that he's been had. Heyer might not be for everyone but if you think she's just a romance writer think again (though I admit the truly horrible cover on my copy does nothing to dispel the illusion).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Christmas Puddings

I thought that the upside to shingles would be time to read - for what else can you do in between absorbing antivirals, ibuprofen,and calamine lotion? Depressingly there was no upside to shingles, the rash is so irritating that sleep and concentration are both hard to come by, for whatever reason I failed to read much. The best part of a week at home valiantly trying not to scratch mostly made me wonder how it's possible to fit work and everything else into a week.


Between domestic chores, scrutinising bills, a futile attempt to reduce the number of rogue books in any meaningful way (I managed to clear out about 20, a mix of unsolicited review copies it was time to accept I would never read, a couple of duplicates, and a very few I knew I'd never read again) and looking for the strongest possible non prescription pain killers time just vanished. If I didn't need the money I'm pretty sure I could find a better use for the 50 odd hours that having a job takes out of a week.

I do need the money though, not least to fund my baking habit. Thanks to the consumer heaven that is Costco the several kilos of dried fruit and nuts I've bought in the last couple of months (possibly in excess of 20 kilos, which is probably quite a lot) haven't broken the bank (or my back hauling them up to my flat). It also means that after 18 jars of mincemeat, 12 of chutney, and 10 assorted fruit cakes there was enough left over to make Christmas puddings with.

Christmas puddings are another thing that I've half meant to make for years but never quite got round to. Turns out they're a sensible project whilst feeling a bit ill - plenty of pottering around getting ingredients together, not very long spent on mixing it altogether (times like this I love my kitchen aid with a passion) and then ignore them whilst they boil/steam away. It's the cooking time that's always put me off in the past. Three (or more) hours on the day you make the pudding is long enough if you're struggling to devote what will basically be a whole day to your kitchen, but another 3 hours on the day of eating - well it's a commitment, especially when you can buy and microwave one in minutes.

I'm quite excited by these puddings though - I made 3, from 2 different recipes in Dan Lepard's 'Short & Sweet'. A large one which faithfully follows the Simple Christmas pudding recipe (apart from some added alcohol) which is apparently a 1930's recipe, and 2 smaller ones from the Plum plum pudding recipe (with a few liberties taken). Making 3 was mostly to do with using up odds and ends of ingredients, partly to experiment with recipes and techniques. Two were simmered, 1 went in the upper level of a veg steamer - which somehow seems like less trouble. Now it's just a question of waiting to see what they're like which is a little bit nerve racking.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Country Life Cookbook - Ambrose Heath

On my last visit to London I gave in to temptation (if that sounds in anyway as if I tried to resist temptation it's misleading) and visited the Persephone book shop in search of cook books. Specifically the latest one, Ambrose Heath's 'The Country Life Cookbook'.

My love of old cookbooks is a thing apart from my love of new cookbooks. New/ contemporary ones are for cooking from, old - or more specifically reprinted ones in this case - are for reading. This particular book has an excellent introduction by Simon Hopkinson which touches on why that is for me. Older cookbooks, certainly the majority I've seen anyway, tend to be light in instructions. For someone bought up on detailed instructions that can be intimidating. I consider myself a reasonably confidant cook but my knowledge is patchy at best. Armed with precise orders I'll have a go, but describe an oven as slack or sharp and I begin to worry. It's not that Heath is vague, it's just that he's clearly writing for people who know what they're about, 1937 was after all still a time when employing a cook would not have seemed an outrageous luxury.

However even in 1937 things weren't what they used to be so Heath is also writing with a view to the servant problem. These, he contends, are recipes which won't tax the time or ingenuity of your cook, as proof they're all things he's made himself.

There's another reason why I find myself primarily reading these books rather than cooking from them, tastes have changed somewhat over time and so a lot of what I find in these books doesn't especially appeal. Lettuce A L'Etouffee may be delightful, but I'm not sure I'm willing to stew one for 45 minutes with onions, sugar, butter and a bouquet garni to find out, and as for the next recipe 'Brazilian Pudding'... It starts with the optimistic statement that "Even those who do not like tapioca will not despise this version of it." Tripes A La Dauphinoise says it "demands a bottle of wine and a little brandy" some may feel that's a good place to stop (I'm not a fan of tripe but actually this recipe does sound good).

To be fair to Mr Heath and the 1930's cook I was specifically looking for things I thought might horrify my travel companion when I found those recipes. The book is also full of things we would like along with some very useful information and a fascinating insight into pre war kitchens.

'The Country Life Cookbook' is also part gardening book, working on the reasonable assumption that the country housewife will have a garden (and also a gardener) there is advice as to what needs to be done in any given month with a view to keeping a varied table. It's obviously a seasonal guide as well - in the 1930's there was no other option but it's something I'm a bit evangelical about so the table of seasonal fruit and veg at the back is really handy.

The insight bit comes in the list of ingredients. It doesn't really surprise me how well stocked the 1930's kitchen was with spices. It's interesting to see lots of mentions of garlic and olive oil - a reminder that pre and post war food were very different, however what really surprises me is how many herbs are mentioned. It shouldn't really, but then how many of us now have access to a really comprehensive selection of fresh herbs? When I have access to a garden they tend to be what I plant, mostly because I have romantic ideas about it, and I'm an easy sell for any herb based cookbook which encourages me to use them, but even so I don't cook with them half as much as I'd like to. At home in a provincial city my options are limited - this feels like a part of our food heritage that's still a little neglected.

Finally the real charm of this book is Heath himself. He's delightful to read; chatty and informative but always concise, full of enthusiasms, and with a delightful turn of phrase this really is a book to be enjoyed at leisure. It would make a perfect stocking filler or general gift for anyone of a foody turn of mind, or as in my case a very useful self indulgence.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Aunt Sass - Christmas Stories - P. L. Travers

It doesn't take much to make me cry, actually so little that it's embarrassing - Christmas adverts do it, euro Disney did it (though perhaps for different reasons), Victorian paintings of sad eyed dogs mourning their lost masters do it. I don't know why I do this, it's a reaction like blushing - which I also do easily, and not necessarily based on real emotion, but anything with even a hint of pathos will have my eyes welling up and voice wobbling. 'Aunt Sass' was a three tissue job.

P. L. Travers was the author of Mary Poppins (which reduced a previous boss to tears along with his father and brother on a regular basis as it called to mind their grandmother). I think I might be like a lot of people in that I only know the film version - which along with 'The Sound of Music' was an inescapable part of childhood (is it still?). Having read 'Aunt Sass' I think I might need to investigate the book, it might not be quite what I expect.

Travers wrote the 3 stories in this collection as Christmas gifts through the 1940's, reading them reinforces a chance conversation with a woman who I was browsing Christmas cards next to earlier this month. We were both irritated by Christmassy music and both felt that whilst October/ November where perfectly reasonable times to make preparations in the way of cake baking and pudding making, even of putting aside gifts and choosing cards whilst the choice is still appealing, we both resent all the adverts that tell us it's now Christmas. Quite clearly it isn't!

In 'Aunt Sass' Travers recalls a beloved if formidable great aunt. The matriarch and head of the family even though she never had children of her own, who provided unstinting support for all around her. Aunt Sass is a sometimes contradictory figure who receives a wonderful eulogy here. It's not a Christmassy account in any way but is very much in the spirit of taking time to think of and acknowledge those you love.

The second story deals with Ah Wong, a Chinese cook the children try and convert to Christianity (unsuccessfully). For the most part it's a humorous recollection of someone met and liked in childhood but there is a sort of sequel to the events of childhood that turns it into something more.

The final story tells of Johnny Delaney, and is the most obviously Christmassy. It's also the one that feels most like a story often told. There is a fairy tale quality to it and enough sentiment to really tip me over the edge into what can only be described as sobs. Johnny Delaney is a jockey, groom, coachman, carpenter, and suffragette parent to this band of children. He's contrary, grim, a champion swearer, heavy drinker, and object of devotion for the family. He's also gifted with a sort of second sight and a life's work to complete.

So in the spirit of preparing for Christmas this would make a handy stocking filler for the readers in your life of pretty much any age (though perhaps not very young children). It's funny and charming and wise, will leave the (over) sensitive reader in bits whilst they remember much loved figures now gone from their own lives, and is generally heartwarming. Alternatively just get it for yourself if you think nobody else will oblige...