Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Short and Sweet - Dan Lepard

This blog turned 10 sometime back in August and one reason for carrying on with it is that the older I get the more useful I find it to refer back to. I’m baking Christmas cakes at the moment which makes me look back too - I made my first one in December 2011 using a cut out and kept for a year Dan Lepard recipe back from when he wrote a column in The Guardian. D had bought me a Kitchen Aid for my birthday, but it was so new, and the quantities of ingredients so generous that I hand mixed it that first time.

Since then I’ve made this cake dozens of times - as many as 7 in various sizes one Christmas - it’s a very good cake, although the year I got a new oven I managed to utterly over cook them after it turned out the old oven needed at least 3 times as long to cook something as the new one did. Making them isn’t the longest standing tradition but it’s important to me.

Dan Lepard has got further into my Christmas when I turned to ‘Short and Sweet’ (the blog tells me it was a Christmas present in 2011, and that initially I wasn’t as grateful for it as I am now) for a Christmas pudding recipe. His simple Christmas pudding based on a 1930’s recipe has been a winner with everyone who’s tried it.

As baking books go it’s a genuine classic - if I only had space for one baking book it’s probably the one I’d keep, but as an incorrigible collector of cookbooks there’s always something with a bit of novelty value to look at. It’s this time of year that I reach for ‘Short and Sweet’, and this time of year that I realise again how good it is.

It’s still in print, and if you don’t know it, it’s worth seeking out. Still thinking about Christmas I’ve just found a good looking mincemeat recipe that doesn’t need to be matured. I would contend that making your own mincemeat is one of life’s pleasures - something that makes you slow down and enjoy the process of what you’re doing. Which is what I think Christmas baking should be about, if you don’t enjoy doing it there’s no point, but if you do it’s surprisingly mindful (mindful is not a word I love, but it’s accurate enough here).

As I’m currently time rich I’m going to go beyond the Christmas staples and have some fun with this book over the next couple of months (starting with some orange and almond biscuits). I can’t remember exactly who gave me this (it would have been my mother or my sister) but they deserve another thank you.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What Next?

I’m now officially unemployed (since Friday) and finally feeling the emotional side of redundancy. I’m not going to miss the actual job which has left me with a legacy of repetitive strain injuries (wrist, elbow, and tendons in my right foot) and wasn’t great for my mental health either. I am going to miss a lot of the people I worked with and some of the customers.

Initially the plan was to look for some Christmas temp work and then see where I was in January, but after looking around it’s become fairly clear that temping hours are not great. 16 - 20 hours a week, weekends and late nights, expected to be available Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The pay is around minimum wage too, and shifts often only 4 hours (which means you don’t have to give employees breaks) which ups the transport costs.

The plan now is to take the next 2 months off and start looking for work in January. I know this makes sense, but it also feels weird. I’ve had periods of being of relative unemployment before, but I’ve always been job hunting through them, and quite often doing part time stuff or odd jobs. I’ve day dreamed about a Christmas off for the last 20 years. Finally being able to take one is unexpectedly discombobulating.

It’s not that I’m short of things to do (there are so many things that I need to do) but my sense of where I am in the year has gone to pot. Closing a shop at the time it would normally be filling up with stock was disorienting. I’ve put off making Christmas cakes and such until I finished work and would have all the time to make them without the stress but because I haven’t started I can’t quite believe it’s almost mid November.

The baking, chutney, and mincemeat making have also been a long standing way of dealing with the stress of work, trying to carve out moments to feel some goodwill in. Taking away the main cause of stress (the work environment rather than the work) is going to take some getting used too. It’s also something I really need to do.

What next is feeling like a big question right now, equal parts exciting and anxiety inducing, but meanwhile I’ve made the Christmas chutney today, and tomorrow I might start on the cakes.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Evil Roots: KillerTales of the Botanical Gothic edited by Daisy Butcher

This has to be a contender for personal favourite book title - everything about it appeals to me, and it turned out to be the perfect book to read over Halloween. I love a good collection of short stories at anytime, appreciate them even more in times of stress (last week was the last customer facing week at work, the next couple of days are the clear out and clean up then I’m done), and this collection lived up to the promise of the title.

I found Mellisa Edmundson’s ‘Women’s Weird’ genuinely unsettling - it was definitely a book that had me looking over my shoulder, ‘Evil Roots’ not so much. Maybe this is because I don’t know any mad scientists, or own a flesh eating plant. Or possibly because I already have a healthy suspicion of plant life (is it poisonous, will it scratch me, is a branch going to fall off it as I’m walking past, will that creeper damage the brickwork, will that seaweed drown me*, am I going to be sent out for interminable hours to cut it down**) born of a country childhood and a love of gardening.

Anyway. There are a trio of stories here that really stood out - M. R. James’ The Ash Tree’ which is the sort of class act you would expect from James. Abraham Merritt’s The Woman of the Wood which nicely picks up on the eerie quality trees can have, and Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Pavillion’. The Pavilion is a genius bit of storytelling.

There are a few flesh eating plants that get out of hand which not only illustrate the Victorian unease with scientific advances, but are an interesting parallel with current debates about GM crops - the fear is just the same. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Giant Wisteria’ is here too - I wish I admired this more than I do, but it’s fun to compare it with Ambrose Bierce’s ‘A Vine on a House’ - or maybe pair is a better word.

Essentially these are family friendly weird tales, the sort that are as likely to make you laugh as shudder, and where you can sit in dim lighting without assuming something is coming to get you (maybe not next to any plants though). Daisy Butcher has done a splendid job of finding ‘the very best tales from the undergrowth of Gothic fiction’, it’s a collection that’s fun to read, gives food for thought, and has some real gems in it.

*There’s a long stringy weed that we called Drewie lines when I was a child, we were told it would wrap round your legs and drown you if you swam through it, though in truth the actual temperature of the sea was the most effective deterrent to wild swimming. It is however a nasty weed to get tangled around a propeller, or oars, and it still gives me the horrors.

** My father has a vendetta against thistles, they continue to win the battle.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dracula - A Ballet by David Nixon OBE

I don’t normally take much notice of Halloween beyond digging out some very mild ghost stories or similar weird tales. It was a big thing for children in Shetland when I was growing up, but I don’t remember it being much of an adult affair, and I’m not sure I much like the all out, all October, selling opportunity it’s become. Although if you are going to spend money on a pile of spooky plastic tat you might as well get a proper amount of enjoyment out of it.

What I can get right behind was the chance to see Northern Ballet do their Dracula via cinema live. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric performance with every gothic bit of trimming you could want. It stays true to the book almost until the end and has some brilliant visual effects - the opening scenes are particularly good, as is Dracula’s castle. The bits with Renfield in the asylum also really stand out.

The relationship between Mina and the Count is beautifully portrayed, the brides of Dracula are fabulous, and basically we loved all of it. The only quibble is that seeing it on a cinema screen meant that the dancers were larger than life at all times, even more so when the camera zooms in on the dancers. It’s amazing to be able to see the details, but at the same time it can be distracting as facial expressions and movements designed to be seen from a distance have a different impact when they’re blown up like this.

I’d love to actually see this live one day, it was all the excellence I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet, and meanwhile it is at least something to have seen it on screen where at least we got the bonus of an interview with Javier Torres (who was dancing the part of the young Dracula).

Monday, October 28, 2019

Sour - Mark Diacono

I bought a few cookbooks back in September whilst I was posting about Vermouth, and because I've thought about them a bit since then keep thinking I've posted about them too. Mostly It turns out I haven't, and that's a particular omission when it comes to 'Sour' which is truly something a bit special.

If I struggle to get on with bitter (well, I struggle with Campari anyway), I like sour - it is the magical element that can transform your cooking. This book has also transformed my view of quinces which is why I've put off making dinner to write about it immediately.

I have a troubled relationship with quinces - they make a tremendous jelly (Diana Henry's Recipe with star anise is brilliant and now a yearly staple, although this year I was impatient and potted it about 5 minutes before I should have, it's a very loose set.) but I've really disliked everything else I've ever made with them. I find the grainy texture unappealing in tarts and pies, didn't like them in a tahini, really didn't like what they did to Brandy, and had almost given up on anything but jelly.

That was before I tried a slice of pickled quince about an hour ago... I had more of them than I needed for the jelly, and there was a recipe in 'Sour' for them - as there is in 'Salt, Sugar, Spice', but this is the one that actually made me tackle peeling the dratted things. In pickle form the grainy texture of the fruit works for me, the scent of them is tremendous, and the balance of flavours is spot on (a hint of clove and juniper, the perfumed personality of the quince, sugar sweetness, and a just sharp enough vinegar hit - it's perfect).

I can't overstate how big a thing this is for me (it feels like the happy end of a long and arduous quest), but it's probably time to move on... Quinces aside, 'Sour' is a beautifully written book. Diacono's books are always enjoyable to read, his combination of enthusiasm, knowledge, humour, and anecdote is particularly engaging.

The book gives an excellent overview of what sourness is, and various souring skills, before giving recipes for food and drinks. It's a wonderful book to go into this winter with (citrus season is here) when I think a lot of us will want those bright lively flavours. Flicking through it again now I'm making a mental list of all sorts of things I'll have time for when redundancy lands in just over a week. Getting another sourdough starter going, looking out for winter herring to souse, maybe start making my own yoghurt...

I know I have recipes or instructions for all of these things elsewhere, but it's the opening chapters of this book which are making more sense of the whole idea of sourness to me - bringing things together with an enthusiasm I can't resist. It's the sort of book that changes how you think about food and flavour, and which I expect to be comprehensively nominated for awards (which it deserves to win). The sort of book that takes you on a journey and sends you off to learn all sorts of other things (there's a handy list of resources at the back to help with just that).

Quinces should still be available to pickle (I will be looking for more) this is Diana Henry's Recipe, but seriously, buy 'Sour', you need it.

If you buy directly from the Otter farm Website there are a choice of price bands based on what you can afford - buying the book at full price will subsidise discounts for those who can't afford it, it's a project worth supporting - the souring skills are the kind of thing that we all ought to be learning for so many reasons.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Knitting Post

Because I don't mind the dark, and don't have children or pets who are oblivious to clock time, the day the clocks go back is my favourite of the year. This is my season and I embrace it, not only do I love the extra hour of today, but it's enough of a change to really improve my sleep patterns.

I've spent the day pottering, admiring books, and knitting, so it seemed a good time to share my latest knitting projects. It's basically the Scalloway Shawl (or is it a scarf?) from Maria de Haan's 'Uradale Shawls'. The Scalloway is a sort of scarf, shawl, wrap hybrid (its long even for a scarf, widens to a central point like a shawl, and is a cosy thing to wrap up in). It's a simple pattern with a medative quality to it, it's also big enough to take a slow knitter like me a while to get through. The 2 I have knitted so far have seen me through the almost 4 months of the redundancy process at work.

They've been perfect for that because I've been in no mood to concentrate on anything which would demand more attention, but the stripes stop it from getting boring. Knitting is a godsend at times like this.

For the first Scalloway I stuck as close to the original Uradale colours as I could, mostly using Jamieson's Spindrift from my yarn stash. Still, they weren't exact and I made a couple of changes along the way. I also found myself messing around with the order of the colours too.

For the second Scalloway I picked colours I'd thought about putting in the first one, and that were more autumnal. Because I'm lazy about switching there are a couple of shades that I'm not entirely convinced by. I also decided that I'd definitely move everything around in each sequence apart from one colour which would always mark the start/finish each set of stripes. I'm happy with that decision, whilst knitting it's fun to mix them up - and I'm always fascinated by how differently the colours behave next to each other. I also started with less stitches so the ends would taper more, and so it would be a marginally quicker knit.

I've now started a third project inspired by the Scalloway but using only 2 colours, different textured yarns, and in a different shape. It might end up with tassels on it. Which leads me to the question - when does it stop being somebody else's patterns and start being mine?

Knitting invites plagerism as well as adaptation. The more competent the knitter the easier it is to reverse engineer something that you've seen and liked - it's a natural thing to do, though rightly contentious when people are selling patterns. My third project is the result of weeks of what ifs, it won't look anything much like the first Scalloway, or feel like it, but it wouldn't exist without it either.

Anyway, the Uradale Shawls book is a lovely thing, the Scalloway a great project for even the most inexperienced knitter. It's an excellent chance to play around with colour combinations (it's an object lesson in colour theory) and I can recommend it as a project for uncertain times.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940 - edited by Melissa Edmundson

The nights have thoroughly drawn in already (and will do so even more at the weekend when the clocks go back), leaves are finally falling off trees, and it is definitely the season to be easily spooked.  I've been anticipating 'Women's Weird' from Handheld Press for months now and it has not disappointed.

There's nothing in here that's too terrifying, but plenty that's unsettling enough to make it the wrong book to go to bed with. It's also an object lesson in what an editor can do when putting together a collection. I need to dig out my Virago book of ghost stories for comparison, because Mellisa Edmundson has concentrated on the domestic here in a way I haven't particularly noticed before.

The opening story 'The Weird of the Walfords' by Louisa Baldwin sets the tone for the book - its male protagonist has conceived a dislike for certain family traditions and is determined to break them, but the traditions have other ideas. Baldwin makes her old house and its trappings not haunted but greedy for birth and death, especially death. Domesticity and expectations are equal burdens here, and so the place that should feel safest becomes the most dangerous.

Mary Cholmondeley's 'Let Loose' places the unseen menace in the crypt of a church - another place that should offer sanctuary but does not, and proves an ineffective prison to boot. 'With and Without Buttons' by Mary Butts is a masterwork in taking something mundane and making it terrifying - this one really did give me the creeps with imagery that's hard to forget.

I had read Margaret Irwin's 'The Book' before in the British Library anthology 'The Haunted Library' and remembered it as a particular gem. It still is, with the added bonus that now I can consider the difference the context of the anthology it's in makes. In the BL collection it was the details that I noticed, here it's that once again the horror has invaded the home.

Appropriately there are 13 strange stories in total, the strangest probably being May Sinclair's 'Where Their Fire is not Quenched' which thematically feels quite different to the other tales which all deal in a more familiar sort of strange or uncanny. 'Where Their Fire is not Quenched' is troubling for altogether different reasons, it's inclusion part of what makes this book more than the sum of its parts.

Altogether it's an excellent collection of stories that are agreeably scary whilst your reading them, and provide much more to think about when you're not. Officially published for Halloween it's ridiculously cheap if you want a kindle version, otherwise go direct to Handheld (the paper version is extremely nice to handle, the print very easy on the eye, and they have a really great list to explore).

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Weatherhouse - Nan Shepherd - #1930club

Nan Shepherd is something of an enigma. She's famous enough to be on Scottish £5 notes, and I think 'The Living Mountain' is reasonably well read, but I don't see much mention of her novels. I've had 'The Weatherhouse' for a couple of years unread so the 1930 club has been the push I needed to get on with it.

I'm so pleased I finally made the effort, and at times it is an effort, because Shepherd uses a lot of Doric dialect here. I spent 4 years in Aberdeen (her fictional community of Fetter-Rothnie is about 8 miles outside of Aberdeen) and there were bits I remembered, but I was about 50 pages in before I found the glossary and getting slightly frustrated. The glossary isn't especially complete so some guesswork is still required. Despite this I was hooked by about page 20, and when I hit the halfway mark more or less dazzled by what Shepherd was doing.

The Weatherhouse is the house that the now ancient Mrs Craigmyle moved to after she was widowed with her youngest unmarried daughter (she's 90ish when the book opens). Later she's joined by her other daughters - Annie, the eldest who had worked the family farm before it became to much, and Ellen Falconer who's marriage has left her destitute, as well as mother to Kate. The 3 generations of Craigmyle ladies are joined by a great niece - Lindsay Lorimer, 19 years old and meant to be recovering from a love affair her parents consider her to young for.

If that all sounds complicated there's a table of characters at the front of the book that helps keep everybody in place until you're far enough in for it all to make sense.

It's the First World War so Fetter-Rothnie has become a community of women, children, and old men.   Gossip abounds, as does emotion without much healthy outlet. The Weatherhouse ladies exemplify this in various ways, and when Lindsay comes to stay some sort of climax is inevitable.

It arrives in the form of Garry Forbes, nephew of a neighbor, and the man she loves. He's home from the trenches on sick leave and finds that the ministers daughter, Louie Morgan (now 35) is claiming she was secretly engaged to his friend David. David is dead, Garry doesn't believe in the engagement, seeing it as a terrible slur against the memory of his friend. He's determined to expose Louie, much to the distress of Lindsay.

What unfolds is something and nothing. Both Louie and Ellen have wrapped themselves about in a fantasy world, but whilst the older Ellen is uneasily aware of it, and the dangers in doing so, The 35 year old Louie is not. Both are essentially women without much purpose or anything to root them in the everyday in direct contrast to Kate and Annie who engage with life in a very different way.

It's a sometimes uncomfortable look at women's inner lives and how small communities operate, how they can offer both support and understanding as well as being unbearably claustrophobic and judgemental.

It's also interesting to compare how Shepherd is writing about crofting life in Aberdeenshire with how Adrian Bell is writing about farming further south at the same time, and perhaps even more interesting to consider 'The Weatherhouse' in relation to books like Edith Oliver's 'The Love Child' from 1927. I don't know if Shepherd read Oliver's book or not (she was a lecturer in English as well as a writer so she must have been well aware of the Fantastic in contemporary fiction either way). Shepherd writes so emphatically about the damage that living to much in your own fantasies does that it's hard not to see this book at least in part as a comment on the fantastic.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Taste of Scotland's Islands - Sue Lawrence

I've talked so much about this book I keep thinking I've already written about it, but I haven't and it's wonderful so here goes. When James and Tom Morton's book, 'Shetland' came out last year I was hoping for something rather like this - more of an overview of the current food scene on Scottish islands, as well as a look at its past.

'Shetland' was not that book - it's the much more personal reactions of the Morton's to their family life and home. This book visits 20 or so of the hundreds of Scottish islands from Luing in the south west, to Unst (northernmost Shetland island).

Interesting things are happening in Scotland's islands in terms of food. There's access to some fantastic ingredients and they're really being appreciated which makes sense in a whole lot of ways - not least as a tourist attraction. The weather may not always be dependable, but good food stops you caring about it. Food, particularly baking, is also integral to all sorts of community activities.

Chapters are organised by ingredients rather than location (breakfast bakes, soup vegetables seaweed, fish, shellfish, meat, game, berries and rhubarb, baking, cheese, honey and gin) and there's everything here from historic curiosities (comerant soup and home made black pudding) through traditional (cloutie dumpling and shortbread), and onto the entirely contemporary (warm Berry gin compote with rose-petal ice cream).

The recipes look great - there's a lot here that I want to make, starting with the Islay whisky cake, the photography is also beautiful, but what really makes this special is the way it's rooted in the communities Lawrence visits. She has collected recipes and stories from all sorts of people (including a gluten free apple cake from my stepmother which was a nice surprise). It's a generous showcasing of all sorts of culinary activities and personalities from the professional to the home cook with room for farmers, fisherman, and more.

It genuinely does give you a taste of what to expect in Scotland's islands (Mull is the most foody I've visited so far, standards were high everywhere we went, the seafood was spectacular, there's all sorts of meat and game produced on the island, whisky, cheese, biscuits...) it's a book you want to cook from, as well as plan holidays with.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Powder and Patch - Georgette Heyer for the 1930 Book Club

'Powder and Patch' is a bit of a cheat - it was first published as 'The Transformation of Philip Jettan' in 1923 and then reissued as 'Powder in Patch' in 1930 with the new title and minus the last chapter. However I see Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs as the perfect opportunity to re read a Georgette Heyer so I'll take what I can get. The proper books from 1930 are the contemporary novels that she later suppressed.

'Powder and Patch' is short enough to read in a few hours, and amusing enough to make me want to do that. It's early Heyer and far from her best work, but it has all the elements that make her so good when she's at her best. It also has the bits that make her difficult for the modern reader.

Our hero, Philip Jettan, is a handsome young man of sober disposition. He likes to stay at home and run the family estate - much to the despair of his altogether more fashion conscious father and the local beauty who he is in love with. Cleone Charteris is 18, inclined to return Philips feelings, but disinclined to settle down before she's had some fun.

When the extremely fashionable Henry Bancroft turns up in the village and starts flirting with Cleone, Philip proposes to her and gets sent packing. He loses a duel with Henry, and gets a telling off from his father so heads off to London, and then Paris, to learn to be a fashionable gentleman. Six months later he reappears an apparently changed man - but what will happen next?

What I really like about this book, and about Heyer generally, is that she has Cleone say no because she's not prepared to marry someone who would expect to always 'bend before his will', and she wants to have some fun before she settles down. There's no suggestion that this is anything but a sensible decision from a very young woman. Philip in turn is a bit of a prig - both need to see more of the world to grow up, and that's just what Heyer has them do.

Philip finds that he enjoys society, Cleone gets to meet enough men to be sure that she's making the right choice. For a fluffy bit of romance that's not a bad message to take away.

The setting is sometime around 1740 so Heyer gets to have a lot of fun describing the most outrageously elaborate men's costume, but otherwise this reads like a 1920's drawing room comedy rather than the serious attempts to recreate an era that she became known for later. It's none the worse for that, and maybe even more fun for it.

What lets the book down is the description of various servants, particularly distasteful in relation to a black page, not much better when it comes to a French valet. At best it's snobby, at worst racist. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I adore Heyer, and wish that she'd had more progressive ideas about class and race. On the other hand the book is almost a hundred years old in its original form and I'm prepared to judge her more by the standards of her day than ours.

It turns out the original last chapter was fairly awful (you can find a transcript of it Here, so perhaps the most interesting thing about 'Powder and Patch' now is in being able to see how Heyer was evolving and improving as a writer.