Saturday, June 23, 2018

You can't ignore cucumber - the search for a good Sherry cup recipe

I have to organise a series of tastings at work for staff and customers next week - the expectation seems to have been something Cocktail based for staff, but it's during the working day. I know from experience that this is A Very Bad Idea both in terms of productivity, and anybody's ability to reliably give the correct change.

The expectation for the customer event is that it will be some sort of gin tasting, but I'm on the fence about that too. I want to go something entirely different - this is just the chance to play around with punches/cups that I've been looking for.

What I really, really, want to do is a Sherry cup, although this recipe for Peach Cup from Ambrose Heath also appeals to me "Prick a large ripe Peach all over with a silver fork, and put it in a pint of champagne." Unfortunately I can't put my hand to a silver fork between now and Monday when the first event takes place, ripe peaches are even more of a challenge (the rock hard things sold as ready to eat will not do) and champagne is undoubtedly out of budget. Another time.

It's Ambrose Heath who I've turned to for Sherry cup recipes as well, he has a couple but only says Sherry - like it's obvious which one I should use - it is not (and this is why I think the silver fork might really matter to the peach). Sherry comes in everything from bone dry and light (Fino) to something that resembles treacle (Pedro Ximenez).

I've asked around and the consensus seems to be that Fino Sherry is the way to go. I have a bottle of Fino in the fridge so I've been experimenting. The results have made me light headed but indecisive. Heath's recipe is for 2 bottles of Sherry, 1/2 a pint of Cognac, 1/4 of a pint of curaçao (I'm subbing it with triple sec) and 3 drops of almond essence all mixed well together, then with a slice of cucumber and 3 or 4 bottles of Soda water.

I've scaled that down to fit in a glass so the proportions are all off - the single, thin, slice of cucumber is really making its presence felt for a start. A second recipe uses lemonade as well as soda water which would add sweetness - so I've also played around with some sugar syrup - and thrown in some fruit because plenty of old recipes call for it.

The result is okay, I like it, but I like my drinks dry, a lot of my colleagues do not. I don't have a pale cream Sherry to try this with but think that might be too sweet. It's all very annoying, and all I can taste now is cucumber anyway. How can anything with so much water in it be such a flavour bully?

Meanwhile there's a plan B. It comes from Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food. She gives recipes for White wine cup (wine, Brandy, elderflower cordial, soda water, cucumber rind) Wine cup (rose wine, Brandy, lemonade, cucumber rind and soda water) or Quaglino cup (champagne, orange juice, Brandy, curaçao, soda water, no cucumber) which is allegedly less alcoholic than a Buck's Fizz. I'll take her word for that, though I think the brandy and curaçao will make up for the extra soda water.

The advantage of going with plan B is that Boxer has already done the hard work so I have a nice, specific, recipe to follow that will make roughly the quantity I need, and is I suspect, adjusted for modern tastes, I don't even have to find a ripe peach, or a silver fork. The down side is that it could be a while before I get another Sherry cup chance and I really feel that done right it could be a winner.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What's so wrong with a little mediocrity?

About a month or so ago there was a spirited defence of W. H. Smith as a Bookseller after it came low in a customer satisfaction survey. For what it's worth I like Smiths. My local one has the post office just past the books so I'm in there sort of regularly even though it's in a slightly depressing basement, and there's generallybsomething to be tempted by.

I also followed Lionel Shriver's attack on Penguin's Diversity project, which if nothing else has at least given Penguin's diversity project and Lionel Shriver a whole lot more publicity then they might otherwise have had. There's a whole lot of things to take issue with in Shriver's original article, but the thing that both the storms in a teacup have left me thinking is that not great hooks deserve a bit more appreciation.

The majority of my childhood library must have been made up of Enid Blyton books, they're certainly the ones I have the clearest memories of. I've never revisited them, mostly because I think the magic would be gone for me now, but at the time the books I loved the most were the ones that most closely reflected my own life. If it featured farming, or islands, it was a winner.

I'm also thinking that those Enid Blyton's must have been as formulaic as the Mills & Boons that I used to share with my grandmother. Or maybe they had more in common with the well worn conventions of the golden age detective fiction I've also loved since my early teens when I first found Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Either way there are times, and currently it's most of the time, when what I want to read is something easy, undemanding, and familiar. Maybe even something a little bit trashy - and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm also lucky that as a middling class, middle aged, white woman there's no shortage of books good, bad, and in between, that reflect me back to myself sufficiently to hold my interest.

That's the reason I love Virago Modern Classics, and Persephone books so much -they're reflecting the voices of women more or less like me, back to me. It was so exciting to find those voices, and every one of those books has it's merits, even if I judge some of them to be decidedly mediocre in literary terms. The point is that I want all of those voices to get a full sense of that history, and lucky me - they're increasingly available. Who doesn't deserve to be able to find the same?

I expect the books that Penguin's WriteNow mentoring scheme produces will thoroughly deserve their place on any shelf (and also, look at the Peirene Now project for consistently high quality, challenging, and diverse voices) but even if the project produced some decidedly mediocre work - what of it? 


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Murder, Mr Mosley - John Greenwood

I'm not having the best of weeks - my insurance company tried it on with a £300 increase on my annual premium- which they have now mostly knocked off, but which means that next year I'm almost certainly going to have to find the time to get a series of quotes from other companies (not quick, not fun, and not easy to fit in around work). Monday also bought the fun news that Eon electricity failed to put me on the tariff we agreed on last August, and have since been overcharging to a truly eye watering degree.

This should have been flagged in February when they sent a statement which (incorrectly) stated that they owed me £350, then couldn't give me an actual statement based on the meter reading I took, refused to come and do an actual reading themselves, and didn't send the revised statement they promised. Now they want to increase my payment by a whopping 150% and I want them to put me on the tariff we agreed last year and not to pay more than I should have on that. Sorting that out is tomorrow's promised treat - if the resolution team actually call me back. Not holding my breath for this.

Between that and getting thoroughly depressed and angry every time I see or hear a news bulletin I'm feeling at a particularly low ebb. Holidays cannot come quickly enough. 

'Murder, Mr Mosley' was an impulse purchase a few weeks ago and is part of the pretty looking Pan reprints of books that mostly seem to be from the 1980's. The covers of these are curious. They have a deliberately nostalgic feel about them that makes you think you're picking up something golden age, or at least 1950's, and feel somewhat disconnected from the contents. 

To be fair it's hard to imagine how you could evoke '80's book covers and still appeal to the target audience for these books, but I wish they would try. 'Murder, Mr Mosely' isn't a masterpiece, but it has a certain charm and it made me laugh - I'd definitely pick up another Greenwood for more of the same.

I think this one must be the first in the Mosely series, mostly because it refers to his lack of experience with murder cases, but it feels like it could come half way through which was occasionally irritating (it felt like I'd missed a chapter which explained this or that piece of background, but I hadn't). The plot goes a bit crazy too, but Greenwood's sense of humour and eye for odd details carries it through so that those things don't matter very much, and over all there was a lot to enjoy about this.

The plot, such as it is concerns the return of Brenda Cryer to the village of Parson's Fold, and her subsequent murder. She'd been gone for 17 years, her past is mysterious, and so is the source of her income. Mosley is the local man, more used to dealing with missing fruit and rustled geese, but somehow more on the ball than the extremely up to date Seargeant Beamish, thanks mostly to an extremely efficient network of gossip. 

The question is, what has Brenda been up too, does it have anything to do with her murder, and what other connections might the investigation uncover... 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Bodies From The Library - 2018

This was the third Bodies from the Library I've been to (the fourth they've done) and it was excellent. It's a thoroughly well organised event that I'd recommend to anybody with even a passing interest in golden age crime fiction.

Particular highlights for me started with Rachel Reeves MP talking about 'Ellen Wilkinson: MP and Detective Novelist'. I hadn't heard of Ellen Wilkinson before, or at least if I had I hadn't remembered her, it's a shame in either count because she sounded like an amazing woman. Rachel Reeves is writing a book (out in March next year) about women in parliament over the last 100 years that's definitely going on my wish list. I also need to look up Wilkinson's biography.

Ellen Wilkinson was a labour MP from the mid 1920's onwards. She wrote 'The Diviion Bell Mystery' to make some money whilst she was temporarily without a seat. Reeves read it whilst researching her book, and approached the British Library about reissuing it as part of their Crime Classics series after finding it thoroughly entertaining as well as full of details about parliamentary life in the period. It's out in August (although copies were available yesterday) and I'm really looking forward to this one.

Martin Edwards in Richard Hull was interesting too, I really enjoyed 'Excellent Intentions' and will finish 'The Murder of my Aunt' as soon as I've written this post. 'The Murder of my Aunt' was Hull's first book, and is apparently often considered his best - so far I prefer 'Excellent Intentions', but both have a lot to recommend them. The good news about Hull is that more of his titles are drifting back into print in various places so there's going to be plenty more to explore.

Martin Edwards and Tony Medawar discussing the compilation of anthologies sold me 'Bodies From The Library'. This collection comprises previously lost tales of mystery and suspense by Agatha Christie and other masters of the golden age - including a Georgette Heyer, which was the selling point for me. These are mostly things which first appeared in magazines and newspapers, often quite obscure ones, and had since been more or less forgotten about. There's another collection due next year as well.

Jake Kerridge talking about Michael Innes has really made me want to read him too. I certainly used to have some Innes, and am hoping that I didn't send it off to a charity shop during one of those periodic clear outs. If I did at least I can choose a sensible place (near the beginning) to have another go with Innes now I have a better idea of what to expect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Weekend at Thrackley - Alan Melville

It's the Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library this weekend so I'm catching up with some of the most recent titles in preparation - not that I need either an excuse or any particular motivation to read Alan Melville.

This is the third Melville in the crime classics series (the other two are Quick Curtain and Death of Anton, both of which I really enjoyed), but the first book he wrote. It was enough of a success to more or less change his life (he quite his job in the family business, managed to buy a bungalow he called Thrackley, and took up writing and broadcasting work full time).

There's a Dorothy L. Sayers review of 'Quick Curtain' in which Sayers demonstrates a complete lack of humour when it comes to Melville, who shows no inclination to take the detective fiction genre seriously - but that's exactly what makes him so much fun.

'Weekend at Thrackley' is definitely fun. Melville is quite happy to use all sorts of country house mystery cliches, and the plot wouldn't stand up well to serious scrutiny. There's not even much mystery - the question is one of how things will be resolved, as we pretty much know who's done what all the way through and yet it all works beautifully.

I still think of Melville's style as being somewhere between Wodehouse and Sayers - everybody talks like Lord Peter at his silliest, and there's the same love of a joke that I associate with Wodehouse, and this is why I'm surprised that his books vanished for so long.

They're comic gems, exactly the sort of thing that you pick up when you want a pick-me-up, and the sort of thing that I'll read again and again just for the joy of his descriptions. In 'Weekend at Thrackley' there are some interesting details on the subject of gin and ginger, and Bacardi that also caught my eye, but they're possibly not of general interest.

Otherwise the action rips along at a cracking pace, there are handsome young men, equally beautiful young women, wicked villains who preempt the best James Bond tradition complete with gadgets, an isolated country house, and really everything you could want for an afternoons entertainment.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Gin

I'm a collector, possibly even a hoarder by nature, it's obvious when you look at my books - which are hard to avoid looking at. They're everywhere around my flat, but there are other things which are a little less obvious.

My yarn stash is mostly tucked away in drawers, and as I lack for cellar all my better wine, whisky, and gin is fighting for space in my wardrobe. I started pulling things out of there last night in a failed attempt to find a missing shoe, which in turn made me think I ought to take stock of what gin I actually had.

The answer turned out to be these 41 lovelies. Almost half of them have been presents - so people obviously know I like gin (they're right, I do), but I suspect I like collecting even more. The litre bottles of the Tanqueray editions for example - it's going to be a struggle to open those, and the same with the beautifully decorative Rock Rose Autumn and winter bottles. The Sipsmith V. J. O. P is strong enough to be quite intimidating.

Mostly though, as I sit looking at these whilst drinking a coffee, I'm thinking some of them want drinking before I can let myself buy anything else (presents don't count, any gift gin will be accepted with enthusiasm). Last year I had a mini gin festival with a friend to raise some money for charity - which was an excellent way to clear out a few half finished bottles, and fun, but I don't have enough open bottles to want to do that again just yet.

It's probably lucky that my partner has an even bigger stash of single malts, and perfectly understands both the impulse to collect, and the idea that some are for 'best' and not to be opened lightly. Gin isn't collectable in the same way - non of these are likely to increase in value but they're fun to collect and have gathered quite a bit of sentimental value in the acquisition process (we spent ages tracking down a Rock Rose Autumn, the Tanqueray Bloomsbury came from a beer shop in Shetland where I did not expect to find it, the Christopher Wren gin from the City of London distillery was another adventure to find and so on...).

Meanwhile, if you know where to find me and fancy a G&T/martini or similar, I think I've probably got it covered. There's even plenty of ice in the freezer.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Fabled Coast - Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood

Reader, I bought the gin. Specifically the Tanqueray Lovage gin I mentioned yesterday. It felt a bit weird to be going to John Lewis to buy gin (though it's not the first time I've done it). Their drinks section comes under gifts and is an odd mix of stuff, but the gin selection has some gems in it. Also looking good was a limited edition Edinburgh gin that celebrates the botanic gardens  - but one new bottle of gin a day is probably enough.

Both bottles would have looked equally attractive with the book that's been keeping me company recently, but Tanqueray is a gin distiller I have a particular fondness for, so it was an easy choice. The book is 'The Fabled Coast' which I bought last year on a bitterly cold, but beautiful day in Ullapool. Ullapool is an end of the road sort of place with 2 very nice little bookshops (and several other desirable amenities) I thoroughly recommend a visit.

I'd had this book on a wish list since reading Sophia Kingshill's monograph on Mermaids published by Little Toller. It was a nice thing to find on a generally perfect day out, and has turned out to be even better than I hoped.

It's a collection of legends and traditions from the coastline of Britain and Ireland. Some of the stories are true - a giant squid thought to be a kraken that washed up on a Shetland beach, a whale in the Thames (thought of as an omen of Cromwell's death) and so on. Others are more fanciful - dealings with the devil and other supernatural creatures. There's also lots of bits about pirates. All of it is fascinating.

The chapters are broken down into stretches of coastline, each entry is short - sometimes only a paragraph, never more than a couple of pages, and the whole thing is scholarly without being dry. I would have loved this book as a child too (pity the parent who might have had to listen to me read out various entries on a long car journey). As it is I'm very pleased to have it now. It's a potentially useful reference book, and a brilliant thing to dip in and out of if you only have a few minutes reading time - although minutes can stretch into hours quite easily as you follow story to story.

Kingshill and Westwood also wrote 'The Lore of Scotland' which now looks like a must buy, and I see that Sophia Kingshill has written a young adult book 'Between the Raven and the Dove' about witchcraft.  It's heroine is a 13 year old girl so I might find it more young than adult, but I'm tempted anyway just to see what Kingshill is like when she's writing fiction, because if it's half as good as her non fiction it'll be a treat.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Happy world wide knit in public and international gin day

It seems that today is dedicated to celebrating two things in a fan of - knitting, which I’ll happily do in public, and gin, which I try not to drink when I’m knitting because it plays havoc with my ability to count stitches properly.

I spent most of this afternoon doing a gin tasting at work which was amazingly popular. This was just a little table set up on the shop floor with a couple of products on it, and I don’t often get such an enthusiastic or well informed response to these kinds of tastings. If I think back even a couple of years the most common response was ‘I don’t like gin’. Not today.

I’m really pleased about this for a few reasons. The first is that it’s dull and tiring in equal measure to stand in the same spot for 3 hours if no one will engage with you. The second is that after years of asking people if it’s gin they dislike, or tonic, gin’s current popularity is making everyone more open minded (favourite customer of the day, a lady in her 80’s who had never had gin before but was determined to try it - she particularly enjoyed the Warner Edwards Honey Bee gin). The number of questions about mixer and serve options has also been brilliant. It helps keeps me on my toes; questions like these are absolutely the best and most interesting part of my job.

My personal gin collection is also growing again, D has been bringing me back interesting bottles from Scottish trips, and I’ve found a few interesting bottles myself. I need to get them altogether and have a good look at what I’ve got stashed around the flat. John Lewis have also targeted me with more than normally accurate marketing for a new limited edition Tanqueray - ‘Lovage’.

Limited is a relative term here, I think it’s a bottle run of 100000, but the rest of the series, all inspired by vintage recipes from the archive, has been excellent so obviously I’m going to buy this as soon as I can.

Just as the number of gins has exploded, and in line with the increasing variety of tonic water available, there’s also a lot of new books about gin, and cocktails, around. I’m less impressed with these, especially the ones that list or rate gins - the number of new things coming to market means they’re out of date before you know it, and I still think that a good vintage cocktail book (I’m currently favouring ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’) is the best bet.

For most of us simplicity is the key. I want a minimum of ingredients, equipment, or fuss when I’m making drinks at home, and early cocktail books are great for finding just such recipes. They’re great for learning how to make a really well balanced drink, and from there it’s easier to work out your own successful embellishments.

And finally, this is clearly another opportunity to extol the virtues of the Gin Rickey. D finds these too dry, but for me this is the best possible summer serve for gin. It’s also the best thing I’ve found to do with sloe gin.

You want a tall glass, a measure of your chosen gin, the juice and shell of half a lime, and plenty of ice in a glass. Then top it up with sparkling water. Happy international gin day.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Food with the Famous - Jane Grigson

When I read Laura Shapiro's 'What She Ate' I expected to like it a lot more than I did, and now that I've read Jane Grigson's 'Food with the Famous' I think I have a better understanding of why. 'Food with the Famous' is the book I wanted to read all along without knowing it.

It's much more food oriented and has a lighter touch than Shapiro's book, but I've found it to be more illuminating because of that. Which isn't to say that I think the two authors were trying to do the same thing or that one book is basically better than the other, rather that 'Food with the Famous' comes closer to my particular preferences. It's also a mystery as to why it's fallen out of print.

I had a bit of trouble getting hold of a cooy of this - the first one I ordered (paperback) was in such bad condition I had to bin it (advertised as very good, it turned up with 30 odd pages already adrift, the spine threatening to come apart, and covered in mildew spots). Second time round I tried a hardback which really was as described. It was worth all the effort.

The famous people Grigson has chosen are John Evelyn, Parson James Woodforde, Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson, Rev Sydney Smith, lord Shaftesbury, Lady Shaftesbury, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Claude Monet, and Marcel Proust. And if I understand correctly this originated as a series of articles for The Observer back in the 1970's.

Some of the famous need a little bit more introduction than others - I don't suppose there's much more that can be said about Jane Austen now she's been explored, prodded, and poked, from every conceivable angle, for so long and so thoroughly for example. Yet it's still fun to see her as a housekeeper, and to consider the details about food she puts into her novels through that lense. The catalytic question that sparked this book was one about White soup for the Netherfield ball. It's not a detail I'd ever really considered, but I'm pleased to now know that with some effort I could make just such a soup.

All the famous people come with recipes that are as close to original as the modern kitchen, and modern ingredients, make possible. It might not be that there are so many things I want to cook in here - though I'm up for any meal anybody else wants to cook for me, but even understanding the ingredients and methods in mentioned dishes adds something tangible to the work that forms their context.

The chapter that's interested me most so far is the one on Zola. I need to get back to my Zola project (I stalled a bit on 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret', but I know there are better things in store). I haven't actually read much about Zola beyond some almost completely forgotten details of his role in the Dreyfus affair as an undergraduate. Meeting him through his interest in food is a revelation. The bitchy gossip of Edmond de Goncourt makes both men supremely human. Grigson argues that Zola's pleasure in food comes from years of going without. She also shows how effectively he uses food to create atmosphere and make points in his novels.

I've been dipping in and out of this one, and am far from finished with it - apart from anything else Grigson keeps sending me back to other cook books (Eliza Acton, Mrs Rundell, Sir Kenelm Digby, and other Jane Grigson's for a start) as well as making me wonder if now is the time to tackle John Evelyn's diary (it probably isn't).

In short it's a gem of a book - and not least for the useful advice of using some diced up lumps of bread to clean a coffee grinder before and after using it to grind spices. That's a tip that will save me a few coffee and spice stained tea towels. Absolutely worth tracking down a copy whilst they're knocking around at a few pence.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Excellent Intentions - Richard Hull

It's been almost unbearably hot and stuffy in town for the last week, and noisy as well (there's been a festival on my street all weekend which hasn't helped) so I went home to mum for a night. The sheer pleasure of a garden to sit in (not a park full of bongo players and children high on candy floss) a dog to play with, absolute quiet at night, and my mother's excellent company, Champagne, and cooking is impossible to overstate. Even the dog bouncing on top of me at 5.30 am to check I was still there was a pleasure (or she might have been checking that I was alone, when D and I stay at Mum's the dog really doesn't look like she approves).

I didn't read quite as much as I meant to, but I did finish 'Excellent Intentions'. I should probably have started with 'The Murder of my Aunt' which the British Library Crime Classics series has also republished and which seems to have been Hull's best known book, as well as his first. 'Excellent Intentions matched the bottle of gin that I also bought last week though, and the two together made a particularly tempting combination.

If 'Excellent Intentions' is a good example of Hull's work 'The Murder of my Aunt' is something I can really look forward to reading. I truly enjoy the BL crime classics, they always have something appealing in terms of atmosphere and detail, and they're giving an increasingly thorough overview of  their genre and period. I love the way that there's room for books/writers that don't take themselves particularly seriously in the collection (I'm particularly thinking of Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain'), but what I part appreciate are books like this one.

'Excellent Intentions' is clever, and funny, and sly in equal measures. The murder victim is satisfyingly horrible, and a lengthy discussion on the finer points of stamp collecting and the detecting of forged stamps the sort of thing I consider the cherry on the cake of an author having a bit of fun with his readers.

'Excellent Intentions' is sort of a court room drama. We know who the victim is, and as the plot unfolds we find out through a series of testimonies, summings up, flash backs, and so on, what happened. We meet 4 potential suspects, but only find out at the end which one has been on trial, and even then there is a final twist.

It's clever enough to keep you guessing, but has sufficient clues along the way for the culprit to seem obvious enough when the reveal comes around. Hull's red herrings and sly humour are what makes the book for me though. I felt he was daring me to skip the stamp collecting details, knowing that I couldn't in case I missed a vital clue.

If production companies ever get tired of trying to reinvent Agatha Christie this would make a splendid adaptation as well - but that's almost certainly to much to hope for.