Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott with Ginger Wine

I love the idea of collected volumes of letters and journals in theory, but in practice rarely read them. At one time I had a good yard of Mitford letters but eventually sent them to a charity shop, that might partly be because the older I get the less patience I have for Mitford affectations, but definitely had a lot to do with feeling uncomfortably voyeristic reading them. And so it's been for various other collections of correspondence.

Journals are a bit different, especially ones written with an eye to future publication, but by their nature they tend to be doorstop books soagain they sit reproachfully unread on my shelves. Sir Walter Scott's journal is the exception that proves my rule - I've been regularly dipping into this one since I bought it in the summer.

I have a soft spot for Scott, who seems to have been a decent man by any standard you can apply, and was also a tremendous innovator. His books are sadly unfashionable now which is a shame because the best of them are more than worth the slight effort it takes to adjust to the pace that Scott imposes on his readers (which is after all part of his charm). The worst of them are pot boilers written after the collapse of his publisher left him with serious liabilities which he determined to write his way out of  (he could have walked away, but chose not too), but they're not generally in print now so are easily avoided.

His journal covers the last 6 years of his life, and is fascinating. There's such a lot in here about the man and his world, all in bite size chunks so if your interest is Scott, or the early 19th century, it's an absolute goldmine. This sat hopefully on my wish list for a couple of years before I found a bargain copy on holiday - I would have been delighted if someone had given it to me (being interested in both the man and his times) it would certainly have kept me quiet and happy until 12th night and beyond.

Scott would be an excellent opportunity to discuss Claret (which is another subject dear to my heart, and was plan A) but then toffee apple asked about ginger wine.

Like Scott, ginger wine is considered somewhat old fashioned, unlike Scott people still buy it in impressive quantities (I've currently run out of both Stone's and Crabbies at work, more had better turn up soon or there'll be trouble), but I hadn't realised how far back it goes. It seems quite likely that Scott would have encountered it in some form be it home made or a proprietary brand,

Stone's has been around since the 1740's, Crabbies sine 1801 (these are the brands to go for, neither are expensive, aficionados have a strong preference for one or the other, experiment to see which works best for you). It's a fortified brew of fermented ginger, raisins, and other things (citrus, spice, and secrets), and once open best drunk within 3 weeks (otherwise the flavour will fade). It's a handy ingredient to have around, especially in winter if you want to give anything a bit of ginger kick.

To drink it's good over ice, or straight out the bottle, but maybe best known for its role in a whisky mac, I've always been given this half and half, but again experiment to see if this is the right proportion for you (a blend, no need to break out the single malt for this). It's also a popular addition to Mulled wine (instead of port or brandy) and makes an excellent toddy along with honey and lemon. The Stone's website particularly has a decent list of recipes if you're after further inspiration.


Monday, December 10, 2018

The Tea House Detective with Cremant de Bourgogne

I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel as a teenager (and still do), and think I read most of the series in battered old Library copies that have almost certainly been destroyed by now. What I only started to realise in the last few years was how many other books Orczy had written, including reasonably early detective fiction. Since then I've obviously wanted to read them, but they've not been the easiest books to come by (more or less out of print, and with a mixed reputation which makes a serious investment of time or money a bit risky).

Pushkin Vertigo is one of my favourite imprints, and so far everything I've read or bought (I've bought a lot more than I've read) in it has been international noir so I was almost as surprised as I was delighted to see that they've reprinted 'The Old Man In The Corner', and that early next year we're getting 'The Case of Miss Elliot' as well in 'The Teahouse Detective' series.

I've started 'The Old Man in the Corner' and it's promising to be everything I could want it to be (an elderly gentleman is mansplaining crimes to a competent female journalist, I think she's going to get the last word though). I've also spent quite a bit of time trying to think what Polly Burton of the Evening Observer would drink.

I know she drinks coffee because that's what she's having with her lunch on page 1, and coffee or a good cup of tea (an Assam heavy blend seems most appropriate for the teahouse setting) are obviously a good match for any book, as well as being the lunch time choice of a female journalist of the Belle Époque - but what else would a respectable, independent, young woman of the age drink?

One answer might be Champagne, but Polly is earning a living so Cremant de Bourgogne (or Sparkling Burgundy) would be the economical alternative. When I started out in the winectrade New World Fizz was the thing everybody wanted, then Cava had its moment, and currently it's Prosecco. I've never quite understood why prosecco is quite as popular as it is - beyond its relative cheapness. It's okay, but it's often quite bland and a bit sugary, and there are much better things out there.

One of the better things out there is Cremant de Bourgogne, which is finally getting a bit more attention. The great thing about this wine is that it's made using the Champagne method (bottle fermentation means better ageing potential, more complexity, better quality fizz) from more or less the same grapes as Champagne (though some gamay and aligoté might also be used - there are only 3 permitted grape varieties in Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier - but that's another post in itself). The short version is that you're getting Champagne quality and flavour for a fraction of the price.

There are plenty of good quality Cremant de Bourgognes around for between £10-£15 at the moment and for that you'll be getting something that will rival any NV Champagne, if you're looking at cheaper Champagne generally I'd recommend the Cremant over it every time. It'll almost certainly be better, and much better value.

I'd also put in a good word for those new world fizzes - quite a few are made by Champagne houses anyway, and they too are excellent quality at very reasonable prices. I don't know why they fell out of favour but they knock the socks of most prosecco's I've tried.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Spirits of the Season with Brandy

My spirits of choice are whisky and gin, not the least of their attractions is that they're relatively easy to understand. Brandy is not my drink, although I'd never be without a bottle in the house, it's also a much more difficult spirit to define or explain.

It's mostly made from grapes, but can be made from other fruits, eau de vie for example is a fruit brandy, and Grappa (I approach Grappa with much the same caution as raw oysters, and with about as much success - it really isn't my drink). Sometimes it's made in pot stills (as in Cognac) sometimes in continuous stills (that's more or less how they make it in Armagnac) which is more or less why the classifications V.S, V.S.O.P, and XO denote different ages from the two regions. It can, and is, made pretty much everywhere fruit is grown... and so it continues.

For practical purposes I find it more helpful to think of brandy in terms of cooking, cocktail, or sipping. Cooking brandy would be supermarket own label bottles, or the branded ones at similar prices. These are great for feeding Christmas cakes, deglazing pans, setting fire to on Christmas puddings (or Burnt Coffee) and any other recipe where the flavour of the brandy isn't paramount.

Cocktail brandy wants to be a step up in quality, in U.K. Supermarket terms I'm basically thinking of the big Cognac brands, Courvoisier V.S. (Very Special) is the sweetest of these, Martell a little dryer, and Remy Martin V.S.O.P (very special old pale, which is 4 or more years old compared to the 2+ years for the V.S) the latter two are arguably better balanced than the Courvoisier but its very much a matter of personal taste as to which you will prefer. I like H by Hine when I can find it, or an Armagnac, or a Spanish brandy like Torres too. Any of these will provide an excellent base for a drink, and although they're all perfectly good on their own too it's worth bareing in mind with the cognacs that they're blended with cocktails in mind.

Sipping brandy is a step up again, not necessarily a step up in price unless you're looking at Cognac, in which case it's definitely a step up in price, but really decent Armagnac, Spanish brandy, and Greek brandy (I'm thinking of Metaxa) are fairly reasonable. A good Cognac will start at about £45 and climb from there, and as ever I'm a firm believer in drinking better but less. There's plenty of good stuff at around that £50 mark.

If brandy itself isn't my favourite drink, it's depiction in literature fascinates me. It has a more respectable history than gin or whisky, having always been a gentlemans drink (whisky rose in popularity/respectability when phylloxera devastated France's vineyards seriously affecting wine and brandy production from the mid 19th century) but it comes with an aura of danger as well.

It was a love of brandy and punishment that did for the poet Swinburne, Trollope covers the dangers of excessive brandy drinking in Dr Thorne, and so does Anne Brontë in The Tennent of Wildfell Hall. Evelyn Waugh uses it as a class marker in Brideshead Revisited, and it's restorative properties are needed more than once in 'Spirits of the Season'.

This is the Christmas Hauntings offering from the British Library's tales of the weird series. Tanya Kirk is the general editor who also put together 'The Haunted Library' - both are brilliant. 'Spirits of the Season' is stuffed with absolute gems - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and 'The Demon King' are two new favourites - both are comedies with an eerie edge rather than the sort of thing to keep you awake at night, but there are more chilling tales in there too.

I'm not quite sure when we lost the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, but this is just the book to bring it back with.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales with Something Mulled

I've been asked a lot today for a non alcoholic Mulled wine, which we do not sell, so this seems like a good time to offer a recipe. I can find the mention of Mulled wine a bit triggering; we either have to much of it in a teetering pile that's threatening to crush me, or not enough and people who can't be bothered to make their own are behaving like it's the end of the world.

It's not the end of the world because it's remarkably easy to make (I know I post about this every year, but it never goes away) and so is an alcohol free version. You could use de alcoholised wine - although I don't think I would. I'd be more inclined to start with apple juice as a base, or maybe a mix of cranberry, blueberry, and/or pomegranate along with grape. I might miss out the grape altogether because I find it a bit sweet.

Fruit juice or juices chosen it's simply a matter of putting it in a pan along with a couple of cinnamon sticks, a few cloves, a slice of fresh ginger if you want to give it some pep and half a dozen lightly crushed cardamom pods, also star anise but go easy on that, it can easily over power the other flavours. You can also grate in a bit of nutmeg - but the point of making your own is to experiment a bit to get something you really like.

If you're using an apple base a few slices of apple, and some lemon peel look good, you could also throw in some raisins, or fresh cranberries. Gently heat everything together   until it just reaches a simmer and hold it there for 20mins to half an hour for the flavours to really mingle. If you want it sweeter add a bit of sugar.

If it's not apple based oranges, whole with the cloves stuck in them, or sliced, are excellent, or you could use clementines. You could also use the pre mixed wine mulling spices, but they're expensive for what you get and chances are most of what you want is already on your spice rack. And that's it. Throw a few things in a pan, heat it up, leave it be for 20 minutes, serve it. Festive and family friendly.

When I bought Philip Pullman's 'Grimm Tales for Young and Old' it was a slightly guilty purchase - but obviously I need multiple versions of these stories, and Pullman is a master story teller so of course his take on them would be worth reading. It was an entirely accurate justification and I'm very glad I did buy this book. Like the mulled fruit juice it really is good for young and old.

Pullman puts enough flesh on the bones of the stories to make them fun to read, but doesn't interfere with the darkness or brutality of the source material. Each one then ends with its tale type, source, a list of similar stories from a range of sources, and Pullman's own commentary and insights. It's been around for a while (since 2012) but I only came across it this year. It would be the perfect stocking filler type gift for anybody who likes a good fairytale, or anybody who enjoys good story telling.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Black Sea Dispatches and Recipes with a Potemkin

Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches and Recipes' is a thing of beauty, it's cover shimmers, and its black edged pages are surely the book equivalent of a little black dress, or a particularly well cut dinner jacket. The contents more than live up to the promise of the cover.

You will find 'Black Sea' in the cookery section of all good bookshops, and there are recipes running all the way through it, but I don't think it's primarily a cookbook. The food is there to give colour and flavour to the stories and experiences Eden is relating. It's a book she means you to read cover to cover, though the essays will stand alone, and you should do what she wants because she's an excellent travel writer and guide.

I've had this book for weeks now and am slowly, happily, working my way through it. There is nothing I don't love about it, and if I didn't already have it there's no book I'd rather have found under the tree on Christmas Day. There's a few people I will be buying it for too.

The Potemkin Cocktail is one of several in the book with the idea of conjuring up a taste or mood of the region under discussion rather than being some ancient recipe. I particularly like this one for the way it evokes a mood with element simplicity.

It's a twist on The Fireside cocktail, I tried making a few versions of the Fireside after trying the Potemkin, the Potemkin is much better. You need some fine salt, a couple of crushed ice cubes, 40 mls of vodka, 50mls freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (pink is best) and a sprig of Rosemary per person.

Squeeze the grapefruit, and then dip a tall, chilled glass into the shell of it, before salting the rim of the glass. Add the ice, pour the vodka in, top up with the grapefruit juice, and then take the Rosemary sprig and run a long lighted match along it to boost the aroma, stick it in the glass. Salty, fresh, and an earthy hint of forest from the rosemary - it's the perfect drink for the book, or for a general aperitif.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Holly Tree Inn with a Burnt Coffee

Life is full of surprises. Today's surprise was that I don't own a copy of 'A Christmas Carol', and now I'm wondering if I've ever actually read it, or just seen endless adaptations over the years. I've not been wildly enthusiastic about Dickens (quite like him, but the books are generally long and I've always enjoyed Wilkie Collins more) but even so, not having a copy of A Christmas Carol seems particularly remiss.

Another book I don't own is 'Drinking with Dickens' which sounds right up my street - so maybe this time next year I will not only have made sure I've read 'A Christmas Carol' but have done much more research on his drinking habits and preferences as well. Meanwhile I read a reference to the Victorian parlour game of snapdragon recently (which Dickens also mentions) and it made me think of Burnt Coffee.

Snapdragon sounds like a health and safety nightmare (you have to retrieve raisins from a bowl of burning Brandy or something - I'm having internet problems today which is reminding me why keeping written notes would be really helpful). I found the recipe for Burnt Coffee in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' written in the 1930's, but he gives no details about its provenance. It seems like the sort of thing Dickens might have liked though, and I love it. This was an excellent discovery last year that saw me through the worst of the winter.

'The Holly-Tree Inn' is a reprint of 1855's Christmas issue of 'Household Words' from Hesperus press, I have about 4 of these, there may well be more. The great thing about them is that you're not just getting Dickens as the cover suggests, but stories from a range of contributors. This one has a theme to make a narrative framework (the introduction tells me this was only the second time Dickens had done that). A group of travellers are snowed into an the Holly-Tree inn, and tell each other stories. Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Adelaide Anne Procter, and Harriet Parr are the other contributors to this one,

The Burnt Coffee is simply a small cup of strong black coffee with a good spoon of brown sugar stirred in, and then a healthy tot of Brandy gently poured on top. You light the brandy, blowing out the flame before all the spirit is burnt off. The result is a little like an Irish coffee without the cream. It's sweet without being too sweet, potent without being too strong, and generally delicious. I like the drama/ceremony element of lighting the brandy and think this is enough of a nod to dangerous Victorian parlour games to capture the spirit of the thing without risking serious burns.

It may not be the most authentic match, but it's a good one.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Landfill with a Bull Shot

I went to a ladies (clay) shooting day today. It rained heavily, my feet got extremely cold, and I didn't hit much. Regardless I enjoyed myself, the lunch was excellent, and I encountered a Bull Shot for the first time.

A bit of research tells me that this take on a Bloody Mary probably originated in America in the 1950's and that it currently has a bit of a tweedy reputation (which would fit with the tweedy gentleman who was making it). I'm prepared to accept the 1950's date, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find this has much older roots (and I'll be keeping an eye out for earlier versions).

Tim Dee's 'Landfill' is the latest in the Little Toller series of monographs - these books are the perfect size to fit in a pocket, cover a diverse range of topics, are beautiful to behold, and are generally brilliant. "Landfill tells the story of how we have worked the rest of the living world: learned about it, named and catalogued it, colonised and planted it, and filled it with our rubbish." It's also about gulls, how they've learnt to exploit our rubbish and how this disturbs us.

On a practical note the Bull Shot is the sort of drink you might want to put into a thermos to take out on a cold day whilst birdwatching, or just walking generally, or to have ready to heat up when you get home. There's also something about the punchiness of the drink that puts me in mind of a piratically inclined herring gull that's just spotted someone with hot chips and their guard down.

It can be made hot or cold, I'm altogether more interested in hot drinks - hot boozy drinks are under appreciated, far too many people never get further than mulled wine, but they have a lot going for them. Mostly that they're hot which is just what you want on a wet and raw December day. I also like the way that a little alcohol can go a long way.

The Bull Shot calls for beef consommé (tinned is fine) vodka, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, dry Sherry, lemon juice, Tabasco, and black pepper. If your making it cold the Sherry is optional and the proportions will be more important (there are several recipes out there). If you're making it hot, start by heating the consommé and add everything else until it tastes good - how much you use will depend on how much you want to make, and how much of an alcoholic and chilli kick you want it to have. If you want to go easy on the alcohol the temperature and the chilli heat are already giving you quite a kick anyway.

The Sherry (this would be a handy way of using up any open Fino, or Manzanilla, neither of which keep particularly well) adds a bit of body to the warm version, so it's the vodka I'd cut back on if you want a milder version as that's giving you no flavour at all.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Christmas Card Mystery and Bitter Truth's Traveler's Set

Christmas traditions come and go, one of my favourite of recent years (and long may it continue) has been the British Library's Christmas themed offering, especially the short story collections. I love a good short story collection at any time, but particularly at this time of year when I don't feel like I have a lot of reading time.

I also feel that a good anthology is a fairly safe present - as long as you get the genre right you can't really go wrong. This years offering is 'The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories' edited by Martin Edwards who has found some absolute gems. It's a fairly dark collection by earlier British Library standards - 'Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech' is particularly bleak, and 'Blind Man's Hood' crosses over into ghost story territory in the best Christmas tradition, and I like that too. It's a balance to the sentimentality of the season.

I wonder if the resurgence of interest in golden age/classic crime and the renewed interest in classic cocktails and their ingredients is in some way linked? Perhaps both or symptomatic of the same kind of nostalgia for the (mostly imaginary) certainties of the past. Or maybe it's that both are more or less a good thing and there are enough people who appreciate that.

Either way Cocktail bitters are making a very welcome reappearance. If you're really keen you can make your own. I'm not tempted to do this, mostly but not only because I wouldn't get through them quickly enough. Bitters still aren't the easiest thing to find in the high street though. Marks & Spencer's keep trying, but they generally seem to end up being reduced to clear (at least around here).  A good independent wine merchant, especially if they're good on spirits, will probably have a decent range, otherwise it's the Internet.

Bitters are useful though, and go far beyond the Angostura variety. Because you only use a couple of drops you don't particularly need to worry about the relatively high alcohol content, add a dash to a mixer for a very low alcohol reasonably grown up tasting drink. They're a god send for improving a mediocre gin, or whisky for that matter, and originally their use more or less defined something as a cocktail (rather than a flip, sling, julep, etc).

The Bitter Truth make a couple of sets that contain 5 different bitters in 2cl bottles. They're not especially cheap (I think with postage my travelers set cost about £18) but good value considering how far they'll go. I like these sets for the variety they give - it's a tin of possibilities that is actually perfect for traveling with. The Traveler's set has orange, celery, Creole, old time aromatic, and Jerry Thomas' own decanter bitters - orange bitters feature a lot in old cocktails, celery bitters in a few contemporary ones - all of them have their points.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons with a Manhattan

I think books make great presents, I like getting them, I like giving them. Something I really miss from childhood is the joy of being given book tokens - the best gift for a bookish child (or adult), and the best books to give are ones you know are wanted. I turn my Amazon wish list over to my family and ask them to choose from it for me. I don't know what they've chosen, but they know I'll want it.

'The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons ' is definitely a wish list sort of book - expensive enough that you might put off buying it yourself for a while, but not so expensive that I wouldn't buy it for someone else (it's just under £50 on Amazon at the moment) if I knew they'd really like it.

It might give Santa a hernia trying to deliver it (you get a lot of book for your money) but this would be such a nice thing to open at Christmas and retreat into - it would keep you busy right through to the New Year and beyond.


The Manhattan, which features both vermouth and bitters, has been my favourite Cocktail discovery of the year. It's taken me so long to find them because I don't normally have American whiskey around, but I was given a bottle of Maker's Mark a few months back and needed something to do with it.

For preference I like my whisky Scottish, not because I think it's inherently better, but because it's what I grew up with. Bourbon has to be aged in new, charred, oak barrels and that wood has a dominant effect on the spirit. (A lot of those barrels then make their way to Scotland for malt whisky to be aged in, but the bourbon has tamed them a bit by then) and when I was first learning about these things good Rye whiskey wasn't as easy to buy as it is now so I've kind of overlooked it.

When I consult the Savoy Cocktail Book there are 4 Manhattan recipies giving options for sweet and dry, the one thing they all have in common is that they specify Rye or Canadian Club. My Maker's Mark is bourbon, so I kept looking for recipes. I found one on a bottle of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (another current favourite). This just asks for an American whiskey, and the results are great. It's 60mls whiskey, 30mls Cocchi Torino and 2 dashes of bitters stirred over ice and poured into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange or a marischino cherry.

Angostura bitters are generally specified, but I've also been happily experimenting with some cranberry bitters I found going cheap in Marks & Spencer's. I think there are enough variations in the old recipes to allow a bit of space for innovation on the bitters front, but it is really important to use good whiskey and vermouth - you'll know if you don't.

Anything with vermouth in it has a vintage flavour to me (I imagine this is what the 1920's and 30's tasted like), my partner describes it as musty, I prefer complex - the more I drink it the more I like it. The Manhattan is a great showcase for it, and just the thing to sip with a really comprehensive collection of Cartoons.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Consider the Oyster with Ultra Brut Champagne

And my carefully considered blog plan might as well be thrown out the window, because this book - M. F. K. Fisher's 'Consider the Oyster' was never part of it. I found 'Consider the Oyster' in the poetry section of Waterstones this afternoon - it didn't belong there either but as soon as I saw, it it answered a tricky Christmas present question.

I don't know if  M. F. K. Fisher remained well known in America, and is only just being rediscovered here, or if she'd all but vanished everywhere but having seen her quoted or heard here mentioned in passing for years it's a great to be able to actually get her books again and see what all the fuss was about.


Turns out she's brilliant, funny, informative, opinionated, knowledgeable - everything I want a food writer to be. I had rejected this book on my own account because I can't bring myself to swallow a raw oyster. I've tried, I failed, and it was such a failure I'm not even especially keen on reading about them. This is an exceptionally pretty book though (the cover is pearlised, for all the world like a palate of eyeshadow) and just the thing for a foodie in my life. It's a mix of recipes and anecdotes worked into essays, it will be the perfect book to retreat into over Christmas.

Oysters work surprisingly well with a range of Wines and also Guinness, but whilst I might drink a Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine on its own on a hot summers day none of those very dry wines appeal in the same way without food in winter, and I don't get especially excited by the fruitier new world Sauvignon Blancs either - although they're very drinkable on their own.

An extra Brut Champagne is a different matter. Laurent Perrier and Pol Roger are both easy to find, and I really like my Champagne bone dry. It's exactly what I'd choose to sit and read a book with, and a couple of glasses might even persuade me to try again with an oyster - if anything could make the idea bearable it's a good slug of good Champagne.

If you generally find Champagne too dry this probably isn't the style for you - not that I feel like it's particularly dry whilst I'm drinking it, it's more that other champagnes start to seem cloyingly sweet by comparison. If dry is your thing though it's just wonderful (I am particularly fond of the Pol Roger Pure if anybody wants to know...).