Monday, April 16, 2018

Tea Cosy

True to my resolution to try and extend my (very limited) Knitting skill set I resisted the urge to cast on another kep and had a look for something that would teach me something new. The Osaka tea cosy  in 'Knit Real Shetland' (15 knitting projects in real Shetland wool from Jamieson and Smith, I bought this last summer because I liked the variety of things in it, the photography, and because it was on sale - I think it's been superseded by a new collection of patterns).

The tea cosy looked like an excellent way to use up some odds and ends of yarn, have a go at putting in steeks and then cutting them (not as frightening as I thought it would be) and managing a pattern and decreases at the same time.

I could have made better colour decisions, but the cosy itself is just the right size for getting through left over yarns. Unfortunately it turns out to be not the right size for any of my teapots. One is to big, three are to small. The tea pot that's wearing it in this picture looks like it's stolen someone else's over sized jumper, and whilst I suppose it will do the job just as well I don't feel it's doing either the pattern, or my teapot, any favours.

The whole steek thing has always struck me as a bit daunting. If the term is unfamiliar it's when you add in extra stitches to a pattern forming a bridge between two sides of something which you will later cut to separate them. It lets you knit your project in the round, which is faster than doing it flat. The idea of taking scissors to something I've knitted has always made me a bit nervous, but everybody who says it's oddly liberating is right.

The bit I liked best about this though was the shaping and pattern on the crown of the cosy. I don't know why I found it so satisfying, but I did.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food - Claudia Roden

My sister gave me this for my birthday in 2000, I think I already had Roden's book (another Penguin paperback) on Mediterranean Cooking, and might have had her wonderful region by region guide to Italian food as well (which very usefully talked about wine too). Neither of them have been as well used as 'A New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. Her 'Picnics' book is another favourite - and again, thinking about these books is taking me right back to the shop I bought them from and reminding me how much I miss it.

Reading Claudia Roden was another lightbulb moment. I know I asked my sister for this book, it's how we do presents - asking each other for small things we want but can't quite justify buying. The price of cookbooks have remained remarkably static over the last few decades, so in real terms they're a whole lot cheaper now than they were then. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. On the upside it means these books are much more accessible, but there's so much about food and what it truly costs to get from field to fork that is undervalued. Are relatively cheap cookbooks part of that?

Anyway I was so pleased with this book. it's spine is badly cracked now, and it's pages cockled by water and stained with god only know what (honey, tahini, lamb and apricot juices, orange flower water...) it is a much loved friend that falls open at well loved recipes in such a way that I sometimes think it decides for me which recipe I'll cook.

It's because of this book that I always have dried apricots and prunes in the house. It's this book that encourages me to buy cinnamon in catering sized packs, and that has shaped my spice rack in a dozen other ways. It's this book that taught me to cook rice properly, because before this I just chucked it in a pan with water - unmeasured - and overboiled it more often than not.

It was also Claudia Roden who made me realise how far you could explore from your own kitchen and how exciting that could be. I am not good with hot spices - even a tiny bit of chilli defeats me (which is a nuisance in Leicester, where I'm very aware of all the good stuff I'm missing out on), so realising spice didn't have to mean hot was a really big deal.

Another revelation was seeing the links between flavours direct from the Middle East at the heart of things like Christmas cake, mincemeat, plum pudding. This is when I started getting really interested in food history, and began to wonder when and where we got our traditions from. The stories, memories, customs, beliefs, and legends that Roden shares bring the recipes to life as well.

Browsing through Amazon reviews tonight I see that a few people lament the lack of pictures in this book. I don't mind that at all. As beautiful as food photography uniformly is these days, I rarely find it makes the food live in my imagination in the way that 4 descriptions of how to cook rice do in this book. Also, I'm much more nervous about staining the pages of those beautiful books, this one doesn't reproach me for the mess it's in.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Revisiting Jane Grigson

I'm slowly making my way through 'How To Eat a Peach', taking time to explore the memories and ideas it raises. Food is such a central part of our lives that's it's easy to take it for granted, but what is more evocative than flavour, and how many memories are created around food?

I can't quite remember when I bought Jane Grigson's Fruit and Vegetable books, but I vividly remember where, to the point that I can close my eyes and see the shelves of a long gone bookshop again. I remember why I bought them too, I was still living in the country, but working in Leicester. It was the first time I'd had regular access to a proper market, especially one that sold such a dazzling array of things. I needed to know what they were and what to do with them.

It was also around the time I started working for Oddbins where the staff were proper foodies so there was a lot of conversation about cooking and wine. We also worked 11 hour days without official breaks which in the early days meant I was only in for three and a half days a week. I really loved the flexibility of that working pattern, and again vividly remember sitting on the bus reading through Jane Grigson, planning what to buy and cook.

Large glossy hardbacks full of gorgeous photography are all well and good, but they lack the portability of these battered paperbacks. There is so much to love about Jane Grigson's books; the range of recipes she covers, her anacdotes and history that give these recipes context, the way she imbues things that I'd previously considered slightly mundane with magic and romance, and the emphasis on a key ingredient.

I can't open these books for a quick recap as I could with yesterday's Claire Macdonald's, the temptation to keep reading is overwhelming, and not just to keep reading Grigson, but to follow the references she mentions, or find something that further evokes a mood she conjures with a few ingredients and some reminiscences.

Another thing these books really did for me was help shift a mindset that started with a plan of what I would cook and then sent me out on a hunt for ingredients, to one where I'd see what looked best on the market on any given day and then plan around it. It made shopping much more fun, it also made the idea of the weekly shop of my childhood seem increasingly unnatural.

Mostly though it's the history and life she gives her ingredients. Carrots will never seem mundane again after reading Grigson* - there are whole worlds of knowledge in these books, and sitting here this afternoon I'm struck again by just how wonderful a writer she is.

*She has lots to say about carrots and their culinary history, all of which is delightful. She also includes a recipe for Angel's Hair Charlotte which is a sublime dessert which mixes a carrot jam with cream and boudoir fingers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Old Cookbooks - Revisiting Claire Macdonald

Specifically my old cookbooks, in this case the first ones I remember buying - Claire Macdonald's 'Seasonal Cooking' and 'More Seasonal Cooking'.

Reading through Diana Henry's 'How To Eat a Peach' has got me thinking about how own food and cooking history, experiences, expectations, and hopes. It was way back sometime in the early 1990's and I'd been working for my stepmother (who is a cook). As I remember it, it was the point where we started to take it for granted that the ingredients we wanted would be available year round and sundried tomatoes became a real thing.

Bo (my stepmother) had both of these Claire Macdonald books, and we used them quite a bit. 'Seasonal Cooking', first published in 1983 seemed somewhat out of step with newer cookbooks I was seeing, but it also made a lot more sense to me. Good quality seasonal ingredients, many of them local, and recipes mostly pitched at dinner party level - so with a little bit of glamour about them.

Both books are divided into months, each month broken down into something that looks a lot like a restaurant menu (presumably the menus of Kinloch Lodge). It feels much more contemporary now than it did in the 90's. Looking at April's puddings it's rhubarb that's in season, so you get rhubarb fudge crumble, rhubarb meringue pie, rhubarb and ginger syllabub, ginger shortbread fingers (which go with the syllabub), and a rich chocolate and ginger pudding. Other months do the same thing for strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and so on.

I'm not sure I even registered it at the time but it's an approach that really hammered home the importance of getting things at their best and making the most of them. This is also the book that helped me think about how to build and balance a meal over 3 courses. That's not something that came naturally - natural was to put all the things I liked best on the table regardless of how likely that would be to cause indigestion, or how well they might compliment each other.

It was only when I started working in the wine trade and was learning about how to match food and wine that it all really began to make sense. Learning how to match food to wine, rather than wine to food, was the eye opener though. You have to choose which is going to be the focus, better wine wants simpler food, it really helps you strip a menu down to its basics.

The lemon curd pavlova in 'Seasonal Cooking' remains one of my favourite desserts of all time, I haven't made it for years - I need an excuse to make it again soon. I've tagged a gooseberry and mint jam recipe that Macdonald recommends as an alternative for red current jam with lamb as well.

There's something very comforting about the tone of this book too; it's dinner at the big house with proper silver cutlery and lots of it, getting dressed up, and using the correct wine glasses. It's the kind of food that owes a lot to the hosts garden, and possibly the hosts skill with rod or gun, or at least is a testament to their relationship with their butcher. It's generous food that takes pleasure in good things and good company - and again looking at it now I can see how deeply all of this has sunk into my own ideas of what a good meal should be.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Coping Stratagies

I can't remember a wetter, colder, more miserable spring than this in Leicestershire. I can normally turn my heating off at the beginning of March, not this year, and as the grey wet days pile up I'm starting to dread the electricity bill.

Mum and I keep having our Wednesday afternoon clay shooting sessions rained off (my gun hits its centenary this year, it wants to be treated with a little consideration and not exposed to the sort of weather that might encourage rust, that and it's not much fun us standing around getting soaked either) which is a shame. Shooting clays is brilliant for stress busting and I'm missing it.

I'm also finding it hard to concentrate when it comes to reading fiction, all I really want to do is hibernate with a stack of Georgette Heyer's, a packet of Choco Leibniz (dark, there is no better biscuit in my world), and a lot of tea, but I'm fairly sure that's a desire I shouldn't give into. Although if I'm honest the Choco Leibniz and tea have taken a bit of a hammering.

What I have been reading is Susan Crawford's 'Vintage Shetland Project', although there's a bitter sweet edge to that. A lot of the photography was done around where I grew up, and where the weather has been rather better so far this year. It's making me very homesick. It's a fabulous book, inspiring on all sorts of levels, and definitely the thing to inspire creativity on dull days - so I've also been knitting a lot whilst catching up on podcasts.

I'm not very good at keeping on top of the podcasts I subscribe to, so it shouldn't really have surprised me that there seem to be the best part of two years worth sitting there. I've been particularly enjoying Simon and Rachel's Tea & Books - it's easily the best one to knit to. (I'm not quite sure why that is, but it's meant as a compliment).

I've also been reading Diana Henry's new book 'How To Eat a Peach'. I've had it for a couple of weeks and had meant to have written about it by now. There's a lot of things I meant to do about this book and haven't though. I meant to ask the publisher for a review copy, but then I thought I'd rather have the pleasure of buying it. My local bookshops are small enough that more often than not they don't have what I want, and don't particularly reward browsing. There's a very specific sense of joy in walking in and picking up an anticipated title, then sharing your enthusiasm for it with the bookseller, which adds to my pleasure every time I open that particular book again. That said, I'd also meant to wait until I saw this one on offer somewhere - because apart from anything else there's that not inconsiderable electricity bill on the way. That thrifty intention lasted about 20 seconds after I saw the book, and felt it's fuzzy peach like cover.

I've loved all of Diana Henry's books, they've seen me through some difficult times (especially 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' which helped me preserve my way through a grieving process one autumn a few years ago and left me with over a hundred jars of jam, jelly, marmalade, and more) provided some memorable meals, and provided plenty of food for thought as well. Even so 'How To Eat a Peach' is special. The cookbook part is a collection of menus, but there's so much of Diana's thinking about food, and more, here that it's a book that needs to be read properly before I can write properly about it. The summery is that it's brilliant.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Cruel Prince - Holly Black

Reading 'Neverwhere' and 'Anansi Boys' left me in the mood for a bit more fantasy fiction along broadly similar lines. It's not a genre that I'm overly familiar with so it was lucky that I remembered Simon Savidge had been talking to Holly Black about 'The Cruel Prince', which sounded like it might be fun.

Young Adult didn't really exist as a category when I was in my teens (or at least I certainly didn't notice it if it did) so it's a label I find quite intriguing, not least because I think I'm more inclined to enjoy books like this now than I would have done in my teens.

'The Cruel Prince' is a modern tale of Faerie - one drowsy Sunday afternoon an odd looking stranger turns up on Jude's doorstep, kills her parents, and takes her and her sisters back to Elfhame. He does this because Jude's mother was his human wife who faked her own death to run back to the mortal world with her equally human lover, and unborn half fairy child, Vivi. Fairy notions of honour make him responsible not just for Vivi, but also Jude and her twin sister, Taryn.

Fast forward ten years and the human girls are trying to find their way in the upper echelons of fairy society. It's a cruel and dangerous world where everybody seems to despise them, and a lot of things would quite happily kill them. School is a particular problem. For Taryn the answer seems to be to find romance, for Jude it's to trade on her skills as a fighter. The half fairy Vivi is much more interested in returning to the human world where she's formed a relationship with a girl called Heather. For Jude and Taryn Faerie, for all its dangers, is the place they know and where they want to make their lives.

The attractive thing about a book set in Faerie is that it calls on folk tales that go deep into our collective past, and uses imagery that's been particularly popular since the Victorian developed a love of fairy paintings. Walking around town today it was also really noticeable how mainstream a fairy tale aesthetic is (from Alex Monroe jewellery to Ted Baker flower prints). It also means that Black spends a lot of time describing her world. It's one of the things that make books like this so compelling to fans - but it's also why I'm not a great fan of the genre. Endless details of fantastical dresses and unlikely beasts don't particularly interest me.

What I did like is what Black does with Jude, who is every bit as much of a mess as you would expect of a girl who watched her parents get murdered before going off to live with the man who killed them, whilst having to negotiate her way through all the cultural differences of the new world she finds herself in. I also like the way that you can pick your metaphors here, and the complexity of the relationships Jude has with her foster father and with her Cruel prince.

The prince seen through Jude's eyes is an arrogant bully who hates her, presumably because he sees her as a lesser, mortal, being. The presumption is in Jude's part, the reader suspects it might be more complicated. Happily the tension between the pair remains mostly unresolved, with an acknowledgment that physical attraction doesn't have a lot to do with your better judgment.

A bigger problem is that the relationship between the twin sisters seems off, and is under explored, also why introduce twins only to more or less ignore one of them? What we know of the girl's parents is troubling too, and seems to me at least as morally questionable as anything else that happens in the book.

I liked this enough to think that I'll read the next part (if I remember, it's not due out until January next year) but not so much that I'm interested in looking for any of Black's other books.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cheese and Dairy - Steven Lamb

I feel like I've been waiting for this book forever, or at least for any time in the last decade or so (it seems like only yesterday when I was eyeing the first River Cottage handbooks in what used to be the big Waterstones in town, but it was 2007, and that branch has gone) the series wouldn't have been complete without it.

It's hard to overstate my enthusiasm for the River Cottage handbooks, there is nothing that I do not love about them. The variety of writers who have contributed to the series, each bringing a distinctive voice, but always making them feel like friends contributing to a conversation, the whole philosophy behind the books, the breadth of things they cover, the way they make you feel you can have a go at anything from curing bacon, to skinning a rabbit, to making a cheese, and so much more inbetween. All of it just makes these books special, and I've not even mentioned that they fit in a pocket (particularly handy for the foraging titles) or the really useful range of recipes that don't just cover the obvious choices for any given subject. They're just great.

Cheese really isn't my passion; I will never understand the appeal of something that smells like it died some time ago, relies heavily on mould, or oozes across the plate towards you, all of which puts me in a significant minority amongst the people I know. I do like all sorts of hard cheeses, goats cheese, and other things that don't smell like socks that have been left on a corpse, but I always assumed that I'd be reading this book with a view to acquiring some general knowledge rather than in a will do spirit.

Now that I've actually got my hands on 'Cheese and Dairy' though, the desire to do is increasing. That's mostly on the yoghurt/labneh/crème fraîche/mascarpone front, and I'm not really sure how practical a proposition it is to make your own Crème Fraîche, even if you are going to turn some of it into mascarpone when you live more or less alone. That's especially true because I can't actually remember when I last bought either, but still, at least I now know how.

I'm also actually quite surprised, and excited, by the variety of cheese styles it's practical for the home cook to make - which certainly demonstrates what a lost art cheesemaking has become. Not so very long ago this is knowledge which would have been much more widespread, at least in rural areas and farming families.

What interests me most here though is the discussion about different sorts of milk and the processes involved in its commercial production (so the differences between raw milk, pasteurised milk, and that filtered stuff that keeps an unfeasibly long time) and milk from different animals. Even if I don't see myself as a would be cheese maker I do like to have a better understanding of what I'm buying. The sections that explain all this are short but very informative so you get a good overview, or a very good place to start before moving on to more detailed research.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

It's stopped raining, which is something, but it's so bitterly cold in my flat that I'm considering getting the hoover out simply because of the warm air (albeit scented with dog hair) that it blows out. My flat really could do with hoovering from a housekeeping point of view too, but somehow that's not much of an incentive.

The cold, indoors and out, has made me even more aware of the growing number of betters and rough sleepers I'm seeing on the streets at the moment. In all the years I've lived in the city I've never known it quite like this, that it's coincided with an unusually cold and long winter makes the situation even more worrying.

It also reminded me that I haven't written about 'Neverwhere' yet. It's a book that I'd sort of meant to read for years but only got round to last month. It's another Gaiman book that has a lot to like about it, but that I didn't love.

The idea of a shadowy alternative London full of people, places, and even times, that have fallen through the cracks of reality, is beguiling. The way Gaiman plays with place names is wonderful, as is the richness of texture and detail he gives his world - and yet it hardly ever really comes to life for me. The one moment when it did was near the end when the hero, Richard, tells his friend about his experiences in London below. Gary replies "I've passed the people who fall through the cracks, Richard: they sleep in shop doorways all down the Strand. They don't go to to a special London. They freeze to death in the winter."

It's an acknowledgment that gives the book more heart and properly roots it in a fairy tale tradition of stories told to make unpleasant truths more palatable, or to serve as warnings. I believe 'Neverwhere' started out as a radio play, I know it was televised years ago (I remember half watching an episode but that it didn't hold my attention enough to get me following it). I really would like to listen to it, and can but hope the BBC will make it available again.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Happy Easter

I'm spending the day with my mother and her new kitchen. Both the dog and I have been parked (dog in her bed, me on a chair) and are being discouraged from moving much (she keeps offering me cups of tea and telling me she has everything under control).

It's very relaxing. Meanwhile the kitchen itself is to my eyes almost unbelievably tidy and well coordinated. Mine is neither, and although we have very different personal styles - my preference is for colour and pattern, I'm currently feeling slightly envious of the calm, and the space. The comparison is also making me feel somewhat like a grubby teenager again...

Happy Easter everyone.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What She Ate - Laura Shapiro

I spent a couple of hours last night knitting with various American crime dramas on in the background for company (I don't much like sitting in silence, even when I'm reading, the downside of  something on in the background is the risk of being distracted at a crucial moment, miscounting a pattern by 3 stitches, and not realising until the idea of ripping it back is to tedious to contemplate). Oddly, on screen, and in the fiction I read, the differences between America and Britain are minimised. It's in recipe books that I suddenly and most often find myself in foreign territory.

When I started 'What She Ate' I hadn't registered that Laura Shapiro was American, but after a couple of pages I had. Does it matter? in the general scheme of things, no it does not, but as far as my relationship with the book goes then yes, a little bit, because I end up noticing the wrong details and it makes me particularly pedantic.

'What She Ate' looks at the lives of 7 women through the food they ate. They are in order Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis (an Edwardian chef), Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, Helen Gurley Brown (who edited Cosmopolitan), and in the afterword Shapiro herself. It is in the chapter about Pym that I'm most aware of Shapiro, because whilst Pym's food world will be familiar to anybody in the U.K. born before Hummus became a supermarket staple, Shapiro's view of British food at the time is filtered through Julia Child and Elizabeth David (neither of whom were fans).

Pym talks lovingly about food, taking pleasure in the good things to eat that came her way, and enjoyed cooking. She's the perfect subject for a book like this and I'm pleased to read more about her so it is pedantic to wish that there was less space taken up trying to decide how good or bad food in England might have been in the 1950's. Not least because however poor the general quality of what's available is, there will always be things you have fond memories of (like caramac bars which seem to be made of condensed milk and grit but take me straight back to childhood summers, or egg sandwiches with salad cream on processed white bread).

The catalyst for the book; Dorothy Wordsworth's black pudding "that stodgy mess of blood and oatmeal" is something else to consider for a moment. If Shapiro had thought mmm, black pudding, instead where would we be? When I think of black pudding I think of it cooked and crisp, in modest slices, perhaps with a scallop. It's a vivid indication of how active the author is in the story.

The most problematic chapter though is the one about Eva Braun. I'm curious why Shapiro chose her, not least because she remains an elusive character. There are some films of her, a few authentic diary fragments, and other people's memories, but little of substance. She kept a strict eye on her figure so we learn she didn't eat much, and didn't eat what Hitler ate. We do learn a lot about what Hitler ate, how his ties were not well chosen, his country suits a little loud (all so vulgar). When Eva complains that Hitler only sent her flowers for her birthday (not jewellery or a puppy) Shapiro excuses him by explaining how busy he was at the time. The point she's making is about Eva's lack of maturity but it reads oddly.

A mixed bag of a book then. Shapiro is right when she says food talks, and she herself talks about it well. It's a really interesting way to approach these women's lives, she raises all sorts of interesting questions, and there's a lot to like, but there are problems with her approach too. I enjoyed it, but not wholeheartedly.