Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wonder Tales - edited by Marina Warner

I picked up 'Wonder Tales' on my last trip to London almost in desperation. My train had been delayed by 4 long hours getting there which had swallowed almost all the time set aside for a bit of self indulgence before the thing I was actually there for started. Plans to see an exhibition, consider  the whisky offering in Berry Bros and Rudd, and have a really good browse in a really big bookshop were truncated into a bit of a browse in a really big bookshop. Unfortunately being delayed by four hours mostly breeds impatience, good browsing on the other hand requires a state of relative relaxation. My time was almost up, I hadn't found a single book, and there was no way I was getting back on a train without something to read. That's when the one all but jumped out at me, it was quite a relief.

If there's such a thing as perfect fairy tale reading weather then we've been enjoying it for the last couple of weeks, right down to the super blood moon on Monday. There's a slightly unreal quality to how beautiful the days have been recently which is underlined by the cold nights and foggy mornings. It can't last for all it feels like it's still summer whilst the sun is shining and the melancholy that brings fits well with these tales of persecution and transformation.

This is a collection of six stories edited by Marina Warner but translated by a range of different writers. The only one I was familiar with is A. S. Byatt who's version of Marie- Catherine D'Aulnoy's 'The Great Green Worm' is a definite highlight. It's something of a mix between Beauty and the Beast and Cupid and Physche where the ugly sister turns out to be the heroine, also Byatt has a way with snakes which I can't resist. The other highlight is Ranjit Bolt's take on 'The Counterfeit Marquise' which has as much cross dressing as a Shakespeare comedy but without the low farce and is just utterly delightful.  

More troublesome is 'Starlight', both Prince and Princess probably deserve each other but neither are very appealing. A prince who swings between love lorn lassitude and murderous soldiering is not my idea of a comfortable husband . Never the less it's an enjoyable collection and an excellent addition to my growing fairy tale library. I see that this edition was printed in 1996, and it does look a bit like it's been hanging about since then (the spine is faded and the pages are yellowing a little). It would also seem to be basically out of print, so I'm not only grateful I found this copy, but am wondering if there was a touch of magic about it. What are the chances that a (signed by the editor) book might wait in Waterstones Piccadilly for almost a score of years just for me to buy it almost despite myself (and certainly despite the best efforts of midland mainline)?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Belgian Beer Cake

This is the week all the bigger retailers have started rolling out Christmas.  At this point it's a tentative affair; a few mince pies, some puddings, a few cards. The real business doesn't start until after Halloween by which time I guess many of us who work in retail are beginning to get a little bit bored by it (or maybe it's just me). This time of year is sort of right for it though, now is the time to be thinking of making all the bits that need to mature - chutney, mincemeat, and soon enough Christmas cakes and puddings. Which is why I'm the proud new owner of two 6 inch cake tins and about 20 kilos of dried fruit. 

The cake tins needed a trial run (if you're interested the fairly standard for an 8 inch tin cake mix I use is just enough to fill three 5 inch tins, and now two 6 inch tins - oh, the dynamic range of possibilities...) and the spiced brown beer cake from A Taste of Belgium has seemed like a good idea for a while. It was a very good idea, though I had to make a few changes to accommodate the ingredients I had.

After buttering the appropriate tins, lining the bottom of them, and pre heating the oven to 180 degrees C beat 175g of butter with 225g dark brown sugar until light and fluffy then beat in 4 eggs, 1 at a time, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Next stir in 150g of Rye flour, 150g of plain flour, half a teaspoon of ginger and half a teaspoon of cinnamon, and then a whole teaspoon of baking powder along with half a teaspoon of salt. After that add 150g of currents or raisins, 80g of dried apricots cut into slivers, 100g of dried cherries, and 100g of chopped walnuts. Finally add quarter of a cup of dark belgian Beer. Bake for about an hour or until done. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Tattershall castle and Gainsborough Old Hall

The weather for the last couple of weekends has been so good that it almost comes as a surprise when it gets dark so early, the cold nights are a bit of a shock too, but still, if the trees weren't starting to turn it would be all to easy to pretend it was still summer. We've been making the most of it whilst D prepares for a new term by looking at architecture. The current crop is all about tudor brick with a side order of half timbering and lathe and plaster. The destination was Lincolnshire with Gainsborough Old Hall and Tattershall Castle. Gainsborough old hall is a remarkable survival of bits, and surprisingly huge. Manor house conjure up images of something a little cosier to my mind, though the rabbit warren of little rooms was just what I might have imagined. The medieval kitchens were particularly impressive and worth the admission alone. For interested foraging types there's also a medlar tree in the garden and a whole avenue of mulberries. It is, in short a glorious place to visit, especially at the height of mulberry season.

Tattershall castle was something else again. It is possibly the most romantically appealing place I've ever seen - even if it lacks mulberries. It also lacks a proper cafe which is a shame but there are excellent toilets and at least a tea vending machine and deck chairs so the view, loo, and brew components of a good day out are all just about met.

You can see Tattershall from miles away in the flat Lincolnshire landscape but it's still a revaluation when you get there. The collegiate church is a nice example of English perpendicular, though it's sadly list the stained glass that would have made standing in it feel like standing inside a jewelled casket. (It's the kind of place that makes you think like that.) It's also full of bats, I would have loved to stay until dusk.

What's left of the castle is a fairy tale tower, literally a fairy tale tower, I've been reading lots in the last week and they all sounded just like Tattershall. It covers 4 floors with some extra bits on top and is just the most wonderfully atmospheric place. Each floor has a large hall with assorted cubby holes and chambers off it. The revelation is the roof though, with its central courtyard, arcaded gallery, and chambers at each corner. Even with a crippling fear of heights I was enchanted.

There is also a moat. It was perfect.

Friday, September 25, 2015


I've been back at work for a full week now, but prior to that I'd been signed off as unfit for work (it's quite odd seeing yourself described as such) for four weeks with what was essentially stress, though the Doctor initially used the euphemistic descriptions of insomnia and carpel tunnel issues. 

I had been in two minds about writing about it here; I see this blog as something, or somewhere, that I can ignore the tedious everyday stuff and concentrate on things I'm enthusiastic about in a fairly uncomplicated way (so no politics or religion either). On the other hand there's a particular attitude I've encountered when I explain why I've been off work that makes me feel I probably ought to add my bit to the mental health conversation. 

I suppose 'stress' is a bit of a catch all description, and there are so many underlying causes - for me it's been a series of not serious but nagging health problems over the last couple of years (slightly anaemic, vitamin d deficient, glucose intolerant, tennis elbow, carpel tunnel... and so on) coupled with all the normal crap that comes along, and a physically demanding job selling wine (I shift between two and three tons of the stuff around a day, along with being nice to customers - most are lovely, a very few are not). It's all very ordinary but at some point I got out of balance, started with headaches, continued with an increasingly poor sleeping pattern, and from there on in found myself in a spiral of lack of sleep making everything harder to handle and that making it harder to sleep and so on. In the end the why's don't necessarily matter though, it's that lack of balance that makes it hard to cope properly. Before I went to the doctor it felt like my day consisted of trying to stay awake, not cry, and not shout at anybody. This is not an ideal state to be in. 

The moment I spoke to the doctor I felt better, and then wondered why on earth it had taken me so long. The doctor said rest and so that's what I did. I slept a lot, read a bit, knitted a bit, spent time with my mothers new dog, got lots of fresh air and generally had a very nice time of it. Enough sleep stopped the headaches, made me less forgetful, less clumsy, less emotional, and put everything else back into perspective. It's basically all good, a story with a happy outcome instead of one where I get sacked for snapping and having the kind of open and frank sharing of opinions that employers find hard to overlook, or for assaulting a shop lifter, or insulting a challenging customer. Tired and overwrought people are not after all particularly well known for making good decisions. 

What does bother me though is an insidious implication that stress is something to be vaguely ashamed of. From the doctor asking if I minded it as a description on the sick note, to every lovely work mate who has reassured me they won't say anything to anyone else it all feels like this is something that nice people don't talk about. It's not that people have been anything other than supportive, it's just that so many of them seem non plussed by that word stress, and yet it's such a common thing.

 So here I am saying okay, everything got on top of me and I wasn't coping with it very well. If I hadn't stopped and asked for help I would almost certainly have got myself into a real, proper, hard to fix, mess of some sort. As it was taking a few weeks to step back has made a world of difference to me and I would (strongly) encourage anyone that feels they're in a similar situation to do the same - ask for help, it really isn't anything to be ashamed of. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Charlecote Park

Along with what appeared to be half of Warwickshire (it was very busy) we went to Charlecote Park just outside of Stratford upon Avon today. Having finally visited it I'm quite surprised it's taken us so long. Mum and I used to visit lots of country houses, we even had National Trust membership (very handy when you're studying history of art) and I thought we'd probably managed to go everywhere within the general area. She would probably have liked Charlecote even more than some of the more obscure RSC productions I made her go to (I got us tickets as a mothers day present - how nice of me to to arrange something I would enjoy so much...). Anyway better late than never.

Charlecote is predictably lovely - a mellow tudor building (with later additions) in the middle of a deer park. It has some lovely rooms full of nice things, a charming cafe in the old orangery, Victorian kitchens which are pure Downton Abbey, and an impressive collection of carriages. It is, in short, everything you could expect from a National Trust property. What felt like half of Warwickshire was right to take advantage of a day that could just still be described as summer, despite turning trees, to visit and enjoy the outside bits so much.

Much as I love a bit of tudor architecture though, and I really do, the farm shop and garden centre turned out to be the best bit. I didn't spend very long looking at plants, D doesn't entirely approve (to be fair it's his garden I've colonised) but the farm shop was a different matter. Not huge but a brilliant selection of stuff. Lots of varieties of English apples, damsons - always good to find for sale, and just generally lots of things that were exciting.

I couldn't resist a splendidly colourful bunch if dahlias, an almost as colourful bunch of carrots, golden and candy beetroots, and a sensible quantity of quinces. The quinces could possibly have been riper but it's never a sure thing that I'll find any for sale so I couldn't pass them up. I doubt the dahlias will last long either but the colours were just so glorious that resistance would have been mean spirited. The beetroots and carrots are the prize though. These are the kind of beauties I see in pictures, in books, in recipes,  but never anywhere I can buy. Not until now anyway. I've not been very inspired to cook recently but finding these has really perked me up. Since getting home I've been searching through recipes for something good - they're going to be a treat.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The House of Elrig - Gavin Maxwell

Any regular reader will know I'm a fan of Gavin Maxwell, specifically his autobiographical works. I do have copies of 'A Reed Shaken By The Wind' and 'God Protect Me From My Friends' but have not yet read them for the shallow reasoning that I'm more interested in Otters, and Scotland, and colourful but self destructive minor aristocrats than I am in the mafia and marsh dwelling communities.

The passion for Maxwell started when I was trying to make sense of rural Leicestershire after far more rural Shetland in my early teens. No two ways about it moving down south was a hell of a culture shock, and I was desperately homesick a lot of the time. The film version of 'Ring of Bright Water' was possibly the way in, though I also vividly remember buying my first copy of 'Harpoon at a Venture' in a small bookshop in Rugby (it's fallen apart now which is a testament to how often I read a book that must always have been slightly odd reading for a 13 year old girl). The first copy I had of 'The House of Elrig' was shamelessly stolen from the school library (sorry), and has now also fallen apart so I'm delighted that Slightly Foxed have chosen to republish it in a neat little hardback edition.

'The House of Elrig' deals with Maxwell's earliest childhood up until he's around 17/18. It's a curious book to read again now. What I remember of it, and what I would have understood, from when I first read it was his descriptions of homesickness, of longing for the country, and the complete bafflement that suddenly finding yourself in a large school causes. The year group in the school I left was 14 (unusually small, but still the average class size) in the school I went to it was in the hundreds and a completely alien environment.

'The House of Elrig' was published in 1965, 13 years after 'Harpoon at a Venture' (which I think is the best of the lot of the autobiographical ones) and 5 years after 'Ring of Bright Water' had made him a household name, so undoubtedly he knew there was a market for his childhood reminiscences - you need to be a celebrity to get away with this kind of thing.

Maxwell was born in 1914, 3 months before his father was killed at Antwerp in the October - a depressingly early casualty of war - the youngest of 4 children. Early years were spent almost exclusively within the family unit, either at the beloved house of Elrig in Galloway or sharing houses with various unmarried aunts. The Maxwell's seem to have been solid country gentry - well off, well connected, very establishment. Due partly to a religious quirk (both families were Irvingites - a catholic apostolic sect) Gavin's mother came from a much grander family; she was Lady Mary Percy, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland.

From the earlier books, dealing with his later life, there's already a clear sense of Maxwell as a contradictory figure, the roots of that are all to be found here. He's not, I suspect, a narrator to be particularly trusted - there are hints of a something nasty in the woodshed moment which he then deliberately drops and which I assume is a bit of a red herring. He also talks a lot about his own sexual innocence at school in a way which isn't entirely convincing - though in 1965 was probably a wise precaution.

For a Maxwell fan the appeal of the book is obvious. He always writes well and of course you want to know more about the charismatic hero of those later books. If this is to be a first brush with Maxwell though, and even if you care nothing for maverick otter keepers in general it's an interesting read.

The trials of prep and public school life are well enough documented elsewhere, but They're approached from a slightly different angle here. None of the masters, or even the bullies, seem to have been particularly sadistic but you do get a sense of what fundamentally odd places these boarding schools are with their customs and rules, and how difficult it can be for a new boy to navigate through them.

More interesting is Gavin's relationship and attitude towards the Percy part of his family. Maxwell is a snob, it comes through in all his books (or, to be fair, the ones that I've read) and is part of his charm. Here he's exploring, maybe unwittingly, what it is to be just outside the inner circle. There are occasional invitations to grand occasions - excruciating trials for a gauche schoolboy which reinforces a sense that this was his mothers world and not entirely his. It's the point at which I most felt the lack of a father figure for him.

Also interesting is how he chooses to discuss a growing awareness, or a growing determination to ignore his awareness, to sex. In 1965 to be caught in a homosexual act would still have been a criminal offence in England (if I read Wikipedia correctly it was even later in Scotland). Maxwell, described as privately homosexual (Wikipedia again) talks a bit about platonic friendships strained by the suspicions of school masters, but there is one angry passage where he talks of a particular friend: "Poor precocious, charming Craith, all that nature intended him to be condemned as dirty, unacceptable, dangerous, contaminating...." Which in the end leaves no room for doubt about where he stood on the matter.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

I read Jancis Robinson's 'Confessions of a Wine Lover' at an impressionable age - I would have been in my early twenties and working in a bookshop. She inspired me to really learn about wine instead of just enthusiastically drink it, and so I started to frequent the Oddbins just around the corner. It was 1999, the 1996 Clarets were just hitting the shelves. 1996 was a good vintage and back then it was possible to get something like a Ch Lynch-Bages for around £20 a bottle (it's £150 now) the same price as an ordinary champagne and so much more exciting.

By then I was armed with 'Jancis Robinson's Wine Course' (I wish I knew what had happened to my copy) a book to accompany a TV series and a very good introduction to the world of wine. I was also so familiar in Oddbins that they offered me a job. The never very strong charms of a discount bookshop with a slightly crazy work mate (she would fix me with a nasty look and tell me that people she didn't like died. She really didn't like me.) and the day to day routine of selling basically pornographic material to increasingly grubby middle aged men was no match for the chance to learn more about wine with the added advantage of staff discount and training.

Last night I got the chance to meet the woman herself at the launch for the brand new fourth edition of 'The Oxford Companion to Wine'. Not wanting to sound like some sort of weird stalker I opted for a 'hello, what an achievement, marvellous' sort of a comment rather than the 'you changed my life' kind of thing when faced with the great woman (at least the wine trade has been blessedly free of death threats from colleagues and sexual harassment from customers).

My Oddbins days are far behind me now but there are still things I miss about it, especially those early days when the company was still, just, in its heyday. There was so much passion for wine and more than a willingness to share knowledge, and when the shop was quiet there was time to read. This is when my relationship with The Oxford Companion began (second edition).

This new edition runs to around a million words and is no light weight to tote around - it's not going to make bedtime reading (not without wrist braces at any rate) and I could use my phone to access all of this information and yet I wouldn't be without an up to date copy. Haven't been without the latest edition since 1999. Back then the book was the obvious option, and I still think it's irreplaceable. Even last night, momentarily distracted by wondering if that was indeed Oz Clarke (it was) I found myself leafing through the display copy and unexpectedly finding an informative essay on English literature, wine in. Exploring it back at home it lead to medieval literature (there is of course the entirely separate literature of wine) and then a dozen other references to be chased regarding specific grapes and wines.

This isn't something I do on the Internet. An online search may lead to following other references, but you can't open it at random and start following a trail of knowledge. The book allows me to do exactly that, and what's more do it with information that can be trusted implicitly. It's a luxurious way of learning that leads to all sorts of unexpected places, as well as an increasingly long shopping list of wines to be tried.

The moment wine becomes more than something to be picked up cheaply and drunk as much for its alcoholic content as its flavour a whole world opens up. Not every glass has to be an intellectual exercise but the more you know about it the more you get from it. I'm trying hard not to fall into extravagantly purple passages about history and poetry here whilst I attempt to put my finger on why this book is so important.

I think the clue is in the title - companion - wine should be a companionable thing and this book will be your best friend in that respect. The label on the cover proclaiming it to be 'The Greatest wine book ever published' (The Washington Post) does not lie. I'll say it again, I really wouldn't contemplate being without it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Henry V

Shakespeare like Pinot Noir, opera, and asparagus is on that list of things I don't really get. I understand they're good, I can understand why they're good, but more often then not I fail to find any deep enthusiasm for them. With Shakespeare and Pinot Noir I keep trying.

Last night we went to see Henry V at the RSC, it was opening night which always has an extra buzz of excitement around it (closing night for Volpone at The Swan which I would like to have seen, and have a passing regret that I didn't). One of us is an English teacher and Shakespeare fan, she had also seen the live streamed performances of Henry IV parts one and two both of which she spoke highly of. I've seen the BBC adaptations from The Hollow Crown series but a while ago so my memory of it was somewhat hazy.

What I do remember from filmed versions of Henry V is that it was all very heroic with the famous 'Once more into the breach' speech as well as the St Crispin's day bit being particularly rousing. What I don't remember is so much of it being played for laughs.

If I were more energetic about it I'd read all three plays now, or if I had more spare cash I'd maybe think about trying to catch the whole cycle at the Barbican this winter - neither are on the cards, and this is one of the issues I have with watching Shakespeare plays; should it really demand so much work from me? I'm prepared to put in the effort in the theatre, I'll read the programme, and if it's new to me read up a bit about it before, but the language can be so dense that it's easy to miss the finer points and nobody likes feeling as if they're missing out.

As it is I enjoyed this performance (despite being hazy about some bits) almost as much as I was surprised by it. In the programme James Sharpo argues that it's a going to war play rather than a pro or anti war play, and Alex Hassell's Henry still has traces of the immature boy about him. The reasons for going to war with France are part dynastic ambition, part response to an insult - neither are necessarily the thought out actions of a mature king. This Henry is growing into his role, distancing himself from the excesses of his youth, but is still recognisably that same prince Hal who did not behave like a king in waiting at all.

His 'once more into the breach' moment is the speech of a leader who's playing with the lives of his men, secure in his kingship he doesn't consider what he's asking. It makes the scene where he wanders amongst the men on the eve of Agincourt so much more powerful - here's when the penny drops and he finally grows up - or perhaps is finally forced to accept some responsibility for his actions. Elsewhere he's been particularly skilled at avoiding that responsibility. Either way, the St Crispin's speech was a proper goosebump moment, and the final scenes with Kate both funny and convincing.

Part of the joy of live theatre, especially when a play is reasonably familiar (to at least one of us) is the discussion on the way home. The whys and the did it works are every bit as absorbing as the performance. The more I think about this production the more I find in it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Salt Sugar Smoke - Diana Henry

About a month ago I sent off a list of my top ten cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project. I'm looking forward to seeing how the whole thing will unfold, it's promising a comprehensive and expertly curated collection of the very best food and recipe content including a list of the 1000 best cookbooks as voted for by contributors of all sorts.

As if choosing 10 books wasn't to be challenge enough (only 10?!) they were also to be in a rough order of preference... In the end it was much easier than I expected. After a little bit of time sat in front of them it seemed obvious. After a bit of pruning earlier this year my collection only numbers around 200 (tiny, faced with a list of 1000 I expect to have a much expanded wish list) all of which have their place even if some are shamefully under used. That handful which has shaped and inspired my whole attitude to food and cooking are a different matter though. I wouldn't willingly part with any of the books on the shelves at the moment, but those 10 (curiously it was easy to stop at 10) are the ones that make me feel at home, that I have complete confidence in, and that I would always replace in the event of some mishap.

High on the list was Diana Henry’s 'Salt Sugar Smoke'. It wasn't the first book I got on preserving, isn't the only one I have, but it's the one I love the best and use the most. Reading through it makes me want to try everything, the 3 years I've had it have been long enough to make many of the jams and jellies traditional staples to look forward to as each fruit comes into season, and every success has made me more adventurous.

It has been mostly jam and jelly I've made, they make good presents, their production is easily achievable in the small space I have, and they're relatively cheap. Home made jam is the best, it's the perfect opportunity to make something a little bit special. Last night it was Damson and Gin, last month Apricot and Lavender. The purple fig and pomegranate is always a treat, and the plum, orange and cardamom is very special (not for sharing). I could go on, but the point is that they're just a little bit more interesting than staple supermarket stock and make breakfast toast or afternoon tea scones extra good.

The jellies are even more useful, a good jelly to hand is an indispensable kitchen requirement to go in, on, or next to things. The quince and star anise one is a particular favourite and if I ever find some white currents I know exactly what I'll do with them. Then there are the flavoured vinegars, the chutneys, the liqueurs and fruits soaked in booze. One day I will tackle the cured fish, try smoking things on my stove top, maybe even make my own bacon (this is a project I've been mulling over for a while, it sounds quite do-able in my kitchen, and I will do it - I will!) but meanwhile there's no shortage of other things to be getting on with.

The particular pleasure of this book is in the way it promises good things on every page. It's a world of generous hospitality, of comfort and small luxuries, and lush jewel like colours. It's knowing that you can always come home to something good, and that there will be good things to share whenever you might want them. I find something deeply comforting in making a batch of jam or the like, both whilst I'm making it (there's a touch of alchemy about the process) and seeing the jars all lined up at the end and knowing they're there. It's a kind of cooking that keeps me in touch with the seasons (which I value, otherwise the year just vanishes) but which is also easy to adapt into the time and space constraints of my life. It basically sums up everything I love about cooking and food, and also about books generally. It really is a book to celebrate.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Death Of An Airman - Christopher St John Sprigg

'Cosy Crime'; I can't remember when book shops started categorising books as such, it's not a term I like - though it's an effective description, but it is the end of the crime fiction pool that I'm happy to dip into. A puzzle, a certain amount of suspense and tension, some humour, and a crime committed for practical reasons - these are the things that keep me entertained.

Golden age crime fiction provides all of that, along with drawing something of a veil over the gruesome details that would keep a reader like me awake at night. 'Death of an Airman' is a particularly ingenious puzzle, though - and this might deserve a spoiler alert - the question of when rigor mortis sets in which so puzzles the investigators seems obvious to anyone with years of forensic dramas behind them.

Dorothy L. Sayers seems to have been a big fan of Sprigg, who's own history is quite colourful in itself. A well received writer who became a Marxist and died fighting in Spain as part of the International Brigade just before he was 30. His books were not just out of print, but according to Martin Edwards introduction all but impossibly hard to find - he finally got to read a copy of this one due to the kind help of a collector. Fortunately the British Library have done us all the favour of making it easily available again.

This is a slight deviation, but after some conversation about the recent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence books (I quite enjoyed them, my friends not so much due to the liberties take with the original text) it was generally agreed that looking a bit further afield for inspiration and adaptable material wouldn't go amiss. 'Death of an Airman' would make brilliant television.

The action mostly takes place around Baston airfield. An Australian Bishop has turned up for flying lessons (a huge diocese makes flying between parishes a sensible option) where he's unlucky enough to witness the tragic death of George Furness, one of the instructors and a talented pilot. The question is, was it an accident, suicide, or murder... It's the bishop, who has a bit of medical experience, who notices the discrepancy over the rigor mortis times and quietly alerts the police.

Soon Scotland Yard are involved and a much wider criminal undertaking uncovered but who's running it, and just how many people are involved? It's a clever scheme, a good story, and has a satisfactory ending. Sprigg allows himself some funny lines and situations by way of light relief but never distracts from the seriousness of the crime. Setting the murder in a community of aviators adds a certain romance and heroism as well. There is the feeling that all these people treat life and death as a slight matter - as a generation that survived the First World War might, they're not callous, it's just that they've already seen such a lot.

All in all it's another excellent addition to a series that's proving to be consistently enjoyable and entertaining. Next up I have a couple more Farjeon's to look forward to as well as 'Resorting to Murder' the collection of holiday mysteries put by for either a very rainy or (less likely) a very sunny day's enjoyment.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Apricot and Chocolate Marble Cake

It feels like an age since I made a cake, a feeling born out by the date stamps on the eggs I had in the kitchen, but we're having something of a family outing this weekend which will probably include a picnic, and a baked offering seems in order.

I was going to go for something tried and tested but also wanted a loaf cake, and (probably) due to having traditionally used to small loaf tins I've always made a bit of a mess of them (specifically they've always escaped the tin and welded themselves to the bottom of the oven). I've got a sensibly sized tin now (along with a slight sense of shame that it's taken so many years to sort that out) so in turn it was time for a new recipe.

Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Baking' looked like a good place to start, and after procuring fresh eggs I settled on Apricot and Chocolate marble cake (a favourite combination). The recipe is a simple pound cake with 250g of butter and 250g of sugar creamed together, then 4 lightly beaten eggs added along with 220g of plain flour at which point the mixture needs to be split in half. 2 tbsp of cocoa powder (as I write this I realise I misread it as 50g earlier...) and 50g of finely chopped best dark chocolate will be added to 1 half of the mix, 50g of finely chopped apricots to the other. After that first the chocolate mix and then the apricot goes into a 2 llb (900g) greased loaf tin and is sort of mixed up a bit for marbling purposes before going into an oven at 180 degrees C or has 4 to be cooked for an hour or until done.

I'm still not entirely familiar with my new fan oven or how it needs to be adjusted temperature wise so after an hour and a half I was getting worried about the cake that would not bake. The end result is one that's a little dry on the outsides - though definitely not burnt. I note with interest that the picture in the book shows something similar though I'm hoping a slight temperature adjustment will give something a bit less crunchy round the edges in future. Otherwise it's a great cake - not to sweet despite the quantity of sugar (the recipe says serves 8-10 - which it will) and it'll be very good with a cup of tea or coffee.    

Friday, September 4, 2015

Damson Gin

The mulberry vodka I started a couple of weeks ago is now happily and peacefully maturing under my bed. Along with mulberries it has the memory of a hot August day spent illicitly acquiring fruit in it (there's a quince tree near the mulberry which I also had my eye on, but the park gardeners have gone and pruned the poor thing which means all the fruit that would have been within reach is now on a compost heap somewhere. I am not happy about this). Mulberries were only a matter of weeks ago but the season has definitely changed, no longer late summer but early autumn, and today's damsons were acquired in a perfectly legal manner.

I get a little bit obsessed by damsons, and quinces for that matter, neither are impossible to get hold of but both are elusive enough to present a challenge. Last year was a poor one for damsons round my way and I failed to get any at all from any source. This year is looking more positive, on a cool and frequently wet day (no romantic summer memories to attach to this lot) I managed to secure the last two punnets on the farmers market. That gave me two kilos of quite small very dark damsons to play with. They would have been a pain for jam making - to much stone and skin not enough flesh, okay for jelly, and perfect for gin.

I'm not going to make any great claims for the damson gin recipe I use, (and as it's basically damsons, half the weight of damsons in sugar, half fill a sterilised jar with the damsons, add the sugar, fill with gin, calling it a recipe is almost something of an exaggeration, however the results have always been most satisfactory) but I do have one very good tip. Use a decent gin.

In my young day if you wanted damson or sloe gin you had to make it. You could, and can still, buy a Gordon's sloe which tastes a lot like cough mix. It's not unpleasant but it always seemed a bit pointless, though at least back then it came in a pretty bottle. I favour damson gin rather than sloe because in town you can at least occasionally buy damsons (picking sloes presents more if a challenge), and because they're that bit fruitier (less cough mixey). What with progress, and the current love affair with gin it's now fairly easy to get very good sloe and damson liqueurs from Plymouth, Hayman's and Sipsmith amongst others- for a price. Though as a nice man from Sipsmith's pointed out it's expensive because they're using their own excellent gin or vodka as a base.

I've never really understood how someone happy to spend upwards of £25 on 50cl of someone else's sloe gin will, when it comes to making their own, insist on the cheapest possible spirit. The cheapest gins are often made from a molasses based spirit (same as rum, and useful to know if you want to be sure it's gluten free) with the juniper and other botanical flavours added as essences and without re distillation (compound gin). For not very much more you can get a grain based gin that's been distilled with its botanicals in the proper manner (Sainsbury's is generally a good bet for finding something decent on offer in the UK). It's the price of a coffee well spent, the end results will be noticeably better and home made will once again be the best.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita - Rumer Godden

Like 'The Glenvarroch Gathering' 'The Battle of the Villa Fiorita' is a book from the mid 1960's (well 1963, Glenvarroch was 1966), it's basically all they gave in common, but as so much of my reading is of an older vintage it's been curious noting the slight changes in tone that a decade or so brings. perhaps even more so because both books were written by middle aged women - which isn't necessarily the first voice you might associate with the swinging sixties.

In 'The Battle of the Villa Fiorita' though there is something of old values and new freedoms. Fanny Clavering (unfortunate name) has been divorced by her husband Darrell after committing adultery with a film director. The pair have left for Italy to rest, ride out the consequences, and wait until they can be married, but Fanny's children have different ideas. They want their mother back and are determined to do whatever it takes to achieve that

In this case that means 14 year old Hugh and 11 year old Caddie sneaking out of London and crossing Europe to turn up unannounced and unwelcome at the Villa Fiorita. They can do this so easily because as any upper middle class child of the time would have been, they're both at boarding school. It's the start of term, and simple enough to telegraph an excuse. Darrell is a queen's messenger  so often called away (this is a remarkably useful plot device) and with the break up of home and routine there's nobody to pay much attention to Hugh and Caddie.

In her preface Godden says she's sick of stories about how divorce damages children, she wanted to write about children who choose to fight back. In the process she examines the repercussions of this and perhaps explores some of her own guilt around her divorce (she doesn't say that in the preface, but it's reasonable to assume that's what's happening here). 

By 1963 I'm guessing divorce would have lost some of its stigma, though for a woman abandoning her children, as Fanny has, there would be an entirely different level of condemnation. The question is, how much does she deserve it?

The first thing that struck me is how much kinder divorce is to children now. For these children, shunted away to school, there's no hint of what's coming until the smash is complete - not just an absent mother but also the sale of the family home and for the younger ones precious little explanation. The second thing is how spectacularly selfish Fanny and Rob are.

The Clavering's marriage has been outwardly successful. A nice old family house in the country, a round of dinner parties, school runs, apple jelly in the autumn, all the conventional things. Until Rob comes along it seems Fanny isn't even aware that it's not particularly fulfilling. When he does the depth of the attraction between them is clearly enough for her to feel the world is well lost for love, and so she gives into it and allows herself to be swept off to Italy to live in a cocoon of passion and self indulgence.

I don't have much sympathy for Fanny, it's not that she's left her family that bothers me, but that she's done it with so little care or thought. Does she deserve a happy fulfilling relationship - of course she does, but for it to work she would need to be far more honest with herself than she appears to be. If Rob and Fanny's relationship can't survive the presence of their respective children then what's it worth?

Godden excels at this kind of thing - at showing how seemingly small things can matter so much, especially to children, at exposing the selfishness of lovers, and understanding all the things that prick the conscience. The power of the book is in the banality of the situation underneath it's glamorous setting and the absolute authenticity of her protagonists behaviour.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Glenvarroch Gathering - Susan Pleydell

I've been saving this one for a metaphorical rainy day, it was worth the wait. Greyladies books aren't  cheap so there's a certain amount of pressure to get the choice right. I'm not entirely sure of who Susan Pleydell was, I know that roughly speaking Greyladies specialise in the adult titles of people better known for children's books but that doesn't leave me much wiser. The brief biographical details tell me Susan Pleydell was a non de plume, that she was born in 1907, which means that by the time this book was published in 1960 she would have been much the same age as the McKechnie parents, grew up in Scotland, and that she was well educated, musical, worked as a teacher, and married a headmaster.

The Glenvarroch Gathering comes together after the McKechnie family decide that paying guests might be just what they need to make ends meet a little more easily in their Scottish house. Glenvarroch is large enough to easily accommodate an extra 7 people on top of a family of 5 (despite only having 2 bathrooms) and the McKechnie's can keep a cook. Everything is shabby but nothing is actually falling down. It sounds like a comfortable enough way to live, but with the definite impression that a bit more money would be useful to maintain that comfort.
The first guest is Jo, the school friend of the youngest McKechnie, Pat, then there are some stock Americans, Audrey, a young and pretty teacher looking for some mild adventure, Frank, a young academic trying to write a novel along kitchen sink lines, and then Lee and June Anthony. A brother and sister who are startlingly glamorous and exotic in this particular setting. The rest of the gathering is made up of the other McKechnie children, Neil (fresh from Oxford) and Fiona (St Andrews) and their near neighbours and contemporaries Rory and Maisie.

There is naturally a crime to spice things up, but what makes for a splendid change is that it's not a murder. Someone is on the run with £50,000 in stolen diamonds, and whilst they're dangerous they don't want to be the one who gets their hands dirty with actual violence if it can be helped. What it really is, is a book about class, attitudes, and owing of age.

The McKechnie's are solid upper middle class people, educated, intelligent, hard working (Mr McKechnie is a professor, the children will need careers). There is a sense that the older generation is well aware of its relative privilege as well as the cost of maintaining it. For the younger generation it's still a question of things taken for granted - both the luxuries of staff, a secure background, space, and the freedom to enjoy it, as well as the relative discomfort of a shabby house with a limited number of bathrooms and a general air of make do and mend. (I know it sounds like I'm obsessed with the bathroom arrangements, and maybe I am, but it's one of those markers between modern convenience and old fashioned inconvenience and reminds me very much if childhood.)

The family can easily accommodate it's American and academic guests albeit with something if a boarding house atmosphere. They are types they can understand with similar values, and the guests can accommodate them, fully understanding that this way of life is something of a survivals of be enjoyed until they return to reality. The Anthony's are something else. Their glamour is dazzling, fun at first and then increasingly disturbing. They change the dynamics of the party, upset old friendships, and generally start to make things uncomfortable. They are of course not the right sort.

It works because Pleydell obviously knows young people and does a very good job capturing some part of the confusion of growing up, and a very good job on capturing the amused tolerance of their parents as well as their occasional anxiety for their offspring. She makes the countryside come alive too, as well as the charm of shabby country houses. The crime element adds enough tension to make it a real page turner, with the climax holding genuine threat - posed as much by the weather and the landscape as by any human skulduggery, and again I really like that. A good murder mystery is fun, but it's not the only crime and this book makes me yearn for more with a close to zero body count.