Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Christmas Egg and a Silver Fizz

Christmas is a time for two things in book terms; murder mysteries and ghost stories. That is at least my point of view (I should probably disclose that it’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m currently full of vodka martinis and champagne. I’m trying not to go off on a rant and to pay some attention to typos - but no promises).

Golden age crime is my preference at all times, I’m not keen on anything to brutal, and after decades of Agatha Christie adaptations for Christmas it just feels right for the season. The British Library Crime Classics series are perfect for this (their Tales of the Weird series will oblige for something uncanny too). There are plenty of good anthologies of short stories with a festive theme, and this years title, ‘The Christmas Egg’ has Bolsheviks and Faberge eggs which sounds like a gift in itself. 

It’s worth saying that the quality of the BL crime classics short story anthologies is particularly high. I’ve read a few others, notably the ones from Profile books, and whilst they’re good Martin Edwards selections are (certainly in my opinion) better. A full length mystery is more a matter of personal taste, but I’ve never been disappointed, and again these are brilliant stocking fillers or secret Santa type gifts.

The drink is a silver fizz - fizzes get a whole chapter in the Savoy Cocktail book and are pleasantly refreshing. You need the juice of half a lemon, a dessert spoonful of powdered sugar (or a little less depending on taste) and a large measure of gin. The white of an egg is an optional extra - it adds to the drama, appearance, and texture of the drink, but taste wise makes little difference if you don’t fancy it/have an allergy. Shake well over ice and strain into a Collins glass then top up with soda water. It’s the soda water that makes it a fizz, but this is also really good without the soda (but with the egg, and make sure to use the freshest eggs you can) as a close relation to a White Lady or Clover Club.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Stephen Rutt’s Wintering and Italicus Liqueur

‘Wintering’ is the book I’m currently reading, and it is every bit as good as ‘The Seafarers’ was (definitely one of the best books of my reading year). I love the way that Rutt makes birding and reasonably technical information feel really accessible to someone like me (interested but lacking in anything more than general knowledge).

‘Wintering’ is about a season with geese, and that’s another thing I love about this book - I live in a city centre, geese are one of the few birds I can reliably see on the river outside my flat, and one of the very few birds I hear as they fly overhead in autumn. A lot of nature writing can feel exclusive, but this doesn’t. More than anything though Rutt is just really good at what he does, and an absolute pleasure to read. Both his books would make wonderful presents.

The only link between Italicus, a bergamot flavoured liqueur, and ‘Wintering’ is a vague idea in my own mind about migration - in this case to the south via the medium of drink. As far as I can gather Italicus has been around on the market for about 2 years, and is slowly appearing in more shops and bars. It is a particularly attractive looking bottle which is a bonus if it’s meant for a gift.

It’s also part of the amaro family (so a kind of cousin to Vermouth) and according to their website the number one trending aperitivo of 2019. There’s an origin story that says it’s based on a recipe from the 1850’s (I also heard that the original recipe needed a lot of tweaking) but that’s sort of besides the point. The key think here is that it’s a really good drink.

The citrusy bergamot flavour is interesting without being outlandish, other floral notes blend well - it’s kind of a liquid version of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’, it was sweeter than I expected, and has more than enough punch to hold its own in all sorts of cocktails. There are plenty of recipes for those around, including one where you drink it like a toddy with a spoon of honey, and a dash of orange bitters garnished with a cinnamon stick and clove studded lemon. It would definitely be an interesting addition for any home bar.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories with Orange Bitters

Books make great presents for people who have more or less everything they need, and like books. Anthologies of short stories are one of my favourite things and if I didn’t already have it I’d have been particularly delighted to open this on Christmas Day. It’s a satisfyingly varied collection with a few favourites in it, enough writers I know I like to get excited by (from Hans Christian Anderson to Angela Carter...), and plenty of things which are new to me. There’s nothing more I could want for under £20.

Over £20 I’m after some new pillows - which nobody is likely to buy me for Christmas (they’d be a devil to wrap).

A good collection of short stories is perfect for Christmas reading, they’re easier to fit around the various commitments, responsibilities, and emotions that plague the season, and a safer bet if you’re not entirely sure of someone’s literary taste.

Bitters are a remarkably useful thing to have around, and a very good grown up stocking filler. A lot of classic cocktails will call for either Angostura or orange bitters. Angostura bitters are easy to buy - most big supermarkets will carry them, Orange bitters are inexplicably harder to find on the high street unless you have a good independent locally. They’re very easy to find online though, and a great thing to have in the kitchen. They’re good for more than just drinks.

An interesting bottle of bitters (Fee Brothers will give an idea of the variety out there, but they’re by no means the only brand to explore) is a great house or hostess gift too, and a very useful thing to pack if you’re off to some idyllic rented house in the country. They take up very little space and go a long way (some companies make travel packs which are brilliant for this).

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Weatherhouse and Whisky

Nan Shepherd can’t really be described as a neglected, forgotten, or underrated writer. Her image is on the Bank of Scotland’s five pound note, there’s a newly inaugurated literary prize named after her, and The Living Mountain is rightly considered both a Scottish, and nature writing classic that’s been championed far and wide.

Despite that I’m not sure how widely known her novels are. When I read ‘The Weatherhouse’ earlier this year and tried searching out other reviews for it there really weren’t many. Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable novel that would be worth reading just for the description of the Aberdeenshire countryside alone. As it is, there’s much more to it than that. The drama also starts to unfold over a Christmas season, and there’s always something satisfying about the seasons inside and out of a book matching up. If you like Virago Modern Classics this book is basically exactly your cup of tea.

The book is set during the First World War, and whisky features both as a signifier of more prosperous pre war hospitality, and is the catalyst for near disaster. It’s Aberdeenshire setting is also a rich one in terms of whisky heritage. Head west from Aberdeen and you’re soon into Speyside (and Nan’s beloved Cairngorms). This gives you a serious concentration of distilleries. Aberlour, Balvenie, Glen Rothes, Glenfiddich, or Macallan are the ones I’d recommend as being both easy to find on the high street or in supermarkets, and excellent quality, but that’s not even all my favourites from the area.

I have a really soft spot for Douglas Laing’s blended malts (more Here) Scallywag is the Speyside, Timorous Beastie is made up of Highland Malts. Both have excellent all round appeal (nothing to peaty). I’m also a fan of the Famous Grouse, which has Macallan in its blend, the Naked Grouse is an absolute bargain in terms of what you get for your money. Blends like Grouse are what most people would have trusted in back in the day.

Closer to Aberdeen, Royal Lochnagar is another favourite whisky (it’s all soft smoke, gingerbread spice, and Demerara sugar - delicious) and Ardmore is particularly good for the money, as well as being easy to find.

When I was first discovering whisky for myself 20 years ago blends were very much out of favour, and single malt was a lot cheaper than it is now. Currently if I’m looking for something interesting/different my first choice would be the premium blends and blended malts between £20 - £40. There’s still a bit of snobbishness around them, but seriously, ditch it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Diana Holman-Hunt - Slightly Foxed with Champagne

I’ve been reading Diana Holman-Hunt’s memoir ‘My Grandmothers and I’ by way of research and bought my Slightly Foxed paperback edition cheaply secondhand. It looks like there’s been a bit of a rush on it since, the only copies I see listed now are quite pricey - which means if you want it you might as well go for a handsome Slightly Foxed hardback (they gift wrap too).

Diana was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, bought up on stories of the great man and his friends. ‘My Grandmothers and I’ very specifically recounts episodes from her life from the age of 5 to 17 as she’s passed between the two matriarchs. Her father is in India, her mother never mentioned (we can only guess dead). Most of the time Diana lives with her mothers parents (Grandmother Freeman) but there are visits to Gran H-H, who lives a life of miserly eccentricity in a house that’s more or less a shrine to her dead husband.

What makes this book fun is the mix of anecdotes about life with Grand, and the sense that Diana is getting her revenge, or at least the last word, on her family, who seem to have richly deserved it. If you like Elizabeth Von Arnim at her more acerbic, Nancy Mitford, or Evelyn Waugh (who was her cousin) then this book will definitely appeal.

Slightly Foxed are also more generally a good place to look for presents for book lovers. A subscription to their Quarterly Journal has been my Christmas present of choice to me for a good decade now. The books they produce are lovely to handle, and conveniently pocket sized. I recommend the podcast too.

Champagne features a couple of times in ‘My Grandmothers and I’ - first with a rare appearance from her father when she’s 15, and after Grands funeral - both times she gets horribly drunk very quickly. As drinks go it perfectly evokes the spirit of the book. Moët et Chandon is name checked so this seems like a good time to talk about the best way to buy champagne.

If you have a good wine merchant take their advice on what they have, they should know where the best balance between quality and price is to be found. Otherwise supermarket own label champagne is generally a good buy and a safer bet than an unknown name with a heavy discount. That said, much of the appeal of champagne is in the associated glamour that comes with the grand marques. If you can, it’s worth buying these by the case when you see something at a good price and keeping it.

There are a few reasons for this - case discounts are one, another is that a lot of champagne like Moët is very young when it hits retailers shelves, and you can taste it in the acidity. Six months to a year somewhere cool, with an even temperature, and reasonably dark (in my case the back of a wardrobe) will allow it to mellow a bit. If you have a slightly better arrangement than the back of a wardrobe then a non vintage champagne will happily develop for 5 years or more before you really need to think about drinking it. Do Not keep it in a fridge for any length of time - it goes flat.

Other advantages of keeping a bit of champagne on hand is that you always have an excellent emergency present, something for a celebration, or a well earns treat for yourself. Half bottles are brilliant for 1 or 2 people. Crémant de Bourgogne is an excellent budget alternative, and so are some of the new world fizzes that use traditional grapes and methods, plenty of which are made by the big Champagne houses.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Hepple’s Douglas Fir Vodka

A new Kathleen Jamie book is something to get excited about, and ‘Surfacing’ hasn’t disappointed me. It’s also another beautifully produced object. My reading/book buying life started around the very end of the 1970’s with the Famous Five, it still sometimes surprises me as much as it delights me, how much more beautiful books have become in the last decade or so.

If you don’t already know Jamie’s essay collections ‘Surfacing’ is the third in a loose trilogy that also includes ‘Sightlines’ and ‘Findings’. She writes about nature, family, archeology, history, travels and more with knife sharp insight. I think of ‘Findings’, the 1st in the trilogy, as my favourite but it’s been 7 years since I read the earlier books, and I’m wondering if I re read them now if I’d still feel the same. They are all absolutely worth seeking out.

I read about Hepple’s Douglas Fir vodka in Jack Bevan’s Vermouth book and Immediately wanted to try it because I’m an absolute sucker for the kind of thing (there was a terrible experience with some holly eau de vie which should have taught me a lesson, but didn’t). It’s available online for around £35 for a 50cl bottle which makes it an expensive vodka, especially if you have to add delivery costs on top of that, but unlike the holly eau de vie it’s good so I don’t regret the cost.

I’ve seen it suggested as a gin alternative, and certainly the Douglas fir flavour has something in common with gin’s piney juniper notes, but I think it’s to subtle to treat in the same way. The back label declares that Hepple’s renowned ‘Triple Technique’ is able to capture the cold breath of the forest - and honestly, it feels like it does just that.

It’s a beautifully smooth vodka with a distinctive pine wood (or for wood) nose, and an almost menthol freshness about it. It’s very good neat over ice and in a vodka martini. I haven’t tried it in any cocktails yet, but if I do they’re going to be the very pared back simple kind that allow that cold breath of fresh air feel to shine through. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk anything so evocative of a certain type of landscape before (it’s undoubtedly the vodka talking, but if I close my eyes whilst tasting it I can see the small stand of Douglas firs near my dad's place in the Borders, frost on the ground, stars blazing... all of it). Definitely worth a look if you’re after something interesting on the spirit front.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Sue Quinn’s ‘Cocoa’ with Cupsmith’s Hot Chocolate

Sticking with cookbooks and not necessarily alcoholic drinks todays recommendations are for Sue Quinn’s ‘Cocoa’ and Cupsmith hot chocolate. I’ve got a few other books about chocolate and confectionery, all of which are excellent but ‘Cocoa’ is something more.

What I like so much about this one (which I notice is published by Quadrille and is adding to my conviction that they've totally nailed it this year) is the discussion about what chocolate is, how it’s made, how to taste it, buy it, store it, and more, along with the range of recipes. It’s a beautiful, and ultimately really inspiring book. It’s also made cocoa nibs a stable store cupboard ingredient (I’ve put them in some of the mincemeat I’ve made this year, and am really excited to see how that’s worked out).

The recipes aren’t all sweet by a long way - there’s a lot of savoury stuff here that uses nibs (which have the most incredible smell) to add an extra something. The sweet Dukkah recipe alone is worth buying the book for - it’s amazingly versatile and totally addictive. There’s also a handful of fabulous hot chocolate recipes - the Medici inspired jasmine tea infused hot chocolate has become a particular favourite.

Leafing through the book now I’m also tempted to make a Cocoa - Infused Tipple. Vodka, tequila, bourbon, whisky, and rum are all suggested as possible base spirits - I’d be most inclined to use rum or vodka.

You want 500mls of spirit, 50g of Cocoa nibs, 2 tbsp of lightly crushed coffee beans, and a vanilla pod. Pour the booze into a stoppered bottle, add everything else, and leave to infuse for a couple of weeks shaking often. Then strain through a coffee filter or similar before returning it to the bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 3 months.

Over the years I’ve tried a few posh hot chocolate brands, but so far Cupsmith has been my favourite. It’s not cheap, but it makes an excellent hot chocolate. I’ve been buying either the plain or the salted caramel versions from Waitrose and before today had never looked at their website. Turns out there are other exciting flavours available (I want to try all of them). I like this so much because it’s the one that seems to mix best, and most quickly, with milk. At +£5 a pack it’s a luxury, and definitely in welcome present territory, but on cold, wet, grey days like today a little luxury is welcome.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sour with Shrubs and Switchels

I’ve been putting up my Christmas tree this afternoon, and if it seems early to you to do that I’m working on the principles that if I’m spending money on it I want to get the maximum enjoyment out of it, and that I’ll spend the next week at least rearranging decorations to get them in the right place. I’m also away over New Year so it’s going to have to come down early.

This years tree currently smells of what I think might be fox pee and superglue - some decorations needed first aid. I’m also realising (again) that the red through to burgundy decorations I like so much in shops look quite oppressively dark together on a tree that’s backlit by a large window (which means I can never get a decent photo of it either). Silver and gold would look better but...

Mark Diacono’s ‘Sour’ brings just the right balancing acidity to where I’m at with decorating. It’s been an interesting year for cookbooks - not so many big name releases (though obviously there are a few of those around) but quite a few focused on specific flavours or ingredients which have been particularly good. ‘Sour’ is excellent.

I’ve always found Diacono an interesting writer, and in this book more than ever, a charming one too.   As well as being a book to cook from it’s a delight to read. If you saw it in a bookshop I’m fairly sure the cover design would catch your eye (Quadrille’s design team are producing the most beautiful books at the moment) but unfortunately I’ve not seen it in my local bookshops (small Waterstones, and a W H Smiths) which is a shame because this is a book that deserves a lot of love. I wrote a bit more about it Here.

Shrub is an old fashioned sort of drink which comes in two sorts, one is spirit based and liqueur like, or there’s a sweetened vinegar version (both are acidic in character). The shrub recipes in ‘Sour’ are of the second type which harks back to early American style cocktails. Shrub can take a bit of planning ahead to make - ingredients might need time to ferment, and the whole thing will want to mature a bit, but they’re also a really useful thing to have around to either add a bit of personality to a cocktail, or to have as an adult tasting soft drink.

The switchel recipes don’t take as long to make and are probably less useful as mixers (although worth playing with) but again an excellent, complex, non alcoholic drink. The combination of honey, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and lemon juice has a virtuous, healthy, kind of ring to it as well which is just what the season requires. I would give a recipe - but seriously, buy the book - you’ll be glad you
did, and there are a few other cracking good drink recipes in it too (the Zobo sounds amazing, and the cranberry sour recipe is a winner).

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Ale

I really don’t know very much about beer, far less than I should considering that some level of knowledge has been part of my job description for the last 2 decades. Mostly I’ve either bluffed my way through a conversation or straight out admitted to relative ignorance (a lot of people simply want to be reassured they’ve made a good choice of product in which case a confidant yes is a reasonable bluff. Anything more detailed than that calls for honesty).

The reason for this is that I don’t really drink beer in any of its forms, and if I’m buying it, it’s almost certainly to be cooked with where either the recipe will tell me what I want, or I have a good idea of the flavour profile or abv I want. Last week I stayed with a friend who’s serious about his beer making though, and he had made a Christmas ale which was amazing. Rich, dark, malty, spiced, and with a touch of chilli and ginger to warm it up, drinking it was both a revelation and a reminder.

The revelation was how much I liked it, the reminder was that smaller bottles are now a thing and that it’s perfectly possible to split a bottle and drink it from goblet type glasses rather than by the pint (my issue with beer has always been about quantity, a pint being almost always more than I want). The range of beers available on the high street has changed a lot whilst I’ve been working with them too.

There’s been a lot of innovation with a whole range of flavour profiles which would have sounded outlandish when I was starting out (I’m thinking of things like Black Sheep’s Pineapple Milkshake IPA at the moment, which does taste of pineapple and is also excellent) but means there’s a whole lot of new routes to finding the right beer for you.

I bought the Simon Armitage translation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ last year thinking it would be great winter reading - but never got round to it. I’ve pulled it off the shelf again with more good intentions, and can’t help but think reading it by a warm fire (or at least some flickering candles) with a glass of warmly spiced Christmas ale (or a mulled ale) would really add to the winter’s tale atmosphere.

I also think a bit of poetry is a brilliant Christmas present - it’s too seldom the sort of thing we buy ourselves, a bit of a push is no bad thing here. I’ve got a handful of plays and poetry books I’d never have looked at if they hadn’t been presents which would have been very much my loss.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Sip: 100 Gin Cocktails with an Aviation or a Hot Gin Twist

I wrote about just how much I like this book back in September when it came out, nothing has changed and I think it will make an excellent present for any of the gin lovers in your life (some of the gin lovers in my life might well find they’re getting copies this year).

The reason I like it so much is the 3 ingredient rule. It’s not that all the ingredients mentioned are likely to be on a supermarket shelf - some might need a bit of effort to track down, but the way it makes you think about a drink and how to build it.

There’s also a lot of things that only require the most basic ingredients, and everything in between. On the long list of things I do not understand sits the fashionability of Parma violet flavoured gin. In my opinion it’s altogether too much, violet being the kind of flavour you need to go easy on. Much better to buy a bottle of violet liqueur that can be used with discretion.

The Aviation is a cocktail for an occasion. It seems to have first emerged around 1911, and since then a few different recipes have sprung up. The Sipsmith take on it is as good as any of them, and I particularly like the suggestion of serving it with a roll of Parma violet sweets on the side. It’s a nice touch for an extra festive feel. It’s 50mls of a good juniper led gin, 10mls of lemon juice, and 10mls of crème de violette shaken over ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. A maraschino cherry adds a finishing touch.

The Hot Gin Twist doesn’t call for any special ingredients, and is just the thing to have after a cold walk. I don’t think we pay enough attention to hot alcoholic drinks, this one is apparently inspired by the Hot Gin sold during the London frost fairs. It’s simply 40mls of gin, 25mls of fresh lemon juice, and 25mls of simple sugar syrup (or a heaped tablespoon of white sugar) topped up with 100-150mls of boiling water and garnished with a twist of lemon peel.

To further get into the eighteenth century spirit I might serve this with some gingerbread. The light pollution in Leicester makes star gazing more or less impossible, even if I did have a garden, which I don’t, but next time I’m in the country on a clear night I’m wrapping up warm, making this, and heading outside.