Sunday, February 27, 2011

The best laid plans...

And my plans are seldom the best laid. I had meant to spend the afternoon cooking something from any one of my previously unused Persephone cookbooks; unfortunately what actually happened was more like this – pulled the books off the shelf, started reading other blogs, found myself watching ‘come dine with me’ for hours, realised that I wanted to bake but nothing appealed in any of the books, watched some more ‘come dine with me’ and finally admitted a certain level of defeat.

Honestly I wasn’t trying very hard – the book I really wanted to use was Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd’s ‘Plats Du Jour’ but Patience and Primrose don’t do baking and the way the day panned out (slept in, large late breakfast, plenty of leftovers in the fridge and too much in the freezer to feel good about buying new things, pouring rain all day) well you can’t go wrong with a cake or a biscuit at a time like this. There’s a lot of information in ‘Plats Du Jour’ and all of its good. I really can’t understand why Elizabeth David is so well known in comparison to Patience and Primrose. ‘Plats Du Jour’ was far more popular when it first appeared than David’s books and with no disrespect to Elizabeth David I think there are good reasons for this.

There is something of the same didactic tone common to all of these women (you just wouldn’t argue) but ‘Plats Du Jour’ won my heart first with the chapter on wine – a mere 5 pages of good sound advice on buying, drinking, and food matching. Twelve years in the wine trade and I don’t think I’ve read anything better. (Particularly true of the advice regarding wine and heat – too much heat destroys wine, but 54 years after this book first hit the shelves we still have a habit of overheating our red wine in this country. Don’t do it people – wine should be room temperature and no more, and now I’ll dismount from this particular hobby horse.) I’m determined to cook from it one day, although in the meantime I can learn a lot about pots, pans and techniques. I’ve been reading ‘Plats Du Jour’ on and off all afternoon (in-between low rent television) and plan to take it to bed with me in a minute for more concentrated perusal.

Having rejected ‘Plats Du Jour’ for cooking purposes today I also hit Florence White’s ‘Good Things In England’ which has a lot more in the way of baking suggestions, but somehow nothing really appealed to me – or at least not to cook. Florence White herself sounds fascinating; after being blinded in one eye as a child her marriage prospects were blighted so she went out to work in a variety of roles (governess, teacher, ladies companion, cook, writer) by the 1920’s, by which time she was in her late 50’s/ early 60’s she was earning a living as a freelance food writer ‘Good Things in England’ came out when she was almost 70. It’s a collection of historic recipes which are fascinating to read about but which have bought me to the conclusion that real vintage cooking isn’t my passion. Reading vintage recipes is another matter it’s a whole fascinating part of history.

I hope, but don’t really know, if I’ll ever manage to cook anything from these books. For once it doesn’t really matter they’re great to read, give me a great deal of pleasure, and are something I would never have found without Persephone Books – how’s that for appreciation. I’m hoping that others will have written about these books this weekend and will be scouring Claire and Verity's round ups to see, if anyone’s cooked anything it might be just the push I need to be a bit more adventurous.

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow – Mrs Oliphant

Claire and Verity are hosting their third Persephone reading extravaganza (on the off chance that this is news do go and have a look; there are a whole lot of competitions going on to win books and although it seems wrong to have a favourite Verity’s picture test is especially brilliant.) I normally stand back in a state of mild admiration for people who join in; I was going to say challenges but on reflection join in covers it, it’s not my strongest point. This kind of celebration though works even for people like me. I like Persephone books, I have unread Persephone books, why not read some Persephone books...

The Mystery of Blencarrow’ by Mrs Oliphant (I like the formal titles that Persephone grace their authors with) was a purchase from my last visit to the shop back in November, it’s been the next book I’ll read almost ever since. I loved ‘Miss Marjoriebanks’ but despite having turned up a few more Carlingford chronicles since I’ve got no further than an abortive attempt with ‘Hester’ when it comes to reading Oliphant. Still a pair of novellas can hold no terrors about lapsing concentration ‘The Mystery of Blencarrow’ is paired with ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond’ and both have reignited my passion for the hard working and prolific Mrs Oliphant.

Both stories deal with the breakdown of relationships and the lack of options for a woman in an unsatisfactory marriage before divorce became possible. Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery is not much of a surprise – a widow still in the prime of her life marries in haste only to repent at leisure. For good enough reasons she keeps the fact of her marriage a secret but these things have a habit of catching up with you and it doesn’t look good for the poor woman. What Oliphant makes very clear is the potential cost of Mrs Blencarrow’s mistake. Marrying beneath her station means not just a loss of status but the loss of her children. Legally she is the property of her husband and expected to obey him in all matters – his interests must come first. Her children however seem to belong to her late husband’s estate to be cared for in the same way that the land is, she is not their sole guardian and it’s entirely within the power of her brothers to remove them from her if they should judge it appropriate.

Caught between a husband who neither loves nor needs his wife and children who adore and depend upon their mother what is Mrs Blencarrow to do, where does her true duty lie? I think I’m making this sound more melodramatic than it is – what really struck me was how matter of fact it all was and how terrifyingly limited a woman’s life could be by convention.

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond” deals with a couple just past their prime. A prosperous, well liked couple, whose eldest children are just entering adulthood whilst the youngest are still in the nursery – a good wife who interests herself in her husband’s comforts, a kind and loving father who’s lived an honest life until he quietly disappears. Of the two I found this the more affecting tale. The wife in this case realises that she doesn’t really want her husband back and so forgives gross selfishness on his part. Quiet separation may sound respectable enough but it seems to me that being neither wife nor widow isn’t much of a position to find yourself in. The husband of the piece puts himself in the way of fairly thorough reprisals which his wife declines to take – but had she chosen to do so I imagine the scandal would be worse than the chosen course of do nothing, say nothing.

Mrs Oliphant seems calm enough about the fate of her heroines but they made my inner feminist roar; this is why we needed the vote and a voice. I’m glad I’ve finally read this book it’s been thoroughly provoking which was timely, it also fits beautifully into the Persephone tradition of confounding my expectations – for every happy, cosy, read there seems to be something a little darker. This book is sending me to bed happy that my life has more choices than boundaries.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Capsule Cookbooks – part 2

So much for the cookbooks that I could at a push do without – though they give me a lot of pleasure and almost as much inspiration... What’s on the shelf that’s indispensable? (Indispensable being a loose term here obviously because really all these books are a lovely luxury.)

Ever since I got it last summer I’ve been devoted to Niki Segnit’s ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’. It’s become a key to all my other cookbooks; take one ingredient, look for combinations, find a recipe in one of those many contenders – but better than that (and it would be pretty good if that was all it did) it’s also a great read, lovely to look at, and contains a few good recipes as well. It’s the perfect book for the semi confident cook like me; I like a bit of direction and Segnit does it so well – I’m maybe such a fan because her two key flavours approach is particularly friendly to wine matching and that makes things easier for me too.

Another newish book is ‘River Cottage Every Day’ which was a Christmas present from my sister a year ago. So far it’s been all about the baking, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Ideologically the River Cottage way (and sometimes it does feel a little like a cult – but I mean that nicely) is one that appeals to me. Fresh, seasonal, home grown or sustainably sourced – basically food with thought behind it, and all very makeable as well – nothing that the harassed wine merchant/book blogger can’t deal with at the end of the day as long as she’s prepared to get her hands dirty from time to time.

And whilst I’m on the subject of River Cottage there are the handbooks. I love this series and actually think they’re all indispensable. It’s not just food it’s an entire way of life from foraging to fishing via baking and preserving with a bit of gardening. If I was going to be stranded on an island these are the books I’d be hoping would wash up in a packing case and happily if I was going to limit myself to only ten cook books (hell will freeze over first) I could totally cheat the odds with these because so far all but two arguably fall into different categories. Pam Corbin’s ‘Preserves’ and Daniel Stevens ‘Bread’ are the two which are absolutely cookbooks, and I love both of them. ‘Preserves’ has made my kitchen far, far, stickier and jam making has become a bit of a passion, although that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Bread’ isn’t the first bread book I’ve bought (I also have a Ballymaloe version, and actually other books about preserving) but what both of these books have in spades are good clear instructions, and good clear explanations of why you do what they ask. It’s an approach that appeals to my pragmatic learning style, the results have been excellent and they’re not going to be easy books to supersede.

I can’t imagine my kitchen without Nigella Lawson (I’m a child of my times) but though I have all her books – because basically I just can’t help myself – the one that I use more than any other is ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess’. Hardly surprising given that I’m no stranger to the dark art of baking. There’s something about the philosophy behind this particular book, as well as the absolute reliability of the recipes that makes me think this will always be a great fall back book. It’s certainly been upping my calorie count for the last decade.

I’ve had ‘The Art of the Tart’ (Tamasin Day–Lewis) for almost as long and despite not having a good hand for pastry it’s been responsible for some great tart’s and some awful jokes. I have lots, though not all, of Tamasin Day-Lewis’ books but seldom have the time to use them properly; her thing seems to be food that demands a certain amount of time and pottering, perfect if you have a weekend to spend gossiping in the kitchen whilst giving something the odd stir before unveiling an amazing meal for 8. Not so good when you’re at work till 9pm and back for 9am. Still I can dream/hope and there’s something pleasingly grown up about these books, also once you’ve created your tart it’s very friendly to the work late start early cycle that I can’t seem to escape.

Claudia Roden is another food writer who’s left her mark on me. ‘A New Book of Middle Eastern Food’ (another Christmas present from my sister who’s getting good at this) is a classic that’s not especially pretty to look at but is packed full of not just food but history and culture. For my cooking life Mediterranean food with an emphasis on Italian has been in the ascendancy. It’s all balsamic this and a pinch of fresh basil that, which at one time must have been a nice change from French cuisine but is now so bloody ubiquitous that discovering first middle eastern food and then a whole lot of other culinary cultures (including French) was a real revelation. And delicious.

Better even than Claudia Roden however is Jane Grigson, all her books are fantastic but the ‘Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book’ and ‘Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book’ are hard to beat. Arranged (just in case anyone’s missed out on these) alphabetically by fruit etc each chapter does sweet, savoury, and history. These are books which absolutely fire the imagination with the romance and promise of mulberries, damsons, pomegranates, carrots...

Which would leave me one book left and I think it’s got to be another newish one Susannah Blake’s ‘Afternoon Tea Parties’ because right now this is very much the kind of thing I love; home grown, a little bit vintage, not to formal, fun, decorative – basically indulgent.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Capsule Cookbooks

Any regular readers and anyone who knows me already knows I have a bit of a cookbook fetish. I love them and I have lots of them – not Nigella into the thousands quantities, but well over a hundred and arguably about a hundred more than I really ‘need’. Now before I go any further I should make it clear that the books are (mostly) staying put, but after an afternoon spent in bookshops considering the merits of a dedicated volume to macaroon making (seriously, I’ve made macaroons once – they were okay, but not as pretty as the ones I can buy and half the pleasure is in the prettiness and why was I even considering it?) Browsing on amazon to see if there’s anything new and exciting out there, trying to herd books back onto their proper shelves and off the floor (where seemingly of their own volition they form teetering islands to be negotiated) and finally actually cooking something (without instructions). Well anyway it makes me wonder how many I need for direction and how many are just because I love them.

The question to answer is this – which ten couldn’t I do without? I do actually get rid of books from time to time and the cookbooks are no exception (goodbye Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes; I got you under questionable circumstances, never used you, and haven’t missed you.) But actually cookbooks are harder to get rid of than most because so many of them have been presents – I have a lovely copy of ‘The New Moosewood Cookbook’ for example which I’ve never used but it’s a vegetarian classic from a lovely friend and I wouldn’t willingly be parted from it.

Cookbooks are social history just as much as personal history – my collection spans roughly twenty years with the earliest (Claire MacDonald’s ‘Seasonal Cooking’ and ‘More Seasonal Cooking’, Delia Smith’s ‘Complete Cookery Course’) harking back another decade or more. Delia – when I bought that book I thought it would be the only one I ever needed – wouldn’t make the cut now, for a good 15 years she was my go to woman when in doubt about the best way to do something, but I don’t find her as reliable anymore. Claire MacDonald is a different matter, her fresh and seasonal approach was a little bit different in the age of the kiwi and nouvelle cuisine and she’s aged reasonably well. I don’t turn to these books often anymore but they’re at least assured a place on my long list.

I have a handful of Persephone cookbooks which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never used – perhaps Persephone reading weekend will be a good opportunity... they definitely come under the social history category, I’ve browsed them (but somehow those nice grey covers and cream pages seem out of place in the kitchen, I don’t want to break the spines or get them dirty and in fact the best way to work out which books are essential would be to see which are the dirtiest) and yet I’ve been following the progress of a friend who’s cooking from a 1929 edition of Mrs Beaton, so perhaps the Persephone’s will have their day yet.

I’m doubtful about all the Nigel Slater books I have, ‘Tender’ (volumes 1 and 2) are lovely to look at but ‘The Kitchen Diaries’ sort of annoys me for no very concrete reason unless it’s that his timings never seem to match my oven so things that look quick take forever. I really liked the first Tessa Kiros books too, but ‘Piri Piri and Starfish’ and ‘Venezia’ are more picture than recipe, not pictures of food either – they take up a lot of shelf space without real content and I resent it. These books are so much of this particular time that I wonder what they’ll look like in 10 years.

When it comes to personal history there are yards of books reflecting fads – Japanese food, Polish food, baking, Greek food, Jelly, Persian Cuisine, books about herbs, books and books about soup, cooking with flowers, afternoon tea... They’ve all had their moments and all have their place, but most of them are an unashamed luxury. There are also the books which look serious – Leith’s bibles on technique, fish, and Vegetarianism (all woefully underused – the technique bible didn’t help me with a chocolate mousse disaster, nor did Delia and I’m not very forgiving; I’m still holding a grudge against Sophie Grigson after a lemon curd fiasco in 1994) and the River Cottage ‘Fish’ and ‘Meat’ books. Of all of them ‘Meat’ has been the most useful, and interestingly (to me at any rate) I see that they’re the books provided by our training department at work. Still I’m not a master chef contender and so these probably aren’t really essential either good as they are.

To Be Continued...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Constant Sinner – Mae West

The last of my pulp trio, ‘The Constant Sinner’ is an odd beast of a book. The Blonde has a couple of Mae West’s on her shelf and I’ve been coveting them for a long time so was very pleased when I found this (and slightly smug when we realised she didn’t have it already – less smug on finding her copy of ‘Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It’ is hard to find under £30, the Blonde wines this round).

All I really know about Mae West are the famous quotes (which reminds me that I really want a new dictionary of quotations) so I learned something from the introduction. Born in 1893 Mae made a career as a writer and actress, was arrested under obscenity laws for her play ‘Sex’, and I’m guessing was a stranger to inhibitions. I’m not unshockable, but I’ve reached an age and level of experience (thankfully some of its anecdotal) when it’s not so easy to do but ‘The Constant Sinner’ provoked the kind of response normally reserved for the price of good gin (outrageous I tell you).

The constant sinner in question is Babe Gordon, the first time we meet her she’s leaning against the crumbling wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem and West introduces her thus:
"Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers."
 Babe is a beauty in the Mae West mould, she likes men, and men love her but it would seem she’s a very dangerous woman to know. She and her friend Cokey Jenny watch the fight, Babe always with an eye to who her next pick up will be, a Frenchman is first up and she wonders if he can provide a bit of novelty for her, but he loses and she loses interest settling instead on the night’s champion.

The poor sap is soon chewed up and spat out. He marries Babe in a haze of infatuation but when the hard pace she sets ruins him as a fighter she moves on, initially to dealing coke, morphine and heroine in a five and ten store, and then onto life as the mistress of Harlem gangster Money Johnson for whom a white woman is the last status symbol. When Money goes down for three months Babe moves on again this time to a social register millionaire which is where her past starts to catch up with her. Babe who “would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her” has had no compunction in lying and cheating her way up, the men she can handle but the women want blood and are set to get it.

It’s an exciting read but it’s troubling too. At 18 Babe has far too much experience, there’s no back story, no suggestion that the reader should feel any sympathy for her, and very little in her actions that allow for empathy. Babe loves sex, loves men, loves high living and indeed any sensual experience but beneath that there’s nothing. Not just a lack of morals but a lack of affection or loyalty or foresight, Babe lives entirely in the moment and has to be the archetypal tart without a heart in search of sensation. Seventy or more years after it was written there’s still something deeply shocking about her attitudes – maybe it’s how contemporary they sound.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I wish I was a...

It would be nice to be able to say that I was a genuine domestic goddess but truthfully candles are the best thing that ever happened to my housekeeping – turning off the lights and keeping it dim seems so much less trouble than hovering and my flat seldom depresses me more than on a sunny morning which brings with it the realisation that This Really Won’t Do. Every time I manage to impose order on the kitchen it turns out to be a remarkably temporary state of affairs – perhaps exacerbated by the general rule that I only get it really straightened out just before I’m about to cook , so within minutes the order is destroyed.

Monday being Valentine’s Day seemed to call for some sort of effort on behalf of the Scottish One both in terms of food and providing pleasant surroundings. Half of that went really well and the rest of it was covered by candlelight. Valentines is a tricky one – it’s not the sort of thing I’m at all inclined to get excited by, especially the more commercial aspects of the day but I would be devastated if I didn’t get a card from my mum (every year since I can remember – thank you mum). I also like the excuse to cook something vaguely decadent – this time I made Crème Brûlée with a gold leaf topping (flashy I thought) and thank Nigella it turned out very nicely.

Crème Brûlée has always been one of those things which I imagine will be horrendously difficult and turn out to be really not (regardless of the Scottish One’s feelings it’s also my favourite dessert – not at all sure what his is now I come to think of it). This recipe makes enough for 2 to 4 Brûlée’s

300ml double cream
4 egg yolks
2 level tablespoons of castor sugar
½ a teaspoon vanilla extract
Extra sugar - preferably golden castor or similar.

Take whatever the Brûlée is going to end up in (larger dish, or little ramekins, or in this case the prettiest teacups I could find) and stick it in the freezer.

Put the cream and vanilla extract in a heavy based pan and bring to the boil without actually letting it boil.

Whip the egg yolks and sugar together, and when the cream is ready pour it over still whipping.

Rinse and dry the pan, pour the custard back into it and over a gentle heat with continuous stirring wait for the custard to thicken – this should take about 10 mins. Apparently it’s a good idea to have a sinful of cold water ready to plunge the pan into if it looks like the custard’s going to split, but touchwood this has never happened to me. When the custard is ready (runny won’t be a good look) take it off the heat, retrieve the containers from the freezer and pour in. Leave to cool then put in the fridge to get properly cold. When they’re ready to serve sprinkle a good layer of sugar on top and either attack with a blow torch or put under a grill set as hot as it’ll go. (Blow torches are a fun kitchen gadget even if you don’t use them much).

I had some gold leaf I got before Christmas – 1 very small square which cost me £3.99 – and which I’ve been looking for an excuse to use. Broken up and brushed on with a mix of fingers and a pastry brush it went quite far and looked amazing (candlelight – hides the dust, flatters my aging complexion, and makes pudding sparkle like pirate treasure – brilliant).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bedelia – Vera Caspary

If the idea of Mills and Boon romance makes you want to gnash your teeth and commit a violent crime than ‘Bedelia’ is almost certainly the book you’re after. My copy was a Christmas present and is my second brush with Vera Caspary, I read ‘Laura’ (which she is better known for) back in the summer looking for hard boiled noir and ending up with romance. I was very so-so about ‘Laura’ but my heart leapt when I saw the tag line on ‘Bedelia’- “She Seduces Men – But Does She Kill Them? A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.”

Written in 1945 this is a cracking little thriller as well as being (and this is slightly coincidental) a sort of anti-Mills & Boon. The scene opens on the evening of Christmas day 1913 – newly married Charlie Horst has just lit the Yule log he’s had drying all year and feeling himself the happiest of men as he contemplates his wife – Bedelia. She appears to be the perfect wife; basically an angel in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom (Caspary is careful to mention her black silk corsets, experience, and voluptuous appearance as often as she does Bedelia’s housekeeping and cooking abilities). Charlie who’s a very ordinary looking and somewhat insecure proposition can’t believe his luck – he’s not even particularly wealthy, which is why when his wife announces she’s pregnant he takes out a large life insurance policy...

It’s destined to be the last evenings of Charlie’s happiness – as the rest of the evening unfolds the first cracks appear in this image of domestic bliss and by the end of the week things are looking pretty bleak. Bedelia is slowly exposed as a nervous inconsistent creature with a past, Charlie begins to realise that the bits and pieces about her life that she’s let slip don’t add up. He’s also becoming increasingly suspicious of his friend and neighbour Ben Chaney and the effect he seems to have on his wife – is Ben all he seems and how much longer can Charlie gloss over Bedelia’s faults? Especially when he’s struck down by an almost deadly attack of indigestion and the local doctor starts to behave very strangely refusing to let him eat anything prepared by his wife. And then they get snowed in...

I’m not giving much away when I tell you that Bedelia turns out to be a ‘Kitten with claws’ (it’s on the back cover for a start) who may have left a string of dead husbands behind her, but I won’t spoil the end which is both deeply chilling and slightly surprising. This is pulp fiction at its cleverest and best, a good tense read that messes with some preconceptions along the way. Caspary doesn’t do anything to excuse Bedelia’s actions – there’s no question about her being both dangerous and unbalanced, but she makes Charlie subtly unsympathetic at the same time; not to the point that you want him dead but enough to make him vaguely unlikable.

He’s a jealous man, an angry man, a man who might become violent. A man whose mothers body was hardly cold when he started remodelling her house, a man who enjoys knowing his old friend Ellen is in love with him – expected to marry him until he came home from a holiday with a new wife for her to befriend, and by the by a man with thinning hair. Bedelia on the other hand put’s her all into bolstering his ego, making him comfortable, pleasing him in bed, and entertaining his friends. She’s an expert wife who seems to enjoy the man in her life – although crucially we never really understand what she thinks or why. There’s a hint of a tough childhood but nothing specific is revealed; the real Bedelia will remain a mystery. In fact apart from that bad habit of doing away with her husband’s (a spiritual daughter of Braddon’s Lady Audley) she is the perfect submissive Mills & Boon style miss...

As an antidote to romance with a feminist twist it would be hard to find a better book. There’s a film version which I’ve never seen but which sounds equally intriguing so it looks like two neglected classics for the price of one – should either version cross your path don’t ignore it ‘Bedelia’ is a treat.

Pulp Fiction

This week has been all about the trashy and it’s been great. A couple of weeks ago a nice man called Doug sent me an email asking if I’d like some Mills & Boon to read, my first thought was not for me, but on reflection I thought it might be fun. I’m not exactly a stranger to M&B – granny used to love them and it was my job to procure them for her. Back in the day her drug books of choice could be bought for 20p apiece of the market with an exchange system where you got 10p back for every book returned. I used to read them after her and must have got through scores of them.

Sadly that stall has gone but Mills and Boon still turn up everywhere and from time I like to gather together a pile and retire to bed for a day of hibernation. My preference is for the older models which read – well they can be a touch camp and unintentionally funny but the basic formula is very comforting. It’s a couple of years since I’ve had an M&B binge though, and I’ve always steered clear of the newer stuff so I wasn’t sure what to expect from these new ‘Riva’ models.

First up and in the interests of absolute honesty – the covers suck, I really don’t like them to the point that I Would Not Buy A Book That Looks Like This. Ever. I’m making this clear because I’m definitely part of the target market (female) and I always like to make my contribution to market research. I was sent two books – one rejoicing in the title of ‘Surf, Sea, and a Sexy Stranger’ (which I had low expectations of) and another called ‘Molly Cooper’s Dream Date’ which sounded vaguely promising. I got it wrong. Molly’s dream date is a banker and that’s not a fantasy I can go with. A chunk of it is also written as emails and I wasn’t feeling it.

Surf, Sea, and a Sexy Stranger’ however was far more entertaining than expected. True I still think that zones even if they are erogenous probably only sound sexy to planning officers, and wherever the author was going when she kept mentioning pebbled nipples I was ending up with visions of shingles or similar unpleasant ailments, but... Well it’s a big but – I didn’t stop reading once I’d started and I feel absurdly protective about this book. Like all good fantasy’s (girl meets handsome rich stranger, they have amazing sex and live happily ever after – and who hasn’t daydreamed about that from time to time along with winning the lottery) you feel sure it must happen from time to time – it rings true.

Mills & Boon have quite the history – which I don’t know very much about – but what has always fascinated me about these books is how on the one hand they’re incredibly disposable; cheap, easily available, easily digestible, and easily replaceable yet at the same time they endure. Copies 40 years old are still all over the charity shops and still being passed from woman to woman which says something.  From time to time it makes a nice change from reading about surplus women and heartbreak – and to mark Valentine’s Day Mills & Boon are running a day of competitions. Tempting?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I’ve spent the last 3 days (3 days is a long time) on what I’ve come to think of as a marmalade project. Not just making marmalade you understand, but a Project, or perhaps that should be PROJECT. Last week I bought a whole lot of blood oranges going cheap at work. Normally they’re approximately the same price as gold but these were 60p for half a dozen so I got lots thinking I could experiment with all those blood orange (remarketed as blush oranges for heaven’s sake) recipes that normally look impractically expensive. After spending the weekend out and about my options narrowed to marmalade.

Making marmalade is a deeply satisfying if very time consuming activity, so far though I’ve only really dabbled with Seville Oranges, there was a brief flirtation with Lemon and Lavender which was okay but it didn’t really feel like marmalade, and Seville’s seem foolproof which fills me with confidence. Still nothing ventured nothing gained – Prospect books sent me C. Annie Wilson’s ‘The Book of Marmalade’ late last year so not before time I had a good browse through it – which delayed me actually doing anything effort related to the oranges – but it’s a cracking little book with loads of history, recipes, and general entertainment. Naturally I had to cross reference my findings with Pam Corbin’s ‘Preserves’ and after only a few hours happy reading I had a recipe.

Which told me to slice the oranges and soak the bits for 24 hours. Fine it was getting on for a Monday evening and I wanted to get to bed before midnight so I chopped and chopped feeling very domestic and a veritable goddess. I measured the water and filled the pan with orange juice and bits only slightly dismayed by its tendency to look like it was going to overflow (it’s quite a big pan as well) then went to bed. Where I did some maths. All well and good having pre chopped fruit but it would still want at least 3 hours messing around with and I wouldn’t get home on Tuesday until 9pm. Still no bed before midnight.

Due to it being a big pan of cold water and cold oranges it took far longer than I imagined to come to the boil, never mind for the skins to soften and sometime around 1am on wed morning I gave up in favour of sleep setting my alarm for stupidly early on a day off to finish the Marmalade (PROJECT) so having slept through my alarm there was a hectic and quite damp and sticky hour and a half today before going out to meet my delightful god son and his mother, who didn’t get marmalade because it was still molten sugary lava albeit in a jar. Given the stop start nature of the enterprise I’m really pleased with the results, it’s a sweeter marmalade than I normally make, but a very pretty colour and will I think be excellent for using in other recipes.

1.5 kg oranges
175 ml lemon juice
3kg sugar
3.75 litres of water

Scrub the oranges, halve them squeeze out the juice and chop the skins into thin strips.

Put the juice, peel and water into a Very Large Pan (or make up a smaller quantity) and leave to soak overnight or for 24 hours,

Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of hours or until the skins are soft

Add the sugar and lemon juice and bring back to the boil

Prepare as many sterilised jars as you can find

After about 20 to 25 minutes of vigorous boiling start checking to see if setting point has been reached, when the marmalade gets there let it stand for roughly 10 mins before bottling and sealing (the standing time stops all the fruit bits rising to the top – my marmalade looks a bit uneven because I had a bus to catch)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Libraries – They’re for adults too

Leicestershire isn’t (apparently) being badly hit by library closures. Opening hours will be cut and some jobs probably cut with them; the city centres two libraries (reference and lending) are being amalgamated – mostly at the expense of the reference side as apparently nobody looks at those books (you can’t take them out, but you help yourself from the shelf, so I’m not sure how they tell), and the English language section is being shrunk in favour of more books that better reflect the mix of languages spoken here. (Which I believe is a good thing – proportional representation seems fair.)

Honestly I don’t use my local library much for fiction – it’s a long time since it’s had much to offer me so a lot of the proposed changes won’t affect me at all. It’s been my choice to spend what spare money I have on buying books to read when suits me which is probably just as well as book buying budgets are due to be slashed (probably to the point where they’re on a par with my limited personal resources). Closing the library altogether would cause me real problems though and this is what I feel strongly about.

So far most of the discussions around the fate of libraries that I’ve read seem to focus on children and childhood. We all have happy memories of visiting them as children, me included, and yes it’s a joy I would prefer that future generations get to share but just for a bit can we ignore the children. I get worked up to the point that I shout at the radio/television/newspaper when another MP or councillor justifies closing libraries by declaring that much as they *want* to keep them open if it’s a choice between a library and care for a sick child...

Well I don’t have children, won’t be having children, and feel that other people’s children are getting their fair share of my tax pounds; I want to see some of that left over money spent on services that materially affect people like me. In 2008 I was made redundant twice, the first time was messy and at the time I had no internet (or computer access at all) at home. I spent a frantic week researching my rights in the library, and communicating with more experienced friends via the libraries free pc’s. When I lost the second job (don’t you just love a recession) going to the library to read the job pages and again use the computers gave my life much needed structure.

That unfortunate series of job events meant that my mortgage insurance was useless and one way or another if my lovely mother hadn’t been able to support me through that year I’d have lost everything. After all that tax paying the only service I was actually able to use was the library, and it was courtesy of the library that I found the add and was able to apply for the job I now have. During that year I think I got a pretty good idea of the sort of people who used the place – plenty looking for work like me, some seemingly looking for internet brides (disconcerting), many there to read the papers, some clearly studying, lots communicating with absent family and friends, and a lot of pensioners. It’s also one of the few places in the town centre where I see a really representative mix of the population.

At a time when unemployment is so high it seems to me worth protecting the places that help the job seeker, and at a time when the money in your pocket is worth less then ever we really need to protect the places the uncomfortably off can go. It’s not just about children and fiction; it’s about desperate and frightened people wondering how to pay the bills needing information as much as they need entertainment but somehow we don’t seem to be talking about these library users and their needs.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

If I Should Die Before I wake – Sherwood King

I had big plans for this afternoon and have somehow procrastinated it all away to the point where I’m beginning to wonder a) really – why can’t I get my act together, and b) what am I going to do about moving all the cloths from my bed so I can sleep on it. They’re clean so the floor really isn’t an appropriate resting place, but there are such a lot of them that I might well be up until midnight putting them away (certainly will be the case if I carry on at this pace).

If I Should Die Before I wake’ on the other hand was a much needed quick read. Only 150 pages long it’s full on, hard boiled, noir thriller. Just what the doctor ordered, or surely would have been if I had a book prescribing doctor and had visited, and what on earth am I talking about now? Anyway it’s been a long week and a good, fast, clever book was a welcome distraction/restorative. At times it was a slightly over the top treat but I’m not the woman to mind that.

We see everything through the eyes of Laurence, he’s been taken on as a chauffeur by the wealthy but war damaged Mark Bannister – who just happens to be married to a stunning young red head (always trouble) it’s also a very sultry August and Laurence, who got his job after his boss saw him emerging from the sea one day after a swim bought him to the Bannister’s private beach, is about to get way out of his depth. Much of his chauffer work is taken up with transporting Bannister’s business partner - Lee Grisby – between Long Island and the city, and the conversation has a nasty habit of turning to murder...

Laurence isn’t as bright as he thinks he is, but he’s not as dumb as Grisby hopes he is either so when Laurence is offered $5000 to help Grisby fake his own death by pretending to shoot him he knows there has to be a catch. Of course there’s a catch and I’m itching to reveal it, but like a good girl I’ll leave well alone. It’s pretty clear to the reader who the villain is but not to the police who have a very odd little mystery on their hands – nothing quite adds up but Laurence has admitted to a murder he didn’t commit and is sitting on death row. Even the reader doesn’t know if the real culprit will be caught (well not unless they skip to the last page) and I thought it was a clever as well as twisty plot – very nearly the perfect murder.

I have no idea who Sherwood King was, or even if I’m talking about a man or a woman – a quick google hasn’t enlightened me and sadly my Penguin modern classic edition comes without an introduction so no information there either (bad show Penguin). I would love to know more so if anyone can enlighten me please do.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope

When Elizabeth Gaskell declared: “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end” she quite clearly didn’t have the pay day spoils of a visit to the book farm and an amazon binge sitting next to her, or a tempting looking pile of hitherto neglected Christmas gifts. I’ve ended up feeling a lot like I have been reading it forever.

On the whole this is no bad thing (although I did feel by the end that Trollope’s repeated mentions of lame Nemesis limping along was actually my Nemesis). The more Victoriana I read the more I enjoy it, every book gives a deeper insight into the period as language and landscape becomes increasingly familiar but it’s still a world that presents challenges to me. Books originally conceived to fill two or three volumes possibly after serialization, tend to be lengthy (‘Framley Parsonage’ is a relatively modest 560 pages) and if I have a niggle with Trollope it is that he does repeat himself. Repeatedly. Sometimes this works to great dramatic effect and I can see that it’s not an altogether bad thing in a complex, multi-stranded narrative spread over 600 or more pages to have the author remind one of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s quite annoying.

Having said that ‘Framley Parsonage’ is the Barchester Chronicle I’ve enjoyed most after ‘Barchester Towers’. It’s not as consciously funny (although the exchanges between Mrs Grantly and Mrs Proudie are just genius) but there’s a lot of good stuff going on in there and I wouldn’t wanted to have rushed through it even if I could have. Once upon a time I picked up books like this read a hundred pages or so and then got distracted and started something else, the shortest and most sensational books got finished and the result is I have dozens of part read great works of literature propping up the shelves. ‘Framley Parsonage’ is exactly the reason I try and be more disciplined – any effort expanded on it has been more than repaid (but heaven’s am I ready for a couple of novellas).

This one isn’t as plot driven (and I use that term loosely with reference to the Barchester books) as The Small House at Allington, or at least it doesn’t concentrate so specifically on one plot. Instead there are almost four books in one – there’s the story of Mark Robarts the unfortunate clergy man backed into signing bills for a dodgy politician who leaves him high and dry. There’s the story of Miss Dunstable the fabulously wealthy heiress to a cosmetics fortune – she’s middle aged and none too attractive – will she find a man to like her for herself or will she succumb to a fortune hunter? Then there’s Griselda Grantly (somehow the Grantly’s have lost 2 children since ‘Barchester Towers’ and Griselda has turned into a cold hearted beauty) and her adventures on the marriage market and finally there’s Lord Lufton; will he be beguiled by Griselda’s looks or will he succumb to the more subtle (but worthy) charms of Mark’s sister?

Almost a p.s. – I finished ‘Framley Parsonage’ last night, started writing about it straight away, and have since started reading something very different only to find myself missing Trollope. I’m really not ready to tackle ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ yet but I absolutely want to know what happens next - I have much more sympathy for Mrs Gaskell’s point of view than I did 24 hours ago. I should also say that Victorian Geek has also just written about Framley Parsonage – her response to it is altogether more educated than mine (she uses quotes and all sorts) and is undertaking a challenge to finish all of Trollope’s novels (which she’s doing at a pace that I’m frankly envious of) it’s possibly my favorite blog at the moment and on the off chance that anyone has a passion for the Victorian and doesn’t know it – well go and have a look.

And finally (I promise) my penguin edition features George Elgar Hicks 'Woman's Mission: Companion To Manhood' on the cover. It's an apt choice for 'Framley Parsonage' and is almost a novel in itself.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Girl with a one track mind

The well worn track is virago, of which I acquired quite a few last week – pay day lead to some shopping excitement in three of my favourite second hand shops. Two of them are local charity concerns, the third is the mighty Astley Book Farm. The Blonde and I were very flattered to be recognised (we don’t go that often, honestly we don’t) and identified with this blog although we were a little concerned when asked if we could look for things other than Virago’s because they were struggling to get hold of enough... In the end there was no need for panic, we both came away with nice a collection of things (I’m particularly pleased with a Mrs Oliphant) and left plenty for future customers.

We both agreed as we left that if bookselling offline has a future it’s in places like this. Knowledgeable but not intrusive proprietors, thousands of interesting books, and a cafe coming soon – it’s a bookselling fantasy, because yes, I do fantasize about going to bookshops with a choice. The Scottish one despairs but the blonde understands.

As a result of the frenetic book buying I spent quality time rearranging and feel very pleased with the results and whilst I was doing that Simon Stuck In A Book’s post was very much on my mind. I think I’ve probably talked as much as anyone about how I felt Virago books gave me a voice, or introduced me to women’s voices generally and Simon wonders where that leaves men like himself who find their reading home in these same books.

I very specifically went off one afternoon to look for novels by women after one of those stupid arguments about there being no great women artists – you know the sort, someone will say “Well show me a female Dickens” which of course you can’t – but then there’s only one male Dickens, and I wish that was the response I’d come up with 20 years ago. Even so back then I was convinced that there had to have been a whole lot of really good (if not necessarily really great women writers), there was plenty of evidence pointing that way but all I could ever think of were genre writers (someone show me a male Agatha Christie please)(actually don’t that’s purely rhetorical). I found what I was looking for and never looked back.

But what’s easy to overlook is how things have changed in the last 30 odd years. Only that long ago the idea of a lady vicar was as outlandish as the concept of a same sex marriage, drinking and driving was vaguely acceptable, perfectly nice people could talk about ‘queers’, and it wasn’t so outrageous to pay women less to do the same jobs as men. Hopefully things change. It’s also been easy to forget that half the reason I went looking for these particular books was to be able to win an argument, and had I got Rebecca West, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen at my fingertips than it might have been a more grown up discussion, but to win the argument the books needed to be read not just by women like me but by the men we were at variance with.

As I look at the shelf next to me I see plenty which strikes me as feminine and domestic and plenty which doesn’t seem to fit either category but nothing which feels exclusive. When these writers started to slip out of print it was men as well as women losing the voices of their mothers and grandmothers. A collective loss, and a collective gain when they were resurrected.