Monday, August 29, 2011

August Folly – Angela Thirkell

I find the end of summer beginning of autumn a deeply depressing time of year, no season of mists and mellow fruitfulness for me, instead it’s all downhill until after bonfire night when the promise of properly grim winter perks me up no end. As I’ve got older I’ve collected more and more reasons to dislike these next couple of months and probably less control over how the season makes me feel – wonderful things could, and sometimes do happen but I feel like I’m programmed to retreat into a cup of tea (possibly some giant chocolate buttons) and the thing that really saves me from myself – a good book.

Books have been the answer at least since the autumn when I was eleven and read ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ 16 times in a row to keep the blues at bay. It worked then and it works now. Looking round for something that would cheer me up on a bank holiday Monday that has been so grey and damp I’ve had to have the lights on since morning like it was winter already I hit on Angela Thirkell’s ‘August Folly’. It seemed appropriate for what will probably be the last book I finish this month, and which summed up nicely how I felt today in its title, it turned out to be just what I wanted.

I have perhaps half a dozen Thirkell’s on the shelf, mostly the old penguin editions, all clearly much read if not necessarily by me, and all exasperatingly out of print. Given the current market for rediscovered books and Thirkell’s apparent popularity on the web it seems almost incredible that no one has picked her up yet – she feels ready for a revival to me and ‘August Folly’ would be a good place to start – one frustration with previous Thirkell reads has been coming midway into a sequence and then being totally unable to get my hands on either the previous or next book in her Barsetshire (same Barsetshire as Trollope) series.

 August Folly’ works well as a standalone book, and so for the first time I don’t feel cheated at the end, otherwise it follows the same formula as all the others – lots of county families going about their business, a handful of terrifying and bloodthirsty schoolgirls, a young man with a crush on an unobtainable (but generally amused and kind) older woman, and at the end of it all true love and marriage for at least one (sometimes more) happy couple. What lifts them out of the ordinary is the sense of humour – it’s the place names that I particularly love with Winter Overcotes and Winter Underclose being favourites, Thirkell also seems to have a thing for double entendres which crop up to often and are, I think, to broad to be accidental (I’ll bet she was a hell of a woman to down a bottle of sherry with).

August Folly’ borrows more than a setting from Trollope – sort of hero Richard Tebben is a hobbledehoy in the mould of John Eames (from ‘The Small House at Allington’) and like Johnny he covers himself in glory after facing down a bull. There is something in the authorial tone which casts a nod to Trollope too. I think he might have enjoyed the exchanges between Gunnar the cat and Modestine the donkey (I learnt from reading a ‘The Tapestry of Love’ that Robert Louis Stevenson travelled the Cevennes on a donkey called Modestine and lo in the very next book I read there is a donkey called Modestine – a reference which otherwise would have flummoxed me) which so easily could have been revoltingly twee but are instead deliciously funny.

It seems from the little I’ve read about her that Angela Thirkell didn’t take her own work terribly seriously which is perhaps half its charm, she was quite prolific and there’s an undoubtedly dashed off feel in places. The other half of the charm comes from plots which despite being little more than sunlight and foam maintain an inner integrity because they make no bones about what they are.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Tapestry Of Love – Rosy Thornton

About a year and a month ago I had an email from Rosy Thornton asking if I’d like a copy of her book to read, these kinds of offers are – I was going to say always exciting but actually sometimes are slightly baffling (the person who offered a vampire romance aimed at teens clearly didn’t read my blog first and I’m not tempted by self help books from American preachers – although the blond begs me to say yes to those). The chance to get a copy of ‘The Tapestry of Love’ however was flattering; I had already seen good things written about it and thought it might be just the thing for some lazy late summer reading.

I don’t know why I didn’t read it straight away, possibly because it was a hardback and seemed like a big book to carry around (I have a larger handbag now than I did last summer – makes all the difference) but the longer I left it the guiltier I felt, by Christmas it had become a chore to be faced, and in March I wrote a post about feeling guilty over the pile of unread hardbacks that weighed down the shelf (which it seems I opened in exactly the same way as this one which shows I’m consistent I suppose). Finally late summer has arrived again and suddenly ‘A Tapestry of Love’ started to look tempting again.

Now I’ve read ‘A Tapestry of Love’ the guilt has gone (it would have lurked on if I hadn’t liked the book). It is a perfect late summer read. Catherine Parkstone is a likable heroine, in her late 40’s, divorced for 8 years, children grown up, and off to the Cevennes mountains for a new start in the south of France. Part of the romance is the easy way in which she’s accepted into her new community and the way her fledgling business as an upholsterer takes off. Never mind the tall dark and handsome Frenchman across the way who cooks as only a Frenchman can, who hasn’t daydreamed about moving somewhere beautiful to make a living out of something they love? Well I have at any rate and although I didn’t imagine France the basic fantasy is the same.

Catherine’s place in her new community is threatened first by family complications, then by bureaucracy, and finally by that tall dark etc Frenchman. Family appears in the form of a sister who looks likely to be romantic competition, a son as self contained as his mother, and a daughter who won’t settle to a job. There’s also the mother back in England in a home with Alzheimer’s and the ex husband who maybe wants a bigger part in Catherine’s life again.

 There were moments when I felt like it was all a bit to idyllic and easy - and then Catherine’s mother dies, there’s nothing sensational about it but the way Thornton handles it is moving and feels real. It’s at points like this that her gift as a writer really comes through. There is a balance that makes the whole thing deeply satisfying, like I said perfect late summer reading. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Westwood – Stella Gibbons

‘Westwood’ turned out to be a bit of a reading journey for me - it looks quite innocent but at 448 pages there’s a lot in there to think about. First published in 1946 but set during the latter years of the war this is, apparently, the book that Stella Gibbons was proudest of. Lynne Truss has championed it for some years first as a classic serial for radio 4 and now through the introduction of this Vintage reprint and in at least one recent newspaper feature – in short it came with some expectations attached.

The first page was promising, Gibbons trademark descriptions of nature, in this case reclaiming bombed out London streets, are deeply evocative and for me at least irresistible but after that I stalled a bit. There were a couple of references to ‘the second world war’ which with some other bits and pieces of phrasing felt clumsy, almost stilted, and stopped me really falling into the plot as much as I wanted to. However when all the scene setting and introducing of characters was done with the distracting feeling of too much explanation disappeared and by the end of the book I could see why Gibbons was so proud of it – which is rather what happens with the heroines character so perhaps it was all deliberate...

I suspect that the other problem I had with the first half of the book was Hilda, again I had high expectations of Hilda the down to earth beauty who sees through all the pretentious nonsense that her friend Margaret falls for but she doesn’t seem quite real. Bought up on a diet of Mary Wesley with suspicions confirmed by Marghanita Laski’s ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ Gibbons often repeated descriptions of Hilda as a chaste forces sweetheart are oddly unconvincing, I can appreciate that in 1946 this was the kind of girl we would have wanted to imagine but the frequent affirmation that she never goes too far with her string of service boys makes me feel that the lady doth protest too much. That she only spends time with the rather horrible Gerard Challis because she feels sorry for this decidedly middle aged playwright is however entirely believable.

Margaret Steggles – the heroine of the piece- is an entirely different thing though. She is a masterpiece and definitely earns Gibbons the right to be compared with Austen. When the book opens Margaret is 23, a teacher, unhappy with her life and in London with her old friend Hilda looking for a house for her parents to live in. The Steggles home is not a happy one due to Mr Steggles wandering eye and Mrs Steggles bad temper. Margaret herself is a passionate, impressionable, and very awkward young woman. She longs for Art and Beauty and possibly a little romance but unfortunately is a little to plain and a bit too high brow to be attractive to men.

The chance finding of a ration book brings her into contact with the Niland’s and Challis’s – intellectuals in the form of painters, playwrights and glamorous women. Margaret is smitten despite these people being pretty awful – Hilda wouldn’t be fooled for a moment – and taking every opportunity to dump their children on her and generally impose on her infatuation. As a way to get closer to the Challis’s Margaret strikes up a friendship with Zita, a Jewish refugee who lives with them at Westwood. Zita is rather a figure of fun throughout the book, but in the end it’s she who really transforms Margaret.

For example it’s Zita who takes Margaret to concerts properly introducing her to music, Zita who goes to the theatre with her, who helps her become more chic, and who shows that a physically plain woman can yet be attractive to men. I don’t think I’ll spoil much by saying that as the book ends Margaret is happier, more confident and far surer of herself and her personality, all of which makes her more attractive and a much nicer person for the reader to be with.

What really sets this book apart though is the very end where Gibbons describes her gentle powers – Beauty and Time and the Past and Pity and Laughter. These are the things that will help Margaret come what may; if she can’t find earthly love she will at least find comfort in work, duty, friendship and the arts. I find it remarkable because it’s rare to be told that a woman can be happy and fulfilled without some form of physical love. (I think Margaret will have her romance, she’s been kissed by the last chapter and not just once or by one man – I feel sure there will be more). There’s no pretence that an unmarried life would be an easy or desirable one for her, but a reminder that there will always be consolations for disappointment if you’re prepared to make the best of what you have. It’s good to have a happy ending where the girl doesn’t need to get the boy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Two years, a few books, and a lot of cake later

Desperate Reader is two years old today which has caused a moment’s reflection on my part. Last year I talked about what a great thing blogging has been for me, how many lovely people I’ve met, the new ideas it’s introduced me to, the cakes baked – all of which is still very much true. I’ve also read a lot of books I wouldn’t have without the self imposed discipline of sharing my thoughts about them which is probably the best thing of all (wonderful people excepted).

It’s not that I read more now than I did before but that I had fallen into a terrible habit of not finishing things. The combination of no longer being able to afford much of a social life and realising that second hand books aren’t necessarily disgustingly defiled objects impregnated with mildew, crumbs, and terrifyingly unidentifiable stains has helped me reconnect with a never very dormant passion for reading and it helps me get through the day just as it did when I was a child/misunderstood (because aren’t they all) teen.

I could wish for a more fulfilling and better remunerated job (I could even apply for one but the pay off would be to lose the security of the position I have and when I consider that it doesn’t look so bad) but however ambivalent I might feel towards my day job at the end of a particularly trying shift knowing that I can escape into a book until I’m fit company for civilised people again – well it’s rather marvellous.

If there has been a reading highlight of the last year that particularly stands out it’s finally getting round to Trollope, I’m 7 books in with dozens left to explore and though I’ve undoubtedly read better individual books I don’t think anything else has bought the same feeling of overall satisfaction or the feeling of being on the threshold of a long and satisfying relationship.

Anyway enough of that, I have fresh fruit that needs to be turned into preserved fruit before it turns itself into rotten fruit, possibly a cake to bake, defiantly a herring to deal with or my flat will stink in a way that not even a very good book will allow me to escape from, and celebratory new books to squeeze onto a shelf (somehow). I’ve been pretty sure for a while that Oxford World Classics exists just to make me happy – if further confirmation were needed it arrived today in the form of a totally unexpected book that looks both short and improving (the best kind?). Whatever saint or deity oversees the discovery of old green Virago’s smiled on me today as well when I found this little haul in an Oxfam, and I think I did okay out of Waterstone’s current 3 for 2 fiction deal at the weekend when I came away with one book I’ve wanted for a while, one I would have wanted if I knew it existed before, and a Walter Scott who may well turn out to be the new Trollope.   

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Starlight – Stella Gibbons

One of the very early posts on this blog (almost exactly two years ago) was about Stella Gibbons 'Nightingale Wood' which had just been reissued by Virago. I loved it and was desperate to read more of her work (it’s what puts the ‘Desperate’ in desperate reader) at the time it was no easy matter, a re-read of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ wasn’t really what I was after and the other alternatives I found – an old copy of ‘The Woods In Winter’ lurking in the stacks of the library and an affordable second hand copy of ‘White Sand and Grey Sand’ didn’t really hit the spot. At the time I felt they were dated and couldn’t find the magic.

In the last few weeks the first Vintage reprints have appeared with a whole lot more titles in the background (I’m not sure if some of them are print on demand or something else – I will be finding out) and my impressions of Gibbons are changing again. When I read ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ donkey’s years ago I quite liked it but nothing deeper than that, it’s probably long past time to read it again, meanwhile ‘Nightingale Wood’ was just such a charming fairy tale and was so exactly what I wanted to read at the time that anything else would always have been second best.

I have three new Gibbons to play with ‘Starlight’, ‘Westwood’, and ‘Conference at Cold Comfort Farm’. I started with ‘Starlight’ – medium length, intriguing premise, and an irresistible cover. Two elderly and impoverished sisters are living in a rented room in deepest Highgate. It’s the sixties but there are still scars from the war all around. The worst thing about poverty is that there is no security – the house is sold to a rackman – a dreadful, sinister, figure who sets about making the place comfortable for his wife to move in.
Mrs Pearson is her husband’s one weak spot – his love has an obsessive quality, and she is clearly not well – something to do with nerves. The sisters are safe as long as they don’t upset Mrs Pearson but Mrs Pearson is increasingly erratic and the houses inhabitants begin to think she’s possessed by an evil spirit. That’s pretty much how the blurb on the back runs, but somehow I didn’t expect it to be so literal – there is an evil spirit.

I’m almost sorry that I didn’t save this book for a couple more weeks until autumn really starts, this felt like the perfect not quite ghost story for lengthening evenings, very atmospheric and suitably chilling. There’s been quite a lot more fuss about ‘Westwood’ but I think that ‘Starlight’ is a cracking little book. The characters feel true; Gibbons ear for dialogue is remarkable, she can pull the humour out of a situation without losing an overall sense of menace and through it all there’s her trademark love of nature and natural beauty. She’s never too busy to describe a sunset or the sensation of walking through a crisp and lovely winters evening and I love that because it’s an obsession that I share.

There’s much more going on than I’m prepared to share here – you have to read it for yourself. This isn’t the very best book I’ll ever read but it’s made me want more Gibbons and soon, when I’m finished with the three I have now I’ll be waiting patiently for the rest to become available. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Preserves – Pam Corbin

It’s that time of year again – the blackberries are ripe in the hedges, I’m asking my friend L about the state of her father’s plums (although I’m more interested in his damsons this time), I’m prepared to actually fight a squirrel for the chance of some nuts (I will be paying for nuts again, the squirrels always win – they’re leaner and meaner) and today I made redcurrant jelly. This is not before time; the redcurrants have been in the freezer since this time last year and will hopefully be okay. Had I known how easy redcurrant jelly is I would have made it before. Of course I say that before I’ve tried the results, but by the time I’ve written this post it should be cool enough to test – so if you’re reading this post the jelly was a success.

Checking back I see that I’ve mentioned ‘Preserves’ before but only in passing, and as I’m trying to scrape bits of jelly off it at the moment it seemed timely to write about it at more length. ‘Preserves’ was my first River Cottage Handbook (I got the first River Cottage Handbook – ‘Mushrooms’ quite a bit later and only after I realised what a tremendous writer John Wright is – but that’s another post) it set me on The Way and was all in all a bit of a revelation. It came out about three years ago when I was all but jobless and so at perfect liberty to make jam whilst trying to stay calm through domestic and culinary achievement. I had been after a book just like this for a while but had found nothing that felt quite right, picking it up was a real eureka moment.

Here was a book that laid out everything I wanted to know clearly and explicitly. Every stage documented, emphasis on all the really important principles, a reassuringly stern note regarding sterilisation and the four ‘spoilers’, plenty of recipes to follow (as well as those principles that allow for successful improvisation). Perfect. Since then ‘Preserves’ has become a particularly well thumbed volume. It’s taught me a lot without ever letting me down and yet I’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to exploiting the possibilities within its covers.

Good as the television and the heftier books are I can’t help but feel that the best things to come out of the River Cottage brand are these books. There’s a house style but each one also has a distinctive voice. Every time I pick up ‘Preserves’ I get a shadow of that first eureka moment and that rare feeling of thinking this book will never be bettered (not in my eyes anyway).

And as redcurrants are around and frequently on some sort of offer at the moment, and as redcurrant jelly is my go to secret ingredient for making things wonderful with (it’s getting late I might be getting overtired and carried away now) here’s how it’s made...

I improvised a jelly bag from some muslin and an old embroidery hoop (why this was to hand do not know because I don’t really sew, but I was very pleased with my ingenuity) and then threw a kilo of redcurrants into a pan stalks and all with 400ml of water where they simmered away for about 45 minutes until the whole lot was just one big soft pulpy mass in a bath of glorious ruby juice with the power to stain everything it touched. That all got tipped into the jelly bag with a nice big bowl underneath so the juices could filter through undisturbed overnight, which left lots of time to sterilise some jars before this morning when it was measured back into a pan and bought to a simmer at which point 450g of sugar was added for every 600ml of water (in my case 800ml’s of fluid and so 600g of sugar which seems to have worked just as it should). After that bring it all back to a rolling boil and after about 8 minutes check to see if setting point has been reached. When it does that wrinkly thing on a cold saucer and any scum has been skimmed off the top it’s ready to go into the warm sterile jars and that’s it, job done.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Miss Hope’s Chocolate Box

I’ve been flirting with the idea of making my own chocolates since 2003 when Chantal Coady’s ‘Real Chocolate’ came out. I didn’t buy it, and didn’t start making my own but I browsed enough to realise that you need quite a lot of kit (marble slab, dipping forks, chocolate scrappers, moulds, a thermometer...) and most likely a steady hand and lots of patience. I did buy ‘Chocolate – The Definitive Guide’ by Sarah Jayne-Stanes (published by Grub Street which was inducement enough) it has excellent truffle recipes and more instructions regarding kit, I made the truffles but dipping them is tricky without the little fork things, and messy, so we ended up eating lots of truffle insides. The procrastination continued but now Hope and Greenwood have released ‘Miss Hope’s Chocolate Box’ and I’m determined that this will be the year I do it.

I really liked ‘Life is Sweet’ and have very high hopes for this sequel. There are a couple of disclaimers - I  sometimes find the jolly hockey sticks with extra camp approach a little distracting (although more often than not it makes me laugh and heaven knows there are more than enough cook books out there that take themselves far to seriously), and as already indicated there are a lot of things you need for some of these chocolates with couverture (for making nice shiny chocolate shells) which seems to be indispensable for the more advanced recipes - it's also expensive and not the sort of thing you can buy just anywhere. A degree of preparation is needed and  in the last two weeks I have managed to spend quite a lot of time online looking at moulds and wondering if an ordinary thermometer is very different in its range from a chocolate one, washed and scrubbed the dust off the marble slab that came from somewhere or other that I forget and has sat in the kitchen for the last six and a half years doing nothing, got a bit carried away by the idea of edible floral transfers; and bought precisely nothing, although I’m very close to some sea shell moulds, I really am. I think I might need some latex gloves too. Hobbies are expensive.

Despite the threat of financial outlay including the very real likelihood that making chocolates will be considerably more expensive than buying even the very best handmade designer labelled offerings this is still something I really want to have a crack at. If I had the patience and time the pear and chestnut truffles would be one of the first things on the list. There are lots of fudges that I will make, and an earl grey mousse that’s a definite as well. Fig and Cassis truffles look very do-able and are probably a Christmas present just waiting to happen, the praline is another present begging to happen, but the one I really, really, want to make? Salted caramel sea shells. They sound amazing and if I can pull it off look amazing. I would feel so clever, I would look so clever, people would be impressed, and I would probably eat too many of them and feel a bit sick. So you see I have to do it, possibly just as soon as I get paid.

The list of stockists at the back is excellent and altogether this is a nice, useful, and above all inspiring book. I know from ‘Life is Sweet’ that the instructions are reliable and the results good so anyone with a birthday coming up can hope for the best.      

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Last Chronicle of Barset – Anthony Trollope

It’s only two weeks since I finished this, but it feels like a lifetime – a lot’s been happening since I got back and I have found myself longing to be in Barsetshire, I’m flirting with ‘Can You Forgive Her’ but I want old friends (and enemies) and that’s a good part of the appeal of Trollope for me – a complete little world full of incident and interest that welcomes and comforts the reader. I read ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ in every spare moment that came my way over my two weeks of freedom (including in the car outside a house which turned out to be called Lily Dale)

Normally I take a pile of books away with me but there was something very appealing about really just having the one to be getting on with, coupled by the time to do it justice – it’s the potential investment of time that held me back from reading the last chronicle for the best part of six months and which is making me think twice about throwing myself straight into the Palliser series; happily it will keep (although oddly I didn’t have a problem with working through Mrs Oliphant’s Carlingford chronicles one after the other.)

So far ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ is the best Trollope I’ve read; quite a lot happens, he doesn’t repeat himself as much as in some other books, and Mrs Proudie gets her comeuppance. The major plot strand concerns Mr Crawley, the very poor perpetual curate at Hogglestock – he cashes a cheque made out in another man’s name and then cannot account for how it came into his possession. Has it been stolen or is there an explanation? The county is torn over the issue as is Mr Crawley who honestly doesn’t know what’s happened and who accordingly driven to the deepest of despair. Meanwhile Mr Crawley’s daughter Grace has caught the eye of Major Grantly and he determines that she will be his wife even if it’s in the teeth of a scandal and at the risk of cutting himself off from his own family. (Exciting stuff, Grace has her own ideas about sacrifice and honour which further complicate the path of true love.)

Other loose ends needing to be tied up include John Eames and Miss Lily Dale. John is still pursuing Lily, and she’s still having none of it (although she weakens a little bit). I think it’s possible that even Trollope got a bit fed up with Lily as his last word on the subject appears to be that she’s had her chance and blown it, but before that happens she has a few painful realisations to make and in the process becomes a marginally more sympathetic character. John still hasn’t entirely learnt his lesson regarding dalliance with low females whilst declaring a true love for Lily and gets himself into a mess with one Madalina Demolines; these episodes border on farce and are just brilliant. And then there is Mrs Proudie, as the novel opens she’s still an undefeated arch villainess but fate and the author are cruel to her. Mrs Proudie’s power over her husband is entirely and very effectively domestic in its nature, all his comfort in life depends on her good will, too maintain it all he needs to do is be compliant. Formidable as she is however the other men of the diocese do not have to acquiesce as the bishop does and when her interference in Episcopal matters reaches a point they feel cannot be tolerated they simply ignore her.

Silence defeats Mrs Proudie, but it also destroys her marriage and then suddenly Trollope simply strikes her dead and does what he’s best at – showing things in shades of grey rather than black or white. For anyone else working their way through the series – don’t hold back, this is a wonderful, rich, nuanced, big, splendid, book and I loved every sentence of it.

Summer Pudding

Inspired by my sister and the river cottage ‘Fruit’ book in almost equal measure (but sister’s summer pudding was quite remarkable so she’s just got the edge on inspiration). Along with Bread and Butter pudding (first tried when I was about 5 and then shunned for the next 20 years until an eventual rediscovery lead to an ongoing love affair) Summer Pudding was one of the huge disappointments of child hood. How could something that looked so invitingly pink and gorgeous turn out to be bread (bread mark you and not cake – which is just wrong when you’re 5) and fruit, tart fruit. It took me a long time to get over that first experience, but now, some 30 years later I’m ready to move on.

 In my mind (and I’m sharing this thought at the risk of sounding odd) Summer Pudding is a decidedly upper class sort of dessert. I was subjected to it in a distinctly county setting, and if you don’t happen to work somewhere that gives you cheap access to fruit (me) or have a lovely big garden awash with redcurrants and raspberries (other lucky people) the ingredients aren’t always cheap.  Also although I’ve come to love things with a tart fruity edge there’s something of the pleasure/pain principle about summer pudding that puts me in mind of game (I’ve not yet learnt to like it ‘high’ and am not terribly keen to cultivate the taste) and living in cold draughty houses with inadequate supplies of hot water, and scratchy woollen blankets on the beds (also leaky hot water bottles). I’ve known rich people and posh people, but sadly for the latter the two have never really coincided.

The final thing about Summer Pudding is that you have to think ahead to make it – it wants to hang around in the fridge for 24 hours and I rarely plan like that, make in the morning eat in the evening is fine, but a day or two ahead; I really had to think about it. On the plus side the fruit compote is brilliant, takes minutes to throw together and would be great with any number of things.

Anyway gather together about 850g of mixed red and black fruit (blackberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, maybe a blueberry or a strawberry ...) 200g of caster sugar, and enough white bread with the crusts chopped off to line a pudding bowl (that will hold roughly 850ml of liquid) leaving no gaps. Line the bowl with clingfilm – using enough to have plenty hanging over the sides of the bowl to cover the base, and line with the bread. No gaps. Gently heat the fruit and sugar until the sugar dissolves and the juices start to run, but not until it’s all one mushy mess. Drain off a cup of the juice to serve with the pudding, and put the rest of the fruit in the bowl. Cover up with clingfilm and a plate and stick it in the fridge with a heavy weight on top to keep everything in place. The next day it’ll be ready and delicious. Some people use cassis which is something I need to investigate.      

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Friends and Relations - Elizabeth Bowen

I had meant to post this on Monday night but got transfixed by rioting first in London, and then as it spread to Birmingham and Nottingham – both a lot closer to home, last night Leicester got its share of violence (I’m not sure why but a pound stretcher was done over, seems likely that the local ne’er do wells haven’t really worked out how this looting thing is meant to work). Tonight the police are letting the air out of the bike tyres of youths who are milling round the city centre. I’ve seen some derisive comments about this tactic on twitter but town is a lot quieter and so I’m neither complaining nor mocking. This whole chain of events seems to bring out a right wing monster in me so I’m not going to share my thoughts on events beyond a hope and belief that things are settling back down.

Now back to business, it’s almost a month since I read this book but happily (and unusually) I made quite copious notes about it (I was a fun holiday companion I can tell you). Spurred on by Book Snobs new found passion for Elizabeth Bowen I thought I’d have another go – I have a couple more of her books I want to read, really honestly want to read, and will read one day – but heavens do I find her hard work.

This was actually my second attempt at ‘Friends and Relations’, I had a run at it when I first bought it some time back but was easily distracted by something no doubt newer and more shiny. The same thing happened when I read ‘The Last September’; first time round it was a struggle but on my second attempt I loved it. Whilst reading ‘Friends and Relations’ I had to stop and re read things not just once or twice to get the proper flavour of it, but four or five times. The bit I’d already read albeit months ago was fine – enough had clearly sunk in to make an impression. I’m not sure why I have this reaction to Bowen, I enjoy her writing, I don’t find it especially hard to follow what’s going on, I engage with the characters and yet so much remains obscure and unspoken (I suppose that’s really unwritten) that taken all in all it was a bit of a struggle.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I’m pretty sure that having to work for it increased the overall satisfaction I got from this book, I’ve come away from it with a lot to think over which is defiantly a good thing. The core of the book is the story of two sisters in love with one man. The complication is that he married one sister whilst being far from indifferent to the other. Sister number two is married happily to a man who adores her – which doesn’t affect her passion for her brother in law – a further twist is afforded by a mother in law and a wicked uncle who’s long ago affair led to divorce and disgrace for the mother in law and tense family meetings for the rest of the clan.

The things that interested me here are firstly what I take to be Bowen’s opinion that passion isn’t necessary for a happy marriage – the passionate marriage is indefinably wrong with the husband taking on the role of an extra, and entirely over indulged, child (I didn’t much care for Edward). Janet and her husband Rodney, despite Janet’s seeming ambivalence towards the man she’s married, are definitely contented, and more than that. It’s a vision that I find strangely attractive and reassuring – a reminder that successful relationships are about having a life in common as much as anything else.

The second thing that interested me is Lady Elfrida, Edwards’s mother who slipped with Rodney’s uncle and then realised that she didn’t love him anymore and couldn’t marry him despite her divorce. She loses her respectability and with it her confidence, marriage of any sort would have made her respectable again but she doesn’t do it which feels both brave and revolutionary.

I wonder where my next Bowen will take me.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fruit – Mark Diacono

I briefly flirted with the idea of joining up for all August all Virago – heaven knows I’ve got enough Virago books waiting patiently to be read but just now there are far too many other things I’m keen to read (Stella Gibbons, Angela Thirkell, Trollope) and even more things I want to plan (cooking projects, garden projects, reading projects). It perhaps doesn’t help that August always feels like the beginning of autumn to me – possibly because in Shetland it often is, or the end of summer anyway. The nights are drawing in, everything looks dusty and sunburnt, at work our first Christmas line has turned up in the warehouse (everything from now on in will be about the C word). So there you have it – August, not the best time for setting limitations, making promises, or taking on extra new commitments.
‘Fruit’ happily combines a lot of my potential projects in one attractive pocket sized volume. I really do love these River Cottage handbooks, they look good, feel good, are eminently practical, and chatty enough to make for excellent reading (more than a text book). I did wonder if after ‘A Taste of The Unexpected’ ‘Fruit’ (and ‘Veg Patch’) would really be necessary but there’s enough difference to keep me happy. ‘A Taste of the Unexpected’ concentrates on the exotic ‘Fruit’ gives page space to apples, plums and pears (as well as Japanese Wine Berries, mulberries, medlars, and quinces which appear in both, but hey – they deserve all the promotion they can get).

My wish list of plants is growing faster than weeds at the moment, and without a garden that’s strictly speaking my own I suppose most of them will stay on a list – though I am determined to get a Quince (and possibly a Damson, and maybe a Mulberry) onto the Scottish ones grounds. Quince because although it’s probably my least favourite fruit of the three seems to be especially decorative (lovely flowers), it would be a nice thing to leave behind for someone else to enjoy should that dream of moving back North materialise (leaving a Mulberry just as it came to fruiting age would surely be heartbreaking). 

After a divine gooseberry crumble (a highlight of Orkney was Jan’s cooking at the B&B) a week or two back, I would love to have some gooseberries too and have been reading to see if they would make suitable reinforcements to a hedge. Sadly I think the answer is no and to fit one in a patch it would like would mean losing some other cherished plant now. Ridiculously that crumble was the first time I’ve ever eaten a gooseberry – and this is rather the point of books like this – because it’s rare to find them in supermarkets or in grocers you have to grow them yourself. Farmers markets may have them but I don’t have a farmers market that works with Work – I can understand this with something like a Mulberry but given that gooseberries appear in so many other things (Waitrose has them in pate, yoghurt, jam, and fool) it’s a bit frustrating that you can’t buy the fruit itself.

In a long winded way this is bringing me back to the recipes at the end of the book, most of them can be made using bought fruit (although obviously home grown would be more satisfying). As Diacono points out if you add cream and meringue to most fruits your onto a winner anyway so I wouldn’t say there’s anything groundbreaking here but lots of nice things. The Apricots on toast (with honey, vanilla, and cardamom) sounds like a memorable way to end a meal and should surely suit the less flavourful supermarket fruit. There’s a Summer Pudding recipe that’s a timely reminder both that I meant to make one after an epically delicious version courtesy of my youngest sister last week (the first time I’ve really got the point of it) and that it’s an excellent counterpoint to the richness of game or the fat on a good piece of lamb. A Rhubarb and Strawberry tart sans custard in the filling also looks like a winner, and a colourful Peach salsa... Most of the recipes are a sort of template into which a whole variety of fruits can be fitted – which I find very satisfactory too.

So there you have it, a book that’s useful whether you can grow much of your own fruit or not and which stirs the imagination to no mean effect. The River Cottage handbooks continue to make me dream of a better life; one in which we all think a bit more about what we eat and why, where food has more flavour and a real provenance (and where I perhaps don’t have to work for a living but can instead float around growing things and cooking, possibly with the help of a gardener and a winning lottery ticket). It makes me happy.       

Friday, August 5, 2011

The obligatory post about the books I bought

I was reasonably restrained with my holiday book purchasing (I like to think) and even more restrained with my reading. I finished Elizabeth Bowen's 'Friends and Relations' - I like her, but find she demands quite a lot of effort. She’s definitely not an author to rush; it takes me a long time, and a few attempts to get to grips with her words - but more of that another day. I also read 'The Last Chronicle of Barset' which saw me through the rest of the two weeks and was a joy – more of that soon as well.

I made a pilgrimage to Leakey's in Inverness (and have been picked up for not mentioning that in an earlier post, which was remiss of me because it’s cracking good and the biggest second hand bookshop in Scotland). Whilst there I picked up Kate O'Brian's 'That Lady' which I've wanted for ages, I think this means I have all the Virago O’Brian’s now which probably means it’s time to actually read one of them (and then another and another). I also got 'Marriage' by Susan Ferrier (apparently a Scottish classic) and which I think will go well with my current passion for all things nineteenth century, George Egerton's 'Keynotes and Discords' has also joined the collection, it sounds interesting but the one story I read on the train was tough going style wise, 'Bid me to live' by H.D, and 'Tea at four o'clock' by Janet MacNeill complete the haul from Inverness.

As I was in Orkney I had to get a George Mackay Brown - 'The Golden Bird' which is two novellas in one volume was one of the few I didn’t already have. Hoping for the best with this because I like his work short, it’s possible that a novella will be longer than I can maintain enthusiasm for. I also got a book about Herring called ‘HERRING A History of the Silver Darlings' by Mike Smylie also known by the nickname herring man. I’ve wanted this for a while but it’s been out of print and quite expensive. We actually bought out Orkney’s entire stock – I got the last Copy in Stromness, the Scottish one got the last copy in Kirkwall, we were both very happy despite realising that amazon would have been much cheaper.

The Main street book store in the borders is one of my favourite in the whole wide world (that I have discovered so far, there’s still a lot of world and by extension a lot of bookshops waiting to be explored but by any standards this is a nice one - with excellent cake) and I couldn’t visit without buying, I got a JohnBuchan – ‘Mr Standfast’ partly for the camp value but I hope it’ll be a rip roaring good read too and Mervyn Peake's ‘Mr Pye’ which looks interesting and is probably more me than Gormanghast (another one of those things started but never finished). And that was almost it except when I got home a copy of a nice shiny new cookbook was waiting for me – ‘Miss Hope's Chocolate Box', now all I need is some chocolate moulds and I’m in business.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Feeling very much at home

My memory of Orkney is of unremittingly grey weather – which is almost unfair because every time the sun came out so did my camera with the result that a surprising number of pictures suggest that the weather was okay. It wasn’t. True it didn’t really rain but I did need a jumper, a coat (yes the one full of holes that made me look like a down and out), a scarf, and gloves. The Scottish one had a hat, it was a balaclava, I expect we made quite an impression on the local population. Leicestershire feels as hot as hell after all that.

Happily the B&B we stayed at (Holland house) was amazing – warm, welcoming, open fires (very much appreciated) scones for breakfast – a little bit of heaven, and grim weather sometimes has it’s upsides. When we went to look at Skara Brae (oldest Neolithic village in Europe is what the website says) it was initially sunny and infested with bus tourists. Skara Brae is quite small so three bus loads of assorted Europeans wondering why they didn’t go to Greece to look at remains which are still really quite old and in the sun makes quite an impact on the overall ambience. It also meant the cafe was full.
I didn't take my own picture so this one is shamelessly pinched from the Skaill house web page

With an instinct for approaching rain born and honed in the Shetland Islands (which were apparently ‘enjoying’ weather even less summery) it soon became apparent that a romantic walk on the beach should be postponed in favour of a ash for the interpretation shed/the cafe/or nearby Skaill House (same ticket but unjustly gets second billing). We headed for Skaill getting in well ahead of 17 disgruntled French teenagers which was probably a blessing, and just ahead of the rain.

Skaill has a long and no doubt fascinating history (the Scottish one appropriated the guide books and has them still so I’m hazy about the details), it’s a surprisingly big house made up of comfortingly small rooms. They have Captain Cook’s dinner service and a couple of nice Stanley Cursiter’s on the walls but the best bit was the library. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stared at the book shelves in houses like this, mostly laughing at books about country pursuits with unlikely but precise titles. Skaill was different; Skaill had my kind of books. They had E. H. Young’s and Elizabeth Von Arnim, Vicki Baum’s ‘Grand Hotel’ which I read last year and would love a copy of, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Whipple, Sheila Kaye-Smith, and Sapper. Books I’ve read and books I own (sadly not quite the same thing).

These are the books that every house would most likely have had – good middle brow fare, but which don’t generally make it on the library shelves. I didn’t notice the great long runs of Shakespeare and the like that never tell you anything about the people who lived there and far preferred these tatty runs of clearly well read volumes. There was a comfortable chair, a well placed window, and a book called ‘The Law Breaker’ by someone calling themselves Ridgwell Cullum – what could have been better than staying for the rest of the afternoon – if only I’d been allowed to touch!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Verity and Ken

Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture got married today in Austria, it’s been said before, and doubtless will be said again that one of the great things about blogging are the people you meet on line and in life through a shared passion - in mine and Verity’s case it’s for books and baking. Her blog has fuelled my passion for Virago books and seen my collection grow and I find her baking just as inspiring so as a small tribute to a lovely lady and the lucky man who’s marrying her I’ve found as many Virago’s as I could on the shelf with vaguely appropriate titles. Here’s wishing health and happiness to Verity and Ken.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Back again and it’s like I never left

Not even a tan for my troubles either, Scotland and Orkney in particular where we spent most of our time wasn’t overly warm and sunny (Orkney was cold enough to demand not just jumpers but also hats gloves and scarves) unfortunate then that I forgot my coat. I realised that I was sans coat half an hour up the motorway when it had been raining (torrentially) for 40 minutes. I swore a lot until finding an old wax jacket at the back of the car, despite looking like a tramp as I modelled a garment tastefully held (mostly) together by gaffer tape I sort of managed to stay warm and dry – so holiday saved.

It has basically been a books and whisky tour of – I would say Scotland, but actually I mean the A9 and Orkney (with a little sojourn on the A68). The A9 turns out to be an awesome road if you like Whisky; we visited Blair Athol, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie, and Old Pultney which leaves plenty for the next trip. I bought enough whisky to eclipse my book buying habit (and somewhat dread my credit card bill – is it any defence to say the Scottish one lead me astray?) between us we managed to acquire 18 bottles of malt and 2 bottles of gin. I swear that’s not all for me, and the more I think about it the less I look forward to that bill, I must not get carried away again.

Book wise I managed a quick visit to the Main Street Trading Company in Newton St Boswells which remains one of my favourite bookshops ever, even more bookish as it followed a visit to Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford (where I pinched tiny wild strawberries from the garden and wished I could live there forever – it’s beautiful and the strawberries were good). The borders seem to take bookshops seriously, there is a Borders book trail (leaflet sadly lost) which had at least 2 shops new to me on it. There was no time to visit them this trip, but next time... It’s right and proper that there is some fuss about these places though. Each and every one of them that I’ve visited so far has been excellent and a trip round the lot would make for a damn fine day out.

Orkney has some decent book shops too, Stromness has the Legendry Stromness Books and Prints (doesn’t sell prints) it’s a tiny shop a few hundred yards from the house George Mackay Brown lived in (fan girl moment) with far more books in it than seems feasible with hindsight, they also have little snippets of text taped to the shelves as well which sort of suggest what you’re browsing. My favourite would have been ‘The fluttering kilt connection’ if it hadn’t have been for another which read ‘keep away from children’. Kirkwall has the Orcadian bookshop which is good for books about Orkney and a really good second hand shop. I didn’t see its name but if you’re ever up that way it’s a couple of doors down from the library and looks like it might not be a bookshop at all from a distance, but it is and it’s entirely worth a visit.

I have more of this holiday stuff but more to the point I have quite a lot of laundry and some whisky to be stored out of harms way. Pictures of big piles of books to follow.