Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Christmas Egg and a Silver Fizz

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Stephen Rutt’s Wintering and Italicus Liqueur

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories with Orange Bitters

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Weatherhouse and Whisky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Diana Holman-Hunt - Slightly Foxed with Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Hepple’s Douglas Fir Vodka

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sour with Shrubs and Switchels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2019

This Golden Fleece and Edinburgh Gin Apple and Spice Liqueur

I’ve been reading Esther Rutter’s ‘This Golden Fleece’ for months now, putting it down to deal with other commitments (including some knitting projects) and other books. It’s travelled all over the place with me, and now it looks like it. It’s a journey through Britain’s knitted history which mean two of my favourite places (Shetland, and the bit of the Scottish Borders I’m best acquainted with) get chapters.

Rutter is an engaging writer who explores all sorts of avenues in her journey around the country as well as sharing a good bit about herself. Her enthusiasm for the project she’s undertaken jumps off every page and for anyone who follows her on social media it’s clear the adventure continues. It will be interesting to see what she writes next, but meanwhile this is a great book for anyone interested in making or British history.

I bought the Apple & Spice gin liqueur as a Christmas present, but am tempted to get another bottle for myself (common sense argues that I have a lot of booze in the house already, and no job...). Flavoured gins are not really my thing, and as a category they’re a little bit troubling, but Edinburgh Gin is an exception to that.

The problem for me is that a lot of what’s currently being labelled as flavoured gin is basically flavoured vodka - there’s nothing wrong with flavoured vodka, but it’s not as fashionable as gin hence the rebranding and it doesn’t feel entirely honest. Gin should taste predominantly of juniper but  there’s not actually much active regulation over labelling so the boundaries between gin and liqueurs is blurring in a way that isn’t terribly helpful.

Edinburgh Gin, to be clear, are not part of the problem. Their flavoured products are clearly marketed as gin based liqueurs, and the serving suggestions they come with reflect that. I’m looking at the Apple & Spice as something that would be fun to add to a Martini instead of vermouth for a seasonal twist, or to drink over ice.

Edinburgh Gin do a whole range of these, they’re beautifully packaged, a sensible 50cl size (nobody needs liqueurs hanging around for to long) and at around £18 a bottle not stupidly expensive. If you’re looking for something fun to add to the Christmas bar or to personalise a classic cocktail they’re a great place to start.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Wassail Bowl with Ambrose Heath’s Good Drinks

I was in two minds about doing anything drink related here this December, but then I went to church this morning. It seemed like a good way to mark the beginning of advent, and a Bishop was visiting my parish church, he officially blessed the new toilets they’ve had installed which was more than I had expected. When he had done with the toilets he gave a sermon which included a 19th century recipe for a wassail or loving cup.

The Bishop’s recipe was something like a mulled wine with added egg. I’d very much like to know his 19th century source because none of my books have anything like it under either wassail or loving cup - but my collection is by no means extensive - and I’m always interested to learn more.

Wassailing falls into two different winter traditions, one (which seems to be having a bit of a comeback) is to bless apple trees in the hope of a good cider harvest the following year and takes place around twelfth night. The other is a house visiting wassail where people go door to door singing, and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in return for presents.

Regardless of which tradition appeals most I’m a big fan of warm drinks at this time of year and don’t think we make nearly enough of them. I’m also a big fan of alternatives to Mulled wine, and an even bigger fan of Ambrose Heath.

Persephone Books have reprinted a couple of his titles, and so have Faber & Faber. All make for delightful reading, and not for the first time I’m going to laud them as potential presents. Anybody who’s followed this blog for a while will know how much I love ‘Good Drinks’ though, and how often I refer to it for recipes.

The Faber & Faber edition is a handsome hardback, the recipes mostly at the practical end of vintage. There’s something for more or less every occasion in it, and it includes a wassail. This one is ale based and asks for 2 pints (it asks for a quart, conversion tables tell me that’s 2 pints, I’m taking it on trust) of hot ale to which you add a quarter of an ounce each of grated nutmeg, powdered ginger, and cinnamon. Then add half a bottle of Sherry (I’d use an oloroso or amontillado) two slices of toast, the juice and peel of a lemon, and two baked apples. Then sweeten the whole lot to taste.

I haven’t actually tried this, though I did once make Lamb’s Wool which is also ale based, but with a lot more apple and no toast or Sherry, it was excellent. This year it will be the wassail as soon as I’m back near an Aga (perfect for casually baking a couple of apples and not worrying about having an almost empty oven).

Monday, November 25, 2019

Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below - Steve Denehan

Reading Steve Denehan’s debut collection of poems ‘Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below’ has given me a lot to think about, including how to start talking about poetry and where it sits in my everyday cultural landscape.

This collection found me by chance and Twitter. I guess getting so enthusiastic about Roseanne Watt’s amazing ‘Moder Dy’ might have been why Isabelle Kenyon asked me if I’d like to join the blog tour for this book. If she hadn’t it’s not something I’d ever have come across. My small local branch of Waterstones has a poetry section that looks like it’s mostly intended for the gift market full of classics, a handful of well known contemporary poets, and gold embossed hardbacks. It’s all good stuff, but not the place to find anything new.

I don’t think there’s much chance of coming across a book like this in the review sections of the weekend newspapers I’m likely to buy - it’s not mainstream enough. I’m not following enough poets or poetry readers across any form of social media to hear much about what’s happening, although I can at least do something about that.

I do read poetry, but rarely without feeling somewhat self conscious about it, that feeling intensifies exponentially when it comes to talking about it, and again, I’m wondering why this is? Those gift worthy editions of the great and good in my local bookshop have a self conscious air about them too, I can’t be alone in this.

‘Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below’ meanwhile has been gently showing me what I’ve been missing by not looking a little harder for what’s out there. There are 118 poems here that cover all kinds of things, most of them everyday thoughts. Reading them brings a warm glow of recognition; the feeling of meeting a friend unexpectedly in the street, or sharing a joke. My favourite (today at least) is ‘Tea’ which speaks of the satisfaction to be found in small personal rituals.

The way Denehan writes about his daughter is beautiful too. I’m much more used to reading about mother love, so personally this feels like a necessary bit of balance - giving words to the feelings I see in s many of the fathers I know.

There is so much more in this collection than I can talk about in a single blog post, some things which elicit such a personal response I’m not sure I would want to write about them at all. I’m really grateful that chance (and Twitter) did bring this book my way. Look Steve up, there’s a good bit of his work out there, follow him on Twitter - he comes across as a remarkably nice man, follow the rest of this tour, and definitely consider buying his books.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Book of Christmas - Christopher Winn

It’s more or less a hive of pre Christmas preparation around here, today is stir up Sunday so I’ve made Puddings. Five of them, because to late has it occurred to me that I could have halved the recipe, and having a lot of small Puddings seemed better than having larger ones. Only 2 of us eat it on Christmas Day, so they’ve got smaller every year. A couple will be presents, and that leaves 2 spare if anybody local fancies a small Christmas pudding (contains nuts, alcohol, and eggs).

In truth it’s possibly more trouble than it’s worth to make them just for me and my mother, but it’s a tradition I particularly like - if not specifically a family one. My sister gave me Christopher Winn’s ‘Book of Christmas’ last year and I’ve been dipping back into it recently.

I generally like winter, but Christmas is a mixed bag of emotions tied up with a whole lot of memories. Inevitably the older I’ve got, the more people there are to miss and. November begins with the anniversary of a cousin killed at 21 in a car crash, this year will be first without my sisters fiancé, who died unexpectedly in April.

The year my mother’s late partners cancer was diagnosed as terminal I went a bit mad preserving things - and made my first Christmas pudding. We had destroyed one in his very eccentric microwave the year before, so decided to go old school and use his AGA. Watching what Christmas baking does to my smart meter reading really makes me miss having someone else’s AGA to call on.

I’m not overly bound by tradition, but there’s a lot about the Christmas ones that give time and space for all those memories and emotions. Winn tells me that whilst it was the Victorians who specifically coupled Christmas with plum pudding, it goes back in one form or another to medieval times. He also tells me that Christmas cake as we know it has the same common ancestor. I find this long history deeply comforting. There is nothing transient about a solid slab of fruit cake.

The smell of strong ale, mixed spices, and dried fruit is delicious as well.

I guess this book was meant specifically for last years gift market and that something new will be piled up on bookshop tables this year but I particularly like this one for its historians view of the season. It’s definitely worth a look, and it’s been good company through the 3 hour wait for the Puddings to cook.

There are no shortage of good pudding recipes around - Delia’s is boozy, and obviously a classic based on the number of people who used to ask for a combination of stout and barley wine. I use Dan Lepard’s version based on a 1930’s recipe*. Nigella Lawson’s is bound to be excellent, Regula Ysewjin’s Pudding books (Pride and Pudding, or the National Trust Book of Puddings) are both a delight and an inspiration. If the closest you want to get to a figgy or plum pudding is reading about it her books are exquisite as well as useful.

It’s a list that could go on, and on, that lot isn’t I even the half of the recipes I’ve got on my own shelves. It’s not to late to make a pudding this year and despite the time, and electricity bill, I think it’s worth it.

*One of the things I like about this recipe is that it calls for only 3 hours steaming on the day of making rather than 8.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Virago Book of Witches - Shahrukh Husain

I’ve wanted the Virago Book of Witches for a few years, but whenever I had checked for second hand copies they were to expensive to be tempting, and I’ve never yet spotted a copy in a charity shop (although now I have it what’s the betting they turn up everywhere). Imagine them how pleased I am that it’s been reissued as a particularly handsome hardback.

Hardbacks aren’t normally my thing (in the battle between space and a love of physical books, paperbacks are my preference) but this one will look especially nice with the Angela Carter edited edition of Virago Fairy Tales. Also, I’m a sucker for anything with an owl on it.

The Virago Book of Witches is also a collection of fairy tales from around the world, but specifically ones that deal with Witches in all their various traditions. There are chapters on ‘Alluring Women and Ailing Knights’ (Indravati and the Seven Sisters is a memorable opening for its distinctly purple prose). ‘Wise Old Women’, which starts with ‘I Love You More Than Salt’, a story I read once as a child and have never seen since. I’d sort of mixed it up with King Lear, Shahrukh Husain’s Version comes with an interesting array of Scottish accents which give it a whole new life.

There are  also chapters on ‘Witches in Love: Possessive Women and Devoted Wives’, ‘Transformations’, ‘Guardians of the Seasons and Elements’, ‘Witchy Devices: Cauldron, Broomsticks, and Trysts with the Devil’, ‘Hungry Hags: Cannibals and Blood-Suckers’, and ‘Trials and Contests’.

The attraction of the witch in all and any of her forms is that she gets to be so many of the things that women traditionally are not allowed to be. She has power, she can pursue sex, behave badly, be destructive, be old, be free. She can fly. A force of both good and ill, a scapegoat with powers that are both desirable and fearsome.

This is a fabulous collection to dip in and out of with an impressive variety of source material. The preface and introduction are excellent, and there are useful endnotes too. Had I known what I was missing I might have coughed up for a second hand copy long ago.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Death In Fancy Dress - Anthony Gilbert

This is a recent arrival from the British Library Crime Classics series, and the promise of a country house party setting made it sound irresistible - it just feels like the right time of year for a country house murder mystery.

Instinct didn’t let me down. Anthony Gilbert is a pen name for Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith (an Anne Meredith book - Portrait of a Murderer was the Christmas mystery in the crime classics series a couple of years ago). I liked ‘Portrait of a Murderer’, but I loved ‘Death in Fancy Dress’, and really enjoyed the bonus pair of Gilbert short stories in this edition too.

It’s some time in the 1930’s, Tony, a lawyer (also in his 30’s) has just bumped into a school friend, Jeremy, somewhere in a bazaar in India. They travel back to London together with Tony painting an enthusiastic picture of Jeremy as a boys own hero (men want to be him, women want to be with him - that kind of thing). Jeremy reveals that he wants to marry David’s cousin, Hilary.

Unfortunately back in London it transpires that Hilary is engaged to someone else, and that she and her stepmother are in some sort of trouble. The two men are dispatched down to Feltham Abbey (the family home) vaguely instructed by someone official to sort out the mess - which is being caused by a blackmailer known as The Spider.

The plot is now sufficiently thick to be a satisfying affair to unravel. It’s easy enough to swallow that somewhere between going to the ‘right’ kind of school, and shared war time experiences you would be sent off to do some quiet work on behalf of the government. The blackmail is for sufficiently high stakes, and also sounds feasible and the various characters basically ring true as well. It’s a strong framework to have some fun with.

I think the probable identity of the Spider is obvious from fairly early on, if it’s not there are more than enough hints when you look back, and a lot of the tension comes from wondering what the repercussions of the eventual denouement will be. There's more tension in the way that Gilbert gives us occasional chances to sympathise to some extent with the culprits initial motives and then reminding us of the human damage that’s being done.

Altogether it’s the full package - great setting, a victim you’re happy to see get done in, a decent plot, convincing characterisation, and some interesting twists which are mainly down to that convincing characterisation. It’s everything I want from a golden age whodunnit.

Looking for a cover image of the book cover I’ve found the blog Clothes in Books which has a lost about some potential outfits for ‘Death in Fancy Dress’ and an archive full of great stuff to look at.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Mincemeat and Mince Pies

It’s a week since I finished work, a week filled with domestic mishaps on a scale from vaguely annoying (smashed a plate, broke a cornishware jar, but at least the latter was fixable) deeply frustrating (it took 3 days to get all of one Yodel handled wine delivery, which was 3 mornings spent waiting for the driver to see if he would, or would not try and ring the doorbell*) and upsetting (upstairs neighbours have flooded the building again, I’m at pitchfork and burning torch levels of had enough of this.

On a more productive note I’ve made chutney, 3 Christmas cakes, started tidying things with a vengeance, and today I’m potting this years mincemeat - and to mark the occasion will be making some mince pies with the end of last years mincemeat.

If I went through all my cookbooks I’d probably find upwards of a dozen mince meat recipes, all a bit different but split between those that need to be cooked, and those that don’t. Last time I was more or less unemployed in 2009 I tried Elizabeth David’s version. I spent a small fortune, which I didn’t really have, on a mountain of ingredients (it was when the final experience that taught me to actually think about the quantities a recipe is asking for before I commit to making it). Mixed it up in a washing up bowl - which it still overflowed, and hated it. It was 4 years before I dumped the last possibly fermenting jar of the stuff.

The reason I’d gone for the David recipe was that it didn’t need cooking, just mixing. The Fiona Cairns recipe that I now use as a base (it’s evolved a little since I started making it in 2013) was a revelation by comparison and doesn’t need cooking either. 

I love making this each year, it smells lovely, and I like the pacing of it. You put everything together, give it a good stir, then stir again whenever you’re passing it for around 24 hours, before potting it. I don’t get tied to the oven, and it’s all very easy going.

Another reason I love making this is because of how I associate mince pies with my mother. She has an excellent pastry hand - which I do not - and has made the best mince pies in epic quantities for as long as I can remember. It’s one of the few things I can think of that has remained a constant tradition from childhood onwards. Mum now makes the same mincemeat recipe (home made behaves much better in the oven than shop bought) which adds to the feeling that this is one of ‘our’ things. 

Mostly though, I just really love a good mince pie - small enough to eat in a bite if you want, well filled, and pastry just the way you like it (not the dry sugary sort that crumbles over everything). The sort I can buy are almost always disappointing (Greggs used to do a surprisingly decent one) and making them is so satisfying.

*This is a big part of why I’m not a fan of ordering things online, but even so Yodel’s business model seems mad. It’s crazily inefficient.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Short and Sweet - Dan Lepard

This blog turned 10 sometime back in August and one reason for carrying on with it is that the older I get the more useful I find it to refer back to. I’m baking Christmas cakes at the moment which makes me look back too - I made my first one in December 2011 using a cut out and kept for a year Dan Lepard recipe back from when he wrote a column in The Guardian. D had bought me a Kitchen Aid for my birthday, but it was so new, and the quantities of ingredients so generous that I hand mixed it that first time.

Since then I’ve made this cake dozens of times - as many as 7 in various sizes one Christmas - it’s a very good cake, although the year I got a new oven I managed to utterly over cook them after it turned out the old oven needed at least 3 times as long to cook something as the new one did. Making them isn’t the longest standing tradition but it’s important to me.

Dan Lepard has got further into my Christmas when I turned to ‘Short and Sweet’ (the blog tells me it was a Christmas present in 2011, and that initially I wasn’t as grateful for it as I am now) for a Christmas pudding recipe. His simple Christmas pudding based on a 1930’s recipe has been a winner with everyone who’s tried it.

As baking books go it’s a genuine classic - if I only had space for one baking book it’s probably the one I’d keep, but as an incorrigible collector of cookbooks there’s always something with a bit of novelty value to look at. It’s this time of year that I reach for ‘Short and Sweet’, and this time of year that I realise again how good it is.

It’s still in print, and if you don’t know it, it’s worth seeking out. Still thinking about Christmas I’ve just found a good looking mincemeat recipe that doesn’t need to be matured. I would contend that making your own mincemeat is one of life’s pleasures - something that makes you slow down and enjoy the process of what you’re doing. Which is what I think Christmas baking should be about, if you don’t enjoy doing it there’s no point, but if you do it’s surprisingly mindful (mindful is not a word I love, but it’s accurate enough here).

As I’m currently time rich I’m going to go beyond the Christmas staples and have some fun with this book over the next couple of months (starting with some orange and almond biscuits). I can’t remember exactly who gave me this (it would have been my mother or my sister) but they deserve another thank you.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What Next?

I’m now officially unemployed (since Friday) and finally feeling the emotional side of redundancy. I’m not going to miss the actual job which has left me with a legacy of repetitive strain injuries (wrist, elbow, and tendons in my right foot) and wasn’t great for my mental health either. I am going to miss a lot of the people I worked with and some of the customers.

Initially the plan was to look for some Christmas temp work and then see where I was in January, but after looking around it’s become fairly clear that temping hours are not great. 16 - 20 hours a week, weekends and late nights, expected to be available Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The pay is around minimum wage too, and shifts often only 4 hours (which means you don’t have to give employees breaks) which ups the transport costs.

The plan now is to take the next 2 months off and start looking for work in January. I know this makes sense, but it also feels weird. I’ve had periods of being of relative unemployment before, but I’ve always been job hunting through them, and quite often doing part time stuff or odd jobs. I’ve day dreamed about a Christmas off for the last 20 years. Finally being able to take one is unexpectedly discombobulating.

It’s not that I’m short of things to do (there are so many things that I need to do) but my sense of where I am in the year has gone to pot. Closing a shop at the time it would normally be filling up with stock was disorienting. I’ve put off making Christmas cakes and such until I finished work and would have all the time to make them without the stress but because I haven’t started I can’t quite believe it’s almost mid November.

The baking, chutney, and mincemeat making have also been a long standing way of dealing with the stress of work, trying to carve out moments to feel some goodwill in. Taking away the main cause of stress (the work environment rather than the work) is going to take some getting used too. It’s also something I really need to do.

What next is feeling like a big question right now, equal parts exciting and anxiety inducing, but meanwhile I’ve made the Christmas chutney today, and tomorrow I might start on the cakes.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Evil Roots: KillerTales of the Botanical Gothic edited by Daisy Butcher

This has to be a contender for personal favourite book title - everything about it appeals to me, and it turned out to be the perfect book to read over Halloween. I love a good collection of short stories at anytime, appreciate them even more in times of stress (last week was the last customer facing week at work, the next couple of days are the clear out and clean up then I’m done), and this collection lived up to the promise of the title.

I found Mellisa Edmundson’s ‘Women’s Weird’ genuinely unsettling - it was definitely a book that had me looking over my shoulder, ‘Evil Roots’ not so much. Maybe this is because I don’t know any mad scientists, or own a flesh eating plant. Or possibly because I already have a healthy suspicion of plant life (is it poisonous, will it scratch me, is a branch going to fall off it as I’m walking past, will that creeper damage the brickwork, will that seaweed drown me*, am I going to be sent out for interminable hours to cut it down**) born of a country childhood and a love of gardening.

Anyway. There are a trio of stories here that really stood out - M. R. James’ The Ash Tree’ which is the sort of class act you would expect from James. Abraham Merritt’s The Woman of the Wood which nicely picks up on the eerie quality trees can have, and Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Pavillion’. The Pavilion is a genius bit of storytelling.

There are a few flesh eating plants that get out of hand which not only illustrate the Victorian unease with scientific advances, but are an interesting parallel with current debates about GM crops - the fear is just the same. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Giant Wisteria’ is here too - I wish I admired this more than I do, but it’s fun to compare it with Ambrose Bierce’s ‘A Vine on a House’ - or maybe pair is a better word.

Essentially these are family friendly weird tales, the sort that are as likely to make you laugh as shudder, and where you can sit in dim lighting without assuming something is coming to get you (maybe not next to any plants though). Daisy Butcher has done a splendid job of finding ‘the very best tales from the undergrowth of Gothic fiction’, it’s a collection that’s fun to read, gives food for thought, and has some real gems in it.

*There’s a long stringy weed that we called Drewie lines when I was a child, we were told it would wrap round your legs and drown you if you swam through it, though in truth the actual temperature of the sea was the most effective deterrent to wild swimming. It is however a nasty weed to get tangled around a propeller, or oars, and it still gives me the horrors.

** My father has a vendetta against thistles, they continue to win the battle.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dracula - A Ballet by David Nixon OBE

I don’t normally take much notice of Halloween beyond digging out some very mild ghost stories or similar weird tales. It was a big thing for children in Shetland when I was growing up, but I don’t remember it being much of an adult affair, and I’m not sure I much like the all out, all October, selling opportunity it’s become. Although if you are going to spend money on a pile of spooky plastic tat you might as well get a proper amount of enjoyment out of it.

What I can get right behind was the chance to see Northern Ballet do their Dracula via cinema live. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric performance with every gothic bit of trimming you could want. It stays true to the book almost until the end and has some brilliant visual effects - the opening scenes are particularly good, as is Dracula’s castle. The bits with Renfield in the asylum also really stand out.

The relationship between Mina and the Count is beautifully portrayed, the brides of Dracula are fabulous, and basically we loved all of it. The only quibble is that seeing it on a cinema screen meant that the dancers were larger than life at all times, even more so when the camera zooms in on the dancers. It’s amazing to be able to see the details, but at the same time it can be distracting as facial expressions and movements designed to be seen from a distance have a different impact when they’re blown up like this.

I’d love to actually see this live one day, it was all the excellence I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet, and meanwhile it is at least something to have seen it on screen where at least we got the bonus of an interview with Javier Torres (who was dancing the part of the young Dracula).

Monday, October 28, 2019

Sour - Mark Diacono

I bought a few cookbooks back in September whilst I was posting about Vermouth, and because I've thought about them a bit since then keep thinking I've posted about them too. Mostly It turns out I haven't, and that's a particular omission when it comes to 'Sour' which is truly something a bit special.

If I struggle to get on with bitter (well, I struggle with Campari anyway), I like sour - it is the magical element that can transform your cooking. This book has also transformed my view of quinces which is why I've put off making dinner to write about it immediately.

I have a troubled relationship with quinces - they make a tremendous jelly (Diana Henry's Recipe with star anise is brilliant and now a yearly staple, although this year I was impatient and potted it about 5 minutes before I should have, it's a very loose set.) but I've really disliked everything else I've ever made with them. I find the grainy texture unappealing in tarts and pies, didn't like them in a tahini, really didn't like what they did to Brandy, and had almost given up on anything but jelly.

That was before I tried a slice of pickled quince about an hour ago... I had more of them than I needed for the jelly, and there was a recipe in 'Sour' for them - as there is in 'Salt, Sugar, Spice', but this is the one that actually made me tackle peeling the dratted things. In pickle form the grainy texture of the fruit works for me, the scent of them is tremendous, and the balance of flavours is spot on (a hint of clove and juniper, the perfumed personality of the quince, sugar sweetness, and a just sharp enough vinegar hit - it's perfect).

I can't overstate how big a thing this is for me (it feels like the happy end of a long and arduous quest), but it's probably time to move on... Quinces aside, 'Sour' is a beautifully written book. Diacono's books are always enjoyable to read, his combination of enthusiasm, knowledge, humour, and anecdote is particularly engaging.

The book gives an excellent overview of what sourness is, and various souring skills, before giving recipes for food and drinks. It's a wonderful book to go into this winter with (citrus season is here) when I think a lot of us will want those bright lively flavours. Flicking through it again now I'm making a mental list of all sorts of things I'll have time for when redundancy lands in just over a week. Getting another sourdough starter going, looking out for winter herring to souse, maybe start making my own yoghurt...

I know I have recipes or instructions for all of these things elsewhere, but it's the opening chapters of this book which are making more sense of the whole idea of sourness to me - bringing things together with an enthusiasm I can't resist. It's the sort of book that changes how you think about food and flavour, and which I expect to be comprehensively nominated for awards (which it deserves to win). The sort of book that takes you on a journey and sends you off to learn all sorts of other things (there's a handy list of resources at the back to help with just that).

Quinces should still be available to pickle (I will be looking for more) this is Diana Henry's Recipe, but seriously, buy 'Sour', you need it.

If you buy directly from the Otter farm Website there are a choice of price bands based on what you can afford - buying the book at full price will subsidise discounts for those who can't afford it, it's a project worth supporting - the souring skills are the kind of thing that we all ought to be learning for so many reasons.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Knitting Post

Because I don't mind the dark, and don't have children or pets who are oblivious to clock time, the day the clocks go back is my favourite of the year. This is my season and I embrace it, not only do I love the extra hour of today, but it's enough of a change to really improve my sleep patterns.

I've spent the day pottering, admiring books, and knitting, so it seemed a good time to share my latest knitting projects. It's basically the Scalloway Shawl (or is it a scarf?) from Maria de Haan's 'Uradale Shawls'. The Scalloway is a sort of scarf, shawl, wrap hybrid (its long even for a scarf, widens to a central point like a shawl, and is a cosy thing to wrap up in). It's a simple pattern with a medative quality to it, it's also big enough to take a slow knitter like me a while to get through. The 2 I have knitted so far have seen me through the almost 4 months of the redundancy process at work.

They've been perfect for that because I've been in no mood to concentrate on anything which would demand more attention, but the stripes stop it from getting boring. Knitting is a godsend at times like this.

For the first Scalloway I stuck as close to the original Uradale colours as I could, mostly using Jamieson's Spindrift from my yarn stash. Still, they weren't exact and I made a couple of changes along the way. I also found myself messing around with the order of the colours too.

For the second Scalloway I picked colours I'd thought about putting in the first one, and that were more autumnal. Because I'm lazy about switching there are a couple of shades that I'm not entirely convinced by. I also decided that I'd definitely move everything around in each sequence apart from one colour which would always mark the start/finish each set of stripes. I'm happy with that decision, whilst knitting it's fun to mix them up - and I'm always fascinated by how differently the colours behave next to each other. I also started with less stitches so the ends would taper more, and so it would be a marginally quicker knit.

I've now started a third project inspired by the Scalloway but using only 2 colours, different textured yarns, and in a different shape. It might end up with tassels on it. Which leads me to the question - when does it stop being somebody else's patterns and start being mine?

Knitting invites plagerism as well as adaptation. The more competent the knitter the easier it is to reverse engineer something that you've seen and liked - it's a natural thing to do, though rightly contentious when people are selling patterns. My third project is the result of weeks of what ifs, it won't look anything much like the first Scalloway, or feel like it, but it wouldn't exist without it either.

Anyway, the Uradale Shawls book is a lovely thing, the Scalloway a great project for even the most inexperienced knitter. It's an excellent chance to play around with colour combinations (it's an object lesson in colour theory) and I can recommend it as a project for uncertain times.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940 - edited by Melissa Edmundson

The nights have thoroughly drawn in already (and will do so even more at the weekend when the clocks go back), leaves are finally falling off trees, and it is definitely the season to be easily spooked.  I've been anticipating 'Women's Weird' from Handheld Press for months now and it has not disappointed.

There's nothing in here that's too terrifying, but plenty that's unsettling enough to make it the wrong book to go to bed with. It's also an object lesson in what an editor can do when putting together a collection. I need to dig out my Virago book of ghost stories for comparison, because Mellisa Edmundson has concentrated on the domestic here in a way I haven't particularly noticed before.

The opening story 'The Weird of the Walfords' by Louisa Baldwin sets the tone for the book - its male protagonist has conceived a dislike for certain family traditions and is determined to break them, but the traditions have other ideas. Baldwin makes her old house and its trappings not haunted but greedy for birth and death, especially death. Domesticity and expectations are equal burdens here, and so the place that should feel safest becomes the most dangerous.

Mary Cholmondeley's 'Let Loose' places the unseen menace in the crypt of a church - another place that should offer sanctuary but does not, and proves an ineffective prison to boot. 'With and Without Buttons' by Mary Butts is a masterwork in taking something mundane and making it terrifying - this one really did give me the creeps with imagery that's hard to forget.

I had read Margaret Irwin's 'The Book' before in the British Library anthology 'The Haunted Library' and remembered it as a particular gem. It still is, with the added bonus that now I can consider the difference the context of the anthology it's in makes. In the BL collection it was the details that I noticed, here it's that once again the horror has invaded the home.

Appropriately there are 13 strange stories in total, the strangest probably being May Sinclair's 'Where Their Fire is not Quenched' which thematically feels quite different to the other tales which all deal in a more familiar sort of strange or uncanny. 'Where Their Fire is not Quenched' is troubling for altogether different reasons, it's inclusion part of what makes this book more than the sum of its parts.

Altogether it's an excellent collection of stories that are agreeably scary whilst your reading them, and provide much more to think about when you're not. Officially published for Halloween it's ridiculously cheap if you want a kindle version, otherwise go direct to Handheld (the paper version is extremely nice to handle, the print very easy on the eye, and they have a really great list to explore).

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Weatherhouse - Nan Shepherd - #1930club

Nan Shepherd is something of an enigma. She's famous enough to be on Scottish £5 notes, and I think 'The Living Mountain' is reasonably well read, but I don't see much mention of her novels. I've had 'The Weatherhouse' for a couple of years unread so the 1930 club has been the push I needed to get on with it.

I'm so pleased I finally made the effort, and at times it is an effort, because Shepherd uses a lot of Doric dialect here. I spent 4 years in Aberdeen (her fictional community of Fetter-Rothnie is about 8 miles outside of Aberdeen) and there were bits I remembered, but I was about 50 pages in before I found the glossary and getting slightly frustrated. The glossary isn't especially complete so some guesswork is still required. Despite this I was hooked by about page 20, and when I hit the halfway mark more or less dazzled by what Shepherd was doing.

The Weatherhouse is the house that the now ancient Mrs Craigmyle moved to after she was widowed with her youngest unmarried daughter (she's 90ish when the book opens). Later she's joined by her other daughters - Annie, the eldest who had worked the family farm before it became to much, and Ellen Falconer who's marriage has left her destitute, as well as mother to Kate. The 3 generations of Craigmyle ladies are joined by a great niece - Lindsay Lorimer, 19 years old and meant to be recovering from a love affair her parents consider her to young for.

If that all sounds complicated there's a table of characters at the front of the book that helps keep everybody in place until you're far enough in for it all to make sense.

It's the First World War so Fetter-Rothnie has become a community of women, children, and old men.   Gossip abounds, as does emotion without much healthy outlet. The Weatherhouse ladies exemplify this in various ways, and when Lindsay comes to stay some sort of climax is inevitable.

It arrives in the form of Garry Forbes, nephew of a neighbor, and the man she loves. He's home from the trenches on sick leave and finds that the ministers daughter, Louie Morgan (now 35) is claiming she was secretly engaged to his friend David. David is dead, Garry doesn't believe in the engagement, seeing it as a terrible slur against the memory of his friend. He's determined to expose Louie, much to the distress of Lindsay.

What unfolds is something and nothing. Both Louie and Ellen have wrapped themselves about in a fantasy world, but whilst the older Ellen is uneasily aware of it, and the dangers in doing so, The 35 year old Louie is not. Both are essentially women without much purpose or anything to root them in the everyday in direct contrast to Kate and Annie who engage with life in a very different way.

It's a sometimes uncomfortable look at women's inner lives and how small communities operate, how they can offer both support and understanding as well as being unbearably claustrophobic and judgemental.

It's also interesting to compare how Shepherd is writing about crofting life in Aberdeenshire with how Adrian Bell is writing about farming further south at the same time, and perhaps even more interesting to consider 'The Weatherhouse' in relation to books like Edith Oliver's 'The Love Child' from 1927. I don't know if Shepherd read Oliver's book or not (she was a lecturer in English as well as a writer so she must have been well aware of the Fantastic in contemporary fiction either way). Shepherd writes so emphatically about the damage that living to much in your own fantasies does that it's hard not to see this book at least in part as a comment on the fantastic.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Taste of Scotland's Islands - Sue Lawrence

I've talked so much about this book I keep thinking I've already written about it, but I haven't and it's wonderful so here goes. When James and Tom Morton's book, 'Shetland' came out last year I was hoping for something rather like this - more of an overview of the current food scene on Scottish islands, as well as a look at its past.

'Shetland' was not that book - it's the much more personal reactions of the Morton's to their family life and home. This book visits 20 or so of the hundreds of Scottish islands from Luing in the south west, to Unst (northernmost Shetland island).

Interesting things are happening in Scotland's islands in terms of food. There's access to some fantastic ingredients and they're really being appreciated which makes sense in a whole lot of ways - not least as a tourist attraction. The weather may not always be dependable, but good food stops you caring about it. Food, particularly baking, is also integral to all sorts of community activities.

Chapters are organised by ingredients rather than location (breakfast bakes, soup vegetables seaweed, fish, shellfish, meat, game, berries and rhubarb, baking, cheese, honey and gin) and there's everything here from historic curiosities (comerant soup and home made black pudding) through traditional (cloutie dumpling and shortbread), and onto the entirely contemporary (warm Berry gin compote with rose-petal ice cream).

The recipes look great - there's a lot here that I want to make, starting with the Islay whisky cake, the photography is also beautiful, but what really makes this special is the way it's rooted in the communities Lawrence visits. She has collected recipes and stories from all sorts of people (including a gluten free apple cake from my stepmother which was a nice surprise). It's a generous showcasing of all sorts of culinary activities and personalities from the professional to the home cook with room for farmers, fisherman, and more.

It genuinely does give you a taste of what to expect in Scotland's islands (Mull is the most foody I've visited so far, standards were high everywhere we went, the seafood was spectacular, there's all sorts of meat and game produced on the island, whisky, cheese, biscuits...) it's a book you want to cook from, as well as plan holidays with.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Powder and Patch - Georgette Heyer for the 1930 Book Club

'Powder and Patch' is a bit of a cheat - it was first published as 'The Transformation of Philip Jettan' in 1923 and then reissued as 'Powder in Patch' in 1930 with the new title and minus the last chapter. However I see Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs as the perfect opportunity to re read a Georgette Heyer so I'll take what I can get. The proper books from 1930 are the contemporary novels that she later suppressed.

'Powder and Patch' is short enough to read in a few hours, and amusing enough to make me want to do that. It's early Heyer and far from her best work, but it has all the elements that make her so good when she's at her best. It also has the bits that make her difficult for the modern reader.

Our hero, Philip Jettan, is a handsome young man of sober disposition. He likes to stay at home and run the family estate - much to the despair of his altogether more fashion conscious father and the local beauty who he is in love with. Cleone Charteris is 18, inclined to return Philips feelings, but disinclined to settle down before she's had some fun.

When the extremely fashionable Henry Bancroft turns up in the village and starts flirting with Cleone, Philip proposes to her and gets sent packing. He loses a duel with Henry, and gets a telling off from his father so heads off to London, and then Paris, to learn to be a fashionable gentleman. Six months later he reappears an apparently changed man - but what will happen next?

What I really like about this book, and about Heyer generally, is that she has Cleone say no because she's not prepared to marry someone who would expect to always 'bend before his will', and she wants to have some fun before she settles down. There's no suggestion that this is anything but a sensible decision from a very young woman. Philip in turn is a bit of a prig - both need to see more of the world to grow up, and that's just what Heyer has them do.

Philip finds that he enjoys society, Cleone gets to meet enough men to be sure that she's making the right choice. For a fluffy bit of romance that's not a bad message to take away.

The setting is sometime around 1740 so Heyer gets to have a lot of fun describing the most outrageously elaborate men's costume, but otherwise this reads like a 1920's drawing room comedy rather than the serious attempts to recreate an era that she became known for later. It's none the worse for that, and maybe even more fun for it.

What lets the book down is the description of various servants, particularly distasteful in relation to a black page, not much better when it comes to a French valet. At best it's snobby, at worst racist. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I adore Heyer, and wish that she'd had more progressive ideas about class and race. On the other hand the book is almost a hundred years old in its original form and I'm prepared to judge her more by the standards of her day than ours.

It turns out the original last chapter was fairly awful (you can find a transcript of it Here, so perhaps the most interesting thing about 'Powder and Patch' now is in being able to see how Heyer was evolving and improving as a writer.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The House on Vesper Sands - Paraic O'Donnell

It has been a busy week, after Ireland there was a work day in London (a last wine tasting and a lot of goodbyes) then a work day at work (much less fun) and today I've made quince jelly and had my first MRI scan. The scan is to see what's going on with the tendons in my right foot (they hurt, a lot) it took 45 minutes in the machine I have never felt so itchy or fidgety. Making quince jelly is a similar sort of experience in that I spend the best part of an hour tied to the stove top whilst it refused to reach setting point but looked like it would boil over at any moment.

Hopefully both procedures will prove worth the time and effort.

Meanwhile it's been a while since I read 'the House on Vesper Sands' (July, I think) so it's past time I wrote what I can remember about it. I tried to read 'The Maker of Swans' a couple of years back, but didn't get very far with it (I can't remember why not, and don't think I kept it) but O'Donnell is a writer I want to like so I had another go with this one.

I'm glad I did, because I loved this. It's a good slice of gothic thriller which probably does deserve the comparison with Wilkie Collins in terms of mood (though O'Donnell doesn't do anything quite as eccentric as Collins would) and definitely deserves the comparisons with Conan Doyle that grace the front cover. Allusions to Dickens and 'The Crimson Petal and the White' seems way off the mark to me.

The setting for 'the House on Vesper Sands' might be late Victorian, but whilst the geography of London comes alive I don't think the era does - but then I'm not convinced it's meant to either so that isn't a criticism. What I did get was lots of atmosphere of the dark corners, sense of menace, smell of damp kind which makes the perfect background for a tale of murder and the uncanny.

I'm probably going to have to buy 'The Maker of Swans' again.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Quick Catch Up

I've been in Ireland for the last few days visiting family with my father. It's something that I've meant to do for an age, but never got round to. Now I'm back I'm wondering why I left it so long.

We were in Killarney and Wicklow, both are beautiful. Spent a bit of time taking trains - Irish trains are brilliant after traveling on British trains. Everything links up, if a train is late for its connection the next train waits (I still can't quite believe that), the prices are really reasonable, the carriages are clean and modern, and apparently it's free for pensioners. It is, in short, the best advert for a national rail service you could imagine.

I meant to do lots of reading, but I fell asleep on the plane over, gossiped with my father all the time on the train, and got really absorbed in the Shetland Wool Week annual he bought down for me when I was on my own, so there's a backlog of books I need to read now, but never mind.

Meanwhile it was really good to spend the time with dad, and with wider family. Dad is a twin, and it's been a very long time since I've really seen him with his brother for any length of time - I had been more aware of the differences between them before this trip, but hanging out with them for a couple of days made me realise how similar they are too, and there's something very satisfying about that.

I also got to see a few more of my great grandfathers (Francis Swithin Anderton) paintings, all quite different to the things my father and I have, so I'm now better able to assess his range and how good he was. I'm quite excited about this (almost as excited as I am about how good Irish trains are) and even more after a previously unknown to me cousin in Canada got in touch. She had also been researching our great grandfather and emailed me the day I went to Ireland. The pictures her family have are particularly good.

Altogether it's been a good few days away with the chance to forget about the work situation for a while and concentrate on other things. Now to get back to the books.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Fair Isle Designs From Shetland Knitters Volume 2

The downside of having spent September writing about vermouth is that there have been a lot of exciting new books (cookbooks, ghost stories, tales of the weird, nature writing, and knitting based things have been piling up) and now I'm a bit overwhelmed and not sure where to start. Or how to fit everything in. It's a feeling exacerbated by what's happening at work - the shop closes on the 3rd of November which is beginning to feel very close.

Actually I do know where to start - it's Shetland wool week (maybe next year I'll actually make a plan to be there rather than just following it via Instagram) and volume 2 of 'Fair Isle Designs From Shetland Knitters' was released a couple of weeks ago. This is the 4th book published by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers and is definitely something to celebrate.

It contains a dozen patterns with something for every knitting level from more or less beginner through to fairly expert. My favourite is a spectacular all over jumper, followed by a really pretty child's jumper, and then a pair of Scandinavian inspired mittens but there's much more to this book than just patterns.

This volume has a history of the Guild which I've found really interesting. This is an important part of Shetlands knitting history so it's good to get it down whilst it's fresh. It's also really worth while to celebrate the work they're doing to keep the islands knitting heritage alive, thriving, and evolving. There's also the now traditional question and answer sections with the designers, and a wealth of technical information, and a glossary of Shetland words associated with knitting.

This word hoard is a particular gift to the reader. It's very much in line with keeping this heritage alive; both language and skills need to be passed on. Not so much to preserve them, though this approach obviously does that, but to maintain a link between generations of Shetland knitters (also spinners, weavers and dyers - maybe future books will be dedicated to some of these other skills too).

Rachel Hunters Lucky Clover tunic is a lovely example of this link between old and new. It's a modern looking shape that still harks back to the longline jumpers of the 1920's, uses traditional techniques but looks utterly contemporary.

Having words that belong with this knitting is it's own sort of inspiration as well as an echo of older voices. It's experts code words, and workers slang. I hope there are many more of these books to come.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Vermouth a Bibliography

I started planning these posts about vermouth back in June, thinking I'd write them in August. By the end of July I realised I hadn't, and wasn't going to be able to try nearly as many vermouth's as I'd like to give a proper overview. I still haven't. I've not said anything about rosé styles, still not tried an amber vermouth, know hardly anything about the sweeter bianco vermouths, and so on (and on, and on...)

Despite all those gaps and deficiencies I have managed to learn quite a bit, and certainly have a much deeper appreciation for the category. I had always thought of vermouth as being a support act to the main spirit in a cocktail - now I'm behind for to think of the spirit as the straight man to the star act of the vermouth. I've also rediscovered the pleasure of drinking Vermouth on its own or mixed with soda/tonic/ginger.

It's a drink worth getting enthusiastic about, a civilised, modestly alcoholic, sophisticated thing that is endlessly versatile. There is undoubtedly a style for everybody who would care to raise a glass. With all of that in mind the best way to wind up this series for now seems to be a short bibliography of good books to have to hand if you want to explore further.

Jack Adair Bevan's 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth' (published by Headline, rrp £16.99 in hardback) was my starting point. It still vaguely frustrates me that this book doesn't have an index but in every other respect it's excellent. There's a lot of information about history, culture, ingredients, styles, how to make it, how to drink it, cocktail recipes, food recipes, a much longer bibliography for the interested, and more. It's also an enjoyable book to read

Kate Hawkings 'Aperitif' is on my wish list. I keep going to look at it in bookshops with a wistful expression and the knowledge that impending redundancy means I need to be sensible about what I buy. It has pictures, which Bevan's book doesn't, some brilliant looking cocktail recipes, and also looks interesting to read.

Kay Plunkett-Hogge's 'Aperitivo' touches on Vermouth in passing, her concern here is more La Dolce Vita, but it's a brilliant book full of things you might want to nibble. Perfect for planning elegant cocktail parties, and best of all full of Kay's writing which is not to be missed.

The Savoy Cocktail Book is a classic, and I'm very attached to my copy. I refer to it a lot - it's not that it's drinks are always the best or most reliable - there are some deservedly forgotten things in there, but you will always find something excellent. There's also no better place to learn about the importance of proportions or find inspiration.

'Sip' from Sipsmith is one for gin fans, 100 gin cocktails with only 3 ingredients, it keeps things relatively simple. My conviction is that the drinks you make at home should be both high quality and simple so this is exactly my kind of thing. Its good on both the classics, and more obscure cocktails, all calibrated for the contemporary palate (which the Savoy book is not).

Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' from 1939 reprinted by Faber & Faber, is split between hard drinks and soft drinks, which is why it's useful to have as well as the Savoy book - also because Ambrose Heath is a delight to read. I bought it more to read than use because of how much I've enjoyed some of his food titles (Persephone have published a couple, as well as Faber & Faber) but unlike the cook books I've found I use it a lot.