Sunday, August 18, 2019

Uradale Shawls - Marja de Haan

Impending redundancy isn't doing much for my concentration when it comes to reading which is a shame because I've got a small stack of books I really want to read right now. I just can't decide which one to get on with first, so instead I've been knitting.

My stepmother gave me 'Uradale Shawls' when I was staying with her in June, the Scalloway pattern looked like a good project for getting through some of my yarn stash, and uncomplicated. What I hadn't quite appreciated is that in terms of yardage it's the biggest thing I've knitted so far, progress is slow, but it's also been a blessing.

I'm a big believer in the therapeutic qualities of knitting as a hobby. It gives me something creative to do which is always a positive, is absorbing enough to stop brooding, but still lets me listen to podcasts or half watch trashy tv (some of) which makes me feel even more productive, and is just generally calming. The size and nature of the Scalloway scarf is especially perfect - it's a really simple shape, with stripes that keep the endless stockinette interesting - it doesn't make unreasonable demands on a mind inclined to wander a bit.

I have never bought any of the Uradale yarn (it's an organic farm near Scalloway in Shetland) although I have seen the odd bits of it around in Lerwick, so I'm mostly using Jamieson's Spindrift with a bit of Jamieson and Smith's jumper weight in the closest colours I had.

Most of the patterns in the book are for large triangular shawls, and now I'm working out how much yarn you need from the given weights I'm realising just how big they really are, they're mostly stranded too, so they'll be warm. The given instructions suggest knitting in the round for most of the shawls with a steek you cut at the end. I think I'd rather knit purl rows and do them flat even if it would take longer.

Otherwise this is a really nice collection that reflects the landscape and yarn that inspired it. There's only one pattern that really looks like fairisle, everything else has motifs that pick up on local wildlife and landmarks. It's a lovely book to have as a souvenir, and the shawls themselves would be something to treasure.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

East - Meera Sodha

Blackberries are ripening on the hedges, and in a few short weeks (on September 5th to be precise) half the books I've been anticipating since spring will be published - Autumn is coming. Half the books I've been anticipating are also coincidentally cookbooks, and then there are the ones I didn't even know I wanted... awkward at a time I need to be saving against the impending redundancy.

Meera Sodha's 'East' was one I didn't know I wanted until both my Twitter and Instagram went crazy for it on Thursday (it's publication day). If it hadn't been for the recommendations I wouldn't have picked this up - I'm not good with chilli (it's a heat that registers with me as pain, M&S roasted red pepper hummus turned out to be hotter than I like). The chilli thing is a pain in the arise when you live in a city like Leicester.

I tend not to buy vegetarian books either, I have an uncomfortable suspicion that because I'm not a vegetarian I feel like they're not for me, which is silly. Anyway, a proper look at 'East' persuaded me that it would be worth the investment, so here we are. 

It's a 120 vegan and vegetarian recipes from Bangalore to Beijing, and also "fuss free food made from British ingredients". The second part of that is particularly attractive. Because of where I live Chinese and Indian ingredients are easy to find. Korean and Thai not far behind, some things (like black Venus rice which sounds delicious, and spelt flour) might be a bit harder to find, but everything else ought to be more or less on my doorstep. 

The joy of this book is that it's full of flavours and combinations that I wouldn't normally cook, because of that when I'm reading through them I don't find myself thinking about meat, or feeling that it's in any way missing (that's decades of conditioning to think of vegetables as a side dish rather than the main event, I know it's not true, but it's an unconscious bias I'm finding hard to shift). More than that, things just sound delicious.

Beetroot and ginger soup, overnight soy eggs, paneer spinach and tomato salad, caramelised fennel and carrot salad with mung beans and herbs, udon noodles with red cabbage and cauliflower and so much more. The desserts look amazing as well, with some beautiful sounding vegan cakes.

Given that my whole frame of mind is focused on change at the moment, this feels like the perfect cook book for my current mood. So much of the food sounds fresh, vibrant, (though I will probably scale back the chilli somewhat) and colourful. Just browsing through it makes me feel optimistic. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Deep Water, Mysteries on the Waves - edited by Martin Edwards

I've always found August a strange sort of inbetween month. Growing up in Shetland, August could throw some distinctly autumnal days at you, the long twilight hours of midsummer are going, and the new school year loomed. Even as an adult it's a month that makes me think more of endings than beginnings. In retail it's when Christmas planning starts in earnest. Looking out the window the landscape has an overcooked feel, and altogether my current employment status is all of a piece with how I see this month.

I can't settle to much, I'm finding it easier to knit than read, and when I am reading I'm drifting towards short stories. I actually read 'Deep Waters' whilst I was on holiday back in June. It was the perfect book for the ferry journey to and from Shetland - not least because much of the water involved was river rather than ocean (there's even a swimming pool).

It's an enjoyable collection - as I would expect from the crime classics series, with plenty of variety. I love these for holiday reading because there's something for most moods, nothing demands to much attention, and short stories fit so well into the odd pockets of time when I actually get to read in (rather than the weeks of uninterrupted reading time I still sometimes imagine I might get).

'Deep Waters' gives everything from the pulpiest of efforts involving piranhas trained to kill on demand (sort of) to Kem Bennett's masterly 'The Queer Fish' which perfectly draws the line between comedy and drama. A couple of the stories flirt with suggestions of the supernatural before resolving themselves into something closer to science fiction.

There is also the last appearance of Raffles (E. W. Hornung's amateur cracksmen - gentleman cricketer and burgler) in 'The Gift of the Emperor'. I read a collection of Raffles stories in a cheap Wordsworth Classics edition one August well over 20 years ago, but not this one. I'm not sure I'd ever given it much thought, but this isn't the end I would have imagined. It was unexpectedly melancholy, more so in an anthology that separates them from their previous exploits (in which setting it would sound more like just desserts). As it stands it's another example of how well Edwards puts together these collections.

They're beautifully balanced, and together his collections are always more than the sum of their parts. That piranha story that in another setting would be to silly for words is the perfect seasoning in this book, as is Raffles last adventure. Perfect summer reading indeed.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A Spirited Guide to Vermouth - Jack Adair Bevan

I've been hoping for a good book on vermouth for a while now, and been working my way through this one since the end of May. So far it's the best book on the subject that I've found - although as my search has mostly been an occasional browse in a small Waterstones the competition has been limited.

It's taken me a long time to come round to vermouth as a category to get excited about, and there are reasons for this. Vermouth generally was not fashionable 20 years ago when I started out in Wine, and neither were the drinks it goes in. It's also quite a complicated set of drinks - Vermouth means all sorts of things from sweet to dry to bitter, white through amber, rosé, and into red. Once open it also needs to be drunk reasonably quickly - you need to commit to that bottle in a way you just don't with most other things.

My preferred kitchen vermouth (something good for drinking and cooking with) is a dry white, but it turns out my preferred cocktail vermouth is a rich red (either for Manhattans or Rob Roys, also with gin as a Gin and It. It's what you want for a Negroni too, although I'm not such a fan of those). But that barely scratches the surface of possibilities out there.

Vermouth's fortunes have changed considerably over the last few years, the ever growing popularity of gin has a lot to do with that, as do changing tastes for cocktails - although it's still not the easiest thing to buy around here. Choice is slowly improving but it is slow. I personally think that a growing interest in lower alcohol drinks is what will really help the spread of vermouth across the country.

It makes a brilliant long drink with tonic, and at less than half the abv of gin it's a much lighter alternative with even more complexity of flavour. This book does an excellent job of explaining the different styles, introducing some key producers, looking at the culture and history of Vermouth, thinking about matching it with food, and giving recipes.

The recipes are for both cocktails and food - which is really useful because you want to get through a bottle within 2-4 weeks so the more ways to use it the better. There's also a recipe to make your own vermouth (tempting). Jack Adair Bevans vermouth credentials are impeccable so you're in good hands - especially when it comes to the bar craft and cocktail bits. He's also drafted in some excellent writers to contribute recipes.

The one thing the book really needs is an index. Not having one is slightly irritating especially for cross referencing products. A glossary of the vermouth's used in the cocktails (and maybe some alternatives) would also be useful. Most of the vermouth's need to be ordered online (or at least they do if you live in the midlands) and represent a reasonable investment, the obvious place to start exploring from would be the most mentioned products.

I like the mix of cocktails in here, they start at relatively simple and go up from there. I could wish that some weren't quite so product specific, but that's a personal prejudice mixed with a pedantic nature that makes me want to follow a recipe exactly, rather than a criticism.

Altogether it's an excellent book, and an excellent place to explore vermouth from.