Sunday, February 10, 2019

Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl - Kay Plunkett - Hogge

A memoir of food, family, film and fashion.

I found Kay Plunkett - Hogge's books fairly late when I bought a copy of 'Aperitivo' about 18 months ago. It was one of those things that doesn't look like it's for you (I have never developed a taste for Campari, or any real enthusiasm for Aperol - I do not care for Negroni's, and I have strong opinions about Martini's that are diametrically opposed to Kay's*) but you end up loving and finding really useful.

There was a good bit about vermouth in it - an underwritten drink - and it's an enjoyable book to read.  The Sherry and Tapas book remains on my wish list, and from what I've seen of 'Make Mine a Martini' it's full of excellent drinks advice too - but space is short, and so is money. I can't buy all the books, however much I want to.

I did get 'Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl' after a twitter exchange on Thursday evening though, and its seen me happily through the weekend. It's a sort of memoir with a couple of relevant recipes to round off each chapter. Kay Plunkett - Hogge has had an interesting life, early years in Thailand, and a varied career in food, fashion, and film. She's funny, opinionated, and has some excellent advice to impart.

This book is a light skim through her life, concentrating on the stories and memories she wants to share and I more or less read it in two sittings. Somewhere about half way through I went from thinking that it was fun but light to feeling it was something more than that. Her thoughts on clean eating where one turning point. It's a short and pithy section that makes the point that if the would be clean eating guru isn't photogenic they're not going to have much of a career.

Of all the things you can say about Clean Eating as a fashion what better highlights the underlying problems with it than that observation? The chapters 'An English Cook in a California Kitchen' and "It's All Fusion, Stupid!" are really worth reading at a moment where perceived authenticity is so highly valued, and just after the stramash about M&S's inauthentic vegan Biryani wrap with its attendant accusations of cultural appropriation.

There's also excellent advice about throwing parties, how to party through a coup (a stiff whisky and soda is part of the answer), the horror of finding a (live) rat in the toilet, or a snake in the bath. Many useful reminders that if a job isn't right you can change it, and so much more - and all with recipes to match. She's also absolutely right about cupcakes, and pretty much every thing else she writes about.

More than anything though it's the feeling of being in really excellent company when you read this book that's made it such a delight. Kay talks about thinking 'What would Martha (Stewart) do?' in the midst of various domestic mishaps. I think my mantra might well be what would Kay do? I'm pretty sure the answer would be to mix an excellent Martini and make the best of it which is advice I can follow.

*The perfect Martini described here is very dry, with just a dash of Noilly Prat vermouth in it. My preference is roughly a third vermouth, to two thirds gin.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Norman Ackroyd: The Furthest Lands

It turns out that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park doesn't take as long to get to from Leicestershire as I had assumed it might - it's straight up the M1 from here and about an hour and twenty minutes away. Which is good news, because it made going to see the Norman Ackroyd exhibition there much easier than we expected.


I've been a fan of Ackroyd's work since I first actively noticed it in an edition of the Archipelago journal about a decade ago. Mostly I've bought the occasional facsimile sketch books since then, and one very beautiful etching of Scarborough when money wasn't quite so tight. That came from the Zillah Bell gallery in Thirsk where I spent an interesting quarter of an hour in a small room with a lot of Ackroyds. But I was there to look at something specific and there was only limited time to yearn after things I couldn't have.




This current exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (on until the 24th of February) has been the best opportunity for us to go and look, not only at more, but at lots more together in a way that shows the work evolving over a couple of decades. Ackroyd is an absolute master of his medium, this exhibition has 77 etchings and 6 watercolours (all from his Shetland sketchbook) which explore the western edge of Britain and Ireland.

Another print was outside of my current budget, but I've got the exhibition catalogue and a tea towel and I'm happy with that. We got to the YSP early, which was ideal because most of the Ackroyd exhibition is displayed going up the stairs, and along a narrow corridor, before ending up in a small room. You want to be able to look at it when it's quiet, otherwise you're stuck in a very narrow corridor, or busy staircase being jostled by people heading to the cafe.

Every time I've been to the YSP it's rained. With conviction. Today was no exception so there's still a lot of exploring to do should we ever manage to hit it on a dry day, but we did manage to see quite a bit of Giuseppe Penone's 'A Tree in the Wood', or at least I did. D spent most of his time looking at the architecture of the underground gallery and admiring the quality of the concrete. We were both happy though.

Lightning Struck Tree (bronze and gold) was the piece that sucked me in, with a split and hollowed fir tree taking up most of the interior galleries a close second. Altogether it was a very good day out (the cafe is excellent, and so is the gift shop which is a nice bonus) and it's very handy to have been reminded that the YSP is a perfectly feasible day trip.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Drinking

Dry January is done for another year, I don't join in with it but as someone who makes their living selling alcohol I'm very aware of it. One noticible thing this time has been that whilst more people tell me they're doing it, our sales have been unusually buoyant for January which suggests that those who haven't, have been buying more than usual.

Because it's how I make my living I've also got a whole lot of opinions on drinking and now seems like as good a time as any to share them - not so much because people haven't been drinking, but because of the number of often judgemental articles about not drinking that January throws up. Like This one about Anne Hathaway which I find particularly troubling. Hathaway says she doesn't like the person she is when she's had a few, so has made the perfectly reasonable decision to avoid alcohol whilst her son is under age so he doesn't witness that.

An increasing, and enjoyable, part of my job is helping customers find alcohol free alternatives to their normal choices. There are some really good de alcoholised beers around (worth experimenting to find your own preference but the easily available range of these is increasing all the time), and excellent soft drinks aimed at adults. It's possible to find reasonably good de alcoholised wine (the Torres range is worth looking for, slightly more expensive than some, but it gets the best feedback by a mile). I'm not a fan of the alcohol free 'spirits' (distilled water with botanicals) they're expensive, and I've yet to find one that pulls its weight in a drink - but if you like them that's great.

For my money if I'm looking for a gin and tonic substitute I'll stick with just the tonic - I particularly like the fever tree aromatic tonic with angostura bark for this - plenty of ice, and a good garnish which might include a couple of crushed juniper berries. If it doesn't have to be 100% alcohol free a couple of drops of bitters will add variety to your normal mixer. Otherwise sparkling water mixed with all sorts of cordials or fruit juices remain an under rated option.

It's also true that when the drains got fixed yesterday I celebrated with a gin cocktail rather than a cup of tea. Getting the use of my kitchen sink and washing machine back made me positively giddy with joy. The perfect moment to enjoy one of those gins I keep collecting, but it was the relatively elaborate process of building the drink (and thevwashing up that created) that made it special.

And this is a key thing for me. I like a drink, any drink that isn't tap water, to be a treat made with a certain amount of ceremony and ritual. That's what makes a cup of tea, especially if it's loose leaf, or coffee (always freshly ground beans, never instant) something to anticipate for hours. I don't drink wine alone - there's not much fun in it for me if I can't talk about it, and I want wine that gives me something to think and talk about.

I hate feeling even slightly drunk - even more than I dislike hangovers, so I firmly believe in moderation. I also hate dealing with drunks - especially at work. It’s much easier to deal with junkies than drunks. Drunks are horribly unpredictable. So whilst I don’t personally hold with dry January I’m happy to support anyone who is doing it whatever their reasons. If you’ve been seriously overdoing it in December it should certainly be an easy way to drop weight and improve your sleep.

For me though this is the time of year when I have all the nice things I’ve been given for birthday or Christmas, and more leisure at home to enjoy them in (in a moderate and responsible manner). This is also why I’ve come to believe that the best way for a more or less single person to enjoy alcohol in moderation is through spirits.

The small effort of finding the right glass, and whatever other paraphernalia mixing a cocktail calls for is enough to give it a sense of occasion, or to put me off if I’m feeling lazy. A single drink is enough, and with long lived spirits there’s no pressure to finish the bottle before it oxidises as there is with wine. I can’t always find the enthusiasm for solo cooking, but pausing to mix a drink well is also a small act of self care.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Black Sea - Caroline Eden

 'Black Sea, Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light'. I grabbed this book the moment I saw it in my local Waterstones, pausing only for a lengthy conversation about how beautiful it is, before carrying it home in triumph late last autumn. I've mentioned it in passing a few times since but not written about it in detail, partly because I'm still reading it.

It won the James Avery special commendation award at the André Simon awards last night though and that's spurred me on to write this post because I'm going to be still reading this book for quite a long time. It lives by my bed for handy end of the day reading - first the recipes, then the chapters in no particular order, and soon back to the beginning to go from start to finish.

It's a remarkable book, and not quite like anything else I've read. I have plenty of food book which are part memoir or travelogue, or memoirs which talk a lot about food, or books that in some way mix food with a particular philosophy, but nothing that strikes the particular balance that Eden finds for this book.

I bought it assuming it was primarily a cook book, but it isn't - and although you could use it for nothing else but the recipes, if you did that you'd be seriously missing out. Thanks to Annis for pointing me towards the Honey & Co podcast (it's only really in the last couple of months that I've started really exploring podcasts so I'm late to discovering a lot of good stuff, but catching up is a delight) I caught up with Eden's episode about 'Black Sea' at the weekend which builds on the introduction.

Both explain that 'Black Sea' is meant as much as a travel book as anything else, and I think it's really the travel section that it belongs in (although it in food that you'll find it in any bookshop). The recipes give you the some of the flavour and aroma of the places that Eden is talking about, both through the traditional recipes that look to be a mix between home cooking and cafe or simple restaurant food, and those inspired by particular moments, like the Potemkin Cocktail, or other things which have caught her imagination.

Mark Twain's Debauched Ice Cream is just such a recipe, Twain wrote about eating ice cream in Odessa, he doesn't give specific details but the supposition that it would "...have been something simple but decadent." seems reasonable. What we get is an easy no churn recipe based on condensed milk with a generous shot of rum. I will be trying it just as soon as the weather turns warm enough, it's a combination which sounds as seductive as it does simple to make. The Potemkin is brilliant, and rather better than the Fireside cocktails it's based on. (At least that's true of the way I've made them).

Overall the book is structured on a journey around the Black Sea focusing on the three cities of Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon, with some stops along the way. Each chapter works well as a stand alone essay, full of stories, history, and Eden's own experience. It's meant to be read cover to cover like a travel book, and because it's a travel book I'm really enjoying the photographs that illustrate it, instead of finding them a distraction from the food. (Cookbooks with page after page of arty non food related images are a pet hate).

It's an overview as seductive as that ice cream recipe, of a region that I knew next to nothing about before I started reading. I cannot overstate how much I love this book, or how beautiful it is - the cover is particularly stunning - or how much I enjoy Eden's authorial voice which has a pitch perfect blend of erudition, warmth, and charm. She is the ideal guide, or maybe I mean host - always ready with a cocktail, a snack, a story, the suggestion of a book to read, and somewhere to explore.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Selected Stories - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Around about ten years ago I was collecting old Virago Modern Classics as diligently as I could in charity and second hand shops. I probably have something like 400 of them now - I'll make a proper list one day - but it was a good time for collecting. Plenty turned up and they were cheap, and now I have an excellent library of things just waiting for me.

One of the authors I got quite a bit of was Sylvia Townsend Warner, mostly because I thought I should like her, although I didn't really get on with the only one I tried to read (Lolly Willows) and haven't picked them up since. I'll give Lolly Willows another go sometime, but for now I'm particularly grateful to find I had a collection of her short stories.

It was the Handheld edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' that encouraged me to explore again, and more short stories seemed like a good place to start. My copy is in danger of falling apart - I'll replace it with a more robust one if I get the chance - because is it ever full of treasures.

There are some of the 'Kingdoms of Elfin' stories in here, along with things from I guess more or less every collection she wrote - more to list and consider tracking down. I started at the end of her writing life when I read 'Kingdoms of Elfin', which I understood to be a departure in subject matter for her. Using fairies as subjects might well be a departure but the themes and tone turn out to be more universal to her work.

There's a gentle melancholy that runs through these stories that gives them a particularly haunting quality. There's also a streak of humour for balance, it's a seductive combination - the sort of thing that has you thinking just one more, and kept me up reading far to late every time I picked this book up. Add to that her perception and sympathy, along with her willingness to tackle taboos and throw in startling images and the appeal deepens.

I can't really pick favourites from so many, I just feel I've found a book that's an absolute treasure by an author who offers far more than I had imagined from that half hearted attempt at Lolly Willows. Maybe it helps that I particularly like short stories, especially when they feel complete in themselves - as these do. Each one feels like a masterpiece, as well as a masterclass in the genre, to me - and I have all the enthusiasm of the late convert.*

*I'm still waiting for the plumbing issues to be resolved. The current plumber is not being especially communicative - he was meant to tell me when he was coming round today, he didn't, although apparently he has inspected the drains. After I called and emailed him he's asked when I can give the drain people access, but has not so far indicated when will work for them. Or if he's asking any of the affected neighbors for the same access. So it might be tomorrow, it might be Wednesday, I might have to mess work around, I might not. I won't sleep well because I'll spend half the night worrying about it, and I'd like to think I could have written rather better about this book if I wasn't so distracted by blocked bloody drains,


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Domestic Woes

I had planned to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner's collected short stories today, but domestic upsets are proving to much of a distraction to do her justice, so I'm falling back on what's bothering me instead. If nothing else I'll feel a bit better for writing it down.

On Thursday both the bath tap (quickly fixed) and the kitchen drainage gave up in me. With no obvious local blockage in the pipes the plumber tried a drain cleaner. Which didn't work. I live in a flat so the next step was to approach the management company because access to communal areas might well be necessary, and it's not altogether clear who bears responsibility once the pipes leave my property.

On Friday they promised a plumber would be in touch, he was, on Saturday, to say that I probably didn't need a plumber but a drain specialist- but that they wouldn't be at work over the weekend (I was) so he'd pass my details on, on Monday. Why we couldn't have had this conversation on Friday beats me, but never mind. At that point it looked like my flat was the only one with a problem.

Saturday's plumber, who I've very much taken against, suggested that it might be an ice issue - which it could be for all I know - because I was on the ground floor and all my neighbors are higher up and therefore warmer. I'm not on the ground floor, there are another 7 flats on this level, it's been colder, but whatever. The agents happily pointed out that if it was just me I'd be paying all the bills.

Because misery loves company, and doesn't like having tradesmens bills for undisclosed sums hanging over her (if the tradesmen ever appear) it was a relief to discover that both next door and upstairs are suffering in the same way. Meanwhile upstairs efforts to unblock the drain started coming through my sink. A trouble shared will at least be an expense divided, and knowing it's not just he has taken the edge off the 'why does this always happen to Me' paranoia that was brewing.

It could be worse, the bathroom is fine, and plenty of people have offered to do a load of washing for me if necessary. Which doesn't stop it being inconvenient. I don't like dirty washing hanging around on the floor, I hate having to wash up in the bathroom sink (there's nowhere to put anything so everything needs to go straight back to the kitchen as it's washed - it takes ages), it changes what I feel I can cook (the less washing up the better) and it's surprising how hard it is to remember not to use the sink.

Everything from under the sink is all over the place as well against the probability that someone is going to want access to the pipes. My kitchen doesn't feel like mine, something I find very dispiriting.   Hand washing is a pain too, and the amount of extra time being spent in normally simple chores eats away at reading time. The background stress of not knowing when it will be fixed isn't helping me sleep either.

After a bit of time on twitter you can bet I'm seeing this as a Brexit metaphor too. It doesn't take much of a disruption from the domestic norm to have a profound effect on your everyday life. Losing easy access to a washing machine is showing me that.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Vanish in an Instant - Margaret Miller

Today has not been a particularly good day. The hot water tap on my bath stopped working, the washing machine stopped working mid cycle, and the kitchen sink won't drain. The last two are certainly related in some way, but it's not clear if that's because of a blockage further down in the drain pipes or something else to do with the washing machine itself. Either way it's expensive. A plumber has been, fixed the bath tap, poured gunk down the sink (it's not drained away yet), told me to let him know what happens, and taken all my money. I like the plumber, but I'd rather not see him again too soon (I can't bloody afford it) and I'm not confident this will be the case.

At least there are books to cheer me up, and I've finally read Margaret Miller's 'Vanish in an Instant', which is every bit as good as everybody has been saying. I got so excited by this book (a more or less forgotten noir classic, written by a woman, published by Pushkin Vertigo - that's ticking a lot of boxes) that I half expected that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations and so avoided actually reading it for a bit (which is silly, but not totally unusual).

I don't know much about Margaret Miller beyond that she was married to Ross Macdonald, who also wrote noir, mostly set in Southern California. I read a few of his books around 6-7 years ago when Penguin reissued them as modern classics. My posts on them suggest that I enjoyed them, but they haven't proved particularly memorable - but it's been a while and at least I remembered that I had definitely read him.

It feels like a curious thing to find a husband and wife both writing in the same genre and both being very good at it though. This might happen more often than I realise, but I can't offhand think of any other examples. Maybe it's a good thing I don't remember Macdonald particularly clearly, at least I'm not tempted to try and compare or contrast the two of them.

'Vanish in an Instant' opens in a midwestern airport with a vague sense of unease. Mrs Hamilton and her companion have just arrived, they're not sure if they're being met, we're not sure why they're there, but something is obviously wrong.

The wrong turns out to be that Mrs Hamiltons nicely bought up married daughter has been found wandering through a snow storm, blind drunk, and covered in blood. She's promptly arrested for the murder of Claude Margolis, who she's been running around with, and who's been stabbed multiple times.

Virginia can't remember anything, her husband doesn't know quite what to think, Mrs Hamilton is determined to handle everything, and Meecham, the lawyer hired as her defence is having trouble believing in any of it, more so when a dying man steps forward to say he did it. Is it all going to be that simple?

The answer is no, and the final twist is a clever one, but what really makes this book is the characterisation of the minor players. A caretaker and his wife, a hospital orderly, the alcoholic mother of another character, Mrs Hamilton - they're all more or less peripheral, but the attention they and many others get gives the whole thing a life and atmosphere that gives the book real depth.

Nothing feels simple, or black and white, there's a whole community here of ordinary complex people. Actions all have consequences, and by the end I shared both Meechams cynicism and his occasional compassion as he slowly unravels the truth.


Monday, January 28, 2019

The Wicked King - Holly Black

I read, and enjoyed, Holly Black's 'The Cruel Prince' last year. It's young adult fiction which is a category that didn't exist when I was a young adult, and isn't one I'm particularly familiar with now, but that's no reason not to make the occasional investigation.

What I find particularly attractive about Black is the way she uses fairies that feel like they're straight out of a Richard Dadd painting with all the unsettling darkness that suggests. When I read 'The Cruel Prince' I was new to her work, since then I've picked up a few of her books so have a much better idea of the themes that interest her. She's a much better writer than I first appreciated.

Being the first part of a trilogy 'The Cruel Prince' did a lot of scene setting, and the main characters felt more young than adult (I think they're about 17). 'The Wicked King' starts 5 months after the end of the first book and now they feel like they're really at that stage where you have to take on adult responsibilities ready or not.

It turns out that Black explores damaged and damaging families quite a lot. Her books are full of bad parents and the effects that has on their children. Not necessarily abusive parents, but neglectful, selfish, careless, uninterested parents, as well as foster families, step parents, and adopted families who are equally imperfect. This is worthwhile territory to explore especially with the relatively light touch that Black brings to it.

Twin sisters, Jude and Taryn, have had a crappy childhood and it shows. They're both a mess, making bad decisions and getting a lot of things wrong. The window dressing of fairy land aside, making poor relationship decisions, trust issues, a desire to take control, and not be powerless, and a capacity for self harm are universal issues.

Black doesn't fix things easily for her characters either, Jude (the main focus) remains emotionally immature. Constantly reacting with anger and a lack of foresight, and not at all good at understanding what motivates other people  or able to open up to them, she lurches from crisis to crisis and it all makes sense. How else could she behave under the circumstances? The question is, will she be able to gain the self awareness deal with her issues so that they don't come to define her?

The answer to that is probably yes, I'm expecting a more or less happy ending for book 3, but it will be interesting to see how Black gets there.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Grimm Tales for Young and Old - Philip Pullman

This book has been a fairly constant bedside companion for the last couple of months and has served as a helpful reminder that it's a good idea to question my prejudices every now again.

I'm not particularly a Philip Pullman fan, I read the Norther Lights trilogy when it came out along with my youngest sister who was firmly in the intended age bracket at the time. She loved them, I thought they were okay but nothing more than that, and I find his name in something more off putting than not. Still, I'd look at any version of the Grimm tales so I bought this, and now I've read it will happily admit I was wrong to be on the fence about Pullman.

With that in mind I'm writing this whilst willingly eating brussel sprouts for the first time in my life. They've never been a favourite, but I thought I'd give Anja Dunk's take on them (in sour cream with nutmeg and lemon zest) a go. Turns out they're pretty good too (though not as good as Pullman's take on the Grimm's), I'm doing well here.

'Grimm Tales for Young and Old' was the Sunday Times fiction book of the year when it came out back in 2012 so I'm a bit late to the party on this one (even when I bought this copy it sat around unread for a while) but it's now easily my favourite of the 3 versions I have.

It's a selection of fifty tales, and special because I think it would genuinely work for young(ish) and old. It's not as cleaned up as the picture book versions for children are now, or as pared back as the collections aimed at adults tend to be. Pullman adds his own embellishments as every proper story teller should - and this is the thing that I think every successful retelling of a myth or fairy tale should have - they feel as if they're meant to be spoken.

The other thing that makes this collection so good is that every story is followed by its type, source, similar stories from a variety of sources and traditions, and Pullman's own thoughts and notes about what he's done to them. It's the perfect mix of entertainment and scholarship.

It's a book that I bought ought of curiosity to add to a collection, but it's become a favourite that I've turned to again and again this winter when I couldn't settle on anything longer to read, or had a few minutes to fill, wanted to be reminded of favourite childhood stories, and more. It's also gently pushing me towards tackling some more of the collections I've gathered together.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings - Anja Dunk

After mentioning this book yesterday I wanted to say a bit more about it - because it's excellent and I'm feeling particularly enthusiastic about it.

I waited a long time for an inspiring looking German Cookbook to turn up, 2018 rewarded my patience with two, which between them cover a fairly broad spectrum, and which along with 2016's 'Classic German Baking' by Luisa Weiss, make me feel I've got this covered now. The baking book is excellent too, and a good companion for 'Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings' which is light on baking.

Part of the reason for my interest is that my grandmother was German. She wasn't a particularly good cook (we remember salads of cheap ham slices, iceberg lettuce, and salad cream, and Brains faggots) and didn't seem to enjoy it, but her marriage wasn't happy and she had seven children so it's not surprising if she saw it as an unending chore. My mother basically taught herself to cook after she was married, and has no particular food memories from childhood at all, so it's not nostalgia as such that I'm chasing, but I suppose there is an element of curiosity about a woman who only rarely talked about her past.

There's also a more general curiosity about any cuisine I'm broadly unfamiliar with, although there's something comfortingly familiar about Northern European cooking that I find more appealing than the traditional British habit of looking south for inspiration.

My sister gave me 'The German Cookbook' by Alfons Schuhbeck (published by Phaidon) for my birthday. It's massive, traditional, and I'm told full of treasures. I've browsed through it a bit and am looking forward to getting to grips with it properly.

'Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings' is something else. It's sub titled 'The new taste of German cooking' and reflects an altogether more contemporary attitude. The flavours might be more or less traditional, but the feel is fresher and lighter than in the Schuhbeck book. It also covers newer traditions with Turkish flavours creeping in (curiously Leicester now has a German Kebab shop - which always looks busy) reflecting how they've been assimilated since the 1960's (much as curry has in the U.K.).

Because this is a much less dense book than the Phaidon doorstop it's very easy to jump straight into it, and there are so many things in it that sound good. Especially the vegetables - cabbage, sprouts, and beetroot have never seemed so appealing. I didn't think this would be the book I'd want to turn to, to help me cut down on the amount of meat I eat - but it looks like it's going to be. Beyond that it's full of things which sound fresh, offer different flavour combinations to the ones I'm used too, and is altogether tempting.