Sunday, June 12, 2022

Strawberry Cup

Wedding preparations continue with the new hiccup of my youngest sister (at home with father and stepmother for the weekend) testing positive for covid. The main thing is hoping she's okay, not too miserable now, and stays free of long covid - but it does put a question mark over Shetland Family getting here in time - which is, in turn, a sign of the times we live in.

Looking for a suitable punch or cup recipe has at least been fun. After regretfully dismissing the clarified milk punch the next one we tried was a winner - Strawberry Cup. The recipe comes from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' first published in 1939 - a time even more complicated than our own. As regular readers will know I use this book a lot, it's full of drinks forgotten enough to feel new, is admirably simple to follow, and has provided me with some absolute gems.

The strawberry cup calls for a pound of strawberries - that's very roughly 450g, wild being best if you can get them. I can't, it's too early, and although there are plenty of them around here it would take a long time to gather half as many, so supermarket it is - the best strawberries I had last summer came from Morrisons, I don't know what type they were but they were head and shoulders above M&S and Waitrose berries.

Chop your strawberries up a bit (unless you do find wild ones in which case you're good) and put them in a bowl with half a pound (or half the weight) of sugar, leave to macerate for at least an hour. Then add 3 bottles of hock - this is the cheap, sweet, low alcohol (9% abv) German wine that mostly gets overlooked by anybody too young to remember what we drank before the 1980's. It's not got the best reputation now, and what you can buy in supermarkets is basic compared to what Ambrose Heath would have known back when German wines were better appreciated here - and this is just fine for our purposes. Put the mixture on ice and leave until needed, just before serving add a bottle of iced champagne - or as I will be doing something like a Cremant de Limoux.


 

We made a scaled down version of this to try - it's not overly potent and quite sweet - but in a very enjoyable on a hot summers day way, very much in line with Pimm's. I'm thinking I might add a bottle of soda water into the mix to cut the abv further, and possibly some strips of lemon peel to counter the sweetness just slightly. Borage flowers would be great if you had them, or a couple of leaves of mint would work too. If you want an easy alternative to Pimm's with its own distinct character and low enough in alcohol that you can drink plenty of it without falling over of falling asleep this is an excellent contender.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Clarified Milk Punch

This is a thing I've thought about making for a long time, and thanks to Richard Godwin's admirably clear instructions which managed to make it sound less trouble than the old versions I've seen (and came in less terrifying quantities too) I've finally done it. This was partly in search of a good wedding punch - which I'm not sure this is, and also because this week I've got the time to have a go at things like this. 

What the milk punch has going for it is that it's relatively low in alcohol, has a wonderfully silky texture, an impressive history (it's associated with Aphra Benn), and is shelf-stable. What puts me off is that filtering it through a V20 paper took hours and that on first sip neither of us were entirely sure what to make of it. Almost a glass down I'm much more enthusiastic. Doug is asleep so unable to comment. 

There are things I could change - the Lady Grey tea I used and the Star Anise (I don't hate it, Doug really isn't a fan of aniseed flavours) could go in favour of other things, and I think I'll definitely make this again but to do it in proper party quantities would mean finding a slightly quicker way to filter it. The creamy texture and the fact it's clear are both impressive things though, so if you do have the time and curiosity definitely give this a go. The link to the recipe I used is HERE and Richard Godwin is absolutely worth a follow if you're interested in drinks.


Glamorous image, I know, but this is made with Milk, and look at it!






Friday, May 27, 2022

Rhubarb, Lemon, and Elderflower Pancakes

These were heavily inspired by Gill Meller's Elderflower and Gooseberry pancakes in his new book 'Outside', but I had to be up early and wait in for a man to come and inspect my front door to make sure it was fireproof (everything is fine apart from the hinges which are apparently some sort of not fireproof metal) and I didn't have any gooseberries.


There are elder bushes just outside our building so I gathered 4 flower heads and gave them a wash - the smell was amazing, and then used my normal pancake mix (200g of self-raising flour, a pinch of salt, a melted knob of butter - about an ounce - and added milk until I was happy with the consistency - spoonable, not too runny not too stiff). I added the grated rind of a lemon, the flowers from a couple of the elderflower heads, and a stick of rhubarb chopped into roughly 1cm chunks. 

If you have a decent nonstick frying pan you shouldn't need any oil for making pancakes and I much prefer them without - they just need to go on a medium heat and get a couple of minutes on each side, I also prefer not to add sugar or sweeteners to the batter mix, with rhubarb it means it keeps its sourness for a much better contrast with the syrup. For the syrup I added a bit of elderflower cordial to maple syrup, but I'd also use honey on these depending on what's open, and some of the leftover flowers. 

I really liked these, they absolutely tasted of early summer/late spring. The scent of the elderflower was incredible, better even than coffee for waking me up this morning and rhubarb is great in pancakes - it just has time to go soft and I love its tartness against maple syrup.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Life of Crime - Martin Edwards

I really wish I had the energy and focus of Martin Edwards - there are the novels, the editorial work for the British Library Crime Classics series, and now 3 impressive doorstoppers of books that give an overview of the crime writing genre, meanwhile I struggle to hold down a job, keep up with my reading, and fit in some knitting time. 

I've had 'The Life of Crime' for about 10 days, so full disclosure I've only been able to dip in and out of it - even excluding the 80 pages that make up the select (!) bibliography and index there's still 622 pages book; it's fair to say it's comprehensive. Dipping in and out is also probably going to be the best way for most of us to approach this book anyway - unless you want to fully immerse yourself in the history of crime fiction in which case you might also want to arm yourself with Edwards' earlier books. 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' published by the British Library, and 'The Golden Age of Murder' from Harper Collins'. I've enjoyed both but I think 'The Life of Crime' has the edge.


It's a combination of Edwards enthusiasm for his subject (he makes it very clear how much of a fan he is as well as a writer) the signposts he gives us for following our own lines of research and enthusiasm, and his acknowledgment that this is his journey through the history of the genre's past 'with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies'. He's a charming, courteous, and well-informed guide to the world of classic crime fiction who knows how to deliver a good anecdote and tell a joke. In short, we're in good company with Edwards. 

'The Life of Crime' is both good company and a constant source of distraction - where can I find a cheap copy of Joanna Cannan's 'No Walls of Jasper' which is dedicated to her friend Georgette Heyer, apparently the model for one of the characters? Do I need to read William Godwin, there's a compelling case here for his role in the development of the crime novel (common sense says no, it'll probably be on a par with reading Samual Richardson)? The examination of how elements from 18th century Gothic fiction make their way into crime fiction in the first chapter, 'Revolutions' is fascinating, and something I'll bring with me if I ever read Jane Austen's 'Emma' again. 

Overall Edwards opinion of where Crime fiction deserves to sit in terms of literary merit is particularly interesting to me. We spend a good bit of time at work debating how to break down fiction - we currently divide it into science fiction and fantasy, crime, and fiction - there's a good argument to be made for romance having its own section, though we currently don't have space for it, and an equally good argument to say that none of these distinctions really make sense. We do it for the convenience of customers who like their preferences signposted but there's a lot of crossover, as well as a pernicious belief that genre fiction is somehow lesser. 

Arguments about literary merit aside, books written and marketed to have a popular appeal are an excellent way to understand contemporary opinions on almost any subject, and again as Edwards discusses in his introduction "...if a book written decades ago evinces attitudes that we now deplore, that isn't a reason to airbrush it from history. If we ignore the follies of the past...we'll fail to understand what caused them, and what continues to cause them..." Reading older books is often an odd mix of finding attitudes that seem remarkably enlightened alongside ones that are absolutely not.

So, 55 chapters, an excellent bibliography, pages of notes with gossip, trivia, and more suggested reading to follow up on. Household names and almost forgotten ones, a chronology that takes us from the 18th century to the present day and which looks beyond the usual English-speaking writers to take in some of the bigger European names should provide something of interest for any crime fiction fan. I think the biggest compliment I can pay this book though is to tell you that despite its weight and size it's the one I've been carrying in my bag all week to read on breaks as well as at home - it's very unusual for anything but a slim paperback to make it into my bag. 

Follow the rest of the blog tour here:


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Storyland - Amy Jeffs

I'm still immersed in wedding preparations - less than 4 weeks to go now and still a lot to do. Mostly it's working out what to feed people, and making sure that there's enough of whatever we choose, that and people keep asking me what I'm going to do with my hair (no clue) so busy times ahead. 

As well as browsing through endless recipe books and reading around a few commitments for other things that also have deadlines looming I've managed to read Storyland over a couple of weeks' worth of lunch breaks. This is a remarkable book that I've really enjoyed, and can't stop recommending (happily that's literally my job so...)


It's also ideal for reading in small chunks. The chapters are short but give plenty to think about, it's not a book to race through, not least because so much of what I read was unexpected. Storyland is a collection of Britain's foundation myths, mostly pulled from Anglo-Saxon and medieval sources, retold, illustrated, and discussed by Art Historian Dr. Amy Jeffs.

What made the collection so interesting to me was how many of these stories are more than half-forgotten. I'd maybe come across a few fragments outside of the King Arthur and Merlin section, but really not much, including the connection between King Lear and Leicester - apparently he's credited with founding the city (there's no proof he was a real person) and is buried somewhere under the river that runs past my flat. I love this for Leicester, it does not need to be true - or at least the fact that the city has an origin myth matters more to me than the truth of the myth itself. 

Where we see Jeff's skill as an academic as well as a storyteller is in the way she convincingly argues that although they've been mostly forgotten these stories are so deeply ingrained in our sense of who we are as a people that they still affect the way we think and see ourselves. There are unexpected delights too - dragons that turn into pigs, giants - begot by demons and exiled Syrian princesses, the magical doings of Merlin, traces of the Picts, classical roots, Scandinavian roots, Germanic roots, and Biblical allusions. Truly something for everyone. 

Jeff's has another book out this Autumn - 'Wild' which I'm really looking forward to, and meanwhile, if you're interested in folklore and mythology 'Storyland' really shouldn't be missed. 



Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Rhubarb Syrup and Semolina cake

This is based on a greek revani cake but I'm not sure how authentic it is at this point (I can't remember where I found the original recipe and there have been modifications since then) so I'm going to go with the strictly accurate Syrup and Semolina description. 

It's really good in small squares with a coffee, maybe a little yogurt on the side if you want it as a smartish dessert, and great for using up bits of fruit. I used some citrus cordial based on Georgina Hayden's recipe in 'Nistisima' - this is 750ml of water heated with 750g of sugar until it has dissolved and then steadily simmered for about 8-10 mins - you don't want it to colour, but to reduce a bit and be properly syrupy. Then add 750ml of freshly squeezed citrus. Grapefruits, lemons, oranges, limes, bergamots - whatever you can get and a good mix of them - it's always going to be sweet so I prefer sharper citrus like lemon, lime and grapefruit. Simmer for 4 - 5 mins, long enough to combine the flavours but still leave plenty of fruit character, skim off any scum, allow to cool for a bit, and then pour into sterilized bottles. 


I've been using this in everything I can think of because I underestimated how much the recipe would make (more than a single person really needs).

For the cake, you want the finely grated rinds of 2-3 lemons, 150 mls of sunflower oil, 175g of caster sugar, 4 medium eggs, 175 mls of milk, 200g of fine semolina, 75g of plain flour, and 3tsps of baking powder. Line a 20cm square cake time with tinfoil that comes well up the sides, heat the oven to 160 degrees fan or gas 4. 

Add the finely grated lemon zest, oil, sugar, and eggs. Beat well then add the flour, semolina, baking powder, and milk. Mix until smooth, the batter will seem thin but don't worry. Pour it into the time and bake for about 50 mins or until done. 

Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. I simmered 300g of rhubarb with a good glug of my citrus cordial and added the juice of a lemon and a packet of passion fruit seeds to the strained liquid, as well as enough water to make 400mls, add 200g of sugar to this (240 if you haven't already used any) and gently simmer to make a syrup. Strawberries would also work for this, just lemon juice is great, and passion fruit would also have been fine on its own.

When the cake comes out of the oven leave it to cool slightly and then cut into squares (or diamonds) I find 16 is right, then gently pour the syrup over it taking care to get reasonably even coverage. Leave to cool. Because I'd used passion fruit I already had something crunchy on top of the cake, otherwise, I'd scatter some chopped almonds or pistachios over it. This keeps well. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Death of Bookseller - Bernard J. Farmer

I'm currently obsessed with getting a jumper finished and busy with wedding planning and work. Reading and blogging have very much taken a back seat and I'm guessing that won't change much until after the wedding in June (maybe a bit earlier if I get the jumper done in good time). 

I did recently read and enjoy 'Death of a Bookseller' though - the 100th title in the British Library's Crime Classic series - and an excellent choice it was too. This series has evolved over the years from showcasing some interesting curiosities to being an increasingly comprehensive survey of classic crime. It has some real gems in it by any standard you choose to use as a measure, some beguiling oddities, and a lot of entertaining books in between. (My mother phoned me from her bathroom last night, she'd spent an hour reading Lorac's Bats in the Belfry, the water had gone cold whilst she sat in the bath and she hadn't even noticed she was so engrossed).


As a bookseller, the title for this latest book amused me, and so did the actual story. Set in 1950's London (written in 1956) a local policeman helps a drunk home. The drunk turns out to be a celebrating book buyer. Michael Fisk has found Keats' own copy of Endymion, he's holding a fortune in his hands, a career coup that obviously deserved getting drunk on. Sergeant Wigan strikes up a friendship with his drunken charge who initiates him into the mysteries of rare book-buying so when Fisk is murdered and the Endymion goes missing Sergeant Wigan is lent to CID to help track down the killer.

Book buyers turn out to be a violent lot, ever happy to pull a knife or commit a robbery - a depressingly accurate description of retail then and now*, there also seems to be a lot of attempts to raise the devil, with some delightful rumours of a demonic goat or bull known to have been loose in Soho. Altogether no world for a god-fearing policeman to find himself in, so initially Wigan is relieved when the murderer seems to have been caught, but then he begins to doubt they have the right man and because he's a truly decent man he continues to search for more clues despite the disapproval of his superiors.

There's a lot to enjoy about this book. The occult element is a delightfully gothic distraction, there are plenty of amusing character sketches and some interesting observations on post-war London and what a great time it was for abject chancers to make a fortune. Wigan provides a solid counterpoint to all the frivolous madness going on around him and altogether it's a satisfying mystery with a decent conclusion. Highly recomended.


*Obviously most people are both lovely and honest, but not all of them are, and dealing with shoplifters on a daily basis is an eye-opener. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Finding a Jubilee Mug

There has never been a platinum Jubilee in this country (or anywhere?), and I'm fairly sure there might never be again - regardless, I certainly won't see one, so I wanted at least one bit of memorabilia to mark the occasion, and that someone will probably pick up in a charity shop when I'm long gone and be delighted with!

It's a tricky business to find just the right object though, For once I'm not after a book. It had to be something I liked and that appealed to my magpie instincts, but not so expensive that I would never use it. So far I haven't seen a lot of stuff coming through - we have a healthy crop of books about the queen at work, Emma Bridgewater has some plain and ultimately uninspiring mugs, ditto M&S with biscuit tins - I don't much like their shortbread either so they're really not tempting me.

I have found an Angela Harding mug produced for the National Portrait Gallery though. I like her work a lot (Christmas wouldn't be the same without one of her advent calenders), the mug was £35 which is a lot for a mug (enough that I guess I won't see them everywhere) but still just in that usable bracket. I ordered it.


It arrived today and looks even better than in its picture - it's a good size (will hold a proper cup of tea) a nice weight (I like bone china, this isn't too heavy, but not flimsy either) and the colours are very much to my taste so I feel like I've absolutely cracked this one. I might keep an eye out for a cheap tea towel, a syrup tin, and if I get lucky, a decent whisky, to further mark the occasion. 

Is anybody else on the lookout for something particular? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Weather Weaver - Tamsin Mori

After being so disappointed by Julia and the Shark I came across 'The Weather Weaver' on the Shetland Times Bookshop website (it'll always be one of my favourite bookshops anywhere), and then found we had it at work, so bought and read it. 


Aimed at the same age group (9-12) and both using Shetland as a setting for their action these books are wildly different. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the more elegant writer but I enjoyed 'The Weather Weaver' far more. It helped that Tamsin Mori does know Shetland and that knowing it, she uses an unnamed and made-up island for her action - although it does have one well-known landmark on it which in this context is a fun detail.

The plot is about a young girl, Stella, who's spending the summer with her grandfather on a remote croft, whilst her parents are working. She hasn't seen him since her grandmother died, and instead of the cheerful man, she remembers she finds a bad-tempered, elderly man who has removed every trace of the grandmother they clearly both miss and who is unwilling to let Stella leave the house. 

After an argument, she runs away, meets an old woman called Tamar who encourages her to catch a cloud, and finds she's a weather weaver - a sort of witch. Tamar (a not unusual Shetland name in the older generation) starts teaching Stella what she can do with her magic, hampered by Stella's bursts of bad temper which make her cloud flash lightening with considerable risk to all until the appearance of the Haken, a fearsome sea witch, threatens them all.

The Haken steals clouds for their magic and traps them underwater until they go mad, so are obviously sworn enemies of weather weavers - and she makes a convincing foe, although not so fearsome that the eventual resolution seems unlikely. The real strength of this book is in the way Mori draws Stella and her relationships with her Grandfather and Tamar though. Stella is about 11, the age when often you can't do right for doing wrong - so she breaks things when she tries to help, accidentally annoys her grandfather by moving his tools, and is both capable of rising to a challenge, and being overwhelmed.

I was bought up on the unflappably capable Famous Five, and magical children who could save the world before breakfast, so to meet a character who gets frightened in the fog, and makes some fairly major mistakes is great. I love the way Stella interacts with Tamar as both a friend and mentor too - Tamar gets the best lines. But it's the relationship between Stella and her Grandfather as they get to know and trust each other that's the best thing here. 

Mori nails the frustrated anger that both parties begin by feeling towards each other because frankly, they're both out of their depth, and then the slow thaw as they start to understand each other and deep affection returns to their dealings with each other. The balance between the magic and mundane parts of Stella's life is perfect. These bits remind me so much of the next door neighbour we had as children who stood as an honorary grandparent to me and my sister (our actual grandparents were far away and not overly affectionate or interested in hanging out with young children) that I'm currently feeling desperately nostalgic and a little tearful (in a good way).

So - a decent adventure, great sense of place, a nice setup for the second book without making you feel like the story is half told, and something that hits true on the trials of being an adolescent - The Weather Weaver has it all. I can definitely recommend this one for younger readers. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Julia and the Shark - Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston

I'm really torn about this book. On the one hand, it's a beautifully illustrated, intelligent exploration of how a parent's depression can affect a child, and how confusing a world of adult emotions can be for a child to navigate. On the other hand, there's such a profound lack of understanding of the Shetland setting that for anyone who knows the islands, or even the north of Scotland, it's hard work to carry on reading.


A quick look at the uniformly positive reviews and list of awards the book has gathered suggest that very few people who do know the north of Scotland have read it, but I really wish that Kiran Millwood Hargrave had chosen a setting she understood, knew, or had spent a bit longer googling. It's partly because I do know Shetland, and Unst, and anything that gets it so fundamentally wrong would irk me, but more so in this case, because the reality of the island would have made a stronger story. 

The long daylight hours of summer, frequently mentioned, but again clearly not understood, would make the star gazing parts of the book difficult - it's really unlikely to be dark enough in the summer. The same long nights can have a very disorientating effect on people who aren't used to it though. The lists of wildlife you might expect to see, specifically, the whales, are off. The dismissal of the possibility of seeing an otter ("unlikely, but possible") when they're hard to avoid, the gorse surrounding the lighthouse, even the seagulls are wrong.

I guess it's fair enough to invent a contemporary need to automate lighthouses (the last ones were done in the 1990s), but not that they were single manned (they weren't, you typically had 3 keepers to take turns to watch, but also for mental health reasons). I don't know why you need to invent a town on Unst (there are a couple of scattered shops, Shetland shops don't set stock outside because it would likely blow away - and the constant wind is another thing that incomers to the islands really struggle with) because again it's isolation and the fact you need to get 2 ferries just to reach the mainland of Shetland is one of the things that makes life there a challenge. Another is that from the age of 12 children have to leave and board on Mainland Shetland to go to School. They come back to the outer isles for summer, not leave them. 

I think maybe the thing that jarred most was the discussion of racism though. It's fair to say any incomers would have a hard time, the prejudice in my childhood was based entirely on accent - if you didn't have the dialect you were marked out as other. I'm not sure how much a difference the colour of your skin might make, but not the difference it makes on mainland Britain. Island cultures are fragile and people are keen to protect their heritage and unique cultures - it's a complex situation so the completely anglicised local bullies grated on me. There's an attitude here that feels like its own form of racism in the casual assumptions and stereotypes it sets on people.

I've written this within minutes of finishing the book, by tomorrow the good bits might have floated to the top of my mind like so much cream - the illustrations really are brilliant, and if you want a poetically beautiful but relatable book to help talk to your children about depression with, you'd probably struggle to find a better one, I just wish it had been set somewhere else.