Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Christmas Tree is Up

It's been a remarkably festive end to November today. I've made the first mince pies of the year, visited The Snowman and the Snowdog exhibition at Newarke Houses in Leicester, bought and decorated my Christmas tree, and even had a present in the form of an exciting looking review book from the British Library to open. Altogether, not a bad day.


Along with half the country I've taken to putting my tree up ever earlier, my excuse, if I need one, this time is that this was the day I could get a lift to a garden centre and back. But also I figure if I'm going to buy a tree I want to enjoy it for as long as possible, and heaven knows the month needs a bit of sparkle. Not least to reconcile me to the intermittent readings from my smart meter which seem to be saying that electricity is costing me almost twice what it did last year. About £5 a day for a one-bedroom flat is frightening.

The Snowman and the Snowdog exhibition, which is on at Newarke Houses until February was charming. It's a set of drawings from the 2012 film spread over a couple of rooms. It doesn't take long to look around, and the pictures are hung to be seen from child height, which is a nice touch. Like the rest of the museum, it's free, and it's a real mood lifter.  Honestly recommended for anybody with a fondness for the Snowman who finds themselves in Leicester, I'll be going back and trying to take anybody who's even half willing with me - also, unlike the garden centre, I had the museum to myself which is definitely a bonus with the current covid news. 

I'm planning a big baking session for later in the week - time to get to grips with some of the biscuits in Anja Dunk's 'Advent', but have to say the electricity revelation has shocked me a bit and I'm seriously wondering if I can afford to turn the oven on. I can, fortunately, but this is going to be a seriously hard winter for a lot of people and this has really bought it home. For the first time since I lived in houses with scant open fires and no central heating, radiators are assuming luxury status again.  




Monday, November 29, 2021

The Love Hypothesis - Ali Hazelwood

I'm so cold that I'm typing with gloves and a scarf on as well as the biggest wooly jumper I own. I've spent most of my free time over the last couple of days trying to finish the second sleeve of an even bigger wooly jumper I'm working on so that I can retreat into it. I'm also trying to make room for the Christmas tree I'm collecting tomorrow (early, I know, but it's when I can get a lift, and why not enjoy it for as long as possible?). All in all, there hasn't been much reading lately, and what I have read has been on the light side. 


This includes Ali Hazelwood's 'The Love Hypothesis. Until I started working in a bookshop the concept of Book Tok had entirely passed me by, and honestly, I still haven't engaged with it much. However, it's a foolish bookseller who would ignore it because it's really driving sales. So much so that the average age of our customers has dropped considerably, and honestly I'm all for teenage girls being an economic power in the industry. 

'The Love Hypothesis' has been a hit online, along with Madeline Millar's 'The Song of Achilles'. I chose Ali Hazelwood's book to see what all the fuss was about after someone said it looked like Star Wars fan fiction (I don't think it is - but I could be wrong) and that was appealing in the moment. 

I will look up how many copies of this we've sold at some point, but it's easily in the hundreds which seems remarkable to me for something that's a decent, but otherwise unremarkable romance. That said there's a lot to like about this book, starting with Hazelwood's honesty about what she's writing - she frequently references made for tv romances, and that's how this book reads, but with humour and self-awareness. 

The plot doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny, people do not, on the whole, behave like this, but that's okay because the characters are likable and Hazelwood clearly does know American STEM academia, which is the background for the book, and that helps ground it. 

Olive is a promising post-grad student who accidentally kisses her department's star professor (for reasons). For more reasons he agrees to fake date her, until to nobody's surprise they turn out to be genuinely into each other. It's cute, good on the details, big on consent, funny, and a reliably good alternative to an afternoon film. It looks like Hazelwood has another romance out next year, which I'm fairly sure I'll read too, because in the end who doesn't want some reliably feel-good books in their collection. There are plenty of days when nothing else will do. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Advent, Chutney, Almonds

I didn't mean to take a week off blogging but after the excitement of seeing family last Friday, the fun of working Saturdays and Sundays, and then the sheer joy of coming home on a Sunday night to find that careless upstairs neighbours had comprehensively blocked our shared soil pipe so I couldn't use my kitchen sink or washing machine. After that, I ran away to my mothers with a load of washing and spent some quality time with her dog. It's all left me feeling a bit wrung out so since then I've mostly been working or sleeping, but at least the water seems to be draining okay again and I've been able to do some kitchen things today. 

I saw fresh cranberries for sale yesterday so nabbed a pack of them to make Diana Henry's Christmas chutney with. I only had cooking apples and it's been both too wet and cold to want to venture out today so I went a little bit off recipe, but the results smell good and had a nice consistency so I'm happy. The time spent making cakes, puddings, chutney and mincemeat are amongst my favourite parts of Christmas. I could buy all of these things, but there's a mindful aspect in doing it from scratch that balances the craziness, commercialism, and inevitable disappointments of Christmas.

The chutney recipe is in 'Salt Sugar Smoke' which remains my favourite and most used Diana Henry book. It's also my favourite preserving book. If you want to start preserving things it's the perfect place to start - full of things you want to try, have easy to follow recipes, and aren't available in every supermarket you pass. 

Anja Dunk's 'Advent' looks set to become a similar favourite. This is partly because of the way it invites you to make all of December a celebration of advent rather than focusing in just one day towards the end of it, partly because I love biscuits, and again because it's the encouragement to make and share. So far I've concentrated on the Christmas Schnapps - which unusually for my has turned out well. 

Flavoured vodka is normally a disaster in my hands, but this orange, coffee, vanilla, and cinnamon infused beauty has broken my long run of bad luck to produce something I really want to drink. It's great as a reviving shot after a cold walk, and I'm looking forward to playing about with it in a couple of cocktails. 



I've also finally cracked the Cinnamon roast almonds (Gebrannte Mandeln) recipe. These worked out really well the first time I made them, and then I properly messed up my second attempt, built on that failure the 3rd time, and a lot of almonds later worked it out this morning. It helped that nothing (like the sink) broke down on me whilst I was making them, which gave me time to really consider how sugar behaves. 

As disasters go it could have been worse - I ended up with almond brittle which doesn't really qualify as a disaster although it's an object lesson in what heat does to see and taste the difference between the 2 sets of nuts.


To make the almonds you need a large heavy-bottomed frying pan, 150g of granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, quarter of a teaspoon of fine salt, 75ml of water, and 200g of whole almonds. Put some greaseproof baking parchment on a baking tray and leave to one side.

Put everything except the almonds into the pan, turn the heat up to a high medium and stir until the sugar melts and it all starts to bubble. Add the almonds stir in, turn the heat down to medium (you still want the sugar to bubble rapidly, but not to burn) and watch for 3 minutes. Stir again once, and continue to watch - sometime after about 6-8 minutes the sugar will start to crystallise. Turn the heat to a low medium, give another stir and let them cook for another couple of minutes, you want most of the liquid to have evaporated. Now remove from the heat and stir continuously to help the rest of the sugar crystallise. If you carry on doing this over heat it gets more liquid as the sugar stops wanting to crystallise. I probably over stirred my almonds as the sugar mix was turning into something like fudge, but it makes it appealingly un-sticky to handle and tastes delicious - so again, I'm happy. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Cornish Horrors - edited by Joan Passey

The Britsh Library Publishing catalogue turned up yesterday full of a whole lot of promise - there's some great looking stuff coming in the weird, crime classics and women's fiction series which mean that getting married isn't the only thing I'm excited about in the run-up to June next year (although it's the main thing, obviously).


It also reminded me that I had finished one of the three weird collections I'd been reading... 'Cornish Horrors' has been a particularly enjoyable anthology - everything in it has been new to me which is a bonus (I've read enough weird now from various sources to have seen a fair few things crop up with regularity) and really good. Cornwall as a place doesn't have any particular resonance for me beyond being the setting for Poldark so I did wonder if this collection would hold my interest. I needn't have worried.

It's not just that there's a selection of writers I know I'll enjoy, including F. Tennyson Jesse, Bran Stoker (in stories that have quite a bit in common but very different outcomes), F. Marion Crawford, Arthur Quiller-Couch, and Arthur Conon-Doyle, but they're great stories too. Bram Stoker can be patchy - but here he's just the right side of over the top and on the back of this I'll look for more of his short stories (and forget about dealing with the likes of the Lair of the White Worm again). 

F Marion Crawford's 'The Screaming Skull' might be one of the best bits of weird I've read in a while - which is saying something because there's been no shortage of competition. It's properly unsettling, pleasingly unlikely (thank god) mostly humorous, but comes with an ending that piles on the chills. 

There are other gems in here too, and a good deal of variety given the overarching Cornish theme and popular motifs that reappear through different writers work. It's half past four on a November afternoon as I write this, almost dark at the end of a gloomy day and quite the best time to be reading ghost stories and tales of the weird (with the possible exception of the long summer dusk of the north which is the other time and place I can believe almost anything). 


Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails edited by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum

The first book I met and then bought when I got a job in a wine shop in 1999 was 'The Oxford Companion to Wine', I'm on my 3rd edition now. Even Waitrose supplied a copy for staff use because any questions you had about any part of the winemaking process, grapes, and I can't even think what else now, was likely to be answered by that book, or at least point you in the right direction. Concise, well written, easy to use, and authoritative, I still find it indispensable and I cannot begin to tell you how much I wish the Companion to Spirits and Cocktails had been around at the same time.


On the other hand, there's never been a better time for it than now when interest in making cocktails at home is still growing, and when the range of available spirits and liqueurs has probably never been more baffling. Not that this book contains an exhaustive list of products - they come and go too fast for that to be practical or desirable. Nor is it a recipe book, although it does contain cocktail recipes, but it is the best place to start a bit of research on any given spirit or cocktail research from.

As an example, I've been looking into Milk Punch after Richard Godwin had a recipe for it on his The Spirits newsletter and it occurred to me it might be useful for something else I'm doing. With head hung and a slight blush, I'm going to admit I forgot this book as I slogged around the internet looking for verifiable facts - and then I spotted it on my desk as I closed the laptop and kicked myself a bit. A quick check underlined exactly how much time I'd wasted - everything useful was in the Milk Punch entry, and as for the bits I wanted to verify - they're mentioned here, and I consider it a good enough source to quote (Wikipedia, unfortunately, is not).*

I accept that some of my interests are a bit niche and that not everyone will be as interested as I am to read about the history of Seagrams or Diageo - although a lot of people in the trade will be. There's a lot of fairly technical information in here which will be of more use to the professional than the casual reader as well - but it's also a big part of the appeal of the book for me. It's the kind of information I don't know I want until I need it. 

I do know that the drinks history entries are really useful to me, and anybody else who occasionally writes about these things or just finds them interesting, and kind of to our surprise D and I spent a happy afternoon getting lost in this as we looked up odd bits and followed references - the great thing about so many of the Oxford companion's is how enjoyable they can be to read when you dip in and out of them. I knew I'd find it interesting, but I hadn't banked on him falling down the rabbit hole with me.

If I sound a little bit breathless and overexcited about this book - well, I am. There hasn't really been anything like it before which covers so much in one place. Finding cocktail recipe books is easy enough (finding really good ones is a little harder, but there's no shortage of them). There's plenty of books about individual spirits - although again finding really good ones is sometimes a challenge. But a guide that covers production methods, recipes, tells you what the major families of spirits, liqueurs, aperitifs, digestives, and more are, can give you a reliable potted history of all of these that covers the most influential bartenders and mixologists from the beginning of the art to now, name-checks the classic books, and more, and more, and more? It's quite a big deal.

I hesitate to use the C word in November, but if you're looking for a Christmas present for a drinks enthusiast I don't see how you can miss with this book. 

*Milk punch, hot or cold, turns out to be excellent - there will be more about this in the future.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Shetland Wool Adventures Journal Volume 3

After a long week at work and with no let up in sight this side of Christmas it was a real treat to come home yesterday to find that I had a new edition of Slightly Foxed, the latest Shetland Wool Adventures Journal, and the baker's ammonia I'd ordered - I'm just waiting on a springerle mold now. 


I hadn't expected the Wool Adventures Journal quite yet so it was a particularly nice surprise - I've written book reviews for it and an article about rhubarb and the thrill of seeing my writing along with someone's beautifully professional photography is a thrill that isn't getting old. Neither is the general sense of pride at being included in something I like as much as this.

It's a brilliant journal that's getting consistently better with each issue, and really showcases some of the best of what's happening in Shetland. The patterns are great, but so are the articles about the history of the islands, the recipes included, the walks which are detailed, the focus on local artists - and of course being able to look at the books which are coming out of Shetland or are inspired by the islands. 

I love being able to do my bit to celebrate that last because not only are there some great things to read, but I feel really strongly that we all need to celebrate the local in literature more. I think most of us want to read books that have places and people we recognise in them at least as much as we want to escape into other worlds through books, but it's not always easy and the nature of mainstream publishing means you get a lot of the same sort of thing. To get more of the books we want we need to support them as much as we can when they come along. 

But honestly, there's a lot in here for anyone who shares an interest in food, nature, shetland, knitting, walking, history - all of it. It's a really good journal. Buy it here:

Shetland Wool Adventure Journal volume 3 - Shetland Wool Adventures



Thursday, November 11, 2021

Renard Press Christmas Card Books are Back

Last year Renard Press produced a Christmas card book hybrid that I thought was next to being a work of genius. It was 'The Burglar's Christmas' by Willa Cather with room to write a message in the front, postable without the need for a more expensive stamp, and perfect for sending to the readers in my life who I wanted to give something more than a card too, but not go down the whole present route with - it gets out of hand really quickly if you're not careful.


Anyway they're back, and this year there's a choice of Willa Cather and Washington Irving's 'The Christmas Dinner', order a pack and a book and you'll have spent enough to qualify for free delivery (which makes me feel like I'm getting a discount on the book). There's some great stuff to choose from and I'm really looking forward to getting mine. 

Having neglected to save myself a card last year I was really pleased when I actually got sent one (thanks Annabel). They're even more of a pleasure to get than to send, though I might hold one back just in case I don't get one this time. 

Have a look at Renard's books HERE!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Advent - Anja Dunk

Yesterday was one of those days when almost everything goes badly, but I did manage to book a booster vaccine shot for 9.20am this morning - maybe not the best way to start a day off, but at least 24 clear hours for possible side effects before I go back to work. So far it's fine apart from probably unrelated indigestion (coffee and a chunk of chocolate orange are almost certainly responsible for that) and feeling a bit woozy immediately afterwards. 


Since then I've made my Christmas puddings and had a good look through Anja Dunk's 'Advent' accompanied by an online order for some of the harder to get ingredients (bakers ammonia and pottasche, along with ground mace and anise - which I could probably find locally, but after drawing a couple of blanks this morning I'm going to let a*azon bring it to me). 

I was excited about this book from the moment I heard about it. I love 'Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings', I'm always up for a good baking book, and I'm keen to adopt some of the German traditions that my grandmother would have known but didn't pass down to us, and a more Scandinavian approach to Christmas and advent generally.

December is a tough time for a lot of us, and one of the things I struggle with, especially after years in retail is how much emphasis goes into one day. It makes a lot more sense to me to spread the cheer across the whole of advent. There's more room for treats and less chance of overeating on one day and not being able to enjoy what's in front of you by the time you've worked around to pudding and cheese.

'Advent' is every bit the book I'd hoped it would be - it's split into days, each with a particular theme. My birthday is dedicated to macaroons, and making some is how I might decide to spend the day. I'm also inclined to get some Christmas schnapps on the go and am absolutely planning on making Springerle, as well as some of the marzipan cookies, and a couple of the breads. I've already warned my workmates that I'll be adopting them as family for biscuit eating purposes and I'm looking forward to leisurely baking on cold, grey, days off.

I really like that the emphasis is on food here too, and particularly the sort of food - it's kind of a biscuit bible without being limited to biscuits. Even if you're a household of only one or two this is great for giving and sharing with your wider circle. Advent doesn't pay much head to Christmas day either - and I already have a lot of Christmas cookbooks so it's something of a relief to avoid more crossover. 

It's a beautiful book to look at as well - Anja's woodcuts preface each day of the calendar and the green and gold cloth cover is really nice too. It feels like something special to be bought out each winter, something that will be a source of inspiration when it comes to trying things and establishing new traditions. It's just what winter needs. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings - Dan Jones

This is an odd little book that has stocking filler written all over it  - though as it's small it won't automatically be the easiest thing to find in a bookshop. If you do find it, it's got a real charm and might be just the thing for the medievalist, or budding medievalist in your life. 

Dan Jones took a fairly obscure* late 14th/early 15th-century ghost story and polished it up for retelling to his children. The history of this story is every bit as good as the story itself. It was first written down around 600 years ago by a monk at Byland Abbey, one of a dozen ghost stories he recorded in the spare pages of an older manuscript. The stories are full of local landmarks and colour, and read as if they were contemporary to their scribe - so presumably stories that were circulated and believed in the area at the time. Redacted names strengthen the possible view that real people were being protected.


The manuscript ended up in the royal collection, and then in the British Library where the great writer of ghost stories (and medieval scholar) M. R. James read about them in a catalogue and got in quick to transcribe the Latin. The stories are all short - this is by far the longest, and it sounds like they're all fairly weird by modern standards - but James was right when he thought he was onto something, and Jones picked well when he decided to retell and embellish 'The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings'.

I only realised how much of Dan Jones was in this when I went back and read some of the accompanying material - he's bulked it out a fair bit, but this is how retelling works, and he does include a reference to a recent translation for anybody who wants to look up the original Byland Abbey stories. For anybody with Latin, M.R. James' original transcript along with notes is also included here.

The action takes place in November, the story is a good mix of the comic, weird and outright frightening. It's suitable to tell aloud to a reasonably young audience - children over 9 will probably be able to read things as gruesome elsewhere, and the great thing about telling ghost stories is that you can edit as you feel appropriate. As well as the fun of the story there's plenty to unpick about medieval life too, and that's probably the biggest selling point here.

Want examples of the church charging for services, even haggling over them? Corrupt priests, odd beliefs in revenants, superstitions, a hint at what the inside of a church might have looked like? It's all here. It's also a gateway to M. R. James and Dan Jones's other work too - so there's a lot going on.


*Obscure is a relative term - I hadn't heard of this before but plenty will have. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

A Shetland Pattern Book - Mary Smith and Maggie Twatt

The nicest thing by far that's happened this week was when someone called Elizabeth emailed me to say she was having a clear-out and had found a copy of 'A Shetland Pattern Book' she didn't want and would I like it. Would I! I've wanted a copy of this for an age now and I'm so grateful to Elizabeth for sending it, it even turned up on Fair Isle Friday to make it extra special. 


If I could choose one book for the Shetland Times - or indeed anybody else who can manage it, to bring back into print this would be it. There are other pattern books that offer more patterns, colour combinations, knitting know-how, all sorts of things but this one does a couple of things particularly well. 

Mary Smith comes from a Shetland family, was bought up in Ayrshire and returned to Shetland with her husband where they ran a knitwear business (I'm judging a bit from the dates of initial publication, but probably in the 1960s, 70s and beyond). Maggie came from Caithness graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a tapestry degree and married a Shetland man who was an art teacher. It's a good background for putting together a pattern book.

One of the things they mention in the introduction is the ubiquity of a personal pattern book in every house where women knitted - they were squared school graph books, and I had one at primary school for knitting classes (lost and regretted now). When I started knitting again I searched for something similar with a total lack of success - I have a swanky Moleskine version (although now the elastic has given up it's rather less swanky) with a slightly too large 5mm square, and could find 1mm graph paper, but the ideal is something between 2 and 3mm. Small enough to get plenty of design on a page, big enough to see easily.

The pages here are 2mm, my partner printed me 3mm sheets. The whole book is much the size and shape of the old exercise books and I'm wondering now how many of these survive. There's the obviously brilliant example of 'A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book' that goes back to the 1930s that the guild of Spinner, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers published, and I've seen a decent collection of patterns loose in binders in the Whalsey Heritage Centre, but it would be great to see more. They would form an excellent and invaluable record of changing fashions in Fair Isle knitting, personal preferences, and a way to see how knitters communicated with each other or borrowed designs and motifs.

The other thing this book does really well is give the patterns space, so although the selection is relatively limited it's much easier to pick out what you want from it than some other books. This might seem like a small thing, but it makes a really big difference. 

I'm absolutely delighted to finally have my own copy and so grateful to Elizabeth for her kindness in sending this to me - it's really going to be appreciated.