Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Georgette Heyer's Footsteps in the Dark with a Dolly O'Dare cocktail

It's not been an especially good day, not least because I got soaked going both to and from work - always a treat. It's a filthy night out there, heavy rain accompanied by a wind strong enough to take out an umbrella and make sure you get evenly drenched.

On the upside I'm home now and as soon as I've written this post it's a hot bath then bed, I also replenished stocks of French (dry) vermouth so whilst I write I've got the company of a Dolly O'Dare. There may be more than the usual number of typos and spelling issues.

I notice that Georgette Heyer's 'Footsteps in the Dark' has had the Christmas treatment this year, appearing in a smart new hardback edition. I wonder if the whole series of her detective fiction is going to get rolled out in this way (which would be nice) because there's nothing particularly festive about this book - or at least it's not obviously set at Christmas. On the other hand it's a country house mystery with rumours of a haunting, not at all taxing, and like all Heyer, solid fun.

I think books like this deserve vintage cocktails - something that adds to the atmosphere of the thing without being to much of a performance to make. I saw the Dolly O'Dare when I was looking for apricot brandy ideas, but lacked the correct vermouth at the weekend.

A dry vermouth is a handy thing to have around - not just for drinks, but also for cooking with. Throw a bit at chicken or pork, or in moderation with white fish, it won't let you down, and it all helps use it up because it doesn't keep indefinitely once it's open (aim to get through the bottle within a month, and be sure to keep it in the fridge once open).

The Dolly O'Dare is half and half French vermouth and gin with '6 dashes' of apricot brandy, shaken well over ice, strained into a glass and garnished with a piece of orange peel that you squeeze over it.

I make my cocktails on the small side, so I'd say enough apricot brandy so that you can just taste it, but it doesn't dominate - to get the right balance for you might take some experimentation (It's easier to add than take away!). I also think you can do perfectly well without the orange peel which I think tips the balance to far towards sweet.

Otherwise you have a perfectly respectable, if quite wet, martini with a frivolous dash of fruit. Heyer herself probably wouldn't have cared for the apricot element, but I think some of her characters in here would rather have liked it. I certainly did.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Odyssey and Greek Wine

Another book high on my wish list for Christmas is Emily Wilson's translation of 'The Odyssey'. I have vivid memories of reading a Penguin Classics edition in Amsterdam when I was 17, but not such vivid memories of the details of the story, so I might have to reread that copy too.

I do remember it being a great story though, and I'm really interested to see what Emily Wilson brings to it. If I don't find it under the tree I've been given a book voucher (it's been a while since anybody did that and I'm so excited by it) and it'll be the first post Christmas purchase I make.

A good bottle of something Greek is the obvious choice here, although unfortunately the great British public have been resistant to Greek wines.

My first job in wine was with Oddbins at the turn of the century. The story of Oddbins and Australian wine was the stuff of company legend - briefly a very junior buyer had been sent to Australia sometime in the 80's (memory is hazy). At the time the UK was more or less oblivious to Australian wine, we imported some, but not a lot. This guy fell in love with everything, bought a lot of it, and we all agreed with him. Someone came back from Greece hoping to pull off the same trick, but it didn't work out.

It was a real shame because the wines were excellent- great flavour, interesting grapes that added something to the palate of available flavours, very high quality - the whole package. Unfortunately people couldn't seem to get past the idea of retsina and cheap holiday wine for a couple of Euros a bottle. They wouldn't pay for the good stuff.

There are a few good Greek wines to be had (Waitrose does an organic cabernet sauvignon that I really like for about £10, it's well worth trying) but they're few and far between. Something that is widely available though is Mavrodaphne of Patras - a sweet, fortified, red that's also worth a look.

It's relatively cheap - well under £10, and not a bad substitute for port. It works well with chocolate desserts and cake, and should get on well with all the Christmas dried fruit. As is probably very clear by now I'm a fan of sweet wine on it's own too - a small glass is an excellent alternative to a pudding. I also think that this sweeter wine is closer in spirit to the sort of thing that Homer might actually have drunk when wine was regularly sweetened and flavoured to improve it.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Shelf Life with a Malmsey Madeira

Alex Johnson's 'Shelf Life' is a delight, a collection of short pieces about books and reading by a range of writers and notable figures. It's funny, thoughtful, and would make a perfect little gift for anybody who likes reading about books.

It has the feel of something intended mostly for gift giving, or to be the sort of book you would find in a bibliophiles bathroom - but it's much better than that might suggest - I'd treasure it for William Blades opinion on should children be allowed near your shelves; 'The Enemies of Books', and his horrid vision of precious first editions launched as missiles. It's a hard no from William Blades.

The thing about books like these is that so often after one reading the charm wears thin, but Johnson has unearthed things that don't lose their charm through repeated contact which makes it a total winner in my view.

I feel the same about Madeira. If ever there was a wine for which you could claim age does not wither it, nor custom stale it's infinite variety - to sort of quote Shakespeare  - I'd say it was this one. Especially on the age front. I was told as a young wine merchant that it wasn't worth drinking Madeira less than 15 years old. It's a sentiment that a broadly agree with, I'd only really use younger Madeira to cook with - but I know I like it, so I'm happy to make the investment in an older bottle. I did take my time to work up to those though, and taste is very much a personal matter and others may well enjoy younger Madeira more than older bottles.

The great thing about this wine is the unique way in which it's made (it's both heated and oxidised, two things you normally try to avoid at all costs) which means it's almost indestructible in the bottle, something that you can keep open for years rather than weeks. I always have a bottle for cooking with, it does great things for a gravy for a start, I've been splashing some over pheasant all this winter too (if that sounds decadent, a free range, well fed, fat free pheasant, that will comfortably feed 3 costs £3.99, or a brace for £7, on the market at the moment) and very nice it's been.

Malmsey is the sweetest, richest, style of Madeira and my favourite. Because of its complexity it's not a sugary sweetness (think of nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and dark brown sugar flavours) and I find it the most versatile in the kitchen, as well - good not just with those pheasants, but with sweeter things too.

A small glass to finish a meal, either with cheese, or perhaps something with dark chocolate, or a sticky toffee pudding is great. Mostly I'd drink it in it's own though, or as a reading wine - a comfortable, interesting, companion to bring out on a cold wet night when it's an absolute pleasure to be at home with a good book and a good wine.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with a Cuban cocktail (No. 2)

I've had a busy, and more or less productive day in and out of the kitchen (made Lebkuchen, fudge, and dipped the candied oranges in chocolate, run chores in town, finished Christmas cards) and so before I start cooking again for dinner I thought I deserved a treat.

The treat was to find a suitable cocktail to match Anita Loos' 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. I've checked, and this is more or less currently in print, it is also one of the funniest books I've ever read, but it's nowhere near as widely known as it should be.

Anita Loos wrote it in 1925, and it follows the adventures of Lorelei Lee and her friend Dorothy as the travel across Europe in search of a man rich enough to get Lorelei the diamond tiara of her dreams. Various millionaires have to be rescued by their mothers, someone might get shot, and Lorelei acquires jewellery for as she says "kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever." (her spelling). Which is entirely true.

My penguin edition has the sequel 'But Gentleman Marry Brunettes' which is just as good - definitely get an edition that has both, and definitely get this book.

I knew I wanted a cocktail (although Lorelei wouldn't object to Champagne either) and I particularly wanted something that would use apricot brandy as both the colour and it's fruitiness seemed a suitable tribute to Lorelei - and it's a classic thing to have around at Christmas, so I scoured The Savoy Cocktail Book for something suitable.

It took 3 goes to feel like the balance was right between character and something somebody might still want to drink. The first try was the promising sounding Babbie's Special, which is a dash of gin 1/3rd sweet cream, and 2/3rds apricot brandy, but although it really showcases the apricot flavour I also found it a bit one dimensional.

I'm out of French vermouth and the weather is to nasty to make leaving my flat to get more at all attractive so I didn't try the Fairbanks cocktail (No. 1) or the Dolly O'Dare, either would certainly give the right atmosphere. Another time. But I did try the Fairy Belle. This is the White of an egg, a teaspoonful of greanadine, 1/4 apricot brandy, 3/4 dry gin. It came out a grubby sort of beige colour, and was distinctly average to taste so most of it went straight down the sink.

Third time was more or less the charm. The Cuban cocktail (No. 1) is basically a daiquiri by another name - which makes sense, the Cuban cocktail (No. 2) is the juice of half a lime or quarter of a lemon, 1/3rd apricot brandy and 2/3rds brandy shaken well over ice and poured into a cocktail glass. Neither brandies seem particularly Cuban to me, but regardless the drink isn't bad. The apricot flavour is there, but well balanced, the lemon gives a refreshingly sour sour note, it has a pretty golden colour, and kicks like a mule. You know you're drinking this, which isn't a bad thing.

I can definitely imagine Lorelei and Dorothy drinking these, and I'd serve them too as a seasonal aperitif, as well as with the book that Edith Wharton called 'The great American novel'.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mapp and Lucia with Vermouth

Yesterday I bought a Christmas tree and decorated it. Still been years since I had a real tree, for a while I just didn't bother (between working like crazy in the run up to Christmas, and then being away for the day itself and often the first week of new year, and it only really being for my benefit, it didn't seem worth the fuss), and then I got a plastic tree because it seemed sensible in a flat.

Looking at my real tree it's worth the effort. It looks so much better in all its asymmetric glory than any perfectly shaped plastic replica, and the decorations look far more at home on it than they ever have on my (admittedly budget) fake tree. I think I'm committed to doing this every year now. 

My relationship with Vermouth is a not dissimilar story - in that it's taken me a long time to really appreciate how good a thing it is, but now that I have there's no going back. An early misadventure which involved drinking far to much Martini extra dry didn't help.

Vermouth, like Brandy, isn't the easiest thing to categorise. It comes sweet, dry, and a few things inbetween, in red, white, pink, and orange colours, from France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and all sorts of other places - and all of them have something individual to offer the mixologist and drinker. 

It was only when I started exploring The Savoy Cocktail Book that I really began to grasp how complex the subject was. There are a host of recipes that use 2 types of vermouth at a time in differing proportions to get different results. After some research I have at least discovered that in older books 'Italian' generally means red/rosso and slightly sweeter, whilst French is dry and white.

Vermouth itself is a fortified, aromatised, wine. It's been around in it's current form (more or less) for a couple of hundred years, and if you like gin it's you need to explore it. Equally if you're looking for a slightly lighter alternative to spirits for a long drink, vermouth is great mixed with tonic, soda water, or lemonade - according to taste. It's bottled at around 16 - 18% abv against the somewhere around 40% of most spirits so that's only a lighter option rather than a low alcohol one. 

Once open a bottle keeps well in the fridge for round about a month before the flavours start to fade, but it's good for cooking with too, so getting through a bottle shouldn't be hard. That said I avoid the litre bottles of Martini because I wouldn't get through them anything like fast enough. There are an increasing number of smaller, more expensive, bottles around which I consider worth the investment though because the quality is better and I don't waste any of them. Cocchi, Lustau vermut, and Regal Rogue (this is a fairly new to the UK Australian brand - it uses less sugar than European versions, lots of Australian botanicals, and was a surprise star of the last big wine tasting I went to in all its expressions) have all been recent favourites, and aren't to hard to find.

Given my new found love of the stuff you can imagine how pleased I was when I saw this quote from E. F. Benson's 'Queen Lucia'. Olga is speaking to Georgie "Come into my house and we'll drink vermouth. Vermouth always makes me brilliant unless it makes me idiotic, but we'll hope for the best."

There is something about the flavour of vermouth - or it's flavourings, combined with that unmistakable fortified hit that I've convinced myself is the flavour of the roaring 20's. It's certainly how I imagine it and I feel like Benson is confirming it for me. For anyone as yet unfamiliar with the Mapp and Lucia books, 'Mapp and Lucia' is probably the best of them (it's certainly the one you're most likely to find in bookshops) and though it comes towards the middle of the sequence it's also a great place to start, you can always go back to the earlier books if you find yourself hooked in.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Forms of Enchantment with the best Sauturnes you can find

To celebrate my birthday I finally opened a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem I've been hoarding for far to long. In all honesty it had passed it's best, but it was such a grand wine that I'd made the common mistake of holding on to it waiting for an equally grand occasion.

When you have a really good wine the thing to do is drink it, especially if really really good wine is normally outside of your budget (when I started out in wine some 20 years ago you could buy some very good things for around the same price as a decent bottle of champagne (£20-£30). You can still get those champagnes for more or less the same kind of price (£25-£45) but the clarets (especially the clarets) I used to love are now £150 or more a bottle, which is well outside of my budget.

There are still plenty of very good things to be had under £30 though and it's much better to focus on those. Dessert wine is one of them. There's a weird prejudice about sweet wines which helps keep the prices relatively low for the quality that you can get (this is relative, but value isn't directly related to price) which is good news for those of us who appreciate them.

I have an absolute passion for a really good Sauturnes, or Monbazillac if you want a cheaper version. These are sweet wines, but the notes are marmalade, lanolin, and dried fruit - and it's sweet the way marmalade is compared to jam. I love the complexity of these wines, the layers of flavour, and the length of time it lasts. I think they're perfect on their own to end a meal, and better matched with cheese (something like a Stilton would be the classic match) rather than the trickier proposition of trying to find a dessert which doesn't overshadow the wine.

However you choose to drink a Sauturnes though, keep it simple and let the quality of the wine sing out. In terms of buying, do a little bit of research. For the very best Sauturnes the grapes are picked individually when they've achieved just the right amount of noble rot (botrytis). They don't yield a lot of juice, and everything about making these wines will be painstaking.

That doesn't, and shouldn't, come cheap. Around £20 for a half bottle would be the entry point for something good. Waitrose do an excellent in partnership wine with Chateau Suduiraut for about £16 which is tremendously good value. De Bortoli Noble One is an Australian version (same grapes, same process) of Sauturnes also exquisite, and around £20. A good wine merchant will be able to advise on what they have with reference to both vineyards and vintages - just don't be tempted to economise (better to do without altogether) because this should be a glorious, unctuous, golden, treat.

In many ways then a Sauturnes is my ideal wine to match with a book because it's so good without food, more specifically the kind of book which demands a bit of thought, one where you can pause to consider the wine along with the point of what you're reading. Marina Warner's 'Forms of Enchantment, Writings on Art and Artists' is just such a book.

I'm really looking forward to having the time to read this book properly, I'm familiar enough with most of the artists Warner covers to be interested by the ones I don't yet know, and very interested to read her thoughts on the work of people like Paula Rego, Henry Fuseli, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst, and Hieronymus Bosch particularly. The illustrations are excellent quality (and the paper feels particularly nice too). This is exactly what I want to be reading in January when I have time to think again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas & Other Winter Feasts with a Sloe Gin laced Cocoa

It's my birthday tomorrow so I've been running round like a maniac all week to try and get in top of, and even ahead of, the long list of jobs that December brings. I think I might be more or less on top of stuff, regardless I've opened some Champagne and don't care about anything else being done or not for the moment.

The Fortnum & Mason Christmas and other winter feasts Book has a suitably celebratory feel about it for almost a birthday. I love Fortnum & Mason's at any time, and really liked the first cookbook that Tom Parker Bowles wrote for them. This one (the second) is even better in my opinion. Part of that is undoubtedly because a bit of Fortnum's sparkle is never more appealing than at Christmas when all out luxury is more or less the order of the day.

That's what makes the lists of products so enjoyable to read about - close your eyes after some pages and it's pure Nutcracker territory during the dance of the sugar plum fairy. What really makes the book work though is that everything in it sounds good, and a good proportion of these recipes are likely to find their way into my winter repertoire.

It's the same mx of fantasy and practicality that makes the shop so irresistible to me, and it's definitely the sort of Cookbook you don't necessarily know you need until you have it - which makes it perfect present material.

I'm pairing it with sloe gin laced cocoa, mostly because that was my immediate stand out hit from the book, and it's delicious. The recipe in the book calls for a terrifying amount of cocoa powder, which I found a bit to bitter, so it's probably better to experiment to get the right balance for you.

I'd actually never drunk cocoa before - only hot chocolate which powdered or made with melted chocolate is considerably sweeter. Cocoa powder was for cooking with. I wouldn't have liked it much as a child, but as an adult the relative bitterness/dryness is appealing just as Cadbury's drinking chocolate now seems far to sweet.

Make your cocoa with milk and a good slug of sloe gin (again add as taste and discretion suggest, there's no need for measurements here) either stir in some double cream to make a thicker, richer, drink, or whip it to spoon on top, and add soft brown sugar to taste if you want a little more sweetness. Damson or mulberry gin would also be excellent.

It's not just the rich, slightly decadent, thoroughly grown, up flavour of the drink I like so much (although it is all of those things, and they are good things to be), or that it's warm and comforting on a cold day, I am also really pleased to have a use for the sloe gin I have hanging around. I have never yet managed to make a batch, or buy a bottle, where drinking it neat hasn't put me strongly in mind of cough medicine (quite a nice cough medicine, but still...). I like it much better in things, and never more than in this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott with Ginger Wine

I love the idea of collected volumes of letters and journals in theory, but in practice rarely read them. At one time I had a good yard of Mitford letters but eventually sent them to a charity shop, that might partly be because the older I get the less patience I have for Mitford affectations, but definitely had a lot to do with feeling uncomfortably voyeristic reading them. And so it's been for various other collections of correspondence.

Journals are a bit different, especially ones written with an eye to future publication, but by their nature they tend to be doorstop books soagain they sit reproachfully unread on my shelves. Sir Walter Scott's journal is the exception that proves my rule - I've been regularly dipping into this one since I bought it in the summer.

I have a soft spot for Scott, who seems to have been a decent man by any standard you can apply, and was also a tremendous innovator. His books are sadly unfashionable now which is a shame because the best of them are more than worth the slight effort it takes to adjust to the pace that Scott imposes on his readers (which is after all part of his charm). The worst of them are pot boilers written after the collapse of his publisher left him with serious liabilities which he determined to write his way out of  (he could have walked away, but chose not too), but they're not generally in print now so are easily avoided.

His journal covers the last 6 years of his life, and is fascinating. There's such a lot in here about the man and his world, all in bite size chunks so if your interest is Scott, or the early 19th century, it's an absolute goldmine. This sat hopefully on my wish list for a couple of years before I found a bargain copy on holiday - I would have been delighted if someone had given it to me (being interested in both the man and his times) it would certainly have kept me quiet and happy until 12th night and beyond.

Scott would be an excellent opportunity to discuss Claret (which is another subject dear to my heart, and was plan A) but then toffee apple asked about ginger wine.

Like Scott, ginger wine is considered somewhat old fashioned, unlike Scott people still buy it in impressive quantities (I've currently run out of both Stone's and Crabbies at work, more had better turn up soon or there'll be trouble), but I hadn't realised how far back it goes. It seems quite likely that Scott would have encountered it in some form be it home made or a proprietary brand,

Stone's has been around since the 1740's, Crabbies sine 1801 (these are the brands to go for, neither are expensive, aficionados have a strong preference for one or the other, experiment to see which works best for you). It's a fortified brew of fermented ginger, raisins, and other things (citrus, spice, and secrets), and once open best drunk within 3 weeks (otherwise the flavour will fade). It's a handy ingredient to have around, especially in winter if you want to give anything a bit of ginger kick.

To drink it's good over ice, or straight out the bottle, but maybe best known for its role in a whisky mac, I've always been given this half and half, but again experiment to see if this is the right proportion for you (a blend, no need to break out the single malt for this). It's also a popular addition to Mulled wine (instead of port or brandy) and makes an excellent toddy along with honey and lemon. The Stone's website particularly has a decent list of recipes if you're after further inspiration.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Tea House Detective with Cremant de Bourgogne

I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel as a teenager (and still do), and think I read most of the series in battered old Library copies that have almost certainly been destroyed by now. What I only started to realise in the last few years was how many other books Orczy had written, including reasonably early detective fiction. Since then I've obviously wanted to read them, but they've not been the easiest books to come by (more or less out of print, and with a mixed reputation which makes a serious investment of time or money a bit risky).

Pushkin Vertigo is one of my favourite imprints, and so far everything I've read or bought (I've bought a lot more than I've read) in it has been international noir so I was almost as surprised as I was delighted to see that they've reprinted 'The Old Man In The Corner', and that early next year we're getting 'The Case of Miss Elliot' as well in 'The Teahouse Detective' series.

I've started 'The Old Man in the Corner' and it's promising to be everything I could want it to be (an elderly gentleman is mansplaining crimes to a competent female journalist, I think she's going to get the last word though). I've also spent quite a bit of time trying to think what Polly Burton of the Evening Observer would drink.

I know she drinks coffee because that's what she's having with her lunch on page 1, and coffee or a good cup of tea (an Assam heavy blend seems most appropriate for the teahouse setting) are obviously a good match for any book, as well as being the lunch time choice of a female journalist of the Belle Époque - but what else would a respectable, independent, young woman of the age drink?

One answer might be Champagne, but Polly is earning a living so Cremant de Bourgogne (or Sparkling Burgundy) would be the economical alternative. When I started out in the winectrade New World Fizz was the thing everybody wanted, then Cava had its moment, and currently it's Prosecco. I've never quite understood why prosecco is quite as popular as it is - beyond its relative cheapness. It's okay, but it's often quite bland and a bit sugary, and there are much better things out there.

One of the better things out there is Cremant de Bourgogne, which is finally getting a bit more attention. The great thing about this wine is that it's made using the Champagne method (bottle fermentation means better ageing potential, more complexity, better quality fizz) from more or less the same grapes as Champagne (though some gamay and aligoté might also be used - there are only 3 permitted grape varieties in Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier - but that's another post in itself). The short version is that you're getting Champagne quality and flavour for a fraction of the price.

There are plenty of good quality Cremant de Bourgognes around for between £10-£15 at the moment and for that you'll be getting something that will rival any NV Champagne, if you're looking at cheaper Champagne generally I'd recommend the Cremant over it every time. It'll almost certainly be better, and much better value.

I'd also put in a good word for those new world fizzes - quite a few are made by Champagne houses anyway, and they too are excellent quality at very reasonable prices. I don't know why they fell out of favour but they knock the socks of most prosecco's I've tried.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Spirits of the Season with Brandy

My spirits of choice are whisky and gin, not the least of their attractions is that they're relatively easy to understand. Brandy is not my drink, although I'd never be without a bottle in the house, it's also a much more difficult spirit to define or explain.

It's mostly made from grapes, but can be made from other fruits, eau de vie for example is a fruit brandy, and Grappa (I approach Grappa with much the same caution as raw oysters, and with about as much success - it really isn't my drink). Sometimes it's made in pot stills (as in Cognac) sometimes in continuous stills (that's more or less how they make it in Armagnac) which is more or less why the classifications V.S, V.S.O.P, and XO denote different ages from the two regions. It can, and is, made pretty much everywhere fruit is grown... and so it continues.

For practical purposes I find it more helpful to think of brandy in terms of cooking, cocktail, or sipping. Cooking brandy would be supermarket own label bottles, or the branded ones at similar prices. These are great for feeding Christmas cakes, deglazing pans, setting fire to on Christmas puddings (or Burnt Coffee) and any other recipe where the flavour of the brandy isn't paramount.

Cocktail brandy wants to be a step up in quality, in U.K. Supermarket terms I'm basically thinking of the big Cognac brands, Courvoisier V.S. (Very Special) is the sweetest of these, Martell a little dryer, and Remy Martin V.S.O.P (very special old pale, which is 4 or more years old compared to the 2+ years for the V.S) the latter two are arguably better balanced than the Courvoisier but its very much a matter of personal taste as to which you will prefer. I like H by Hine when I can find it, or an Armagnac, or a Spanish brandy like Torres too. Any of these will provide an excellent base for a drink, and although they're all perfectly good on their own too it's worth bareing in mind with the cognacs that they're blended with cocktails in mind.

Sipping brandy is a step up again, not necessarily a step up in price unless you're looking at Cognac, in which case it's definitely a step up in price, but really decent Armagnac, Spanish brandy, and Greek brandy (I'm thinking of Metaxa) are fairly reasonable. A good Cognac will start at about £45 and climb from there, and as ever I'm a firm believer in drinking better but less. There's plenty of good stuff at around that £50 mark.

If brandy itself isn't my favourite drink, it's depiction in literature fascinates me. It has a more respectable history than gin or whisky, having always been a gentlemans drink (whisky rose in popularity/respectability when phylloxera devastated France's vineyards seriously affecting wine and brandy production from the mid 19th century) but it comes with an aura of danger as well.

It was a love of brandy and punishment that did for the poet Swinburne, Trollope covers the dangers of excessive brandy drinking in Dr Thorne, and so does Anne Brontë in The Tennent of Wildfell Hall. Evelyn Waugh uses it as a class marker in Brideshead Revisited, and it's restorative properties are needed more than once in 'Spirits of the Season'.

This is the Christmas Hauntings offering from the British Library's tales of the weird series. Tanya Kirk is the general editor who also put together 'The Haunted Library' - both are brilliant. 'Spirits of the Season' is stuffed with absolute gems - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and 'The Demon King' are two new favourites - both are comedies with an eerie edge rather than the sort of thing to keep you awake at night, but there are more chilling tales in there too.

I'm not quite sure when we lost the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, but this is just the book to bring it back with.