Monday, October 14, 2019

Powder and Patch - Georgette Heyer for the 1930 Book Club

'Powder and Patch' is a bit of a cheat - it was first published as 'The Transformation of Philip Jettan' in 1923 and then reissued as 'Powder in Patch' in 1930 with the new title and minus the last chapter. However I see Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs as the perfect opportunity to re read a Georgette Heyer so I'll take what I can get. The proper books from 1930 are the contemporary novels that she later suppressed.

'Powder and Patch' is short enough to read in a few hours, and amusing enough to make me want to do that. It's early Heyer and far from her best work, but it has all the elements that make her so good when she's at her best. It also has the bits that make her difficult for the modern reader.

Our hero, Philip Jettan, is a handsome young man of sober disposition. He likes to stay at home and run the family estate - much to the despair of his altogether more fashion conscious father and the local beauty who he is in love with. Cleone Charteris is 18, inclined to return Philips feelings, but disinclined to settle down before she's had some fun.

When the extremely fashionable Henry Bancroft turns up in the village and starts flirting with Cleone, Philip proposes to her and gets sent packing. He loses a duel with Henry, and gets a telling off from his father so heads off to London, and then Paris, to learn to be a fashionable gentleman. Six months later he reappears an apparently changed man - but what will happen next?

What I really like about this book, and about Heyer generally, is that she has Cleone say no because she's not prepared to marry someone who would expect to always 'bend before his will', and she wants to have some fun before she settles down. There's no suggestion that this is anything but a sensible decision from a very young woman. Philip in turn is a bit of a prig - both need to see more of the world to grow up, and that's just what Heyer has them do.

Philip finds that he enjoys society, Cleone gets to meet enough men to be sure that she's making the right choice. For a fluffy bit of romance that's not a bad message to take away.

The setting is sometime around 1740 so Heyer gets to have a lot of fun describing the most outrageously elaborate men's costume, but otherwise this reads like a 1920's drawing room comedy rather than the serious attempts to recreate an era that she became known for later. It's none the worse for that, and maybe even more fun for it.

What lets the book down is the description of various servants, particularly distasteful in relation to a black page, not much better when it comes to a French valet. At best it's snobby, at worst racist. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I adore Heyer, and wish that she'd had more progressive ideas about class and race. On the other hand the book is almost a hundred years old in its original form and I'm prepared to judge her more by the standards of her day than ours.

It turns out the original last chapter was fairly awful (you can find a transcript of it Here, so perhaps the most interesting thing about 'Powder and Patch' now is in being able to see how Heyer was evolving and improving as a writer.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The House on Vesper Sands - Paraic O'Donnell

It has been a busy week, after Ireland there was a work day in London (a last wine tasting and a lot of goodbyes) then a work day at work (much less fun) and today I've made quince jelly and had my first MRI scan. The scan is to see what's going on with the tendons in my right foot (they hurt, a lot) it took 45 minutes in the machine I have never felt so itchy or fidgety. Making quince jelly is a similar sort of experience in that I spend the best part of an hour tied to the stove top whilst it refused to reach setting point but looked like it would boil over at any moment.

Hopefully both procedures will prove worth the time and effort.

Meanwhile it's been a while since I read 'the House on Vesper Sands' (July, I think) so it's past time I wrote what I can remember about it. I tried to read 'The Maker of Swans' a couple of years back, but didn't get very far with it (I can't remember why not, and don't think I kept it) but O'Donnell is a writer I want to like so I had another go with this one.

I'm glad I did, because I loved this. It's a good slice of gothic thriller which probably does deserve the comparison with Wilkie Collins in terms of mood (though O'Donnell doesn't do anything quite as eccentric as Collins would) and definitely deserves the comparisons with Conan Doyle that grace the front cover. Allusions to Dickens and 'The Crimson Petal and the White' seems way off the mark to me.

The setting for 'the House on Vesper Sands' might be late Victorian, but whilst the geography of London comes alive I don't think the era does - but then I'm not convinced it's meant to either so that isn't a criticism. What I did get was lots of atmosphere of the dark corners, sense of menace, smell of damp kind which makes the perfect background for a tale of murder and the uncanny.

I'm probably going to have to buy 'The Maker of Swans' again.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Quick Catch Up

I've been in Ireland for the last few days visiting family with my father. It's something that I've meant to do for an age, but never got round to. Now I'm back I'm wondering why I left it so long.

We were in Killarney and Wicklow, both are beautiful. Spent a bit of time taking trains - Irish trains are brilliant after traveling on British trains. Everything links up, if a train is late for its connection the next train waits (I still can't quite believe that), the prices are really reasonable, the carriages are clean and modern, and apparently it's free for pensioners. It is, in short, the best advert for a national rail service you could imagine.

I meant to do lots of reading, but I fell asleep on the plane over, gossiped with my father all the time on the train, and got really absorbed in the Shetland Wool Week annual he bought down for me when I was on my own, so there's a backlog of books I need to read now, but never mind.

Meanwhile it was really good to spend the time with dad, and with wider family. Dad is a twin, and it's been a very long time since I've really seen him with his brother for any length of time - I had been more aware of the differences between them before this trip, but hanging out with them for a couple of days made me realise how similar they are too, and there's something very satisfying about that.

I also got to see a few more of my great grandfathers (Francis Swithin Anderton) paintings, all quite different to the things my father and I have, so I'm now better able to assess his range and how good he was. I'm quite excited about this (almost as excited as I am about how good Irish trains are) and even more after a previously unknown to me cousin in Canada got in touch. She had also been researching our great grandfather and emailed me the day I went to Ireland. The pictures her family have are particularly good.

Altogether it's been a good few days away with the chance to forget about the work situation for a while and concentrate on other things. Now to get back to the books.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Fair Isle Designs From Shetland Knitters Volume 2

The downside of having spent September writing about vermouth is that there have been a lot of exciting new books (cookbooks, ghost stories, tales of the weird, nature writing, and knitting based things have been piling up) and now I'm a bit overwhelmed and not sure where to start. Or how to fit everything in. It's a feeling exacerbated by what's happening at work - the shop closes on the 3rd of November which is beginning to feel very close.

Actually I do know where to start - it's Shetland wool week (maybe next year I'll actually make a plan to be there rather than just following it via Instagram) and volume 2 of 'Fair Isle Designs From Shetland Knitters' was released a couple of weeks ago. This is the 4th book published by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers and is definitely something to celebrate.

It contains a dozen patterns with something for every knitting level from more or less beginner through to fairly expert. My favourite is a spectacular all over jumper, followed by a really pretty child's jumper, and then a pair of Scandinavian inspired mittens but there's much more to this book than just patterns.

This volume has a history of the Guild which I've found really interesting. This is an important part of Shetlands knitting history so it's good to get it down whilst it's fresh. It's also really worth while to celebrate the work they're doing to keep the islands knitting heritage alive, thriving, and evolving. There's also the now traditional question and answer sections with the designers, and a wealth of technical information, and a glossary of Shetland words associated with knitting.

This word hoard is a particular gift to the reader. It's very much in line with keeping this heritage alive; both language and skills need to be passed on. Not so much to preserve them, though this approach obviously does that, but to maintain a link between generations of Shetland knitters (also spinners, weavers and dyers - maybe future books will be dedicated to some of these other skills too).

Rachel Hunters Lucky Clover tunic is a lovely example of this link between old and new. It's a modern looking shape that still harks back to the longline jumpers of the 1920's, uses traditional techniques but looks utterly contemporary.

Having words that belong with this knitting is it's own sort of inspiration as well as an echo of older voices. It's experts code words, and workers slang. I hope there are many more of these books to come.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Vermouth a Bibliography

I started planning these posts about vermouth back in June, thinking I'd write them in August. By the end of July I realised I hadn't, and wasn't going to be able to try nearly as many vermouth's as I'd like to give a proper overview. I still haven't. I've not said anything about rosé styles, still not tried an amber vermouth, know hardly anything about the sweeter bianco vermouths, and so on (and on, and on...)

Despite all those gaps and deficiencies I have managed to learn quite a bit, and certainly have a much deeper appreciation for the category. I had always thought of vermouth as being a support act to the main spirit in a cocktail - now I'm behind for to think of the spirit as the straight man to the star act of the vermouth. I've also rediscovered the pleasure of drinking Vermouth on its own or mixed with soda/tonic/ginger.

It's a drink worth getting enthusiastic about, a civilised, modestly alcoholic, sophisticated thing that is endlessly versatile. There is undoubtedly a style for everybody who would care to raise a glass. With all of that in mind the best way to wind up this series for now seems to be a short bibliography of good books to have to hand if you want to explore further.

Jack Adair Bevan's 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth' (published by Headline, rrp £16.99 in hardback) was my starting point. It still vaguely frustrates me that this book doesn't have an index but in every other respect it's excellent. There's a lot of information about history, culture, ingredients, styles, how to make it, how to drink it, cocktail recipes, food recipes, a much longer bibliography for the interested, and more. It's also an enjoyable book to read

Kate Hawkings 'Aperitif' is on my wish list. I keep going to look at it in bookshops with a wistful expression and the knowledge that impending redundancy means I need to be sensible about what I buy. It has pictures, which Bevan's book doesn't, some brilliant looking cocktail recipes, and also looks interesting to read.

Kay Plunkett-Hogge's 'Aperitivo' touches on Vermouth in passing, her concern here is more La Dolce Vita, but it's a brilliant book full of things you might want to nibble. Perfect for planning elegant cocktail parties, and best of all full of Kay's writing which is not to be missed.

The Savoy Cocktail Book is a classic, and I'm very attached to my copy. I refer to it a lot - it's not that it's drinks are always the best or most reliable - there are some deservedly forgotten things in there, but you will always find something excellent. There's also no better place to learn about the importance of proportions or find inspiration.

'Sip' from Sipsmith is one for gin fans, 100 gin cocktails with only 3 ingredients, it keeps things relatively simple. My conviction is that the drinks you make at home should be both high quality and simple so this is exactly my kind of thing. Its good on both the classics, and more obscure cocktails, all calibrated for the contemporary palate (which the Savoy book is not).

Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' from 1939 reprinted by Faber & Faber, is split between hard drinks and soft drinks, which is why it's useful to have as well as the Savoy book - also because Ambrose Heath is a delight to read. I bought it more to read than use because of how much I've enjoyed some of his food titles (Persephone have published a couple, as well as Faber & Faber) but unlike the cook books I've found I use it a lot.

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Lab of One's Own with a Brandy Vermouth Cocktail

Patricia Fara's 'A Lab of One's Own - Science and Suffrage in the First World War' came out in paperback last month and I have a review copy waiting to be read. It's part of a small pile of books I'm really excited about, but am also sort of saving for when redundancy and Brexit hit (that's going to be quite a week).

I'm particularly interested in 'A Lab of One's Own' because it's rescuing women's history which is all to often forgotten. It's a curious thing the way this happens, an odd conspiracy of silence that makes it seem as if each generation of women is starting from scratch rather than being part of a rich tradition of significant work in field after field of study and talent.

I'm not going to make any great claims for cocktail mixing in this context - though I do believe that's it's more science than art. I can say that this Brandy Vermouth mix fits the bill as a very old cocktail, so was probably well known in the era. Brandy has a more scholarly, or perhaps old school tie, feel to it than gin does as well. In the early 1900's Brandy was a gentlemans drink, whisky rather less so, and gin might have been popular, but perhaps not entirely respectable.

After yesterday's Brandy and Vermouth mix I was looking for something with less frills about it. This fits the bill, and for me is the better drink, it feels more serious too (that's down to the absence of the cherry on top). It's 3 parts Brandy, 1 part Italian Vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters stirred over ice and stained into a glass.

The result is a mellow, amber coloured, delight. The dry nutmegy kind of spice of the Brandy sets the tone of the drink with the vermouth (I'm still using the Dopo Teatro) adding a richer spice range (something more like cloves) along with a touch of sweetness - but only enough to smooth out the edges. its to Kate in a Friday night for me to properly work out what the bitters are doing, but I'd miss them if they weren't there.

This is another excellent autumn/winter drink - there's something of a Christmas spice mix about it - clove, nutmeg, allspice, perhaps a hint of cinnamon. The impression is of warmth even though it's icy cold and the very small (I used a dessert spoon for a measure) one I made tonight was suitably comforting.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

A Fugue in Time with the Queen Elizabeth cocktail

Rumer Godden has a way of writing about houses and their accumulated history that I find irresistible. The narrative of ‘A Fugue in Time’ skips across almost a century of memories held together by one London townhouse and the people who have lived, and will live, in it.

Family relationships are complicated, people love, are disappointed in each other, and make mistakes. Maybe non more so than Selina who's competence and intelligence is wasted by the constraints placed on her by class, society, and herself. It’s the details Godden uses that fix this book in my mind, and one them is a passage about a cocktail set that an ageing Selina buys to keep up with fashion.

Every time you see something that looks a little like Godden’s description of Selina’s shaker and glasses set I'm reminded of the book, and wonder what she would have drunk from it. My instinct is generally to go for gin based cocktails because I like gin and always have some open. I like whisky too, but it tends to be single malt, which isn’t always what I want yo mix with other things. Brandy is not spirit of choice so I tend to forget about it unless I'm making an effort.

Today I have made that effort because it's slightly masculine and aristocratic overtones (it smells like a good cologne to me) seem right for Selina, and because the mellow spiciness of a red vermouth seem just right for Brandy.

The cocktail I found was one of a couple called The Queen Elizabeth (I assume as an homage to the late Queen Mother). She is most associated with gin and Dubonnet (technically not a vermouth, but definitely a close cousin). Dubonnet sales really went up after she died, and it's steadily regained popularity in these parts ever since (odd, but there you go).

This Queen Elizabeth is from the Savoy Cocktail Book (one of two very different drinks that go by the same name) and is equal parts Brandy and Italian Vermouth, and a dash of Curaçao stirred over ice, strained into a glass and topped with a cherry.

The Vermouth and Brandy do work well together, so much so that when it's not a school night I'll try this again without the other bits in it. As it stands both Curaçao and cherry add a sweetness that masks the kick from the spirits - which also seems appropriate for both the late QM, and the character of Selina. It's also very good autumn/winter cocktail, a time when brown drinks come into their own.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Diary of a Provincial Lady with an Orange Martini

This Orange Martini comes from the Sipsmith 'Sip' book, and is a slightly simplified version of the Savoy Cocktail guide drink from the 1930's. 'Sip' scales it down to an individual serving (handy) and does away with the rinse of orange bitters in the glass to keep the ingredients down to 3 (which is arguably cheating because the orange peel garnish is key here, but it's delicious so I don't mind).

Maybe because the taste of vermouth is how I imagine the taste of the interwar years I keep finding myself drawn to my Virago collection for inspiration and I could well imagine the a Provincial Lady drinking something like this at a party - either one of her own, or at something she's found herself at.

It is definitely a party kind of drink because it involves a little bit of preparation - which is why the Savoy recipe is for 6, and Sip suggests making it by the batch. It would keep in the fridge for up to a month*, or is a good one to make ahead if you have people coming round.

It's not the strongest Martini either, which also makes it a good option for a boozy kick off to a weekend lunch, or a late afternoon drink. The basic recipe is 25ml of London dry gin, 25ml of dry vermouth, 10ml's of sweet vermouth, and the pared peel of quarter of an orange per serving. Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass and let them steep for a couple of hours. Add ice, stir, and strain into a coupe glass.

This one is another object lesson in the power of a few small tweaks to comprehensively change the character of a drink. The dry vermouth in this one is the backbone of the thing, the gin gives it a bit more kick, the sweet vermouth rounds out the edges, and the orange provides its USP. It's not the driest Martini, but it's definitely a drier style of cocktail.

Another variation on it if you're short of time is to use an orange gin like the Tanqueray Seville and just add a twist of orange peel as a garnish at the end.

*don't leave the orange peel in it if you're keeping a batch in the fridge, the flavour will be over extracted.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

One Exciting Night with I Capture The Castle

The drinks I remember from Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle' are sticky liqueurs illicitly consumed in the village pub, but when I came across the One Exciting Night cocktail in the Savoy book it felt just about right - the sort of drink that Simon might order for Rose knowing that she isn't quite as sophisticated as she'd like to think.

It's basically a Perfect Cocktail (equal parts gin, Italian, and French Vermouth) but with a dash of orange juice added, the edge of the glass frosted in sugar, and a squeeze of lemon peel on top. The Savoy version also specifies Plymouth gin which has an earthier character than London dry.

If there's one thing guaranteed to set up the back of your wine merchant it's an airy declaration along the lines of 'I don't like French wine' (even worse when you spend a good quarter of an hour suggesting options for the French wine hater - who has almost certainly dismissed a couple of Chardonnays out of hand at this point - they say they want a Chablis. At the risk of revealing how pedantic I can be I'm entirely happy with people saying they haven't found a French wine they like...

The difference is an open mind. The Savoy Cocktail Book has taught me a few things, but perhaps the most important is the difference a few small tweaks can make. Strong, dry, drinks are an acquired taste - I didn't much like the first, very dry, Martini I drank, and I still prefer them with a higher ratio of vermouth than is perhaps fashionable. I love a Gin & It for the mellowing effect of spicy sweet red Vermouth on the gin.

One Exciting Night takes that sweetness a step further by sugaring the rim of the glass - which also looks pretty. I'm thinking of it as a beginners Martini, and there's nothing derogatory about that. It's a reminder that drinks should be fun, not an endurance test.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fair isle designs from Shetland Knitters with Vermouth and Lemonade

As a child of the 70s I have vivid, if slightly confused, memories of the Martini adverts. I also have vivid memories of being given Martini Bianco and lemonade to drink as a teenager in the late 80s. It was sweet, not very appealing even then, and deemed suitable for a woman to drink.

I'm thinking about it now because when I got home my copy of Fair Isle Designs from Shetland Knitters had arrived, and a happy hour reading about the history of the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers, and Dyers bought back a lot of memories of some of those women. The last time I drank Martini and lemonade was in the house of a guild member in 1993, the drinking part of the occasion was out of politeness.

Sweet Martini with Schweppes lemonade is not a drink I can embrace with enthusiasm, or one that I'd particularly recommend (which is no judgement on anybody who does enjoy it, we all have different tastes). Part of my issue with it is also that idea of gendered drinks. Something that used to annoy me a lot in my early days in the wine trade were (male) customers coming in for corporate gifts at Christmas. They'd choose malt whisky for the men and then ask me what I though 'ladies might like'. Speaking confidently for all women I'd say champagne (same price, always useful). They would invariably pull a face and buy something sweet, sticky, and half the price. It was the price thing that bugged me most.

Fortunately that sort of thing happens less and less now, and 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth' has something called The Vermouth Hour (La Hora Del Vermut) that is an homage both to the Spanish tradition of a pre lunch sip of vermouth and that 70s combination of vermouth and lemonade.

The recipe uses 25ml of London dry gin, 50ml of a sweet Spanish red vermut, and 50ml of Fentimans Victorian Lemonade. Put everything in a large glass and stir over ice cubes. There is some fancy bar work that follows that involves burning the oils in an orange skin above the glass, and then using more orange and an olive to garnish.

This is a great sounding drink which I will try when it's not a wet Monday night and I don't have a cold, but I'm also inclined to ditch the garnishes and try different vermouth's in it. The Fentimans lemonade with its proper lemon sourness, and gin to give the drink a bit of backbone are both excellent ideas, but I'd like to see how this works with a dry white Vermouth, or possibly even a slightly sweeter one.