Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jekka’s Herb Cookbook – Jekka McVicar

I was going to leave off writing about this book until I got back from holiday and until I’d actually cooked from it but I’ve spent so much time just browsing through it that I can’t wait to share. I’ve reached that stage in life where I like to garden, but living in a garden free flat limits my ambitions somewhat. The Scottish one has been very obliging with the use of his garden (he’s a gentleman like that) and the arrangement is fairly satisfactory from my point of view (he limits himself to a reserved ‘it’s very colourful’ when I call for updates and opinions). As a very part time gardener fruit and veg projects aren’t very practical, but herbs are perfect because they do at least allow me to indulge in some of those River Cottage style fantasies.

It might be that I already have a few books about herbs but as ever there is the quest for the perfect book – and if I’m not mistaken this might well be it. For this particular quest the grail is something that covers a plants properties, uses, harvesting, varieties, and of course recipes, decent illustrations don’t go amiss either. Jekka's book has all of this and a bit more – she gives some history, and perhaps best of all (and something I don’t think I’ve seen before) she advises what to do when you have a glut of something. So far herb butters aren’t something I’ve really experimented with but I’m feeling that this will be the year I do, I’m also planning more herb scented sugars, and herb salts as well (and not for the first time I’m wondering how many clothes I need – my wardrobe would make a very good pantry, it already doubles up as a wine cellar...)

The illustrations deserve a proper word as well; done by Hannah McVicar (Jekka’s daughter) they are really responsible for a lot of the charm of this book. Although quite stylised the plants are still instantly recognisable, and they delight me, photographs are all very well and good but the very factual ones aren’t always pleasing to the eye, and the very arty ones can be distracting. (I will confess that I’m not that bothered about cookbooks being illustrated, and avoid ones which feel to picture heavy. I want recipe’s, I’m paying for recipes dammit, and it’s recipes I’ll have – and yes there are of course shelves of exceptions to that rule.) Anyway, the thing about these illustrations is that they are beautiful without being distracting and they haven’t once made me mutter dark things about improbably perfect kitchens and improbably perfect lives. (Kitchen envy is a disease, I tell you I can’t help myself!)

There are fifty herbs featured and I hope to work about forty of them into the garden over the next few years (currently I’m on a measly 13). What will make this project such a pleasure is the combination of history, romance, medicine and ingredient that will be being planted and gathered, which I feel is very much in keeping with a book that celebrates all these things.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Holiday Reading

At the end of the week I’m off on ‘holiday’ – I’m packing up the Scottish one and taking him north to my father’s for a couple of weeks. The extra punctuation is because they’re in the middle of a house move and because I made the mistake of having a look at the weather forecast again (it looked okay yesterday, but pretty bloody foul today). I love my family, and I love Shetland but unrelenting rain doesn’t improve either, so getting the holiday reading right is crucial and tonight I’m rifling the shelves for suitable candidates.

Air travel and family time both put certain constraints on packing, after a couple of thick woolly jumpers the next most important thing to go in the case is as much wine as I can carry for family consumption (and a bottle of something harder to sedate the Scottish one should he feel the need for it). I reckon that leaves me space for four books; no hardbacks, nothing to ambitious (failed to read Ulysses on two different trips), but something with a bit of substance to it, nothing I can read in a day however tempting it is, things which will cover a variety of moods, and finally books which might also appeal to my travelling companion if the whisky runs out and it really does rain all the time. hard can it be to make that sort of selection? That’s right, I’m struggling with the choice and have been doing so for some days, but right now this is the shortlist:

Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ – I’ve always failed with Du Maurier, but feel like I should love her, and if I buckle down I might just crack it – and it should appeal to both of us.

Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Pastor’s Wife’, I’ve just got this and it’s very tempting. She’s likely to keep me absorbed when I do want to escape into a book.

Compton Mackenzie’s ‘Whisky Galore’ – we both want to read this and so it’s almost certainly coming with me, especially after enjoying ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ so much.

A S Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ – I’ve wanted to read this since it came out and I don’t doubt it has a bit of substance to it!

Wilkie Collins – ‘The Law and the Lady’- it was Shetland summers which started me off on a love for Collins, so what better place to revisit him?

Rumer Godden’s ‘In This House of Brede’ which is another newish acquisition and another one which I hope will be utterly absorbing.

Vera Caspary’s ‘Laura’ – pulp fiction bought on a whim and actually looking very tempting about now...

As you can see already more books than I can really take with me, and of course they do have bookshops in Shetland, so which books do I weed out? ‘Persuasion’ is on as I write this, and it’s making me want to hit the Austen pretty hard which hardly makes the decision making process smoother. I spent some time thinking about it at work today with the end result that I ran over my foot when I was moving champagne cages. End result – my foot hurt and I still have to work out what to pack. Any suggestions gratefully received – though the irony is that once we’re settled in it’s probable there will be no reading at all.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It seems to be a bookshop/taxidermist...

I’ve spent most the weekend working, and by working I mean personally shifting a mountain of beer from loading bay, to stockroom, to shelf. It’s a dirty job with a more than average chance of cuts, bruises, and getting sprayed head to foot in Carling if (and they often do) a can splits. The upside is that my chances of winning an arm wrestling contest are a lot better than they were a week ago and the blonde took me on a book hunting day trip.

We de these from time to time in the hopes that we’ll hit bookshop nirvana, and whilst so far the Astley Book Farm has been our best find by a long way the quest continues. This week we hit Stamford – which is undeniably picture postcard perfect and has an amazing second hand bookshop, which as you might have gathered from the title also sells a range of taxidermy (we didn’t dare ask why). St Marys books and prints is more of an antiquarian book shop than anything else, though I managed to find Eudora Welty’s ‘Losing Battles’ (a nice old Virago which is the main quarry on these expeditions) and Bemelmans ‘Life Class’ in a lovely old penguin jacket. Had I £30,000 to dispose of I could have had a first edition of Pride and Prejudice. We didn’t see the actual books, but we did see their photograph.

Even without seeing the Austen’s in the flesh (leather?) there are very plush bookcases full of quite exciting looking bits and bobs along the Angela Brazil lines. I love looking at these books just for the bindings, and should I ever have the space to have books just for decoration (not that I wouldn’t read them, but in truth I like books as compact as possible so that I can fit more of them in the flat) I’d love a collection of those early twentieth century boys and girls own type books – the ones with the very camp titles preferably.

By then we were feeling pretty please with Stamford – lovely town, intriguing side streets, Emma Bridgewater and Cath Kidston as far as the eye could see, and then we went to The George for a toilet stop.  The George is pretty spectacular anyway – a properly historic coaching inn that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a Georgette Heyer novel, but it has gone down in my memory as the place with the most glamorous toilets I have ever seen. Now I’m not claiming to be any sort of expert in this field but I’ve seen some more than adequate powder rooms in my time, but nothing to equal this... Even the oddly disorientating effect of going over five county borders in as many minutes (Lincolnshire, Rutland, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire – not necessarily in that order, and because I knew you’d want to know!) couldn’t compete with those toilets. In conclusion an okay town for books, best place in the country to go to the toilet.

The rest of the weekend (such as it’s been) has been dedicated to rearranging the ‘new’ bookshelf which I actually put up in February, and which has finally got its permanent allocation of books. Despite being the new bookshelf it took no time at all to over fill it, get frustrated, change my mind, move the books, and then put the same books back again. Records show that I haven’t acquired an extra 200 books this year, but moving things seems to have created exactly no extra shelf space anywhere, and far too many books are still piled on the floor. How can this be?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The British Museum is Falling Down – David Lodge

This was my first David Lodge, and it’s a book I picked up as my third three for two in Waterstones (yes indeed, that’s how enthusiastic I was to get my hands on it). The thing with me and Lodge is that for years I’ve picked up his books and then put them right back down again. This despite the glowing recommendations from friends (including the blonde) whose opinion I respect, I always think I should like them but when it comes to the crunch neither the covers or the blurbs are enough and something else comes home with me instead. (That I picked up ‘The British Museum is Falling Down’ this time is a testament to the power of the 3 for 2 offer – I only actually wanted one of the books I came home with.)

Still the book was on the shelf, and as Lodge wrote the foreword for ‘The Knot of Vipers’ it seemed like the logical choice for my next read. I got through the book in a day, enjoyed it enormously, got plenty to think about and chew over from it, but think that’s me with Lodge for a while. It’s definitely not him but me. I mean I found this book funny, perceptive, and clever – I managed to pick up on some of the (I now find out ten) parodies worked into the text (turns out it might be worth reading forewords before rather than after reading a book). I even tried to make the Scottish one read it (a plan foiled by my taking the book back home with me when he was half way through it). Well reading that back I’m beginning to think I might try another sometime...

The thing that really interested me in ‘The British Museum is Falling Down’ was the debate about contraception from a Catholic point of view, more specifically for a young married couple already saddled with three children and worried that a fourth might be on the way. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the advent of the pill this year; there’s been a fair amount of discussion about how it changed women’s lives, generally for the better and that seems to be the end of the conversation. What Lodge does here, and I’ve yet to read another writer do the same, is really look at contraception from both a male and female point of view and I find it fascinating. When Adam’s offered illicit strings free sex he turns it down through fear of pregnancy. Both Adam and Barbara find following the safe period (complete with charts and thermometers) a nerve wracking and frustrating exercise, but even if religion allowed the use of other methods neither find them attractive. A meeting with other young Catholics highlights some of the doubts surrounding the pill and the scare stories attached to it – this written at a time when London was meant to be swinging (and embracing the opportunities the pill offered).

One thing that really stands out is Adam’s sense of responsibility regarding fatherhood. It’s not something he feels he can walk away from but forty five years later that stands out, it seems we now take for granted that contraception is a woman’s responsibility, and almost hers alone. Another is how seriously Adam and Barbara take the ruling of their church and how big an impact it has on their married life – are they right to do this? Hard to say because whilst practically it feels like another child would be a disaster, not just choosing to follow the convenient rules feels important. Lodge also suggests (repeatedly) that contraception is a fairly unattractive option to both partners – I want to get indignant about that, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he’s right.

It’s hard for me to entirely imagine a world without the pill; it’s something I’ve come to take for granted as a good thing, just as I take its easy stigma free availability for granted. Its use and misuse is so common a soap plotline I take that for granted too, so reading from a somewhat different perspective has been quite an eye opener.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Knot of Vipers – Francois Mauriac

Very kindly sent to me by Capuchin, I blew hot and cold on this book - until I started reading it from which point onwards I stayed hot (if that doesn’t sound wrong). The thing that first drew me to Mauriac was his Catholicism specifically the idea of him being a catholic writer. The combined forces of Alice Thomas Ellis and Muriel Spark have converted me, if not to the church, at least to the possibilities of its literature, and Mauriac has not let them (or me) down.

The quality they all have in common, and which I find so appealing, is that all of these authors are prepared to make their narrator if not actually downright unpleasant, at least realistically humanly unpleasant. I find it reassuring to read, not about evil, but about weakness, paranoia, less charitable thoughts – all the things we think but don’t always want to give voice to. You normally have to know someone very well to know these kinds of flaws in them, so the effect of meeting it on the page can be very disarming.

Monsieur Louis, the narrator and hero of ‘The Knot of Vipers’ is an unloved, unloving, and nearly unlovable man. He’s cut off from his family by a web of suspicion and antipathy. They are determined to get their inheritance; he is equally intent on disinheriting them. Louis is convinced that he is at the base of it an unpleasant even hateful man, he’s put everything into building a fortune, and into trying to enact emotional retribution from those he feels have hurt him – mostly his wife.

The book takes the form first of a letter and then of a confession, Monsieur Louis goes over his life from disappointment to disappointment never withholding his own misdeeds. There is also no doubt that this is a biased account seen from a single perspective, which I also think is where the story is at its strongest. As a young man Louis finds himself marrying a girl far above his social sphere – as he tells it he becomes engaged by accident and without actually meaning to, but initially it’s a happy union; that is until his wife confesses to a previous affair one night. It brings all Louis’ insecurities to the fore – including the belief that Isa married him only for his money. The marriage falls apart from that moment, and the next forty years are a slow burning war of attrition between the couple. Isa annexes the children, Louis engages in a series of sordid liaisons, and ostentatiously turns his back on Isa’s beloved church, losing no opportunity to expose the religious hypocrisy he sees around him.

The other half of the book deals with the battle for Louis’ soul. Is he redeemable? Can he let go of the hatred and desire for vengeance, of the knot of vipers that has taken the place of his heart. Well I’ll leave you to guess the ending for yourselves, but will say that there’s a heartbreaking moment when he realises that he might have misjudged his wife.

To my modern and atheist eye the spiritual message feels a little clumsy, and something’s feel like a coincidence to far, but there’s a lot to be said for the reminder that we are the sum of what we do and not what we pay lip service too, and everything else about the story telling is terrific. The Bordeaux countryside is bought vividly to life, the slow unravelling of a life is equally moving and gripping, and however imperfect Louis is I could not help but sympathise with him. I can confirm that this is indeed a classic to keep alive!

Do by the way check out Capuchin's website. They're having a launch party for Nancy Mitford's Highland fling at Heywood Hill's bookshop on the 15th of July and it looks like tickets can be applied for...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Flavour of the Month

Or ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ continued – sorry, but I’m not done with it yet and as it seems to be the only thing working for me at the moment I’m sticking with it. Desperate Reader got a bit of an unexpected redesign (as you can see), it all came about whilst I was trying to sort out ongoing problems with uploading pictures and then got distracted by new templates, and then hit the wrong box, and now I don’t think there’s any going back. I mostly like the new look...

I’m still having problems with pictures; phone laptop and camera clearly need some sort of relationship counselling as they refuse to communicate with each other, it’s all very frustrating but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some sort of illustration with this post.

Now back to ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ which is much more interesting. The more time I spend with this book the more I like it, and the more useful I feel it’s going to be. Although not primarily a recipe book there are still some 200 recipes in here, though be aware – they come in the Elizabeth David mould and are as brief as possible working on the assumption that anyone using the book will know their way around a kitchen. I’m happy with that; I feel I’m being treated like a competent grown up, and heaven knows I don’t often feel like one so any encouragement in that direction is, well, encouraging. Better though than the recipes (which are excellent, but I don’t lack for recipes and I’m seeing these as a bonus rather than the main event) are the tips and hints throughout. I’m also being sent back to the books I already own looking for things I can adapt to new (for me) combinations, or just looking. Anything which gets me using my cookbooks (so that I can justify the need for more because ‘look I use all of these all the time’) is a good thing by me, and actually the more books I have, the more useful a compendium like this is.... (Honestly it’s a really good thing)

And the proof of all this eulogizing; well after Friday’s football avoiding bake I have an entirely new cake in my repertoire and a flavour combination (cherry and walnut) which is looking for just the right recipe (initial results were good but could be better).

The new cake is Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake, and without Segnit I doubt I would ever have cooked it, which would have been a loss for because it’s wonderful. The thing is you’re meant to boil the oranges for 2 hours beforehand which is an awfully long time and was more than enough to put me off – Segnit told me that a couple of minutes in the micro would do the job (I put the orange in a bowl of boiling water anyway which seemed like the right thing to do.) End result nice mushy orange in 3 minutes. One lined springform tin and the oven at 190°/gas 5 later all that was left to do was to cut the Orange into 4 and deseed it before putting it in a magimix (or push through a sieve – get a food blender) with 3 eggs, 125g of ground almond, 125g sugar, and ½ a teaspoon of baking powder. Blitz the lot until the orange is all pulp, pour into the tin and bake for about 50 mins. That’s it, and could it be easier?

These quantities are for half of Roden’s original recipe but I was short of eggs, next time I’m definitely making the bigger cake. It should come out pretty moist – it’s meant to be a wettish kind of cake – perfect for pudding as well as with coffee, and it has the most wonderful marmalade/orangey quality, it even got the Scottish ones seal of approval.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Flavour Thesaurus

Well I had all sorts of good intentions for Friday evening involving all sorts of productive activities and what did I actually do with my Friday night? Well after staring at my amazon wish list for a while, and spending some quality time on improving my recommendations I baked two cakes. Yes that’s right – two cakes, because one clearly wouldn’t be enough. In the process I’ve turned the kitchen into an even bigger bombsite than it was before which is sort of the opposite of what I meant to do with it, but on the bright side there’s cake...

The reason for such excess is Niki Segnit’s ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’. It’s given me idea’s, mostly idea’s about baking so far and I get caught that way quite often, but still I’m really taken with this book, and it has a lot more to it than cake. What first attracted my attention about this book was Segnit’s use of a flavour wheel; flavour wheels are popular in my line of work – we use them for wine, whisky and beer tasting, mostly to make it look like what we’re doing is Proper Work (see it must be work - I have a chart) and not drinking in the middle of the day for money. (Tasting really is hard work, and most of my job is moving boxes – I know that’s real work from the quantity of cuts and bruises I collect in a week.) The way I’m used to using these wheels is to identify specific flavours and general characteristics with the aim of identifying and remembering what I’m tasting but I wondered how it would be used in a foodie context.

Much as I’d expect the wheel is broken down into umbrella categories – floral fruity, roasted, meaty...within those categories specific foods, thus ‘earthy’ contains mushroom, aubergine, cumin, beetroot, potato, and celery. Each category becomes a chapter which takes its dedicated flavours and explores their pairing possibilities. Despite my description it’s very exciting. Segnit decided to limit herself to 99 flavours – well, you have to stop somewhere and first impressions are that she’s got it pretty much spot on, more would be too much. She also decided to stick to food pairings rather than more complex combinations and I think this is a part of the real genius of the book for a few reasons.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering on food and wine matching, it’s a big part of my job anyway and part of the homework that was keeping me so occupied a couple of weeks ago was working up endless food and drink scenarios. Concentrating on two main flavours makes matching a much simpler exercise, and if you want to get the most out of your wine this is A Very Good Thing. The discipline of thinking in two complimentary flavours won’t do me any harm either because I do have a habit of trying to complicate things, especially when the safety net of a recipe is removed.

Segnit talks about her collection of cookbooks being both a symptom and a cause of her lack of kitchen confidence, and of feeling bound to follow instructions in a way that made her question if she’d ever learned to cook (rather than simply follow instructions). It’s a point of view which certainly made me question my personal cookbook hoard but the answer that came to me was somewhat different. I’ve amassed a greater collection of books than recipes I actually regularly use. Each new book that comes into my kitchen inspires me; I make elaborate plans for when this or that is in season (and I enjoy it enormously). I’ve filled the Scottish ones garden with herbs so that next year I can make some wonderful sounding thing, but next year I can almost guarantee that work will keep me out of reach of the crucial ingredient until it’s gone over, or I forget what I had in mind for it.

The great thing about ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ is that it’s making me look at things from the other way around – take an ingredient, think of a complimentary flavour to make them both sing, and if I can’t find a recipe – well if the flavours are basically right together and I keep it simple not much can actually go wrong. I know this all sounds pretty obvious but I don’t think I’m alone in getting stuck on a single idea - this is how we have Lamb (and any other way is wrong)... and that old chestnut from the one you’ve tried so hard to impress with your cooking “it’s not how my mother makes it”!

I could (and most certainly will in a future post) say a lot more about this and that’s before I’ve even got onto Segnit’s writing style; she’s funny, opinionated and knowledgeable. Her likes and dislikes come through, which again I’m inclined to see as a good thing – this kind of book needs and deserves a good big dollop of personality, just as it needs the element of scholarship she’s bought to it. Basically a book that mildly intrigued me is turning into one that’s having a profound effect on how I approach the contents of the fridge – it’s a bit unexpected and really quite exciting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Monarch of The Glen – Compton Mackenzie

‘The Monarch of the Glen’ and Compton Mackenzie have both hovered on the edge of my reading conscious for a very long time now. ‘Whisky Galore’ is one of my favourite films but although I’ve had the book well over a decade I’ve only made one half hearted attempt to open it (about to change). ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ came to my attention through the TV series, and was rejected for the same reason, but over the last six months I kept picking it up and finally gave in to temptation on a stealthy amazon visit. All credit to Vintage – I love their current cover designs and after such success with John Cheever and John O’Hara I feel very inclined to give anything on their classics list a go, that and I’m genetically inclined to have a soft spot for eccentric Lairds.

There’s a moment that comes in a book where I know I’m going to love it, treasure it, and hopefully persuade someone else to read it (doesn’t always happen). In Monarch that moment came respectably early on with this line:
“Kilwhillie’s faded eyes were lighted up with that strange light which was never on sea or land, but is only to be seen in the eyes of a landed proprietor in the Highlands who hopes he has found a buyer for an overtaxed forest...and a shooting-lodge that looks like a bunch of tarnished pepper-pots.”
I have seen that light or at least something very close to it and clearly so had Mackenzie. It’s the combination of generally affectionate humour and sharp observation that made this such a beguiling read for me.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Nancy Mitford’s ‘Wigs on the Green’ (I’m assuming Mackenzie would have known it) and although Monarch is by far the better book I did wonder if there was a nod in the direction of Mitford and her type of fiction. For those who know the TV version – forget it and approach the book with fresh eyes. This is the story of Donald MacDonald, Laird of Glenbogle (also known as Ben Nevis) and his attempts to snag a rich wife for one of his sons. A distant Macdonald connection from Canada (Carrie) has had the good sense to marry a fortune and as Mrs Chester Royde she, her husband, and most importantly her unmarried sister in law are invited to enjoy some Scottish hospitality. The Laird’s hopes for a happy outcome are high, the sun is most unaccountably shining and it’s the glorious 12th – the scene is set for a grouse massacre of legendry proportion when disaster in the form of hikers strikes. The MacDonald wrath knows no bounds and before long all out war is declared between castle and the national union of hikers. Meanwhile Carrie has fallen in with some Scottish Nationalists (almost worse than hikers) including a distractingly handsome poet.

The hikers lead by the fanatical Percy Buckham, with their passionate devotion to their corduroy shorts and healthy outdoor life call to mind both Mosley’s blackshirts and the Hitler youth movement. It’s not an allusion that’s hammered home to hard – Percy Buckham of Primrose Hill is not an evil or even particularly sinister figure, but he’s an excellent example of how far a charismatic character filled with self belief and a desire for direct action can carry a crowd. It’s just this comparative lightness of touch which makes this book seem so fresh despite being almost seventy years old. Issues over Scottish Nationalism, what heritage is, who owns it, and who owns the land around us have never really gone away. Rambling is still a topic (in rural areas anyway – I’ve yet to talk to a farmer who’s keen on the breed) and people still travel from across the globe to find their roots in the old country.

Which brings me back to Chester Royde, who is by far and away my favourite character; his assessment of stag stalking is a joy, as are his clothes. They start off as simply colourful and then progress far beyond (I thought) cliché and into something for more sublime and wonderful. In short I cannot help but love a book where everyone is laughed at but which contains no discernable malice; is the perfect comfort read and has a bit of substance to it as well!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg – Dubravka Ugresic

Part of the Canongate myth series, this book ticked so many boxes for me and yet for some reason I’m struggling to pin it down. Still I’m going to try because I found it both a great read and deeply invigorating – I came out of it fizzing with ideas. The box ticking comes from the myth element, myths, legends, fairytales, folklore – it all fascinates me, and Baba Yaga is a particularly intriguing figure. (Just in case she’s new to you Baba Yaga is a hag who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs by the edge of the forest. Sometimes she helps travellers but more often she entraps them, especially girls. She travels by flying through the air in a mortar steered by a pestle wiping out her traces with a broom. She may or may not eat children).

All of that is well within my comfort zone, but reading an author I know nothing about, whose (indrawn breath) contemporary – well it’s not something I do a lot of, although there are a few more in the Canongate series that I’m adding to my wish list (how amazon must love me). I might even take a chance on another of Ugresic’s books because this one reminded me irresistibly of Angela Carter and I’d like to know if that’s specific to this book because of its explicit basis in myth, or if it’s a shared quality between the two writers. It’s the way that Ugresic plays with reality that reminds me of Carter; things seem real enough and then they become fantastic, strange, worrying, and not quite real at all.

I should also say that this is the second book in a row (after Memento Mori) that’s dealt with the extremes of old age and it occurs to me that the very end of life when neither body or mind works quite as it used to, or quite as you might like it to then things might well be strange, worrying and not quite real.

‘Baba Yaga Laid an Egg’ is split into three parts; the first section chronicles the relationship between the author and her aging mother and includes a trip to her mother’s old home in Bulgaria with a young academic called Aba. Part two takes place in a spa; a triumvirate of old women turn up and wreak a certain amount of havoc on all around them, all in their way are waiting for death:
“Beba sat in the bath wrapped in lacey foam. She could not remember the last time anyone had treated her with greater warmth or tenderness than this hotel bath. This was the kind of painful realisation that drives the more sensitive to put a bullet in their temple, or at least to look around to see where they might attach an adequately strong noose.”
This is the point when strange things really start to happen. Finally there is a ‘Baba Yaga for beginners’ section written by Dr Aba Bagay. It’s an exhausting exploration of Baba Yaga (and incidentally introduced me to the work of Marina Warner who’s now also on my wish list) written as if to the editor of the book. Exhausting but ultimately very worthwhile.

I mean to carry on researching Baba Yaga – here I think she is an avenging fury of sorts - and a neat opposite of the ideal of womanhood, but for all the repulsiveness in her image she’s still a recognisable woman, an angry one at that, and somehow I find that very compelling.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lavender and Honey ice cream

Sunday’s when I’m on my own are meant to be about housework but generally tend to be about cooking (if I get domestic at all). Today has been all about cooking – as was last night sort of, partly in an attempt to avoid the twin evils of football and big brother.

After my foray into ice cream making a couple of weeks back a friend asked me if I had a recipe for a lavender and honey version. It felt a bit like serendipity because I’d been eyeing up just such a thing in Sarah Raven’s ‘Garden Cookbook’ and as another egg free ice cream (but this time with the exciting addition of condensed milk) there seemed no better time than to give it a go. I added some nutmeg because I once had an ice cream at a national trust place that was inspired by Elizabethan herb gardens or some such – the point being it was very nice and the nutmeg was a nod in its direction.

I’ll be honest I’m not entirely sure about the flavour; I think it needs to go with something. I’ve made the apple pudding cake again because it seems like a likely contender and not a bad accompaniment to Sunday night viewing either. The best way I can think to describe the flavour of lavender (apart from saying it tastes like it smells) is of a slightly smoky floral tea. I like cooking with it, love lavender jelly in particular, and indeed as the Scottish one and other unwilling guinea pigs will testify I’ll slip a few flowers into food on the slimmest of pretexts...

Flavour aside (and it’s becoming an acquired taste) the texture of this ice cream is amazing and absolutely worth making so this is it as I made it (for most likely better results see the Sarah Raven book – it’s well worth having)

(Quantities are for my ice cream machine which is small)

300ml whole milk

2 tablespoons honey

4-6 stalks and heads of lavender

1 vanilla pod split

Pinch of salt

125ml condensed milk

300ml double cream

A good grating of nutmeg (very optional)

Heat the milk with the honey, lavender flowers, and vanilla pod until just below boiling. Take off the heat and allow to cool completely, then poor through a sieve to remove the lavender and Vanilla, then chill for half an hour in the fridge.

Add the salt, condensed milk, and cream, mix thoroughly then poor into an ice cream maker and churn for 20 minutes. (if you don’t have an ice cream maker it goes straight into the freezer and needs to be stirred every half an hour for a couple of hours)

Put into a container and freeze for a minimum of 4 hours but better yet at least over night...

And finally a picture of some Morris dancers – dancing outside my sister’s house last week, a very entertaining evening which could only have been improved with the addition of ice cream.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Memento Mori

Virago as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before are a publisher I hold dear to my heart, a green spine in a second hand shop will call out to me from twenty feet away (the blonde is my witness) and that tempting apple is the first thing I look for in a bookshop. I don’t buy or beg every one that comes my way – though maybe I should because more than any other publisher it’s Virago who have inspired my reading life...

Muriel Spark is an example of this – I’d heard of her before Virago, I’d read her before Virago but only ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, the thing is before Virago that was the only Spark to be picked up in my local bookshop and I remained oblivious to the rest of her canon for far too long. Since Virago’s reissues I’ve done a lot more exploring – this is what I love so much about them; it’s not just the books they do publish, it’s the writers I find that way, and the whole wide world of excitement that opens up for me.

But what I meant to talk about was ‘Memento Mori’ a strange and wonderful book that could only have been written by Spark – I can’t imagine anyone else writing it anyway. An anonymous caller is phoning a group of elderly people with the message ‘Remember you must die’, as the hunt for the callers identity gets underway things become more mysterious, at the same time the past lives of the protagonists are slowly unveiled revealing a web of indiscretion and blackmail. Gripping stuff, but that’s not all, it’s also a very acute, and mostly sympathetic observation of encroaching mortality.

To live well, as a reminder to behave well, to not have many regrets it seems to me to be a good thing to remember that you must die, but I think Spark means much more than that. If you have faith you need to spend time preparing for what comes next (I don’t have faith in an afterlife so I’m guessing a little bit that this is what she’s telling me). The only really likable characters are those who do remember they must die, and they’re not particularly spending their time making peace with the living, yet they are the more truly compassionate – the better people. Not because they’ve lived markedly better lives but because they seem to be at peace with the lives they have lead.

Much as I like to contemplate the meaning of mortality and what comes next over my lunch a bit of humour doesn’t go amiss with it, and there is a wonderful streak of typically black Spark humour running through this book. It’s also a very moving, and quietly thought provoking account of old age, something that’s generally rare, although Spark does quite a line in old ladies (and is, I’m beginning to think, slightly obsessed with incontinence – it’s something that’s turned up in a few of her books). I think this is a magnificent as well as slightly macabre book, I struggle to pin point exactly what makes it so special (that’s surely a part of what makes Spark so good – perfect balance) but I read it two weeks ago and have been thinking about it on and off ever since. A book that gets under your skin like that is always a winner.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Elizabeth Taylor – The Blush

This was a charity shop find – one of a few Elizabeth Taylors that have snuck into my flat over the last couple of weeks despite a pledge not to buy any more of her books until I’d finished at least one of them. For some reason I can’t quite fathom I’ve never really got very far with Taylor despite the fact that I love the sound of her books, and have over the years acquired quite a handful of them. ‘The Blush’ is a collection of short stories - normally a format I really like but something I’ve not been in the mood for recently, but the cover was so pretty and the price so reasonable that I couldn’t leave the book behind.

Happily for me my pound was well spent; it seemed like a good candidate for lunchtime reading and once I started I had to have another story and another. I’m definitely looking out for the Taylor’s other short story collections now, and it’s just possible I’ll do something definite about reading a whole novel. (I might add that the blonde gave me a very old fashioned look when she spotted this, I'm going to have to make her more Ice cream...)

The great thing for me with short stories is that even if I can afford a couple of duds in a collection and still end up loving a book – a novel has to pull me in from the beginning and keep me in. For me the stand out gem was one called ‘Perhaps a family failing’ detailing a young couples wedding night. It’s a failure, a failure of such epic proportions that nothing prepared me for the end (a failure that has nothing to do with sex by the way – not that sort of story at all). Where the tale ends is also masterly – just before any explanations and reckonings have to be made which leaves the imagination to run riot with possibilities in the most satisfying way imaginable.

If there was a dud (and this is a strictly personal opinion) it was the opening story ‘The Ambush’ which I just totally failed to get the point off. I could see something was going on but couldn’t for the life of me work out what. I think this is more my fault than Taylor’s – I’ve mulled it over a few times, and will definitely return to it sometime to see if I have more luck, but I was on safer ground with things like ‘The Letter Writer’s’ a very bittersweet account of what happens when a couple who have spent a decade in communication finally meet face to face. That anxiety over meeting a well known correspondent for the first time is a familiar one (though so far I’ve been lucky and meetings have always been a joy).

If anyone has any tips for how to approach Taylor please tell me – she seems so exactly the sort of writer I should love that my general apathy towards her work upsets me, and after these short stories I feel like I’m on the brink of a great love affair if only I can find the right way in!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

BUtterfield 8 – John O’Hara

I slightly resent that it’s taken me this long to discover John O'Hara – way back in the mists of A level English one of our modules was ‘The American Dream’ – which meant ‘The Great Gatsby (still love the book and the works of F Scott Fitzgerald generally, cannot abide Robert Redford or Mia Farrow) and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (just a brilliant book that no amount of studying can dim). Anyway it seems to me that sometime in the Gatsby period someone should have mentioned O’Hara – English teacher whose name I can’t remember – that means you.

‘BUtterfield 8’ is a hell of a book; opening with the heroine Gloria waking up in a strange bed after a drunken one night stand and closing a week or so later with the aftermath of her death. That’s not really a spoiler because it’s all on the back blurb, and it’s not so much about how it ends as what leads up to the end that matters in this book. Gloria; barely out of her teens is a habitué of numberless speakeasies, a heavy drinking, heavy doping, loose living kind of a girl. She’s also bright, warm hearted, generous and probably the most damaged individual I’ve yet found on the page. Her fate is sealed when she walks out of that one night stand wearing nothing but another woman’s mink coat, stolen both from necessity and compulsion.

(I should say at this point that even knowing Gloria doesn’t make it through to the end, what actually happens to her came as a total surprise to me, which just goes to show that knowing what happens doesn’t always rob you of the surprise to come.)

O’Hara has a gift for drawing a character in with a few deft strokes, and he does it over and again. I won’t lie - at times I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out who everyone was, and then I realised I didn’t need to know; they do all eventually connect, but in essence they’re people overlapping for a few moments and then separating again, only briefly part of the same story. The other heroine of this story is New York itself, it’s definitely the seedier side of the city that O’Hara celebrates; if it had a smell it would be a mix of cigarette smoke, sweat, gin, Chanel N°5, whisky, and things on the turn. There is a palpable sense of menace around the speakeasies’ – the mob is there and it seems to mean something - some really disturbing incidents are alluded to, and Gloria’s own life when it comes under scrutiny is shocking enough by modern standards, so no surprise the book was banned in Australia until 1963.

I read, and was slightly disappointed by Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ earlier this year, mostly I think because I was expecting a book a bit more like this. Gloria’s sexuality is fairly thoroughly explored, and although I don’t know how it read in 1935 I don’t feel like she’s being judged for her behaviour. This is a remarkably promiscuous girl who at 22 has racked up a number of abortions and is left wondering what that coupled with the birth control steps she’s taken will do for her future chances of motherhood. She’s done things she clearly wishes she hadn’t, but at the same time she also takes pleasure in her own body and her sexuality. At times she’s a victim – not least of some nasty childhood experiences which play no small part in her adult lifestyle, but O’Hara also gives her dignity and a measure of respect – whatever she does she’s never treated as a whore.

I think it takes a man to write about a woman like this, and this is perhaps another of the reasons why I found ‘The Group’ disappointing – McCarthy is honest, but often cruel in her observations, O’Hara writes with love so Gloria for all her faults is looked at kindly. The end result is a book I can’t recommend highly enough!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sarah Raven's Food for Friends and Family

It has been an unremittingly grey and gloomy day – not the thing at all for the 1st of June and the sort of day that calls for something cheering at the end of it. My quest for cheeriness took me straight to Sarah Raven’s new book –‘Food for Friends and Family’, published by Bloomsbury just (I like to think) to help me through days like today. (As a bit of an aside I’m carrying something of a torch for Bloomsbury at the moment, I love this book and I am unbelievably excited about the upcoming ‘Hedgerow’ river cottage handbook – and that’s only the tip of the books to daydream over iceberg.)

And talking of daydreams – how much do I want Sarah Raven’s lifestyle? Well quite a lot really which is probably pretty clear to anyone who follows this blog. Not just a gardener, but a gardener with a sitting tenancy of Sissinghurst, a place I find unbelievably magical (and I have just a little crush on Vita Sackville-West). Her husband owns a handful of Scottish Islands (I like those too) and she’s an inspirational sort of cook. (Even my blonde friend felt inspired and she hates cooking.)

There is a particular satisfaction in being able to open a recipe book and think ‘yes, no problem – I can do that’, an even bigger satisfaction in not being able to resist starting on something straight away. The first recipe I’ve tried from ‘Food for Friends and Family’ had to wait 24 hours though – it was Strawberry and Basil ice cream and the ice cream maker had to go in the freezer first.

This ice cream recipe, ahh, it’s not just an ice cream recipe, it’s the one I’ve been waiting for, the one that’s made me think of Sarah Raven as my friend and ally in the kitchen, it’s also the recipe that’s stopped my ‘hmmph it’s okay for her attitude (envy – it’s not pretty, but it’s true). I love to cook, and once I’ve got something down pat I’ll experiment a bit with it, but I’m the sort of cook who needs instructions. I don’t in the least trust the ‘Oh I just chuck in a bit of this and a bit of that and never measure anything’ approach. When I cook like that everything tastes the same and it gets dull pretty quickly, plus I never learn anything. This is just one of the reasons for a medium large collection of cook books.

My issue with ice cream is that every recipe I’ve found up until now has involved eggs, specifically egg yolks, so every ice cream I’ve made has tasted like custard. I’m sure if I’d have looked properly I would have found one I liked earlier, but another of the pleasures in a new cookbook is that previously overlooked ideas suddenly jump out of a new format. This strawberry and Basil wonder is a very simple (and amazing coloured) mix of fruit, cream, basil and sugar. The Basil makes the Strawberry flavour really sing – I loved it, the blonde loved it, and the Scottish one – well he loved it till he noticed the green bits at which point he accused me of trying to poison him with mint (there was an incident with some new potato’s – he’s not allergic or anything but I now know he doesn’t like mint added to things. Oh how I know it.) Assurances that it wasn’t mint came too late and I ended up eating the rest myself.

Next I plan to introduce some Rosemary Cherry scones and see how those go down. The rosemary won’t be visible so I might just get away with it... and I have to get some rose geranium for jam making, and lemon curd cup cakes sound wonderful, oh and pea pesto – got to make that too, and well, you probably get the idea. This is a delightful book, times better than many I’ve seen come out this year and really, really, worth a look.