Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gentle Art of Cookery – Mrs C.F Leyel and Miss Olga Hartley

This is part of the classic voices in food series that Quadrille are producing (I quite fancy the Eliza Acton as well) and the first thing you notice about it is what a lovely looking book it is. Christmas tree green, scarlet, and silver with lovely creamy pages - it’s the scarlet coloured page edges that are really doing it for me though. After I’d got over how pretty the book was I read a bit about the authors, Hilda Leyel was an expert herbalist, set up the Culpeper shops and the Herb Society in 1927. Olga Hartley was her assistant as well as a suffragist journalist and author; both women sound fascinating but its Hilda’s voice and tastes that shape the book.

 ‘The Gentle Art of Cookery’ was written in 1925 but feels startlingly modern which says a lot about the cyclical nature of food fashions and perhaps even more about the vision that Hilda had. She veers towards the vegetarian, champion’s seasonal food (although that’s not unusual for the 1920’s) and has a penchant for exotic ingredients and cooking with flowers (in fact many of my own kitchen pre occupations). There is a menu plan for an Arabian night which appeals to me, the memory of a Middle Eastern banquet at my friend Mary’s house in the summer is still fresh, it’s wonderful food for sharing and talking over.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time dipping in and out of this book – I’ve been meaning to write about it for weeks – and really like it, it feels different and imaginative as well as being interesting for the history, but I have to agree (a little begrudgingly) with the introduction. This isn’t a book for inexperienced cooks (Hilda also says this) the recipe’s are given with the same sort of brevity that can make Elizabeth David (by the by this was one of David’s first cook books and she apparently remembered it with gratitude and affection) so frustrating to cook from if, like me and Julian Barnes, you’re a pedant in the kitchen. There are good idea’s aplenty, many of them far ahead of their time (a chapter on cooking for and with children is something I’m not used to seeing but also really liked) but there’s also a lot that’s very much of its period – lot’s of gelatine based creams – and some which call for truly terrifying quantities of things. One recipe calls for a peck of primroses; that’s a unit of volume equal to two gallons/nine litres, or basically a LOT of primroses, so good to read about it, maybe not for making.

I do however fancy mixing up some wassail; 6 pints of beer, 4 glasses of sherry, sugar, lemon and nutmeg, 4 slices of toast – leave to stand for 3 hours, bottle and drink within a few days. I have no idea what the toast is for or would do to the drink (or who I would get to drink it) but it sounds intriguing, as does the Rumfustian... 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion

I love whisky – it wasn’t always so, single malt is not generally the first drink of choice for a young woman – my nights in the student union veered between gin and Guinness (very bad Guinness at that), post graduate drinking also featured gin and increasingly wine which eventually led to a job in wine. Wine is a fascinating but it’s a big subject and trying to get to grips with it is a mammoth task. The people that I worked with knew a lot and I wanted my own little niche. That’s where the whisky came in, we sold a lot of it and people would keep asking me about it so I had to learn about it.

The more I learnt the more interested I became until eventually I could drink the stuff without wincing, from there it was a small jump to real enthusiasm (in moderation of course – whisky hangover’s are vile and to be avoided) and now it’s a passion only a little way behind books. Of course it helps that there are plenty of books about whisky...

The best of these (for my purposes) has always been ‘Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion’. Sadly Michael Jackson passed away a couple of years ago and the current edition (no 6) was finished off by others. It’s still a great book (although they’ve let some foreign whiskies sneak in and I’m not sure how I feel about this – there are other books for that kind of exoticism) and as I’ve spent most of the weekend with it I thought I should take a moment to celebrate it here.

It’s basically a dictionary of malts with a little bit about each distillery and then a description with score of all their current bottlings. Really simple and totally fascinating for anyone who likes a good list. Whisky isn’t for everyone but if you do happen to be fond of a dram and a book to read whilst considering it this is such a good book.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Penguin Book Of Victorian Women in Crime – edited by Michael Sims

I wanted this book after reading ‘Red Pottage’ – I was hankering after more New Women and Victorian lushness and thought it would hit the spot. Naturally therefore I didn’t pick it up for at least a month by which time the mood had gone. ‘Red Pottage’ is a seasonal sort of book, a lot of the action takes place in autumn against a backdrop of golden leaves and crisp evenings finishing up in a snow flurry. It was very evocative back in October but that mood has passed now, fortunately I’m all about the short story at the moment so haven’t abandoned ‘The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime’ to take its chance on a shelf somewhere.

I regularly read that short stories don’t sell which just as regularly surprises me. I love short stories and have numberless collections and anthologies (by which I mean I can’t be bothered to count them but they may well run into the hundreds by now); I particularly like anthologies finding them the perfect travel companions. They’re also just the ticket for this time of year. Christmas is happening in retail – this is the last pay weekend before the big day, I’ll find out on Monday if my predictions for an exhaustingly busy day came true (I have the weekend off and am not sorry to put back the inevitable cuts, bruises, and frayed temper a few more days).

I find this time of year hard going, it’s physically demanding in a way which leaves me with very little energy to concentrate on anything much, and then even when not working there seems so much to prepare, or finish, or generally take care of before the imaginary full stop that is Christmas day. Reading fiction is a blessed escape from the (mostly reasonable but numerous) demands of customers but giving a book the attention it deserves – well it doesn’t always happen. Shorts are a different matter, a good anthology is a great way of finding new writers, and if one story in my chosen theme doesn’t hit the mark I can be pretty sure the next one will.

‘Women in Crime’ is mostly short stories but there is also an isolated chapter from an Anna Katherine Green novel which makes me long to read the rest of the book. (Sims has edited an earlier Anna Katherine Green for penguin; ‘The Leavenworth Case’, it’s on my wish list and I’m hoping someone takes the hint). Grant Allen’s ‘The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady’ was very funny (looks like penguin are releasing one of his novels next year – also on my wish list...). The list of happy discoveries hasn’t ended there.
The other thing I really enjoyed about ‘Women in Crime’ is how many of them there were, mostly as detectives sometimes as villains. Despite protestations that the lady detectives (and villains) are still the very models of femininity it’s somehow encouraging to see the Victorian mind admitting that women could be more than the angel in the house.

Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Oxford world’s classics have a new edition of ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ out which is worth celebrating, and perhaps more to the point, reading. Lady Audley was love from the first page for me, I’m only sorry I didn’t read it when I first picked it up twenty years ago. It would appear that I’m programmed to enjoy sensation fiction but even so Lady Audley is something a bit special – within the framework of attempted murder, hidden identity, disappearances, blackmail, insanity, and arson there is a subversive message that the villainess is perhaps as much sinned against as sinning, and the hero isn’t such an appealing character either.

This was one of the first books I blogged about (here) in the two years since I’ve read plenty more sensation fiction but nothing better, more complex, subtler, or thought provoking. This book really should be better known and more appreciated and so (ahem) if you only read one Victorian novel this year please make it ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stir up Sunday

Stir up Sunday - Wikipedia tells me that the name comes from the collect in the Book of Common Prayer which is read on the last Sunday before advent, I associate it with The Archers where I first heard the term in relation to baking. It’s also the traditional day to make Christmas pudding and mincemeat, and if it doesn’t need a long time to mature it’s also a good day to make your Christmas cake.

Coincidentally I did make my first Christmas cake yesterday, but only discovered the synchronicity with the dates afterwards, it’s going in my diary for next year (just so I know). If the cake is good it’ll become a fixture and I have to admit that it’s really going to test my patience waiting another 5 weeks to see if it’s any good. I have an inkling that it will be acceptable because the top got a bit crispy and I decided to slice it off and in the process I tried a little bit. The recipe used was the Dan Lepard I’ve been sitting on for the last year and if nothing else it’s made my flat smell amazing.

I didn’t make the cake in my new toy – I wanted a bigger bowl and it’s not a recipe that calls for much mixing bar the folding in of the fruit and – well it just seemed more appropriate to do it by hand. However the Scottish one has been encouraging me to use the Kitchen Aid (part of me still thinks I should have waited but it was a part easy to ignore) and so I thought perhaps I should. So I did and made another Lepard cake – Hazelnut and Prune – there’s a link to it on the Christmas cake page. It’s pretty good but calls for quite a lot of nutmeg which I will halve next time because currently I feel it tastes a bit virtuous and a little unbalanced; which is as much a reflection on my heavy handedness as anything else – I may have erred on the side of excess.
The hazelnut and prune effort went through the mixer which was extremely satisfying, so satisfying that I felt I had to bake something else and so opted for the Gugelhupf recipe in ‘Tanta Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen’. It’s turned out well but I’m not sure it’s for me (hard to tell at the moment because I burnt my mouth on a very hot piece of lamb stew and everything tastes a bit off). This version doesn’t use alcohol which might add a bit of richness – instead its lemon and almond based and perhaps a bit subtle for someone geared up to Lebkuchen and heavier fruit cakes. I’ll keep eating it until I’m sure. I could probably have carried on baking all night but perhaps fortunately ran out of ingredients. I love my new Kitchen aid.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The West End Front – Matthew Sweet

The wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels – I quite liked the sound of this book but wasn’t entirely sure so cheekily asked Faber if I could have a copy. Very nicely they said yes which turned out to be a splendid thing for me because it’s easily one of the most enjoyable books of the year (which has also just been read out on radio 4 where it’s probably just still available via iplayer) which feels like a fitting reward for stepping outside of my fiction comfort zone.

‘The West End Front’ is broken down into ten chapters covering Aliens (the foreign national sort as opposed to any other sort of visitors) Reds, Players, Brigades, Cons, Parents, Subterraneans, Traitors, Majesties, and Strikers. The brilliance of the book is that each chapter concentrates on a couple of key characters whose individual stories are both very personal yet likely to be the same for countless others throughout the war.

As a nation it seems we’ve got into the habit of seeing the War as it is in period films – stiff upper lips whilst everyone stays calms and carries on, possibly whilst making do and mending or digging for victory. It’s easy to celebrate the best that was bought out in us, easy to ignore the less admirable elements of the national character which is why a book like this is timely. For my generation all our grandparents had fought in the war, and our parents had very likely grown up in it or its immediate aftermath so it’s something of a shock (not a very pleasant one) to realise that this is all on the edge of living memory now. Sweet has done an excellent job of illuminating some of the things we might otherwise collectively forget.

The hotel and restaurant trade has always been cosmopolitan and therefore its employees were particularly vulnerable under the internment act – all those Italians and German waiters (and anyone else suspected of being the wrong sort of foreign or having the wrong sort of politics), porters, kitchen staff – hundreds of them carted off to prison camps regardless whilst the authorities took their time deciding what to do with them. It should probably be a cause for shame but I don’t think it’s much talked about.

The chapter on reds is an opportunity to redress the idea that all were equal under the blitz regardless of social status. Not true it seems. If you could afford to stay in the Savoy (for example) you had access to comfortable bomb proof quarters and plentiful food when the sirens went off. If you lived in the east end in 1940 you didn’t – this was before the underground was opened up for shelters. The Communists didn’t believe it was very fair and marched on the Savoy one night, when the air raids started the hotel was obliged to shelter them which it seems failed to delight its more affluent customers.

I think though the most moving chapter in the book is ‘Parents’ it basically tells the story of Mary Pickwoad, a fairly ordinary young woman who had an affair with a married man. She was careless enough to find herself pregnant, fell into the hands of an eminent but unqualified plastic surgeon/abortionist, and finally bled to death in room 365 of the Mount Royal Hotel. It seems she was all but expunged from her family history – not quite a secret, but not much more than a veiled threat of what happened to girls who didn’t behave themselves. Sweet tells Mary’s story with compassion; it’s undoubtedly a tragedy – and the worst thing about it, it was by no means an isolated incident.

It’s an excellent book, full of gossip and scandal but never losing sight of the points it wants to make. Sweet’s style is conversational and snappy; his research impeccable – the result is a readable and timely reminder that the truth is far more complex and fascinating than our cleaned up film version of the past so often is.   

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I couldn’t be more excited

I don’t know how he knew it was what I wanted (unless it was the incessant hinting) but the Scottish one has given me a kitchen aid (it shouldn’t officially be mine for another 3 weeks but I picked it up last night and was actively encouraged to unwrap it). I’ve wanted one of these beauties for ever – or at least for the last fifteen years. I am unbelievably excited, as is my mother who has a theory that you’re not a proper woman until you have a food mixer – getting her first Kenwood chef was a seminal experience apparently. Still she may be right, she normally is, even when saying things that might raise an eyebrow. I know you shouldn’t get too carried away by things but having wanted one of these for such a long time having one in my home – neither Christmas nor birthdays have been this exciting for almost thirty years, and now all I have to decide is what to mix in it first. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Five reasons to be cheerful on a gloomy November day

I’ve been feeling slightly sorry for myself recently, work has been hard with no promise of let up until after Christmas (actually it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better), my patience with humanity as it exhibits itself in customer form has hit some all time lows and my back hurts (which is a distraction from my arm and ankle hurting at least). The economy is not encouraging either, neither common sense nor austerity particularly appeal to me and I feel like I’ve been exercising both for quite long enough now, if I had a budget I’d blow it on something extravagant but despite it only being mid month I’m already reduced to scrapping around for coppers and counting down until pay day.

However the sun finally shone this afternoon and I had an exciting parcel from Prospect books which added to a few other recent packages encouraged me to pull myself together and realise it’s not all that grim. It might be a while before I manage to read my way through all these beauties and meanwhile I can’t wait to share...

Pride of place goes to ‘Tripe: A Most Excellent Dish’ by Marjorie Houlihan. It only arrived this afternoon and I’ve done nothing more than glance at it but the title alone was enough to make me smile. It’s a history of tripe in Lancashire along with a collection of tripe recipes from around the world. Leicester has a tripe stall on its indoor market selling white and brown versions, both look revolting and I’ll take some convincing to actually try the stuff. Regardless Prospect’s English Kitchen series is always fascinating and I look forward to reading about it if not to eating it.

The book I’m currently enjoying is Matthew Sweet’s ‘West End Front’ about life in London’s great hotels during the war. I picked this up to have a look at it and couldn’t put it down, it’s much better than I expected (I mean I thought it would be good but had no idea it would be this good) there are plenty of books which I should have read before I got to this one and plenty of other things I should be doing when I’m reading it but it’s irresistible.

The Gentle Art Of Cookery’ also landed on my doorstep recently and is one that I meant to have a better look at before I got distracted by ‘West End Front’. This is a lovely looking thing complete with coloured page edges (we can’t think what the proper word for that is). I’ve dipped in and out of it enough to know that it’s as good as it looks – more on that soon.

Women’s Suffrage in Shetland’ by Marsali Taylor came courtesy of my father late last week. Mrs Taylor was my English teacher (and a very good one too) and again all I’ve done is open this and have a quick look, first impressions are excellent so I’m looking forward to spending more time with it – two obsessions in one handy volume – what a treat.

Last but not least is Jane Robinson’s ‘A Force to be Reckoned With’ a history of the WI. I’ve been tempted by a few of Robinson’s titles in the past but this is the first one I’ve got my hands on. It sound very promising and again I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into it. If only there were more hours in the day.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cake expectations – or a tale of two cakes*

I have never made a Christmas cake before, or for that matter baked a proper fruit cake. This is partly because fruit cake isn’t my favourite and partly because I go to my mum for Christmas and my dad for New Year – mum is an excellent cook who makes a brilliant cake. Dad once won a prize for Best Fruit Cake Baked By A Gentleman in the village show (he likes fruit cake) he also married a professional chef second time round and his youngest daughter has been well trained in baking matters – they always have good cake too, making another has seemed like cake overkill.

However making your own Christmas Cake feels like a rite of passage that a person should go through (if so inclined) before they’re 40 (a dreadful sounding anniversary that’s now only a couple of years away) so I think this will be the year. Actually I also though last year would be the year when I cut out a Dan Lepard recipe from The Guardian - but I still have the clipping and I want to make the cake more than ever. Truthfully I’ve never been that much of a Lepard fan but that’s just changed, Verity told me I must get ‘Short and Sweet’ but I momentarily thought I had enough cook books and should save money for dull things like bills and bus fares (it may be that I was wrong).

What my tatty clipping didn’t make clear was how long the cake could keep or if it needed to be made long in advance so I asked Verity via twitter what she thought (she is after all a seasoned fruit cake baker) she suggested I tweet Dan himself which I was about to do when I found he’d already sent me an answer. I was deeply impressed; I mean how many people would be that efficient and helpful? I’m now filled to the brim with goodwill and ‘Short and Sweet’ has gone on my wish list. It’s not even that I’m thinking ‘aha here’s someone who can be bothered with questions whenever I have a cake query’ (although that’s a temptation albeit one I’ll quash) but that this man cares enough about his work to clarify a point gives me tremendous confidence in him. Incidentally the cake will keep well wrapped up in a cool place and can be fed with hard liquor if desired.

Cake number two is a Two Fat Ladies Chocolate Whisky Cake. It was a Jennifer Paterson contribution and is the first thing I’ve cooked out of a book I see was a birthday present in 1997. Every book has its day. This cake calls for 3oz of sultanas soaked overnight in 4 tablespoons of whisky, 6oz of plain chocolate melted with 4oz of butter and put aside to cool whilst 3 eggs are separated, the yolks to be whipped with 4oz light soft brown sugar and the whites to be whipped separately and set aside. Meanwhile a grated orange rind, the whisky and sultanas, the cooled chocolate mixture, and 2½oz of chopped walnuts can be folded into the yolk mixture followed by ¼ of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, and 2oz self raising flour. Finally gently fold in the egg whites and pour the whole lot into a prepared 20cm cake tin. Pop it in an oven at 180°C/gas 4 for an hour or until a skewer comes out clean then leave in the tin for a further 15 mins before turning out. JP suggested a buttercream and whisky icing to top with but I didn’t bother this time.

I wish I’d taken a picture before we ate it, but didn’t so you’ll have to imagine how good this cake looked (actually my tin was a bit big so it looked a bit flat, but tasted great). I have lots of similar recipes but they all cook in about half the time – it seems these days we like our cakes a good bit fudgier – but this way is excellent, rich but surprisingly light in texture. I also really like the addition of fruit nuts and flavourings; they worked fantastically well together making this cake feel like something really special.

*Because it’s a while since I’ve had a pun never mind two really terrible puns in a blog title and I’ve missed them.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sun King – Nancy Mitford

My introduction to Nancy Mitford came in the form of an omnibus edition containing ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, ‘The Pursuit of Love’, ‘The Blessing’ and ‘Don’t Tell Alfred’ (though possibly not in that order). Her blend of funny and elitist seemed desperately sophisticated to my younger self and though I haven’t read them for a long time I imagine I’d still enjoy those books given that I had fun with ‘Wigs on the Green’, ‘Pigeon Pie’, and ‘Highland Fling’.

Nonfiction is a different kettle of fish so despite knowing about the four biographies that Mitford wrote I’ve never felt that tempted by them. However someone at Vintage very kindly offered me some of their re-prints and I couldn’t say no and having said yes had to start reading. So far I’ve tackled ‘The Sun King’ and as members of my online book group already know I struggled with it a bit. It didn’t help that I came to it straight after my Georgette Heyer binge (it occurs to me that in a Heyer book Mitford would be a villainess). As a biographer Kloester is quite discreet and very thorough. Mitford is neither, nor is she much of an historian, or balanced, or impartial.

She’s also a confirmed Francophile which I am not to the point that people who are really annoy me – I mean France is okay and everything but my experience of it does not lead me to believe it’s an earthly paradise, and furthermore several of their winemakers are lax in the matter of bar codes which marred my working life for a decade. However once I’d got past all that the book began to grow on me. What Mitford seems to have done is trawl through the history cherry picking all the juiciest scandals (poisoning, witchcraft, Devil worship, secret marriages, infidelity, and so on) and through it altogether with her personal take on the characters involved. She liked the Sun King (although inexplicably she spends almost a page discussing his appearance with reference to how exotic/Jewish it was which feels shockingly inappropriate in a post war book.  

She approved of Mme de Montespan despite her dabbling in the black arts, but I don’t think she found Mme Maintenon (a later mistress, possibly wife) as attractive – there are certainly no attempts to defend her less appealing characteristics as there are with Mme De Montespan’s. Now that I’ve got used to Mitford’s tone I’m quite happy to read on and find what she has to say about Frederick the Great, Voltaire, and Madame de Pompadour and can recommend ‘The Sun King’ in all its gossiping, bitchy, partisan glory (with some reservations – this isn’t for the faint hearted, easily offended, or the liberal – I would no longer invite Mitford to my fantasy dinner party). 

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer

This will (probably) be the last Heyer post for a while, though I could happily spend the winter reading through her entire output, new books are calling. When I re read ‘Sylvester’ I knew I’d still like it, it’s a later book and show’s Heyer really at home in her world. ‘The Devil’s Cub’ was first published in 1932 so is a period piece in every way. It’s also straight out melodramatic adventure and it occurred to me that a book that was probably my very favourite in all the world when I was 13 (beating even ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’) might not be quite as good as I remembered.

I only meant to reread my favourite bits (when Dominic shoots the highway man, when Mary shoots Dominic, and of course the bit at the end when everything come together – which I duly did late at night until I finally went to sleep thinking it was okay but a bit overblown. The next day I was away from home and took another book to read – which made me realise that I couldn’t wait to get back to ‘The Devil’s Cub’.

If I was marooned desert island disks style my book choice/luxury would be a complete set of Georgette Heyer. Marooned in adult life with bills to pay, troubles to negotiate, and a hundred unexpected disappointments (my bus was late, I missed a parcel delivery, I don’t have a dishwasher – you know the sort of thing) it’s a great thing to have something to rely on. It doesn’t matter how many times I read something like ‘The Devil’s Cub’ the humour with which Heyer wrote always feels fresh even if I spend more time now marvelling over how she makes a plot hang together however unlikely it is.

Despite all this I would hesitate to recommend Heyer to anyone. I tried my youngest sister on a few of her books when she seemed the right kind of age – sister liked them but didn’t fall in love with them as I did. Heyer’s a wonderful writer but her particular brand of escapism clearly isn’t for everyone, one of the pleasures of blogging and my online book group has been finding other fans out there to share my enthusiasm for her with.

As for ‘The Devil’s Cub’; well if a whirlwind romance between a man who abducts the wrong sister whilst fleeing the country having shot his man in a gaming hell, is then shot by the abductee whilst she tries to convince him she’s really a virtuous sort of female, followed by a chase across France as they keep getting separated, another mismatched but very much in love couple, and the hero’s colourful family also in full pursuit... sounds like your cup of tea – well look no further, you’ve hit the jack pot. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Best Seller – Jennifer Kloester

This book was a very kind gift from Elaine Random Jottings who quite correctly thought I would be interested in a life of one of my favourite authors. I’m not generally much of a biography/non-fiction reader but after a few Heyer based conversations I was really keen to read this in the hope that I would get to know the woman behind the books. Kloester is protective of her subject which suited me; Georgette Heyer was notoriously private and though I don’t doubt that she would have found the idea of being written about nauseating (a phrase she seems to have used a lot) I think this book respects her boundaries. There are no salacious details, but then there aren’t any in her romances either – it’s not what you go to Heyer for, and there probably isn’t very much for people who aren’t fans – but there are no shortage of fans out there so I don’t fear for Kloester’s sales.

I knew from Wikipedia that money troubles were a theme of Heyer’s career but I hadn’t really taken on board that from the age of nineteen she was taking responsibility for her family’s finances. Her first advance went to her father and after his sudden death a few years later she became responsible for keeping her mother and two younger brothers, a responsibility that never seems to have come to an end. Later on she was the sole breadwinner in her own household whilst her husband re trained for the bar and this was before she was really earning big money. Life for Georgette seems to have been a very unromantic series of demands from the Inland Revenue and constant work to keep everything going – which is something most of us can relate to.

It also seems like she was somewhat let down by people who should have been taking care of her – publishers and accountants mostly, publishers who didn’t bother to read her work but just took the books and made money from them, and an accountant who royally messed up her finances.

I think too I now understand why so many critics have been hostile to Georgette. The first clue was her lack of a university education – Dorothy L. Sayers made much of hers and it didn’t do her any harm. Mostly though I think it was her sound sense of the commercial that denied her the recognition she latterly craved. It doesn’t seem to matter that a book is well written, funny, intelligent, or that thousands want to read it – it’s seemingly a lapse of taste to provide the public with what they want. Heyer’s reality was that she had to sell books; that she had a gift for writing best sellers isn’t something she should be despised for.

  I think that had she concentrated on more contemporary fiction, and been less prolific, Heyer would have been seen as a much more serious proposition – but where would have been the fun in that? Her books are the perfect vehicles for escape, her craftsmanship superlative, and I don’t think anyone has ever done what she did better.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


It’s bonfire night and seven years to the day since I got the keys for my flat – to celebrate I’m listening to (but sadly can’t see any) fireworks go off somewhere in the distance and feeling sorry for myself because my back aches – oh how it aches, seven years ago I was more resilient and better off... Ah the rewards of home ownership. One thing I wouldn’t swap though is having my own kitchen in which to make as much mess as I like and with no consideration of anybody else’s needs. It is the best thing about living alone, which truthfully I don’t much care for, but god knows I would hate to share a kitchen again.

My last really quite messy experiment was of a suitably celebratory nature for an anniversary – I have finally braved the mysteries of tempering and made my own chocolates (not chocolate, that was made by Green and Black’s and very nice it was too). This is something I’ve wanted to have a go at for years but it’s always looked quite difficult (or at least fiddly) and the gubbins to do a good job (chocolate thermometer, moulds, maybe a marble slab, a suitable brush, a scraper thing if you’re going to use a slab, dipping forks, and of course ingredients) well by the time you’ve collected them the smartest offering from Charbonnel et Walker or Rococo begin to look like real bargains. Or so I thought.
 ‘Miss Hope’s Chocolate Box’ suggested some handy shortcuts and after a long time procrastinating over the price of moulds and a thermometer online I found satisfactory but cheaper equipment in a kitchen shop. (I was delighted, and so were they – both items had been flying off the shelves). The end result is that I made the salted caramel sea shells I’ve been dreaming about since I first read the book. It was a bit fiddly, you have to work quickly and it’ll take a bit of practice to get the chocolate shells a uniform and satisfactory thickness but it turned out not to be too hard or to take as long as I thought so I plan to make lots more...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Five Books

This is Simon Stuck in a Books idea, I liked it last time he did it, I like it even more now because after all what appeals more to any reader than getting to nose around other’s books?  So without further ado here’s my list starting with:

 The Book I’m Currently Reading

Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer Biography of a best seller. This was also the last book I was given (by Elaine Random-Jottings – thank you very much Elaine) it’s great, a really interesting read for Heyer fans as well as shining a light on the economic reality for women looking to earn a living from writing in the mid twentieth century. These are the authors I feel most at home with – seeing the figures is illuminating.

The Last Book I finished
Georgette Heyer’s The Devil’s Cub. Inspired by Kloester’s book appearing and now my reading it I’ve been revisiting a couple of Heyer’s to see how they read to my more critical adult self – I find she’s still wonderful. There’s a real temptation to re read the lot which I’m only going to try and fight because I have such a huge pile of unread books to tackle.

The Next Book I Want To Read
There are actually two books at the top of the pile and I need to choose one before I go to work in an hour. Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet has been hanging around for a while and seems appropriate given the First World War subject matter. With armistice day coming up, and for the first time having a friend on active service – well it seems important to put some time aside to think about what Remembrance day is for. On the other hand and at the risk of seeming very shallow – just look at that new edition of Mitford's The Sun King, how can I wait to read that? Also it feels like a natural follow on to the Heyer’s...

The Last Book I Bought
Hawksmoor At Home was an amazon purchase, it turned up on Monday (at 7.30am and thank you post man for laughing at my dressing gown/ pyjama combo) inevitably there has been a purchase since I technically bought this one but I’m counting the Hawksmoor book. It’s beautiful and should really have stayed on my Christmas list but I lacked the self control. This isn’t the sort of cook book I normally buy but it illustrates a particular and very British movement in cooking which I’m currently a little bit fascinated by. There’s a recipe for marmalade brownies which sounds amazing and a whole lot of stuff about cocktails and drinking which is (ahem) useful research for work.

The Last Book I Was Given
Was as I have mentioned the Kloester biography, but not long before that Cardigan Girl Verity sent me Tea With Bea. If you buy a lot of cookbooks –which we both do- you will inevitably find some that either feel like a duplication of recipes you already have or which on closer inspection just don’t really reflect your own style of cooking. I think this is particularly true of baking books. Verity wasn’t sure about this one but it appeals very much to me. I haven’t used it yet because some of the cakes are on a fairly epic scale but I have friends coming to stay next weekend so the time is ripe.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lavender Ladies

Years ago I used to have a bit of a thing for White Lady cocktails (without the egg white – I can’t bring myself to do it somehow) and a much harder head when it came to drinking them – those days are mostly behind me now,  just recently though the gin has been calling. It may be because of all the Agatha Christie I’ve been watching where pre dinner drinks are de rigueur, or the books I’ve been reading where the same thing applies. It always sounds so nice when it’s theoretical and hangover free.

What really tipped the balance though was a wine friend telling me about a Lavender Lady – it’s a rare thing to find a cocktail name that’s genuinely amusing but this one did it for me. At the time we were vague about where the Lavender flavour came from but Bompas and Parr made have a recipe for something that calls for Lavender infused gin – no messing around with essential oils just flower heads steeped in gin for a couple of days – what could be easier.

The result is an exceptionally powerful and really quite delicious drink – the bits floating in this one are lavender flowers – a result of my underestimating the straining power of my cocktail shaker. Ingredients are 1 measure of lavender infused gin (take a jam jar of gin add a teaspoon of flowers leave to infuse for 24 hours) 1 measure of triple sec (Cointreau being about the best – though I would love to try this with Chase Marmalade Vodka because a) I love marmalade and b) it would have even more of a smoky old lady vibe to it) and 1 measure of lemon juice. Put masses of ice in a shaker, add the spirits etc, shake like mad, strain, pour, and drink.