Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year

I'm off to my (parents*) winter retreat for a few days (me, the Scottish one, my brother, my brother's rabbit, my father's dogs... and others) which I hope will be peaceful and idyllic - well there's nothing wrong with hoping. I have a suitcase full of Victorian novels and warm jumpers, a bottle of single malt waiting for me, and a chocolate reindeer for emergencies so think I have the basics covered. 

I hope that everyone reading this has something equally good to look forward to and that the New Year brings good things for all. 

*It's flats - we retreat to one small corner, but the picture has a pleasingly Mitford feel for someone who finished 'Christmas Pudding' on the bus home tonight

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Joy of Dictionaries

One day my friend the blonde will let me take pictures of her collection of dictionaries - I have never, even in a university library, seen so many or on so many different subjects. So far she's resisted my attempts to sneak in with a camera on the grounds that her house isn't tidy enough (tidier by far than mine though) but one day... My own collection of dictionaries and reference books is a small affair by any standards never mind hers but I still like to have books to hand.

True enough the internet is a wondrous and useful thing but sometimes it's hard to find what you want amongst all the other stuff on there, though more often my problem is that I only find what I want and not so much of the incidental stuff along the way (I know this isn't the usual problem - maybe it's my age). The great thing about something like 'The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations' is that I can browse in it for hours - or minutes as time allows. I spent a lot of Christmas and Boxing day flipping through my new copy and would keep it by my bed if I thought it wouldn't keep me awake for hours. It's the sheer variety of stuff in there (and the pretty blue and yellow ribbons - my old university colours which feels like a happy coincidence). I briefly entertained myself texting the blonde Goethe quotes in German which she understands, I don't though so when she replied in kind I came unstuck. I found some cracking stuff about sailing which I think I'll soon have cause to repeat, and swore yet again that I should actually read Dorothy Parker and not just her quotes.

It's not even as if I'm a crossword aficionado or need this sort of thing for essays or the like, I simply find myself really enjoying time in the company of a book like this. I look at it and it seems full of promise and possibility; sentences that could lead to entirely unexpected and new (to me) writers - because clearly I need more books in my life - oh yes, the dictionary is my favourite present of Christmas (excluding the half a kitchen aid which wasn't for my birthday).  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Company She Keeps - Mary McCarthy

It feels like an age since I've finished a book (I read of others managing to get through 160 + a year with a slight feeling of envy - 60 is doing well for me) but now that work has calmed down, my stress levels have fallen, and I no longer want to crawl into bed the moment I get home it's time to tackle my to be read pile.

I started 'The Company She Keeps' weeks back and was, until yesterday, in two minds about it. I didn't love 'The Group' when Virago reissued it a couple of years ago but liked it enough to pick up 'A Charmed Life' when I saw it second hand which I found a much more satisfying read. 'The Company She Keeps' was McCarthy's first book and feels semi autobiographical, each chapter is a self contained story and all of them have Meg Sargent somewhere in them. Initially she's an unattractive character; shallow, self absorbed, promiscuous, and a snob, but slowly and without McCarthy noticeably making Meg more sympathetic I found myself warming to her. 

I think it's because there are no real excuses for her behaviour that it starts to become acceptable - in the final chapter Meg's seeing a decidedly second rate psycho analyst who assures her that it's all due to a repressive upbringing - she seems unconvinced: it's to easy. I can't quite imagine how this book would have read when it was first published in 1942 but it's fair to say that Meg is a woman we've all met - the difference being that it's no longer normal to marry at 20 and not unusual to have the sort of complicated sex life that Meg engages in  which takes away some of the shock value.

The pay off for me came in the final chapter when Meg/McCarthy takes a good look at what bothers her - a failure to be happily middle class, or a decent socialist, along with the realisation that the accessories of her New York liberal lifestyle all covered in there "own patina of social anxiety" fill her with disgust. McCarthy has also answered a long held question for me, for years I've wondered why so many of the husbands in the  books I read are architects - Meg's second husband is an architect "the perfect compromise candidate, something halfway between a businessman and an artist". In her case it's an admission of failure to be one thing or the other.

My over all impression of McCarthy is that she could be a bitch, when she turns that on other people as she does in 'The Group' I find it mildly repellent, when she takes that same view of herself it's really effective and totally compelling. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

More New Books

Back home from my mother's (she does the best turkey ever - fact) and have had a peaceful boxing day playing with my new books and anticipating an evening eating too many mince pies whilst watching Poirot. Having got a whole pile of readable presents I still felt compelled to hit the Waterstone's sale today which I'm slightly torn about, I feel quite strongly that there are days when everything should close down and boxing day is one of them. It's not a religious thing, although religious festivals are as good an excuse as any, it's that I think life would be so much nicer if there were more days we could all spend with family and friends. I'm lucky in that I currently work for a company that does close on boxing day which is becoming increasingly rare in retail. Truthfully though we could all wait to shop for another twenty four hours in favour of a bit more time contemplating things more important than the pursuit of a bargain.

So yes, I came home and then I went shopping and managed to come home with Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet' (half price) 'Private Eye the First 50 Years' (half price) and 'Great Expectations' - probably won't watch it but do plan on reading it - it's long overdue that I try and have another crack at Dickens and I'm a little bit in love with the idea of Miss Havisham although I have no idea if the reality will match the myth. To make myself feel better about it I'm telling myself it was good to spend money locally and in supporting the high street - which it is.

I'm particularly pleased to have a new dictionary of quotations - the rather magnificent Oxford edition from my friend L, she gave me (at my request/hint both times) a dictionary of quotations for my 18th birthday so there's a neat symmetry about getting this one twenty years later. 'Let's Preserve It' is just a brilliant little book that I look forward to spending more time with, I'm also quite excited about getting to grips with 'River Cottage Veg Every Day!'. The remaining paperbacks are crying out for more investigation but look like an inspired set of choices so more of those in the future.

I hope that you all had as good a Christmas as I did with excellent company, a little bit to much to eat and drink, and presents that make you feel lucky and generally privileged in the friends you have (mawkish I know but it's the season for it).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas

I'm finally done with work (for the next three days anyway) and am scrubbed clean, with presents all wrapped, in a warm and fragrant if still untidy flat. All I have to think about now is what I'm going to read, what to drink, and what to wear (in that order) and I couldn't be happier - nothing is ever perfect but this is close so here's wishing anyone reading this a Merry Christmas and a wonderful break from the everyday nonsense of life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Books

Now that I can realistically count down the time left at work before things calm down (four and a half days, thirty nine hours, or a lot of minutes) I'm beginning to plan my holiday reading. This is a ritual that I love and another reason that I don't really think an e-reader is for me - eyeing up the possibilities, trying to predict my reading moods, balancing a wildcard choice along with something worthy and wordy, and finally remembering to follow the golden rule of no more books than knickers when you pack to go away - its not a bad way to unwind.

These beauties are a collection of review copies, birthday presents, and purchases, some of which will definitely come away with me. Nancy Mitford's 'Christmas Pudding' is an obvious choice, as is 'The G-String Murders'. 'The Whores Assylum' looks promising but isn't officially out until February so that might wait, and of course there may well be books for Christmas too... Also I also have shelves full of things I've meant to read for ages, I think a Trollope may be on the cards, and I wouldn't rule out a Walter Scott either - but then I'd like to read some more Wilkie Collins and now it's all getting a bit Victorian. I also have some Dorothy Whipple that needs reading, it's been a while since I've read any P.G. Wodehouse. I have a George Mackay Brown, about one hundred and fifty Virago books, plenty of Stella Gibbons, and who knows what else (is this the year for 'Moby Dick'?). The consideration and anticipation is almost as good as the actual reading. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas cooking (well it’s an excuse to use my Kitchen aid)

Today I have finished the candied oranges dipped in chocolate that have been in the making for the past week – chocolate stage which was messy but satisfying, made fudge, finally used the star/tree cutters I was given last year (mine are small tree’s but I’m pleased with the results, and also couldn’t imagine eating a biscuit as big as the biggest star in the set). We also tried what has now become the week before Christmas cake.

It’s a cake that my father (winner as you may remember of ‘Best Fruit Cake Baked By A Gentleman’ at the Walls agricultural show) can be proud of – he’s clearly passed on the fruit cake baking gene, he also reminded me that my mother makes a darned good cake as well which I guess is where the gentleman bit comes into the equation (she does too). Either way it tasted good and come the New Year I’m definitely getting ‘Short and Sweet’ I think Dan Lepard may be the way forward.

All this kitchen activity combined with a heavy week at work has meant not much reading but there is a book post coming soon...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Lives of the Novelists – John Sutherland

Yesterday was my birthday – I spent the day working which is something I’m going to try and avoid next year because the result has been vaguely depressing, it turns out that a lovely weekend doesn’t make up for nine hours of hard graft lugging heavy boxes around, a freezing wait for a bus that’s late (at my age getting in from work after 9pm feels too late), and finally home alone for a sandwich before bed. I can, and do, do that at least twice a week anyway, it didn’t make the day feel special.

What has made me feel special though is presents and I’ve had some lovely ones. Most intriguing is from my friend L who’s given me a pot of soil filled with mystery bulbs – it’ll be months before I know what’s in there but that isn’t going to stop me from looking everyday anyway. Another gratefully received gift (from my sister who received some pretty heavy hints) was John Sutherland’s ‘Lives of the Novelists’ – a history of fiction in 294 lives. I’ve not been able to resist it (and only partly because I’ve had my eye on it for what feels like an age) and have been dipping in and out whenever I’ve had the opportunity over the last 48 hours.

I’m not the biggest fan of biography but this book suits me perfectly because each writer is delineated with admirable brevity – on average two or three pages each – in which space Sutherland manages to pack in the salient facts along with a few more salacious/gossipy details; it’s more than enough to be going on with. So far I’ve been reading about authors I already know but look forward to being informed and possibly tempted by a whole lot that I don’t.

294 seems like a fairly arbitrary number (surely he could have found 300?) but then this is also an unashamedly personal view of literature – presumably the history of one man’s reading journey, which makes it all the more intriguing. I wanted it for reference, am already quite inspired by it, and wonder now where else it might take me and what else it might prove to be. Doubtless I’ll let you know.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Cake

I'm actually quite proud of this cake (although that may change when we actually try eating it, I mean it should be good seeing as I followed the recipe and all but you never know until you cut a slice do you) and am relieved it's turned out pretty enough to share, especially after the lack of faith both my mother and the scottish one displayed when I described what I wanted to do. They admit they were wrong now, though it's sadly not often that my 'artistic' vision works out the way I pictured it so they had some cause for doubt. This time though it's worked and because the chance to decorate it was the whole reason to bake the cake I feel as smug as a cat that's not only got the cream, but the sweet spot on a cushion by a fire.

It's fair to say that the cake itself is a little lumpy and uneven (rustic?) which might not have been as noticeable if I'd managed not to roll the marzipan quite so thin (but it leaves me with enough to bake into something else so that's okay). The ready roll icing was new to me as well and much softer than I expected so it's full of little dents and what not which are now artfully covered by ribbon. After that I spent quite some time looking for an appropriate picture of a stag (google stag and it's not just deer that you get) made a stencil, practised on a piece of paper (an example of forethought which is quite un-typical) and then proceeded to sprinkle edible glitter over the cake, myself, the work-surfaces, and the floor, which means soon it will be everywhere which is at least festive.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Humbug or Another long week at work.

Ahh, Christmas – a time of good will to all and such like, unless you’re shopping. I haven’t had much time to open a book this week partly because everything is now in full swing for the big day and even when I’m not actually working I’m mostly tending to the days cuts (two new ones because the cardboard boxes hate me) and bruises (a cracker across the back of my hand where I trapped it between a rolling cage and an immovable object – possibly another cage, possibly a wall, maybe a shelf, I was too busy swearing to notice which isn’t good because the same spot will inevitably get me again until I identify it to avoid.) After all that excitement all I really want to do is try and scrub off the dirt and sleep.

It has been a trying few days and I can’t help but feel that it’s in the public interest to share a few don’ts with you. Don’t for example ask your harassed wine merchant for a bottle of wine you think is called “Chateau de something”, adding that it may be French and probably red doesn’t actually narrow the field much. Accept that if you don’t actually know what you want you’re not in a position to ask for it, I can and will recommend something I think you might like but can’t promise that it’s the same thing you don’t know the name of.

Don’t keep asking the same question, the answer will inevitably remain the same. For example lady proffering a miniature bottle of Bailey’s “How big is this” me “it’s a miniature so 5ml’s”, “That’s quite small” “yes (not saying it but the clue’s in the name MINIATURE), “Have you got a bigger bottle?” “why yes, we have bottles and litres.” “Oh, do you have anything smaller?” “Just the miniatures.” “you see it’s for a present and I want something bigger than this but smaller than that.” “I’m sorry we only have these sizes.” picks up a bottle of something else “do you have anything in this size?” “Well we have that.” “Do you have Baileys in this size?” “No.” “But I want it in this size, are you sure you don’t have any?” “Yes, we only have the sizes I’ve shown you.” “But it’s for a present and this size would be just perfect.” “.....Can I help you with anything else at all madam?” In truth this conversation went on for a lot longer than you could believe possible and happens many times a day. I will eventually snap and say what I’m thinking and get sacked.

It’s not appropriate to say to a total stranger who’s putting bottles on a shelf that you like to see a woman on her knees. It’s really not appropriate to explain that you want German wine because it’s lower alcohol content means that you can drink a lot of it and still maintain you enthusiasm (the customer was more explicit) in the bedroom.

It’s all very well asking your wine seller to “Check out back” but out back today I had 16 cages of stock and a full cellar, each cage weighs about a third of a ton and at the moment each one is surrounded by a whole lot of other stuff. It’s not easy to find anything amongst that lot so come back later and stop bothering me be nice when you’re asking and don’t get impatient if you have to wait. We all have better things to do and whilst I’m on it “Can you show me your Chardonnay” is something that’ll take a while.

Mulled wine, Glühwein, and Glögg are essentially the same thing, we happen to sell mulled wine, if you don’t like the mulled wine we sell please consider making your own. It’s not hard and will be better than tearfully insisting that Glühwein is very different – I can’t actually do anything about it. It’s not ‘too much trouble’ to make bucks fizz. Adding fizzy wine to orange juice is unlikely to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Truthfully adding a sachet of pre mixed spices to wine isn't a big effort, and if you want a non alcoholic version adding the sachet to red grape juice isn’t a killer either.  

The answer to ‘Where is the £10 bottle of gin?” is Asda, I can’t remember what wine you might have bought from us sometime in the summer when it was on an offer, wanting something reduced because the label is slightly damaged AND YOU WANT IT FOR A PRESENT makes you sound cheap, I’m glad you’re not my friend. I look forward to Christmas being over – although before it is there will be a lot of harassed men who suddenly realise that it’s the 23rd of December and they’ve done nothing about it, and I will have said we had it until yesterday about a thousand times. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

Bought from the newly improved Waterstone's who are (joy of joys) experimenting with single book price cuts rather than multi-buys. I read 'Cold Comfort Farm' ago but don't think I really got it. I keep meaning to try again because it's so generally loved and I don't like feeling that I'm missing out but I also want to read some of the books it parodies in the hope that it'll give me more insight - but I'm not sure I can face the doom and gloom yet.

Because of all the above the Cold Comfort sequels have never appealed to me as much as other Stella Gibbons have, but it's that time of year and Christmas in the title swung it. Imagine my joy to discover that this is a collection of short stories and only the title one is set on the farm. They all started life in magazines like 'The Lady' and 'Good Housekeeping' which is a sure sign of quality. Perhaps in homage to the general ambience of Cold Comfort Farm a lot of them deal with unhappy marriages and unfulfilled women but I find that cheering at a time of year when so much of the imagery around me seems designed to point out that I don't have a perfect life (and after all how many people do) .

It turns out that Gibbons writes a cracking good short story - small but perfectly formed. Gibbons is very much of her time and quite happy to take easy shots (at bohemians versus sensible married people and the like) but she has the humour to carry it off. My favourite is 'Golden Vanity' where a slim legged grey eyed English beauty spends her time daydreaming over romantic novels, passing up the chance for real romance whilst she does so. The pay off it that her dark handsome hero author turns out to be a woman... I like to think that she had Georgette Heyer in mind.

I'm inclined to think that this is Stella Gibbons at her best (you can keep 'Cold Comfort Farm' - even if it's sacrilege to say it) or at least it's a concentrated dose of all that she does best and a nice showcase of her talents. There's a lot more I could try and say about this book but Nicholas Lezard (who is after all a professional) has already done it better in the weekend Guardian so instead of me paraphrasing him do have a look.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Preparations / Procrastinating

I had good intentions for today which involved Christmas card writing and some festive baking but got off to a bad start after an epic oversleep wiped out the morning and a big dose of apathy put paid to cards (tomorrow or maybe Tuesday I swear). On only a slight tangent I've been canvassing my friends about Christmas decorations and whether to bother. Once upon a time when I still lived at home we had a tradition of no decorations before my birthday (just over a week away), when I started living alone I made an effort for the first few years because I like decorations but recently it's seemed pointless. Ironically although I no longer have to work 60+ hour weeks over the festive period I feel like I'm at home less than ever and much as I love putting decorations up I hate taking them down. Everything seems so dismal without them and January doesn't need much help with being dismal, also with no one in to see them it's increasingly hard to find reasons to do it.
However the consensus seems to be that decorations are the way forward so I'm aiming for a compromise. My  Fair Isle bunting has gone up - it's not tinsel so it can stay up indefinitely as far as I'm concerned, and the stick tree my sisters boyfriend gentleman caller made has come out. (I drenched it in pine essential oil to make it smell festive but it mostly smells like disinfectant now so that wasn't one of my best ideas. Whisky might have been more appropriate - it's working for the cake.) More concessions to the season are on the way but need some consideration, chief amongst them being what to put on the tree. I've thought about meringues to look like dollops of snow which I think is a pretty idea but may look a bit silly in this case, biscuits or gingerbread are another option but I'm worried that it might end up looking somewhat like I knitted the whole thing out of yoghurt, and then there's the proper old fashioned sparkly but specifically Christmasy baubles which will have to come off. What to do? 

Ten books from the last twelve months.

Books of the year lists are a bit of a departure for me but I thought I’d give it a go, indeed I meant to do it for the first of December but didn’t get organised in time – which is why lists like this generally are a departure for me. However it’s the season to look back on things and having looked back at books it feels like it’s been useful – and slightly surprising. I’ve not perhaps read as much as I hoped I might this year but that’s par for the course (damn having to work for a living and its constant getting in the way of more entertaining things) but although there have been a lot of good books – this is after all the year that I finished Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, read my first Walter Scott, and worked through Mrs Oliphant’s Carlingford series – I don’t feel that it’s been a vintage year. It’s not a struggle to come up with ten books I’d happily recommend, anything I’ve written about I’ve been enthusiastic about, but it’s been quite hard to identify the ones that really stood out – the books which might make it to my fire shelf.
Somehow though I managed, and so in no particular order here they are – all read between December 1st 2010 and December 1st 2011. First up is Matthew Sweet’s ‘West End Front’ from a couple of weeks back. The more I think about it the more time I have for this book. It’s a lot of the dirtier side of war which we do well to remember, it’s also a lot of stories that deserve to be told, thoroughly entertaining, and at times desperately moving. All good.

Another recent read was Constance Maud’s ‘No Surrender’ from Persephone books. Not the best novel ever written but possibly a contender for the most passionately heartfelt. It has an enthusiasm for a cause that’s infectious. It’s also a book that makes you question how much things have changed, and how much has stayed the same. The answers aren’t entirely encouraging for anyone of a feminist persuasion and again these are things which should be thought about otherwise nothing will ever change for the better.

Mark Girouard’s ‘Enthusiasms’ also makes the list, partly because it’s a lovely thing in itself, partly because it’s entertaining, but mostly because it’s a showcase for the virtues of good scholarship – whatever they’re being applied to.

A.S Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’ was easily my most anticipated title of the year, it didn’t disappoint. I read it months ago but there are still bits that run through my head. I think Byatt is at her best when she writes short stories and novellas; she’s pretty bloody good when she writes epic doorstops as well but I find her shorter books perfectly polished jewels – or something like that anyway. She’s just very, very, good.

Preparation/anticipation for ‘Ragnarok’ featured Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘The Penguin Book Of Norse Myths’ which I approached in the manner of a chore. It wasn’t, and good intentions to read far more saga’s feature for next year.

 John O’Hara’s ‘A Rage to Live’ was a great big messy compelling wonderful book – I love vintage for reprinting him (and so many others). He’s a slight departure from my normal middle brow women – rather less tea and a nice sit down with a scone, more dirty martinis and a few too many of them.   

Sticking with sleazy was Mae West’s ‘The Constant Sinner’ – not just an eye opener. I have more Mae West to read which is something to look forward to. She’s everything I hoped in the way of one liners and wisecracks but underneath that there’s a veracity that makes the heroine Babe Gordon stick with you.

I’m a big fan of Victorian literature and if I’d read Lady Audley this year she would be a shoe in, but I didn’t and I also really love Mrs Oliphant so I’m going with ‘Phoebe Junior’ the last of the Carlingford chronicles. I think it stands well alone, has a cracking good plot, and rips of Trollope with style. That’s virtually the perfect Victorian novel in my world.

The last two books on my list are both a little bit Noir. Vera Caspary’s ‘Bedelia’ which had a twist I didn’t see coming and which turned something run of the mill into something extraordinary. Dorothy B. Hughes ‘In a Lonely Place’ was even darker – and nothing like the film which is good, but an entirely different story. Dorothy B. Hughes was a Persephone find and since then I’ve come across a few of her other titles. Persephone’s ‘The Expendable Man’ is so far the best; ‘In A Lonely Place’ is a very close second.

Now I need to go and get a head start on next years list.  

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.