Thursday, November 29, 2012


My friend C and I went to London today, ostensibly to see the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queens Gallery - it's very good - and something we particularly wanted to see to honour the memory of the history teacher who made the time and subject come alive. Of course there was also some time for shopping so there was a quick visit to Persephone books. C and I also have birthdays in the next couple of weeks so I bought myself a present - I'm so excited about these - the books should be the reasonably light reading I want at the moment and the bowl and jug combine two things I'm quite keen on (Persephone books and Emma Bridgewater). A very definite extravagance but I'm very happy with them - now all I need to do is find them a home.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ten books from the last twelve months

Last year was the first time I did this (it's quite likely I was procrastinating over organising a Christmas card list then too), it was interesting to look back and assess what books really stood out - looking at that list again tonight I wonder how many would have made the cut pitted against this years books. There were plenty of good books last year but it was quite hard work to pick ten that really stood out. This year couldn't be more different, the difficulty has been in narrowing it down to only ten - whatever else has been less than satisfactory on the last twelve months the books have been tremendous.

So once again in no particular order here are my favourites - the ones I've actually buttonholed strangers in bookshops over and tried to persuade them to buy, or bought to press on friends with utterly evangelical fervour, and if you're not already acquainted with these books you really should be...

John Sutherland's Lives Of The Novelists was a birthday present from my sister, it's great for dipping in and out of as well as for reference. I don't read much biography generally being more interested in the writing than the writer but sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. What I love about this book is that you have the basics of a career, a few key dates, a recommendation for the must read text of each author, and quite a lot of gossipy detail - everything I want in short. 

Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' was my first successful foray into modernism, I liked it so much that it really shocked me to find that not everybody is a mad keen fan. Personally the conversational nature of the book, the narrator's chronic unreliability, and the way it bends itself to any number of interpretations were all irresistible. I'm really curious to see what I make of this book when I get round to a re-read, I have a feeling that I'll hardly recognise it and that's an exciting thought too. This has also been the year that I overcame my prejudices regarding Dickens and read 'Great Expectations' I have no idea how it compares to the rest of his oeuvre but this just totally hooked me in - what more can I say?

Shirley Conran's 'Lace' did much the same sort of thing, hands up the writing can be pretty dire, but it all bounces along in the most encouraging way and when you strip away the trash there's plenty of substance. It's not everyone who could deal with child exploitation, alcoholism, and rape in the way Conran does. There's an energy about this book that really brings the eighties back to life as well as a passionate manifesto for female friendship and saying when something just isn't good enough. 

Somewhere between 'Great Expectations' and 'Lace' lies Elizabeth Jenkins 'Harriet' (probably not entirely the company she's entirely used to keeping). There's a gothic quality to 'Harriet' that puts me in mind of 'Great Expectations' as well as a burning sense of social injustice which ties all three books together. 'Harriet' is an extraordinary book - despite knowing better I tend to think of Persephone as being a source of cosy books - this one really isn't cosy. It's shocking and provocative; almost a horror story this is a subtle examination of how ordinary enough people can find themselves doing terrible things without ever really noticing they've crossed a line until far to late. 

My love affair with Trollope continues, I'm by no means blind to his faults but I still adore him. 'Can You Forgive Her' comes with it's frustrations but it's also glorious. The heroine can't make up her mind about who to marry which leads her into all sorts of bother; honestly she's quite annoying, so happily that's not the only story line. Where Trollope excels is in creating thoroughly human and nuanced characters, whilst I'm reading his books I really feel like I'm living in his world - I just think he's wonderful. 

Back in the spring I replaced my disintegrating copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' which lead me to discover Little Toller books, from there I found first Frank Fraser Darling's 'Island Years Island Farm which felt like a book I'd been looking for for something like thirty years (ever since I grew out of Enid Blyton's island books) and then onto so many others. Islands draw me in, this account of family life in tents and huts speaks of adventure without ignoring the more mundane aspects of life on a deserted island. Gavin Maxwell's Harpoon at a Venture probably shouldn't be on this list. This is a favourite from way back, it's also out of print at the moment, but it's worth tracking down - it was Maxwell's first book and to me is probably his best. There is a rawness about that it that creates a real bond between reader and writer. It could have been all boys own adventure but I think it's a far more significant book than that. It touches on what life was like for the many ex service men who struggled with peace, and for boys who perhaps weren't quite ready to grow up. It's also a brilliant, visceral, read.

  'Findings' was a serendipitous discovery off the back of my island reading, reading it was an unexpectedly profound experience; It's one of those books that quietly encourages you to look at the world around you again and find new patterns in it. There's nothing flashy about it, it's simply a beautifully crafted piece of art that should on no account be overlooked.

Finally, and this might not come as a surprise, there is Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke, in a vintage year for every sort of book that's crossed my threshold this is the One, something really special. I've mentioned it a few times but will say again; it's given me a huge amount of satisfaction already. The kitchen shelves are groaning under the weight of preserved goods waiting to go out as Christmas presents, soon the post man will be groaning under the weight of copies of 'Salt Sugar Smoke' destined to be yet more Christmas presents. Promise me you'll look at it...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremount - Elizabeth Taylor

So far I've done nothing at all to celebrate Elizabeth Taylor's centenary - something that I've been mildly ashamed of because I have a pile of her books unread on my Virago shelf. The original green spined covers are particularly attractive, and the back blurbs sound so good that I've managed to collect any number of them without ever actually finishing one of her books - worse still there have been a few false starts. 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremount' was one of a few half read volumes in the collection and after Verity's conversation it seemed imperative to finish it.

Until I discovered some of her short stories a few years back I'd rather given up on Taylor, but I loved those stories - they finally gave me an insight into why people love Taylor so much. This time round I read Mrs Palfrey in a day, for me I rather think she needs to be approached like this - at something of a gallop. The writing is lovely, she's funny and perceptive with a deft touch for the tragic, but there was still the fear that when I put the book down it just wouldn't occur to me to pick it up again. Maybe this is because in this case Mrs Palfrey's age made it unlikely that she had much to look forward to but death.

Mrs Palfrey is an elderly widow looking for somewhere to spend her last days after realising life with her daughter and son in law would be impossible. She settles on a cheapish hotel off the Cromwell road - because there's so much going on in London, and there's the proximity of her grandson Desmond who she was close to in his childhood. Widowhood in a dull hotel where the residential guests are none to welcome in the eyes of the management is destined to hold few charms for Mrs Palfrey - or her fellow inmates. What the hotel does represent is freedom from the indignity of old peoples homes and hospitals and for that it's cherished.

Desmond proves to be a disappointment - one of the many that the elderly have to bear. He couldn't be less interested in his grandmother, but Mrs Palfrey finds somebody else to love - a young writer called Ludo who in his own way is just as in need of somebody to be loved by in a grandmotherly sort of way. Like all love though there is a possessive element to it, especially on Mrs Palfrey's part, but then she has rather less in her life to look forward to - nothing really but the maintenance of appearances, so having something to hold onto matters rather more to her.

Taylor's vision of old age is quite bleak - Mrs Palfrey and her friends are treated shamefully, it's bad enough that their families don't want them, but worse that the services they pay so much for are so grudgingly given - the impatience that the hotel treats it's guests with is a stark reminder of how easy it is to exploit and mistreat the vulnerable. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Food Of Morocco – Paula Wolfert

Of all the notable things about this book the first thing that struck me when I opened it was the smell. It’s almost certainly auto suggestion courtesy of the crocus on the cover but every time I open it I think I can smell saffron. 

The second thing is that this quite clearly the culmination of a life times work, if there was any doubt the introduction confirms it, Paula Wolfert first visited Morocco 50 years ago as a 19 year old, where she found the land that Edith Wharton and Paul Bowles had described, it was obviously a life changing trip. Wolfert has written a number of books about Mediterranean food and cooking generally, a few about Moroccan food specifically but nothing a think quite as authoritative as this one. Her love for the country leaps off the page as does the knowledge gained from 7 years living there and many more visiting.

After that you just get lost in the general lusciousness of it all for a while. There are wonderful pictures, and although I'm not always a fan of lavishly illustrated cook books I'm making an exception here. Pictures that show you what the food will look like or diagrams that demonstrate something useful are always fine anyway and because this book isn't just about food, but about the country at large, all the shots of bits and pieces feel relevant as well as looking good.

In previous books Wolfert has been quite easy going about what cooking pots you use and suggested alternatives for some of the harder to acquire ingredients, but this is something of a manifesto and she's quite hard line about authenticity. I don't as yet own a tagine - I've thought about it a couple of times, they're inexpensive enough to be tempting, but do I have the space for another quite large pot in my kitchen? (No I do not.) Theoretically I love the idea of being very authentic when it comes to cooking from different cultures, realistically I've never been to Morocco and have no idea how close an approximation what I make at home is to what I might find there, and until I actually do know I'm not very worried about it. What I appreciate here is that if I was so minded I have all the instructions I need to get it absolutely right - I take the insistence on authenticity as tacit permission to fudge it a bit sometimes.   

There are something like 200 recipes here, all but two of them are traditional, and they have been collected from people that Wolfert has met - this book is a true reflection of the Morocco that Wolfert knows and knew. For a change my favourite thing about it isn't a recipe but the little snippets about culture and folklore that she slips in - the section on Ras-El-Hanout is a particular treat. Otherwise the layout for each recipe is admirable in it's clarity - again something that's rarer than you might hope.

This is a wonderful book - as chance would have it possibly the perfect Christmas present - it's as informative as it is inspiring and I whole heartedly agree with the Claudia Roden quote on the cover when she says 'There is no book on the food of Morocco as good as this one'. I don't imagine there ever could be.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who Knew?

There is a Costa coffee upstairs in my local Waterstones, I'm fond of it for many reasons; it's where the Scottish one and I had our first date (he invited me for tea and buns which sounded entirely innocent and then swept me off my feet), it's dependably quiet when everywhere else in town is busy - possibly because there's no lift, it's only a ten minute walk from my flat, and of course there are books so it's an obvious place for Sunday hot chocolates and my hot tip for a peaceful bolt hole if you ever find yourself in Leicester.

Despite being flat broke I found myself in there yesterday having a coffee and a nice browse round with a friend when I came across this... Attracted by the name (E.F. Benson, not Night Terrors) I went to have a closer look, could this possibly be the same E.F. Benson of Mapp and Lucia? Well yes it could. I had no idea that he wrote ghost stories but it seems he did, there are over 50 of them here with terrifying titles like 'The Horror Horn', 'Spinach', 'The Bath Chair' and 'The Physical Mallards' (okay some of them are more terrifying than that but they don't amuse me as much).

This is a Wordsworth classic so it's only £2.99 which is remarkably cheap for any book, never mind one that's more than 700 pages, it has a couple of really enthusiastic reviews on amazon, and I couldn't go home without it. The cover is frankly awful but if that's the trade off for cheap I'm happy to take it.

This is exactly the kind of find that makes me love bookshops - and you really have to be in a shop to have that moment of serendipity. My new treasure might turn out to be a bit rubbish, though I doubt that it will - and either way it'll be interesting to read Benson in this form, but nothing will take away that happy moment of discovery.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Phineas Finn - Anthony Trollope

I will confess know that whilst I loved the first Palliser novel ('Can You Forgive Her') and raced through it, I found 'Phineas Finn' a bit more of a slog. It wasn't any lack of enjoyment on my part, or pace on Trollope's (not always the case) but somehow it turned into a considerable investment of time. In some ways this is a good thing; I really was immersed in Phineas's world by the time I was done and can hardly wait to find the time to tackle the next instalments in the Palliser series, 'Phineas Redux' in-particular. The down side is trying to find that time, not easy for me this side of Christmas.

Phineas himself is a charming, handsome, Irish man (exactly the sort my mother warned me about) freshly qualified as a barrister at the start of the book. He's persuaded his parents to let him study in London and support him whilst he learns his trade, Mr Finn senior is a prosperous country doctor back in Ireland who wants his son in Dublin but as Phineas is the only boy he seems unable to deny him his way whatever sacrifices that may call for back home. Phineas is also one of fortunes favourites, and the first hero of his type I've encountered in Trollope. He has an interest in politics and at the tender age of 25 finds himself with a seat in parliament thanks to a handy rotten borough and the needs of friends in high places. 

Phineas knows he can't really afford a parliamentary career either from a financial point of view or for the damage it's likely to do his future prospects as a barrister - he's starting from the top where the only way is likely to be down. However his natural gifts (Irish good looks and pleasing manners) continue to make him friends - especially amongst the ladies. Phineas is basically a good egg - he's honourable, modest, hard working, and on the whole unspoiled by the many successes that come his way. Indeed politicians are on the whole portrayed as a pretty decent bunch here - not something I'm currently used to. 

More interesting to me are the female characters. I've yet to really work out what Trollope's position is regarding feminism, or even women generally, 'Phineas Finn' has some remarkable ladies at it's centre, as well as a couple altogether less interesting. There is Lady Laura Standish, later Kennedy, and her friend Violet Effingham. Phineas falls in love first with lady Laura, but she's given all her money to her brother and  has her own political ambitions - although these rise no higher than to be a hostess and friend to great men. Despite having feelings for Finn she chooses to marry money and influence in the form of Mr Kennedy. The marriage is a failure, Kennedy is an impossible husband, not because he's violent or undependable, but because he's totally implacable and an absolute domestic tyrant. 

After Lady Laura Phineas transfers his affections to her wealthy friend Violet, not that Violet's money is the main attraction, just that our hero has to admit it would be useful. Violet loves Laura's brother but isn't at all sure she wants to marry him. She's rich enough to remain single and independent if she wishes it, though that would come at quite a social cost. Lord Chiltern is a violent man, and not very dependable. Trollope seems to have every sympathy with Violets reluctance to marry him, just as he's sympathetic to Laura's plight. I think the suggestion is that her punishment far exceeds any of her mistakes. Both Laura and Violet are far more satisfactory than Alice and Kate in 'Can You Forgive Her' and it's impossible not to compare them. 

Madame Max Goesler is another a peach. A wealthy widow with a shady past, she's young enough to be yet another romantic interest for Phineas, pretty enough too, though Trollope makes it clear how much of her beauty is due to art rather than nature. Madame Max really is independent, she's also ambitious, intelligent, and a definite heroine when she might just as easily have been a villain. These three women are far more than ornaments and love interests, their relative positions raise all sorts of interesting questions about what a woman might expect in a world where marriage was the only respectable career option. More interesting still is the admission that that might not be an entirely satisfactory or just state of affairs.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Nolympics - Nicholas Lezard

Now that the Olympics have been and gone it finally feels safe to admit I'm not a fan. I'm generally bored by watching sport, don't enjoy organised fun, and would quite happily have seen all the hoopla and expense removed to Paris. It was nice that Great Britain won so many medals (as well as being a pleasant surprise) but otherwise my indifference was rivalled only by my partners - who managed to totally ignore the whole thing.

There are a few things that bug me about the Olympics - the first and foremost of these being how the merchandising and sponsorship tie ups work. Secondly it turns out that I really don't like cycling very much - I know not everybody agrees but I find it the dullest thing imaginable to watch on television - but then, as I've already said, most sports baffle me a bit as a spectator.

I was offered 'The Nolympics - One man's struggle against sporting hysteria' by an (I assume) nice man from from a PR firm and wasn't to bothered until I casually mentioned to a couple of friends - their response was outrage, mine was to say yes please. I assumed I would be getting a 100 plus pages of bile - which I wouldn't at all of minded - but it's not really that at all.

On the back blurb it claims to be the only Olympic souvenir you'll ever need, it's certainly the only one I've got, and credit where it's due I plan to keep it. I also thought it might be a bit of a novelty but found instead that it was a reasonably thoughtful and balanced account of a few weeks of relative madness. The Nolympics   is basically a blow by blow account of the action as it unfolds - roughly 1500 words a day - from a man who   would probably sooner avoid it than take part. The deadline for this project was pretty tight so there's a rough around the edges feel which I like but mostly it comes back to balance. Yes there were, and are, lots of things about the Olympics which are great, a lot of people had a brilliant time, but it's not all good, and it wasn't the only thing going on this summer. 

Wherever you stand on sport, and this is about more than sport - there's some politics as well -  this is an amusing and thought provoking little book which is well worth a look.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A time of lists

November more than any other month encourages me to make lists, most of them are Christmas related and depressing as I almost never complete them - you'd think I'd learn. Still there's something about a good list that makes me feel I've achieved something just by writing it, so whilst I should be thinking about presents for other people here's my short list of books I'd really like if I didn't already have them.

Salt Sugar Smoke - Diana Henry This book is quite possibly my favourite of the year, it's already given me hours of fun and is destined to be given to quite a few people (you don't know who you are yet but it's on its way). I've been pricing up stove top hot smokers and find they're not to expensive so it may only be a matter of time before I'm making my own hot smoked salmon. The jams have been brilliant, I have a few liquors maturing, and there are plenty more projects to go. If I didn't already have this book it would be top of my wish list.

The Palliser Box Set - Anthony Trollope I have all of the Palliser novels (I'm almost finished with Phineas Finn) in the lovely Oxford classic editions anyway but almost wish I didn't when I saw this. Reading the Barchester chronicles was a revelation, as well as a whole new level for my obsession with all things Victorian. The Pallisers are a slightly different breed of beasts. The politics are, so far, making for slightly more complex moral dilemmas, there seems to be more going on and so less repetition, and perhaps it's just all a little bit more soap opera. Especially now that I'm acquainted with the characters, looking at the pile of Pallisers still to be read gives me warm feelings of anticipation and security - so many good things to look forward to or fall back on. 

Island Years Island Farm - Frank Fraser Darling I loved this book when I read it early this year, so much so that I went straight out and bought four copies as presents for my nearest and dearest - and can still think of a couple more people I'd like to give it to. Six months or so down the line it's not just the pleasure I got from reading Island Years Island Farm it's all the other books it lead me to, and back to. When you have a bit of a book habit reading is more often than not a hop from one new book to the next. Something that leads you to pull old favourites of the shelf as well as exploring new paths is a real gift.
Short and Sweet - Dan Lepard I've just made my Christmas cake (I hope it isn't over-cooked, it took somewhat longer than advertised to cook and the top is a little crunchy looking) same recipe as last year and yet another bake from Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet. I've had my moments with this one - volcanic cakes determined to escape the all to modest bounds of the prescribed tin, cakes unwilling to cook in the allotted time, and a penchant for nutmeg I don't entirely share but despite this it's the book I keep going back to despite initial reservations. 

Arabella Boxer's Book Of English Food This is another book I was in two minds about before I got my hands on it. It is however a thing of beauty to look at and fascinating to read. It ties up a few of my interests; mostly food, and the inter-war years, but indirectly that touches on class too and being a basically domestic book women feature more than somewhat albeit as the power in the kitchen. It's just a delight. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11th

I have written about Leicester's war memorial before - it's aligned so that the sun will rise through it on November 11th - something I've wanted to see for the last five years but which the weather has never allowed. Even, or perhaps particularly, when it's blowing a gale and lashing with rain the war memorial is a moving place to find yourself at sunrise on a November morning, this one sits in on the edge of a large park next to Leicester university with a view down across the city and at 7 am everything conspires to make you contemplate the sacrifice it represents and your own mortality.

Today was a perfect sunrise, cold and frosty with a clear sky - it really was very beautiful. There was one other girl there waiting for the same thing we were, and a few dog walkers who didn't stop to look. I'm not sure if I'm grateful that we had that moment almost to ourselves or sorry that it wasn't more widely shared. I did think it a shame that the BBC vans coming to set up for the coming parade had arrived 20 minutes to late to see what we did. 

Lyn at I Prefer Reading has posted a Wilfred Owen poem today - Futility - that is particularly apt to go with a sunrise, but there were other things that came to mind up there this morning whilst watching a couple of students stagger back home which were altogether more hopeful, and that's the power of the place - that it's both sombre and celebratory.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

100 Persephone Books

Persephone books have reached the magic hundred (I personally own 46 if anyone is curious) which seems like something to celebrate more especially since it looks like there will be more to come. A year or two back there was talk that they might stop at a hundred titles and although it's a nice round number, and there might be a sort of sense in that, it would be such a shame to have no more Persephone books to look forward to. I'm already particularly excited by news that they're publishing Elizabeth de Waal's 'The Exiles Return' as book 102. Elizabeth's story doesn't get much of an airing in Edmund de Waal's 'Hare With Amber Eyes' but there's a sense that it's worth hearing so I expect this book to be one of next years highlights. 

I hope to call into the Persephone shop later this month to pick up a copy of 'Patience' and possibly a few other titles (well it would be nice to have a round 50 titles...) I'm also coveting the Emma Bridgewater Jug and Bowl that commemorate the occasion and as it'll be almost my birthday by then perhaps I'll feel like I can be that extravagent. Who knows, maybe I'll even take them some 'Persephone Jam' (would that be to weird a thing to do?) because I do feel that some sort of thank you beyond spending money is due.

Along with quite a few other bloggers I got a surprise copy of 'The Persephone Book Of Short Stories' through the post as their thank you for my (our) enthusiasm over the years (it's precisely the sort of thing one daydreams about happening). I'm a big fan of short stories and this is a nice collection. Some are already familiar to me, like Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', some others from the Persephone Biannually, but I haven't read many of them and am looking forward to working my way through the collection.

Persephone books are the sort of thing where you most definitely remember your first time. I discovered them in 2004, I must have read about them somewhere and they sounded like just the thing for some reviews I was writing for a local magazine. I called them and instead of the one book I was interested in I got sent 3, they also recommended an online book group I might like. I did. 

There are no shortage of publishers specialising in reprints and rescuing lost classics these days but 8 years ago there were rather fewer, Persephone Books looked very different to anything else around and still feels like more of a lifestyle choice than most books do. There is the shop for a start - a pilgrimage point for the devoted, the Biannually helps with the club atmosphere, as do all the enthusiastic online readers - not even a love of Virago books has led to so many real life friendships. There is also the very classy merchandise (Emma Bridgewater, those lovely diaries...) always strictly limited and very desirable. Over all though I think it's Nicola Beauman herself that makes Persephone so special. These books feel like an extension of her personality, you simply can't imagine anything she wasn't absolutely passionate about getting through the net. I might not share that passion for every single book but seeing those grey covers is as good a recommendation as any I know. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A life in bottles

My sister and I shared a house for a while when we were in our early twenties, she's still there and when I visited her at the weekend I realised she still has my collection of (empty) champagne bottles.

The kitchen had a lot of shelves, something I miss, but we didn't have enough things to fill them with at the time so we thought we'd have ten green bottles. Ten turned into - well I can count twenty six here and I know in the end we didn't keep all of the bottles by a long way.

The first thing that struck me seeing them all again was sheer wonder that I'd ever had that much money to spend on champagne swiftly followed by the depressing realisation that prices have increased entirely disproportionately with my income. Not so very long ago some of those bottles could be bought for around £25, they'd cost closer to £75 now which I imagine puts them entirely out of reach for most of us, something I can only consider a shame.

These bottles roughly chart my twenties - a time when I lived in shared, rented, houses and had a job that gave me access to excellent wine, a generous discount to allow me to buy it, and equally enthusiastic friends to drink it with. Now that I live alone with a mortgage and most my friends have small children those days seem far distant but the bottles remain to prove they existed and remind me of the people I drank them with more than anything else.

There are a decades worth of birthdays here; the oldest bottle is one that dad gave me for my 21st birthday, the last of a case he bought when I was born, and 30 years old by the time I drank it (with my friend Nicola and a very handsome Dutch exchange student). Old champagne has a deep golden colour and a honeyed sort of flavour. It's complex, subtle, and altogether wonderful. It may have been at that moment that the dye was cast and a career in wine became inevitable.

My sister could tell you a story about her experience drinking Taittinger's Comte De Champagne but I'd probably better not repeat it. There are bottles which recall travels with a tour guide friend through various duty free outlets, a Krug and Dom Perignon that my mother and I spent an increasingly hilarious Sunday afternoon drinking just because we could, and a whole lot that chart a wine education. I wish I could do it all over again!

Monday, November 5, 2012

A brighter prospect

Oh dear, I meant this post to go out on Saturday but I'm still miserable with my cold (and if it sounds like man flu than it probably is, but I've been at work all day being extremely patient and so reserve the right for a bit of a whinge now). Sunday was devoted to James Bond and a family gathering but here I am, back home, in my pyjama's, considering another hot toddy and ready to blog. 

A goodly portion of my book pile has come courtesy of Prospect Books, one of them particularly (Messy Cook) I've had for months without ever seeming to find the time to have a proper look at it so I thought the best thing might be a quick run through of these four titles prior to a better look later.

Michael Raffael's 'Messy Cook' is a book with recipes that wants to be read. It has short stories, experiences, a bit of philosophy, and some instructions - in short there's a whole lifetime's accumulated knowledge, the proper appreciation of which will take some time. I need to find that time somewhere, but until I do - this book looks great, absolutely perfect for anyone interested in cooking and food.

Caroline Conran's 'Sud de France - The food and cooking of the Languedoc' is a slightly more traditional cookbook in that it seems to be slightly more focused on recipes than philosophy. I know a lot of people who would love this book, but not being a francophile it might have been a bit of a hard sell for me until I read the magic words cuisine du terroir. Terroir is a concept that I not only believe in but get quite excited by. The idea that you can taste geography - and culture - is quite seductive, and is the basis for much of my love of cookbooks, so once again I'm looking forward to spending more time with this book.

Peter Brears 'Cooking and Dining in Medieval England' deserves to be a best seller as well as winner of the Andre Simon food book of the year award (2009). You can taste history in food as well, and never more so than at Christmas when all those dried fruits, nuts, and spices hark back to at least the middle ages and all sorts of culinary explorations. (I really love mince pies.) When I first got this book I started flicking through it until I finally put it down at something like 2 am. Everything is in here; what was eaten, how it was eaten, where it was eaten, or made - everything, right down to the lengths of tablecloths and how they went on the tables and it's all really interesting (because honestly, it might not have been). Interestingly Brears has reconstructed the recipes using contemporary ingredients so cooking from this book should be quite easy.

Last but not least I also got a copy of Dorothy Hartley's 'Lost World'. Hartley's best known book is 'Food in England' a complete guide to the food that makes us who we are. It hasn't been out of print since it was first published in 1954 and is familiar to me from many, many, bookshelves (though somewhat inexplicably not my own). Lucy Worsley is presenting a programme about Dorothy Hartley on BBC4 at 9pm Tuesday (6th November) which should be good. meanwhile 'Lost World' is a collection of her journalism written between 1933 and 1936 and covers a range of rural matters from a time when farming and country life were changing fast. It's a beautiful book. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Back to the books

Back from my travels with the beginnings of a stinking cold as a souvenir, an unexpected bill for over £200 as a welcome home gift from the dastardly service company, and a very busy day at work - it's all making me wish I hadn't come back. On the up side I've been reunited with my library, the Scottish one, and the blonde and also I have a spurtle (a stick for stirring porridge).

I was away for less than a week but in that time it's turned from Autumn to Winter, I've got a much warmer quilt on my bed, the hot water bottles have come out of retirement, and I'm making lists of things to do before work goes so crazy I can't think. When I say I'm making lists it would be more accurate to say constructing precarious piles of things to be dealt with. There are several collections of paperwork that probably ought to be dealt with in a timely fashion, a whole lot of things destined to be presents which should be hidden, and a big pile of books that I've acquired over the last few weeks.

Some of them have just appeared on my doorstep looking hopeful and suggesting I might like to take them out of the cold and give them a good home (I did), others have had letters of introduction and been welcomed accordingly, and some were invited. Anticipated or not if they're in these pictures they will be written about before long (I hope) and with that laudable aim in mind I'm off to bed with a book, my cold, and if I can be bothered, a hot chocolate. Welcome back.