Sunday, June 30, 2013


This isn't so much a celebration of stationary, though who doesn't love a nice notebook, as another dispatch from my kitchen. This pile of notebooks is the result of a quick look round my sitting room and inside my handbag, I know I have as many again somewhere about the place. I have more notebooks than I actually need, I know this because quite a few of them are as yet unsullied by any hint of pencil or ink, but the ones I use - well they're what I would want to rescue from fire or flood. 

Notebooks are great; one of those perfect things - my partner laughs at me for still using a paper diary and organiser but I find it the easiest and most convenient way of keeping track of things, especially when I want to look back for something rather than forward. I'm also extremely attached to my kitchen notebook, so much so that I often take it on holiday with me. 

I've had kitchen notebooks for more than 20 years but this unappealing looking object has proved to be the best of the lot. I've had it for about 6 years now after I decided on a fresh start and binned my old notebook.    I have a lot of cookbooks, not food writer numbers (I read somewhere that Nigella has over 4000, and having seen some of Diana Henry's collection think she must be in the same ball park, I by comparison probably have about 150) but enough to easily forget where I found something good, I also have every intention of getting more (impossible to imagine I'll never want another cookbook). The main purpose of this notebook is to keep a record of recipes that I know work and which I like enough to make again but not every week (there are a lot of cakes in it).

I've always been a fan of following a recipe rather than winging it - I know I can make something that tastes all right when I throw a few things together but I also know that whatever it is will end up tasting much like all the other things I throw together because it'll inevitably use the same ingredients - all the staple things I always have in the kitchen. I don't have all those cookbooks because I want to eat a minor variation of the same thing every night. It helps to because I have a rotten memory for quantities and temperatures, it's also a useful thing to take away to holiday cottages, and it doesn't matter in the least how battered it gets as it wasn't pretty to start with.

I like that it's alphabetical  even if I can't always precisely remember if I would have put something like a rhubarb muffin under rhubarb or muffin, I like that I can scribble all over the thing adding notes and improvements, and the way that I can chart how my understanding of food and flavour is developing over time. Like all the best books this one has become an old friend, I only wish I hadn't written so much in it with a fountain pen - not waterproof. 

Friday, June 28, 2013


I've been talking about whisky at Oxford words blog, it's one of my favourite things for a whole host of reasons so do go and have a look... Meanwhile here are a couple of whisky themed pictures to build the mood.

Bruichladdich enjoying some typical Scottish weather

Barrels - where most of the good stuff happens

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chicken & Eggs - Mark Diacono

After a very hectic few weeks I'm finally sitting in a reasonably tidy flat, awake, and happy in the knowledge that absolutely nothing needs washing. I've even put away all the books that came out of my bedroom when I redecorated, and yes, that's taken me five weeks to do - anyway it feels good to be relatively organised, so good that more organisation might be called for.

All of which sort of brings me round to 'Chicken & Eggs', I might have mentioned (a lot of times) that I'm a big fan of the River Cottage handbooks so despite living in a second floor city centre flat a book that dealt with chicken keeping was a must (although there's much more to it than that). As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall points out in his introduction to the book the way we eat chicken and the way we treat chickens makes for a neat illustration of the current debates around food. When I was a child we kept chickens, we had a happy habitat for them - a large garden free of anything they could damage and short on neighbours for them to annoy - my sister and I enjoyed feeding them and loved collecting eggs. We also had sheep so Sunday roasts were generally chicken or lamb, but it was a Sunday thing only. This week I had an egg on Monday, Tuesday was chicken for lunch, more chicken for dinner. There was chicken on Wednesday, and chicken again tonight, it's more than probable that chicken will feature in some form on Friday and Saturday too because it's hard to avoid in the work canteen. This week is a little unusual because I'm emptying out my freezer (next week it'll mostly be what I think are pheasants) but it's not that unusual which when I stop and think about it is shocking.

Chicken is so ubiquitous, and so cheap, that a moments reflection suggests that the welfare standards for some of the meat I'm eating can't be as high as I would like. With eggs it's less problematical, both the egg itself (with codes that the book handily explains) and the boxes are clearly labelled, any supermarket will offer a free range organic option and the price difference is not so huge that it's a deal breaker even on my limited budget. Meat is a different matter - not the reassuringly expensive free range bird I might buy to roast, but the 'basics' or 'essentials' pack of wings that are so nice cooked in loads of lemon and basil, or any of the many boxes of salad, or the sandwiches, or the take-away; where does it all come from? Now I have actually spent some time thinking about it, it's definitely something to be better organised about.

Back to 'Chicken & Eggs' and I'll start with a quick list of all the things I really like about this book. The first has to be that as well as being about the chickens you might keep it's also about the eggs and meat that you'll still buy which makes it feel altogether relevant even if you can't (or don't want to) keep chickens, the recipe section obviously works regardless of where the ingredients come from. I love the practical advice about plucking, gutting, boning, and generally preparing the birds - pheasants and partridges are much cheaper to buy in feather during game season (although plucking a bird is the kitchen job I'm most squeamish about and have so far avoided) it's helpful to have a clear guide with pictures to help tackle these things. It's also a beautiful book to look at - I've never seen an obviously dead chicken look as good as it does here Mark Diacono isn't just a good writer (and he is a good writer; clear, informative, interesting, and witty) he's a gifted photographer. Finally, and as with his earlier titles for the series (allotments and fruit) there is a lot of very practical advice about getting set up and how to work out what you want.

I know there are plenty of books about chicken keeping out there and as I haven't had cause to read them I don't know if this one is the best or not, however I don't think a non chicken keeper could do better than this, and I do think every (non vegetarian) kitchen probably needs a copy - partly for the excellent recipes, partly because reading it (and who knew that reading about chicken ailments could be so interesting?) raised questions for me about how and what I eat which are important. Finally, as a book it's just a really nice object - perfect size, lovely feel, lots of information, and great pictures.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Grail Tree - Jonathan Gash

Late '80's into the early 90's Sunday evening television meant 'Lovejoy' in our house. Mum and I were both fans and I don't think my sister hated it, so it's possible that part of my affection is based on it being the one hour of the week when two teenage girls and a harassed working mother didn't argue... Thanks to freeview 'Lovejoy' has been repeated on various obscure channels almost continuously over the last five years; I watch it whenever I can find it, the early series especially are, I think, really very good, the later series become more formulaic but are still worth a watch.

I've been curious about the books for a long time, so was pleased to find a cheap copy in a discount book shop a few weeks ago, and despite being forewarned that book and filmed version were quite different was still in just the right frame of mind to give 'The Grail Tree' a go. I assume that this one is a reasonable example of the series as a whole - it made for interesting reading. In many ways it was a better book than I expected; decent plot, lots of stuff about antiques, and a very exciting finale all kept me turning the pages.

On the downside there is a really unappealing misogynistic streak running through this book. The action opens with Lovejoy being disturbed during an illicit tryst in a marquee, the promise of an antique is more tempting than somebody else's wife, she attempts to slap him so he hits her hard enough to send her flying into a table. It's not attractive, or necessary, or the only time it happens. This Lovejoy also gets into a lot of nasty fights, and has a not altogether feasible line in threats to senior policemen. 

'The Grail Tree' was written in 1979, I'm to young to remember quite how bad the bad old days were regarding attitudes to women and gay men but this book was offensive enough for me to doubt I'll pick up another one  - although I notice Gash is still writing, or was until recently. Amazon is prompting me to purchase one written in 2010 (Faces in the Pool) and I did think for a moment that it might be interesting to see how his attitudes have developed over the intervening 30 years, but as it features a pole dancer I'm fairly sure I don't need to bother. 

None of this changes how I feel about the TV series, I can now add to the nostalgia and the general enjoyment the realisation that this is one of the few dramatizations I've seen that's better than the source material. I don't regret reading the book, offensive bits aside it was worth the time, but it's not one I'd recommend either. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tin Toys Trilogy - Ursula Holden

I found 'Tin Toys' whilst browsing in my much missed old branch of Waterstones, (closed for 2 weeks now
and I can't bring myself to walk past it - which is inconvenient as it's basically on my way home) picked it up for the Virago apple on the spine and bought it on the strength of the Molly Keane quote on the cover. Molly Keane thought it "extraordinarily good in its penetration into a child's happiness and unhappiness" I think she was likely referring to a single part of the trilogy, but it's an accurate description of all 3 books.

'Tin Toys' is the first of the trilogy followed by 'Unicorn Sisters', and 'A Bubble Garden', they originally came out through the 1980's. As a single volume this only just tips over 400 pages so it makes sense to publish and read them all together but, and I've found this before reading trilogy's in this way, it does feel like you've spent a long time with the characters - I sometimes wonder if reading over a week what took the author almost five years to work out in stages is quite the best way to approach a set of books.

The action follows three young sisters and is told from a child's point of view - but these are by no means children's books; there is a lot of death and sex, and the sex is inevitably quite disturbing given that it's being witnessed by children. Set just before, during, and just after the war each book is told from the point of view of a different sister, first up is Ula, the youngest at 7 years, she has 2 older sisters; Bonnie and Tor who inhabit have graduated from nursery to schoolroom, they are entirely self sufficient with each other and their elderly governess for company. Ula's place as baby of the family has been upset by the death of her father and the arrival of a baby brother, but the family disruptions haven't stopped there. The children's mother has left them behind in the country and escaped to London, the household consists of a distant relation who acts as a nanny the the baby and Ula, Maggie the Irish kitchen maid, and the older girls governess who doesn't live in.

For Ula it's a lonely existence as only Maggie has time for her and more tragedy isn't far behind. Baby Bruno falls ill and dies fragmenting the family even further. Ula is sent with Maggie back to Ireland but finds herself in a nightmarish slum world, unwelcome and unable to understand the currents of emotion surrounding her. Miraculously it seems like she's going to be rescued and then tragedy strikes again. 'Tin Toys' is narrated by an older Ula recalling the events, right at the end she speculates that some of it might be exaggeration - it seems feasible that it would be and is perhaps the most unsettling thing about a very unsettling book.

'Unicorn Sisters' is told from Bonnie's point of view and makes it clear that Ula's recollections are more or less accurate. In an effort to be rid of responsibilities that she never wanted the girl's mother has sent them to a boarding school. She's so anxious to be rid of them that they find themselves abandoned without any clear idea of where she will be, they're not kitted out properly, and are generally ill equipped in every way for the life ahead of them. The school is a shambles, more so when it's invaded by a group of evacuees who bring a disturbing element of adult sexuality with them. 

In 'A Bubble Garden' the sisters are back in Ireland, now with another brother - 7 year old Boris, they are reaching adulthood but there is a clear sense that more tragedy is inevitable - and it comes. These books are dark but brilliant. As Keane says Holden is tremendously good at getting to grips with children's unhappiness, and how they can also be happy in the most unpromising circumstances. She also creates a monstrous mother in 'Babs' who is part of a fine tradition of terrible mothers - Molly Keane rather specialises in them and Noel Streatfeild does a fine example in 'Saplings' as does Marghanita Laski in 'To Bed With Grand Music'. Holden has a certain amount of empathy for Babs who never really wanted children, and is so utterly selfish she should obviously never have had them. The empathy comes with an acknowledgement that Babs' husbands have wanted children and that she's expected to provide them. 

There are enough examples of mothers more interested in sex than children in twentieth century fiction to make me believe they must have been a recognisable type which I think raises some interesting questions. They aren't kindly treated in the fiction I've read, Holden writing in the 1980's about the 1940's is as close as I've seen to any point of sympathy - she makes the point that children can be irksome, dull, often unlovable, and once you've married it's rather expected that you have them.  

Lisa Allardice's introduction says that Holden is delighted that her books are back in print, I'm delighted to have discovered her. This is an often disturbing read but it's also brilliant. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Inspired  by a continued enjoyment of Lindsey Bareham's 'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' I thought it
would be fun to occasionally share some of the things from my kitchen that make it my kitchen. It seems logical to start with a breakfast tool (not least because as I write this I've only just finished mine).

My spurtle is a relatively recently acquired utensil - my father got it for me back in October from an amazing hardware shop in Jedburgh so it's a genuinely Scottish artefact by grace of a scant 10 miles and it was really meant as a souvenir rather than something useful, I think I used it once and then it sat neglected for the next 3 months . At Christmas I got a copy of Nigel Slater's  'The Kitchen Diaries II', and in it he mentions porridge - he uses salt which is probably blindingly obvious to everyone else, but I spent a year cooking in a nursery where you're specifically forbidden from adding salt to anything which it left it's mark on me, I was also bought up to understand that you had your porridge salt or sweet but not both and that was that. Nigel also said he'd been using his spurtle the wrong way round, but didn't say which way round - intrigued I took another look at mine and tried to work out which way was up. A couple of breakfasts later I was hooked on the spurtle and the porridge - the salt really does bring out a nuttiness in the oats and the spurtle gets right into the sides of the pan which stops it sticking. It's also a nice thing to hold in your hand.

Maple syrup and cinnamon is my preferred porridge topping (just in case anyone was considering inviting me to stay) and though there's something faintly depressing about still eating such a wintry breakfast in June the joy of using a tool so perfectly adapted for it's job more than makes up for it (also porridge with maple syrup and cinnamon is deliciously perfect at banishing any disappointment that yet again it's quite a cold grey day). I like the ritual sprinkling of a couple of handfuls of oats into a pan, purists wouldn't approve but I use the largish rolled kind which don't need soaking overnight (though if anybody can tell me where I can find steel cut pinhead oatmeal I'd be really pleased to know), adding a pinch of salt and milk then stirring for 5 minutes or so until it's ready. Cornflakes don't allow you those few minutes of contemplation to finish waking up in and settle what needs to be done in the day. It might be newish still, but I wouldn't be without that spurtle now, a spoon just wouldn't cut it any more. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Excellent Women - Barbara Pym

I had plans for this week - mostly involving rather more reading and blogging about Barbara Pym but a series of minor frustrations and discomforts - everything ranging from the under wire on my bra snapping at a most inopportune moment and stabbing me hours before I could get home to dispose of the dratted thing to my email account being hacked - long term it's the email which has caused more pain. I cannot regain access to it despite spending what turned into hours of trying, which was followed by more hours of setting up a new account and changing passwords on everything else, eventually I'll have to track down some lost addresses as well and there were a few outstanding things for work. Otherwise I'm hoping that's an end to it and it is at least nice to no longer open my inbox to find nothing but spam and mailing list bumph.

Meanwhile I have been slowly working my way through 'Excellent Women' again, which was the first Pym I ever read. Although I still have a few to read for the first time (I have, but haven't read, 'Quartet in Autumn' and 'Civil to Strangers', don't have, and haven't read 'The Sweet Dove Died' or 'A Few Green Leaves') I was really in the mood for 1950's Pym where if she's not at her best (though I suspect she is) I'm certainly most comfortable with her. 

The first thing that struck me about 'Excellent Women' was that it's much better than I remembered, I mean I remember it being good, but second time around it felt much more than that. I see a lot of my own life in this book; I live alone, am increasingly set in my ways (as is my partner, if we ever do live together it will have to be in a very big house, or a house with a very big shed) and know my share of excellent women. There is also Mildred's preoccupation with food, something I particularly associate with Pym's writing.  'Excellent Women' mentions a lunch she throws together of lettuce dressed with olive oil, some Camembert, and fresh bread which I assume is at least partly a reference to Elizabeth David's writing as well as the influence of her own time in Naples, she also has a Chinese cookbook on her shelf amongst the religious texts one might expect from a vicars daughter. 

I doubt that I picked up on the food references as much first time round, but they point to the romantic element of Mildred's character, suggesting a passion that's well disguised behind sensible fawn skirts, brown hats, and  the obligatory cups of tea. It also makes me question how reliable a narrator she is when it comes to her own affairs, especially her relationship with Everard Bone...

I have noticed that a few people reviewing Pym books this week have mentioned how they like rather than love her (this includes me) and I wonder if this is partly because plot plays a secondary role to character. I've undoubtedly enjoyed 'Excellent Women' more this time because knowing the plot, such as it is, has left me free to enjoy the detail and appreciate the sly wit behind her observations. Mildred's life, though it has it's pleasures, clearly lacks - there are humiliating references to her spinsterhood and yet she's also clear eyed about the downside of marriage. 

When I say I think a book has aged well or stood the test of time, rather than being of it's time, I mean that what I notice are the things which haven't changed, this is why the best of Pym has stood the test of time. When I read about Mildred the 60 years since 'Excellent Women' was first published fall away, the odd detail may indicate the books vintage but in essence everything, and everybody, is recognisable so thank you for Pym reading week and the nudge to re-assess her work.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Miss Pym's birthday felt like a good excuse for baking a cake, so reader - I did (and the title makes it clear what sort). Something I've noticed in Pym novels is a definite pre-occupation with food; meals being planned, tea, lunch, dinner, and supper all being consumed, and cakes frequently considered. It's one of the things I like about Pym because it's very much how I think about day to day life - what needs to be bought and how it can be use to make the most of money and time. What will do for me, what can be shared, what small treats and luxuries will be stowed away... And like Mildred in 'Excellent Women' it's not unusual to find cookbooks by my bed. I'm honestly not obsessed by food, but I like cooking and breakfast is generally

the first thing I think about in the morning. 

Deciding on a suitable cake to mark a Barbara Pym birthday, and also the 60th anniversary of the Queens coronation is just the sort of thing I like to do over Sunday breakfast, I opted for a pineapple upside down cake because I had a tin of pineapple which has been begging to be used for a while, thought it had a suitably retro feel (I don't know, but imagine it would have been pleasingly exotic post rationing, also it reminds me of school dinners in a good way), and just as significant it meant I could use one of my favourite pans.

Lindsey Bareham's 'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' really made me think about how kitchen toys shape how I cook and this is a toy I love. It's a Le Creuset tarte tatin pan which the Scottish one gave me (he knew
I'd love it) for Christmas, I have a respectable collection of the stuff now (big enough to make me dread the day I might move out of this flat and will have to lug it all downstairs) with a few favourite bits - this pan is near the top of the list of favourites. It just works really well, everything turns out of it beautifully and it's fun to use - one of those things that you don't imagine needing until you have one.

The cake itself is okay, it's a Nigella recipe, and for Nigella doesn't have a huge amount of butter or sugar, I got rid of the cherries and used a soft brown sugar with vanilla instead. It's ridiculously light and fluffy which means you want to eat a pile of it. and it does have a nice old fashioned feel to it. What it isn't is the golden slab of rich loveliness that I remember from school, though that would be fixed by using more of everything and pouring custard over it. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Barbara Pym's Birthday

Today would have been Barbara Pym's 100th birthday and there's something particularly satisfying about the idea that it's being so widely celebrated. In Pym's own lifetime it looked inevitable that she would be forgotten when in the early 1960's her novels were rejected by publishers on the grounds they were to old fashioned, rediscovery came in 1977 and then periodically ever since. My personal moment of discovery came in 2008 when Virago republished 'Excellent Women' as part of a celebratory hard back series - a few people had said she was good and the book was attractively displayed in front of me, it was enough. Virago have since reprinted most of her books which I've dutifully read and enjoyed, and now I'm reading some of them again.

Truthfully Pym is an author I like (a lot) rather than love - though real, deep, true love may well come as I get to know her work better - she is however the sort of author I love - a woman writing about the life of ordinary single women with humour and intelligence. In a society that arguably holds the women Pym writes about in particularly low esteem it's heartening to read these books which is one reason I wanted to join in with this weeks celebrations (and she really is a very good writer).

My local church, St Mary De Castro, is somewhere I've wanted to get inside of for a while, eventually it made sense (even to my atheist self) to go along to a service. I'd already gathered it was quite a high church, I now know it's actually Anglo-Catholic (very Pym), we first went a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I'd go back today with a friend. It was a good choice, it's a friendly as well as ancient church, beautiful inside and very welcoming (they are also open at various times in the week, inevitably when I'm at work, but if you're ever in Leicester it's well worth a  visit). Church has never been a big part of my life, growing up in Scotland I didn't find the local churches particularly interesting (very dour), as an adult my interest has been purely architectural  - I've been missing out.

The building comes alive when it's being used rather than looked at, faith aside there's something very comforting about the ritual of church - it made me tidy up last night in a way that I might not ordinarily have bothered to do after a long week, it also got me out of bed and dressed this morning hours before I might have - both are good things and I'll be going back. It's also giving me a better understanding of Pym's churchy women.

After that it was scones and tea in town as part of Heavenali's Barbara Pym virtual tea party (the idea being that lots of people celebrate her birthday with tea and cake, which is definitely a winning idea). I've also baked a cake...

There are lots of Pym related things happening as part of the reading week, do have a look here (on the off chance you didn't already know about it) and now I think the only thing left to do is enjoy a gin and tonic (as I'm sure Miss Pym would have done). 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Barbara Pym reading week is here and the first thing I need to do is finish my