Thursday, February 27, 2014

Trollope teaser

Reading Zola reminded me that it's a while since I've read any Trollope so I'm currently working my way through 'Phineas Redux', 'Phineas Finn' wasn't my favourite Trollope read and after the high of 'The Eustace Diamonds' I've been procrastinating a bit over finishing the Palliser series. This is also partly because even when he's good (and when he's good he's very good) Trollope can be quite hard work. The books are long, often repetitive, and full of details about hunting and in this case parliament. If I didn't find it interesting I wouldn't be reading the book in the first place, the humour is often in the details, and generally it's all part of the charm but it imposes a slower reading pace than I'm used to. In short it's taken me a week to read the first hundred pages because it's taken forever to wade through the early parliamentary stuff and I've found it impossible to dip in and out and have it make sense. The upside is that after a hundred pages it's all started happening, there are at least 4 plots on the go, murder the blurb mentions hasn't even happened yet, and somehow I managed to get through 80 pages over lunch.

I also found this quote which shows that some things really don't change ''Morals! Morals! We shall be able to say that we've done our best to promote domestic virtue and secure forgiveness for an erring wife. You've no notion, Finn, in your mind of what will soon be the hextent of the duties, privileges, and hinfluences of the daily press...''

Also, and I'm tempted to look into this but a bit worried about what I might find - when I googled images for 'Phineas Redux' a lot of stills from Xena Warrior Princess came up. That's odd isn't it?

Monday, February 24, 2014

A little bit more about The Fortune of the Rougons

So much is going on in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' that it needs at least a couple of posts, significant portions of the book are spent in explaining the origins of the Rougon-Macquart family which tends towards
the gossipy and scandalous, they're not a very likeable bunch but that makes for fun reading.

The rest of the book, the bit that deals with that one December week in 1851 is different. It starts and ends in what's left of a graveyard, a place where the earth has been gorged with corpses until it will hold no more, over time it's been abandoned, the bones dug up and carried away in a tumbril, and the whole lot turned into a sort of common ground for gypsies and a wood yard. It was on the first page with that description of a corpse gorged patch of land covered in a monstrous growth of weeds and pear trees that no housewife will have the fruit from that I fell in love with the book. I like a good strong visual image to hold onto and between them Zola and Nelson excel at providing them, for me there's a distinctly Pre Raphaelite feel to these scenes (they bring to mind Millais 'Ophelia' or something like Arthur Hughes 'April Love'). Silvere and Miette have been meeting in a corner of the wood yard by an old grave - it's a clear precursor of their fate.

They are 17 and 13 respectively and innocently in love, the emphasis is very much on their innocence, for two years they've talked and kissed on the cheek, Silvere has been the one bright spot in Miette's otherwise pretty grim existence, in turn his feelings for her are distinctly chivalrous. Her father is a convicted murderer and Plassans is happy to visit the sins of the father on the child. Silvere dreams of winning respect for Miette and is deeply disturbed by any hint of sexuality creeping into their relationship. His other great love is for the Republic, that too is a pure love and one that provides a stark contrast to his uncle Rougons support for the Bonapartist cause or his uncle Macquart's brand of republicanism.

Silvere and Miette's relationship is almost all conducted in open countryside - as enclosed as it gets is between the wood stacks and the wall of the old graveyard, and again this is a contrast to the Rougon Macquart scheming which takes place mostly behind closed doors. The descriptions of the Provençal countryside are wonderfully evocative and again had me searching for paintings to match them (I tried looking for French ones, but for now everything is going through a Pre-Raphaelite filter) and curiously I found myself paying more attention than I might normally have done to these bits because of a background awareness of Nelson's translation.

Silvere's two loves become one when Miette dons a red cape and takes up the red flag of the republic (which finally put me in mind of Delacroix and just a little of David's 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps) but again all this red isn't a great omen for the future. Eventually Miette ends up dead in Silvere's arms wrapped in her cape and flag having just become aware of what their dreams have cost them in the way of love and life. It could be tedious - there's a lot of symbolism and regretted virginity, but it's not, instead it's beautiful and heartbreaking as is Silvere's eventual death.

I have no idea what the rest of the cycle holds for me, and don't even know much about what Zola was trying to do with his writing yet - I've a lot of reading to do around these books as well as of them to really appreciate what's going on, but as an introduction this has been such an inspiring read.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Fortune of the Rougons - Emile Zola

My Zola project has begun and enthusiasm levels are high. The edition I read was the Oxford World's Classics translation by Brian Nelson and it's excellent. I still find the whole concept of translated fiction a little bit troublesome, certainly to the extent that it stayed on my mind, but not enough to be a real distraction although there were moments when I found myself wondering why Nelson had chosen a particular word - kids instead of children is a specific example. A couple of minutes research show that 'kid' was in common usage in this sense by the 1840's in English at any rate, I had thought it would have been later which is why it stood out from the text for me, it also made the scene it appeared in more shocking, a little jolt that shook me out of my reading rhythm long enough to be just slightly uncomfortable and to heighten awareness of what was going on in the plot - which I think explains why he made that choice.

My fascination with the process of translation comes from my complete dependence on the translator to have any sort of access to the story, my language skills can just about get me through a wine label in French but not much further. It's a love of history, and more specifically the history of art, which initially prodded me in the direction of nineteenth century literature, the books and paintings taken together give each other an extra depth and context. Because of my lack of skill with languages my studies veered towards British art and classics of English literature, otherwise I might have started reading Zola 20 odd years ago when I first found him on a recommended reading list (I love the way books will wait until your ready for them).

The only time I've ever been to France we only got as far as Paris, this was about when as I should first have been reading Zola, the overwhelming impression was how much the bits of the country I saw from the back of a car looked like England, and Paris itself felt Parisian rather than French in the same way that I never think of London as particularly English. The France that Zola shows us in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' is distinctly foreign to me, set as it is far further south than I've ever been and that in itself was unexpectedly exciting. It's also distinctly different to anything else I've read from the time, though a very helpful girl in Waterstones suggested that I might want to read some Gissing alongside the pile of Zola's I bought from her which seems like a good idea.

A lot happens in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' in the space of a week, and a lot more family history is covered at the same time which made it occasionally confusing (this edition comes with a handy family tree which I regularly referred to) but also very fast paced and very effective as a teaser for the rest of the series. The setting is the fictional Provencal town of Plassans, a sleepy but reasonably prosperous town which is home to Adelaide Fouque. She is the daughter of a prosperous market gardener and the unfortunate possessor of a nervous condition which may or may not be insanity. When her father dies she marries the hired help - a peasant named Rougon, it's a union that scandalises the town and leaves her with a son before Rougon himself also dies at which point she starts and affair with a smuggler by the name of Macquart with whom she has two illegitimate children which further scandalises the town. When Pierre Rougon grows up he promptly swindles his mother and two siblings out of her family money and marries an ambitious woman named Felicite. 'The Fortune of the Rougons' deals mostly with Adelaide and Felicite's children and the various traits they've inherited from their parents. Basically low peasant cunning, a disposition towards alcoholism and nervous disorders, and greed.

The best of the lot is the idealistic young Silvere and his love Miette, Silvere is a committed republican - his fervour for the cause borders on obsession, but he's also a kind and gentle young man. He and Miette head off with a republican uprising full of hope for the future - it ends in a way that's both cruel and beautiful. Meanwhile after 30 years of disappointment Silvere's uncle Pierre Rougon (by now in his 60's) has been positioning himself to take advantage of the Bonapartist coup (it's 1851) which after various unsavoury machinations he manages to do and that leaves everything set up for the rest of the cycle.

I have about nine volumes now so my next decision is what to read next. The second book in the series seems hard to get hold of unless as part of an ebook bundle that has all 20 parts in it and that I doubt I would actually read particularly soon. The scene setting done in this volume makes me feel like I could pretty much jump in anywhere, even more so because it seems so many of these books work as stand alone novels as well so it seems likely that I'll settle on whichever title calls the loudest to be read next.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

You don't notice a gender bias in newspaper reviews if you don't read newspapers reviews.

The list of things that pass me by is a long one, it has after all taken me until the middle of February to see something suggesting that 2014 should be the year of reading women (and also writers of color... presumably if you combine the two you're doing extra well) and of redressing the gender bias in newspaper reviews. It was Sunday's episode of Radio 4's Open Book that alerted me to this whole debate - they were concentrating particularly on the gender bias of reviews (if you care to follow @sohowgenderedis on twitter you can get regular updates on the ratio of male to female writers reviewed in The Guardian). Open Book had a male journalist who had decided to read only female writers for 3 months (but found so many good books he went to 4) and Rachel Cooke who has a book to push and seemed mildly outraged that everyone who had reviewed it in the press had been female and that she herself was generally only paid to review books by other women. I expect it's already clear that I found it all a bit patronising.

Statistics make it clear enough that more books written by men are reviewed in the mainstream press and that more of those reviews are written by men. Efforts to redress that balance can hardly harm the careers of women writers generally, but statistics also show that more women buy books, and unless they're mostly for presents I guess that means reading them too - nobody was discussing sales figures of male v female writers which might have been interesting, nor did they look further than the broadsheets and the London Review of Books. I hadn't noticed the gender bias, probably because I seldom read the weekend papers these days (or the London Review of Books).

When times are hard newspapers are an easy expense to cut, so I cut them, now when I do look the weekend supplements are increasingly out of touch with any lifestyle I recognise and review sections which are only likely to cover 20 to 30 books don't feel like much of a loss. To be fair my reading tastes veer towards the classics and older fiction which are unlikely to pick up many column inches regardless of gender but this debate is still 20 years to late.

I find most of my book recommendations on blogs, if good reads didn't crash my poor old laptop I'd find more there, or on library thing, or via conversations on twitter, all of those recommendations come from people whose opinion I trust and respect. I know their tastes overlap enough with mine that if they love something I should at the least investigate it. With very little trouble I can search out dozens of different recommendations a day never mind a week and I have no trouble at all in finding women writing about women, or for that matter men writing about female authors (men moreover who don't sound as if they think they're doing anything remarkable when they read books written by women).

Yes, it's depressing that women are under represented in review sections, but I doubt I'm alone in finding those same sections increasingly irrelevant. A better gender balance isn't going to make me spend money on newspapers that I could be spending on books, and I, like many women, am spending plenty of money on books (maybe men need the extra encouragement of that bias in their favour?). It's fantastic to celebrate women writers but something about this debate feels off to me, isn't it better to celebrate books that we're passionate about, to shout about them and push them through any channel we find, rather than to count and keep score over who's reviewing what? Is a review really more relevant because somebody's been paid to write it?  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chocolate, lots of chocolate, and even more cream

Valentines weekend has mostly been about food - a very unromantic bout of marmalade making, further proof that I'm inclined to over boil a haggis thus bursting it (proof I could have done without) and the happy realisation that I can poach an egg (I don't much like them so had never tried before but by some happy chance I didn't over cook it and it stayed nice and neat). There was also a chocolate pudding/cake which I'm prepared to be quite enthusiastic about.

My family are coming for dinner tomorrow and basically lots of chocolate with even more cream is the pudding that should please most of us, it will undoubtedly give my father indigestion but it's what he wanted so it's what he's going to get (specifically he wanted the pudding, he's just going to have to put up with the indigestion). The cake in question is Fiona Cairns 'Chocolate love cake' though as I don't have a suitable heart shaped tin mine is just a chocolate cake. I made one for Friday night half thinking it would do for Monday as well but in the end have had a second go partly to improve on my first attempt but mostly because there wasn't enough left to go round. 

This isn't so much a cake as it is a huge chocolate truffle sitting on some sponge, it needs to be made the day before you want it but otherwise it's beautifully simple. You make a syrup from 25g of golden castor sugar and 25mls of water bought to a gentle boil and simmered for a couple of minutes, add 50 mls of liqueur or brandy (for my second attempt I'm using frangelico and I'm also going to throw some hazelnut praline on top of it) and set aside for a moment. For the sponge base Fiona says you can use a ready made flan case because it only needs a thin layer, and I'm not going to argue, they're about 99p which is both far cheaper and much less trouble than making a cake specially. Cut the sponge base to fit into a 20cm cake tin (it needs to have a removable base) and then brush the syrup over it until it's all soaked in. Meanwhile melt 220g of good quality dark chocolate (in a bowl over a pan of hot water) and whip 450ml of double cream until it's just beginning to thicken. She really means it when she says just beginning to thicken, first time round I over whipped the cream so the texture was slightly wrong in the finished article - still delicious but not quite right. When the chocolate is just melted and still hot, slowly pour it over the cream whipping it all the time as you go. As soon as it's incorporated pour it over the sponge (even second time round that was more a case of spooning and smoothing than actual pouring) then cover in clingfilm and stick in the fridge until it's time to serve. I like everything about this cake.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Curing and Smoking - Steven Lamb

I love the River Cottage handbooks, every time I write about them I find myself enthusing about the same things - they're lovely to handle, look great, are funny and engaging as well as informative, and generally speaking are as useful as any set of books could possibly be. Book number 13 deals with curing and smoking, it's been my bedtime reading for the past few nights and is the reason I've spent the best part of an hour researching salt on the internet this afternoon. I had no idea there was so much to know about salt.

As someone who lives in a city centre flat deep in the Midlands there are titles in this series which are of limited use to me on a day to day basis - the ones about fishing, sea shore foraging, and chickens don't get quite as much use as I'd like - but at least I have enough garden access through D to have found the allotment and fruit tree volumes more than just inspiring. It's the flat dwelling part of my lifestyle which will hold me back from really exploring the world of smoking and curing. I have nowhere to hang sausages to age them, and although I'm still playing with the idea of buying a stove top hot smoker I suspect that it'll just be something that gathers dust. My father and stepmother however have the space, equipment, and expertise to do all these things (my stepmother's pickled herring is amazing, she does one cure with Christmassy spices which is particularly memorable, it has nothing to do with this book - just thought I'd mention it) so perhaps I can experiment a bit more with the smoking element when I'm next up there.

Meanwhile there are still projects (anything that takes more than a few hours to cook is surely a project) that even I can have a go at. There's a recipe for salt beef which looks especially good, theoretically I could make sauerkraut but despite it being a really good probiotic food I've never really taken to it. What I really want to have a go at though is dry cured streaky bacon. It looks like it can basically be done in the fridge, takes about 10 days to have something ready to fry, and seems like a skill it would be good to have. The required pork belly is easily, and reasonably cheaply, available from local butchers so if I somehow make a mess of it at least I won't have spent a fortune in the process. What I feel I can make from this book though is only part of it's charm for me. I like to know how food is put together, there's a world of cured meat products in here which had hitherto passed me by which means all sorts of things to seek out and try even if I never do get the chance to make them.

'Curing and Smoking' also feels slightly different to the other River cottage handbooks - this is the first one that explicitly deals with the possibility that you might want to sell what you're producing with a short but helpful section on commercial considerations. This is a subject dear to my heart, I would love to see more small producers working on a local basis, I want to buy things from people who really understand what they're selling, who know their product inside out, and who care about them because basically I consider it to be a far more sustainable model. Paying a bit more to support small, quality, producers is future proofing.
That section on commercial considerations is only a couple of pages long but in some way it changes the tone of the whole series - the others have essentially been about hobbies and activities (which is no criticism) but 'Curing and Smoking' has the potential to be something more than a hobby or a weekend activity. I'm hopeful that at some point a book about cheese making will be forthcoming - something else I've always wanted to have a go at but won't be able to do in a flat but meanwhile this is an excellent addition to a brilliant series.    

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Griddle Pan

As I may have mentioned from time to time my love of Le Creuset knows few bounds, it's slightly limited by a lack of space and the eye watering cost of buying this stuff on a whim but neither of those considerations has stopped me accumulating approximately a hundredweight of the stuff.

Apologies, this really is an awful picture
My Le Creuset collection is a mix of passed down bits, things I've got in sales, and bits from the outlet shop so none of it's cost me an absolute fortune and I love using it so much that it's had a huge influence on what and how I cook. This is the 3rd griddle pan I've had, all have been Le Creuset (the earlier two have been adopted into loving homes) but this one is by far the best. It came from an outlet shop and it was a piece of luck finding it as I've never seen it for sale anywhere else (which doesn't mean much). I like it because it fits comfortably over the large ring on my hob which makes it efficient to use unlike the rather prettier blue one rectangular one I had before and which didn't heat properly at either end. True I can only cook 1 steak at a time on it (and one drop scone but more on that in a moment) but at least I can cook it properly. The best thing about this griddle though is that it's double sided which makes it even more useful and makes me feel like I got two pans for the price of one (a bargain right?). The ridged side does good things to meat but the smooth side is the bit that really sold me on it. It's just perfect for making drop scones/pancakes (which I love) and probably other things too but I've not got over my drop scone excitement yet. 

I thought I'd posted a recipe for drop scones (or scotch pancakes) here before but I can't find it so here it is... Heat a griddle on a medium hob - or a heavy based frying pan - giving it plenty of time to get hot. whilst the griddle is heating mix 125 grams of self raising flour, a generous tablespoon of sugar, 3 tablespoons of sunflower or vegetable oil, an egg, and 100 ml's of milk. Pour about a tablespoon, more if you like big pancakes/drop scones, of batter onto the griddle and flip it over when it starts to bubble. They cook fast, it's taken me a ridiculously long time to work out the right temperature for the hob and to stop burning these things. Pile them up and eat them. Do not oil the griddle (or pan) it doesn't need it. The oil in the batter is enough to stop any sticking and the drop scones shouldn't be greasy. When I was a girl we ate these with jam and cream like scones but they're good however you like them. Unfortunately I can't show a picture because we ate all the ones I made tonight. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Found in translation

Last October I was playing with the idea of reading my way through Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels as a long term project. Never one to rush into a thing when I can put it off for a bit it's taken me until this week to actually open a book but I've finally started on 'The Fortune of the Rougons' and it's giving me a lot to think about.

I once read something somewhere about the British being pretty poor at reading European classics which presumably extends to fiction in translation generally. If I'm in any way typical it's an accurate assessment and I'm guessing I am reasonably typical in this because bar the inevitable Scandi thrillers my local bookshops have very little foreign fiction (would that be the correct term?) on offer. I'm not really sure if it's something I should feel mildly guilty about or not, great books deserve to be read, but there are far to many to ever read all of them so does it matter which ones you read as long as you enjoy them? I don't think it does matter but still feel mildly guilty about it and that's the reason for this Zola odyssey - I get to combine a general enthusiasm for nineteenth century classics and expand my horizons (very slightly).

Not reading a great deal in translation coupled with no ability to learn other languages at all also means I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what translation means. Until I read about it somewhere it had never occurred to me that translation would be anything other than literal but then I'd never thought about it, now I have it's obvious that there would be a creative, interpretive element to it. When I first thought about this project Tom at Wuthering Expectations pointed me to this blog here for somebody who'd already done it and had some interesting things to say about old Zola translations - the Vizetelly versions are available free as ebooks and in some cases are (I believe) all that is available. The version I'm reading is a new translation for Oxford World's Classics by Brian Nelson which I'm really enjoying, it's vivid, evocative, and generally compelling. I've also had a look at the Vizetelly version - just the first few pages to compare a sequence I particularly liked in the OWC book. The differences aren't as startling as the passages Guy picked out (follow that link) in this case different words don't really change the meaning of a descriptive passage of a disused graveyard but Nelson paints me a more satisfying picture.

The result is that this is the first time I genuinely wish I could understand French but then books are so often the way into things for me. I wonder if I'd been familiar with some French classic suitable for 11 year olds and told it was even better in the original if that would have made me try that little bit harder with the language. As it was Asterix was pretty good in English and all I can do is read Zola's story rather than his words which possibly explains why as a nation we're reasonably indifferent to translated fiction but does nothing to explain why we're not better at teaching languages.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Emily Climbs - L .M. Montgomery

Here in Leicestershire we've not by any means had the worst of the weather but it's still been grey, wet, and today really quite windy, along with cold - so basically unappealing verging on downright depressing. It's the kind of weather that demands a certain amount of comfort reading. Books that demand you retire to bed with a hot water bottle and a cup of tea and if they're a little bit nostalgic so much the better.

I was a little bit annoyed that I couldn't pick up the second two Emily books locally, my very small local Waterstones did have 'Emily of New Moon' in it's 9 -14 years old section but neither of the sequels. Having read 'Emily Climbs' I'm a little bit more sympathetic about it, it's a hard book to classify. It follows Emily from age 14 to 17, and I can't decide at all whether it's meant for children, adults, or even that mysterious (to me) classification of young adult. Depending on the reader anyone could enjoy it, there's certainly nothing unsuitable for younger readers and plenty to entertain adult reader, but I suspect for those in-between it might seem quite tame and old fashioned.

Emily's strict late Victorian childhood as outlined in 'Emily of New Moon' didn't seem as old fashioned or circumscribed as her Edwardian teenage years in a provincial Canadian town - which makes me profoundly grateful to have grown up in a more liberal age. 'Emily Climbs' follows our heroine through her high school years and her development from girl into young woman as well as her burgeoning writing career. In terms of plot she gets a bit older and the scene is set for what I'm guessing are going to be her love affairs in the final part of the trilogy but mostly the book is a series of vignettes, so much so that this could almost be a collection of short stories (I consider that to be a good thing).

In the first book there's an odd incident towards the end that hints at  Emily being psychic, this slightly supernatural element is picked up again with a couple of unexplainable by normal means episodes the first of which put me strongly in mind of Jane Eyre. It's at the beginning of the book and is one of the highlights. Emily has gone to a prayer meeting and managed to get herself locked in the church after she returns to search for an incriminating bit of paper just as a storm is about to break. It's bad enough being trapped alone in the church at night in a huge storm but then she feels something furry under her hand and lightening revels a huge black dog with glowing eyes - even the strongest spirit would quail. As the very worst of the storm abates though Emily realises there is someone else in the church - a mad old man desperately seeking his dead bride of years ago, it's the beginning of a truly nightmarish chase round the blacked out church, Emily is terrified of being caught by his blood red (birth marked) hand with which he's known to grip onto young girls whilst he strokes their hair imagining they're his lost love. In her panic she calls out to her friend Teddy who comes to rescue her just in time (from over a mile away, voice in a dream - pure Jane Eyre). Afterwards in the graveyard just when they're about to share a first kiss his mother turns up and has her own moment of melodrama over Emily stealing her son away from her. This quickly escalates as Emily gives her what foe in return and poor Teddy clearly just wants the ground to swallow him up.

There is also an interesting little section towards the end when Emily goes to her old teacher for advice - should she go off to America to pursue her dreams or should she stay in Canada, Montgomery has the teacher tell her she would be a fool not to go but also declare that he dreamed of her staying and contributing to a specifically Canadian literature. I don't know much about Canadian literature, a love of Robertson Davies and Rohan O'Grady's 'Let's Kill Uncle' doesn't amount to much and nor do a couple of Margaret Atwood's and a single volume of Alice Munro but the result of reading Montgomery is that I want to know more about her and how she fitted into the literary scene of her day, and by extension much more about Canadian lit generally.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cinnamon bun-cake

To celebrate finally finishing my Christmas cake it seemed appropriate to bake something new so I opted for my own little bit of scandomania and looked for a cinnamon bun recipe. The older I get the more appealing a cinnamon bun becomes as compared to something like a cup cake or anything else smothered in to much icing, until now my go to recipe has been this one but it makes a lot of buns and a change doesn't go amiss sometimes.

I've had 'Scandilicious Baking' since it came out but apart from the Santa Lucia buns haven't used it much, but I found a good looking bun recipe in it yesterday and had pretty much all the ingredients I needed to make them so that's what I did. I guess my next project will be to find something which isn't based on a sweet dough in there.

Possibly the best thing about these buns from my point of view is that the quantities are a little bit more modest (the worst is that there was no need for baking powder so my new kitchen accessory remained unused) this bun recipe makes 7 rather than 12, they're also reasonably quick to produce - at least in terms of anything bready and that's good too.

To make the dough scald 225mls of milk with 75g of butter. Meanwhile measure out 425g of strong plain flour (the original recipe uses a mix of plain flour and spelt flour which I didn't have) 70g of castor sugar, one of those little sachets of instant yeast, half a teaspoon of ground sea salt, 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom (this is a flavour that I'm coming to particularly associate with Signe Johansen and whilst I like the lemony hit it gives these buns I'm not overly sold on it and would say it was distinctly optional) because I misread somewhere along the line I also added a teaspoon of cinnamon to the dough but I like cinnamon so that's staying in). By the time all the dry ingredients are assembled and stirred together the scalded milk butter mix should have cooled enough to add along with an egg. It's a wet dough so it's much easier to use a mixer of some sort than hands... When it's turned into a nice dough cover the bowl with cling film and put somewhere warm for half an hour to rise. Meanwhile butter a 23cm spring form tin and make a filling out of 75g of soft butter, 50g of caster sugar, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, and half a teaspoon of vanilla salt (the salt adds something special and is worth having on hand) cream that lot together. When the dough has risen to about double in size roll it out into a rectangle about 35cm long 25cm wide, spread all over with the filling and then roll up into a long sausage. Cut into 7 rounds and arrange in the tin. Put it back somewhere warm to rise for another 20 -30 mins and heat the oven to 200c or gas 6. Have a tray to put the cake tin on or risk butter dripping all over your oven. When the dough has doubled in size again glaze it with egg and a sprinkle of sugar, put it in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 mins (or until cooked). Allow to cool and then enjoy.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Along with regrets about not buying more bookshelves I also have regrets about not buying more collectable malt whisky (I have spent a chunk of my working life recommending people buy very reasonably priced bottles which are now worth a relative fortune without ever managing to nab any for myself - although if I had I would probably have drunk them which might have been worse) and not buying more cornishware. I have a few bits pretty much all bought new and often as seconds but how I wish I'd get more when the getting was good.

Just in case anybody doesn't know cornishware is the blue and white stripy crockery that legend has it was inspired by the blue sea and white sandy beaches of Cornwall (or something similar), it was actually made in Derbyshire, or at least it was until 2007 and it's a bit of a design icon. It's been around since the 1920's and for most of it's production life was at the cheap and cheerful end of the market. I like it because it has an undeniable retro appeal as well as the timeless quality of a proper classic, I also like it because it's practical - I don't have room in my kitchen for anything I don't use (with the exception of some egg cups, not a fan of the boiled egg) which along with price is why I'm not a collector, but oh how I wish I could afford to be.

I got my first bits in Stoke-On-Trent, I guess when Mason Cash took over the company and there were bits floating round cheap as discontinued lines and then used to pick up odds and ends until Mason Cash pulled the plug on it in 2007. It's a shame they couldn't hang on for just a little bit longer until the baking boom really hit. As it is the company name was bought up and cornishware is still made but in China and it's not quite the same. Pre 2007 it wasn't exactly cheap but you could buy it from habitat and all sorts of kitchen shops, there was a good range of core lines and a collectors club that released special editions (my particular regret is not getting a cinnamon shaker) now it's definitely not cheap at all, hardly anyone stocks it because supply is so erratic, and so is the quality which is indefensible when something is so definitely not cheap. In fact having read around a bit about it today it seems as if the current stuff is seen in the light of copies rather than proper authentic cornishware which is a huge shame.

The other problem with it is that the limited range also has limited use - the storage jars which only come in two sizes are both a bit on the small side - the large one won't hold a kilo of porridge oats. Nor do they say what should be in them any more and what use is a row of anonymous jars when you're looking for raisins and not sultanas? It seems a shame to me, with average prices for old storage jars (the sort with names) being between £50 and £80 these days and running into the hundreds for rarer pieces it looks like there's a market out there and I'd love an affordable (even if it was only just affordable) set of jars for baking stuff - I can't be the only one.

Very happily for me though I found a piece yesterday that was both practical and affordable. I got a lovely jar for baking powder for a very reasonable £25 (I think it was miss-priced but when I questioned the dealer about it he knocked a fiver off so I stopped asking and paid up). It is the most lovely shape, tapering slightly towards the base and would be desirable even if it wasn't useful. Now I need to track down an affordable sugar shaker...  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

One Thousand And One Nights - Hanan Al-Shaykh

There must have been a point in my adult life when I actively started seeking out fairy tales again but I can't remember when it might have been, perhaps because it's impossible to remember a time when these stories in some form or another have been unfamiliar. Some years ago I bought a Richard Francis Burton version of 'One Thousand And One Nights' it's basically a doorstop and I think I had some idea of reading it in those days between Christmas and New Year when there's generally an excess of dates and Turkish delight around the place and really immersing myself in the whole thing. It didn't happen but sometime later I bought Marina Warner's 'Stranger Magic' (only partly because it has a very pretty cover) with the intention of reading about the Arabian Nights. I haven't read that yet either.

In the end my way into 'One Thousand And One Nights' has been through Hanan Al-Shaykh who re tells 20 of it's stories here. I knew nothing about her when I got the book which is slightly shameful, and only enough now to know that it's slightly shameful. I should also admit, by way of an excuse, that I started reading this book before Christmas but got distracted by work and other books before picking it up again this week so I'm now a little vague about the first half, and consequently about how the whole thing hangs together.

The big thing for me here was the structure - although I know that the framework for 1001 nights is that Shahrazad tells a story each night so enthralling that the King wants to hear more the next night and so doesn't put her to death. Because I've only ever read isolated stories from the collection, and because I almost always read novels which are plot driven, the way these stories lead on from one another and nest into each other was a bit of a revelation, it's possibly the first time I've ever really understood how seductive Shahrazad's story telling is. It was also really frustrating trying to read this book in bursts, like the king I always wanted to know what happened next.

Beyond that Hanan Al-Shaykh brings these stories alive in a dozen different ways. They are full of sex and contempt; men and women can't resist each other but seldom deal well together. The men are too often selfish, venal, violent - contemptible creatures unworthy of their power or of respect, the women in turn are cruel and unfaithful. They also feel like stories told by and amongst women (even when the protagonists are men), the sort that undermine men and authority along with those other women who are no better than they should be. Women who would giggle over a beautiful young man whilst dissecting the performance of others, irreverent women who find ways to survive in a mans world, in short real women. It's an enticing read, and one that has finally started me off on a particularly bookish journey which I'm sure will last much longer than one thousand and one days or nights.