Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy New Year

I'm (hopefully) off to Scotland tomorrow and out of Internet range so I'll wish anybody reading this a happy new year full of health, wealth, and happiness now. The dull bit of packing is done so all I need to decide before bed is which books to take with me.

The choices are, on shelf 1 'Bleak House' which the BBC's 'Dickensian' is making me want to read, or on shelf 2 a whole lot of other books which basically add up to that one copy of 'Bleak House' and at least a few of which I might finish. I know a kindle would solve this dilemma, but as I have a pile of books on phone and iPad which I never manage to read  - well maybe not so much. Anyway there's a lot of fun in choosing which books to take away....

See you in the New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Cakes and baking

They're all in the process of being eaten now, and frustratingly although the new oven cooked them quickly (2 hours instead of last years painfully slow 5) this years cakes were on the dry side. Some working out is required for next year. Fortunately the Christmas chutney turned out well (Diana Henry's recipe from the brilliant 'Salt Sugar Smoke' and the puddings worked to (from Dan Lepard's equally brilliant 'Short and Sweet'. There are a couple in there, both the ones of tried have been excellent and well worth the simmering time.) so not all was lost.

The second batch of gingerbread for tree decorations turned out well; I baked them until they were very well done indeed and they have neither fallen apart or fallen victim to mum's dogs appetite (she isn't impressed that we've kept her away from the tree; she can smell it, and she thinks it smells pretty good). The original recipe I used wasn't perfect for decorations - to soft - but it's brilliant for eating so I'll post it soon. I would put up a picture of the tree but it looks even more artificial (practical in a flat, but not romantic) on camera than it does in life...

And however dry the cakes might be (mine at least is also obnoxiously boozy as well, as it's had about a third of a bottle of whisky poured into it) I was still pleased with the decorations. This year I decided to print bits of poetry or carols onto them. I used rubber stamps with the very thick food colouring paste as ink, watered down to a suitable consistency. The results could have been more professional with more practice and patience, but I was pleased with the overall effect and might try something along similar lines again.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

It looks like I got All the books

It's back to work tomorrow until New Years Eve when, weather permitting, I'll be heading up to the Borders to catch family whilst they're in the area. I am, as ever, a little bit paranoid about the weather - and with good cause. The flooding in Manchester, Yorkshire, and Lancashire has been terrible and the forecast is for more rain and gales on Wednesday.

If my travel arrangements have to be cancelled it will be a minor disappointment, but for the people who are facing the brunt of this flooding it must be horrendous. It makes me grateful to be warm and dry tonight (and to know that the river that runs outside my building isn't unusually high at the moment).

On a more cheerful note I got books for Christmas, quite a lot of books - as you can see. I also bought some for myself through the month (not pictured) so I've got lots to keep me busy and happy for the coming months. People obviously know I like books (and okay, I might have told my family just to raid my Amazon wish list for inspiration).

Anyway, in the company of my mother, sister, and Tally (the dog) we managed a quiet and relaxed Christmas (that might have been despite Tally) and I'm feeling extremely grateful for the good things that came my way and left over pudding.
It is very much a dogs life. 
(She's sort of allowed on beds) 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas

Just to wish anyone who reads this a happy Christmas. I'm at home with my mother, and delightfully, her puppy, who is for life and is also the centre of attention... 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pedro Ximenez Sherry

The 23rd of December is the busiest day of the year in the shop floor which makes it a special kind of hell for customers and retailers alike. The low point of my day was warning someone to watch out before they stepped back into me and the sharp edged heavy box I was carrying. This charmer then tracked me accross the shop to complain about how offended he was by my tone. I'm not sure how he wanted to be warned before he got hurt, he didn't bother to say. 

It's also the last day of books and booze. Tomorrow night after work (I'm counting down the hours now) I'm off to my mothers to play with the dog, drink champagne, and really relax for the first time in weeks. Before that happens, and before the onslaught of last minute shoppers who won't understand that if you pitch up on the 24th of December you get what's left - which isn't always what you want, there is another sherry I have to share with you though, 

I wish I could actually share it; Pedro Ximenez (PX) is available as a dry white wine (I've seen it in M&S and must try it some time) but the PX I'm thinking of is the ridiculously sweet and sticky sherry. It's only a slight exaggeration to say it has the colour and consistency of treacle - it's certainly quite syrupy, but the colour is a glorious sort of chestnut or mahogany. It's a luscious, intense, mouth full of raisened splendour (think of it as a liquid mince pie but better). It's one of the few wines that works well with chocolate, but it's so rich a combination that I prefer the PX on its own. It's also a delightful thing to sip instead of Christmas pudding (again lots of the same flavours, but not quite as filling). 

It's not the most fashionable end of sherry, which isn't at the most fashionable end of wine as it is, but if you don't know it, try it. Unless you really hate raisins and rich concentrated fruit flavours - because that's what you're going to get! 

These are winter flavours to me; it's all the rich abundance of summer come to ripeness and stored safely against the darkest days of the year. When it comes to matching a book to that in some ways it's anything goes - what book do you turn to that's either the epitomy of Christmas or which transports you to the warmth of a Spanish summer, or the slow years spent ageing to perfection? In the end my choice is Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. I read it first studying history of art because it was useful, and then again because I enjoyed it so much. 

Some of the legends are more familiar than others, but the whole thing is a strange and wonderful collection and it's a strange and wonderful wine to go with it.   

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Irish Coffee

For whatever reason (grey wet day) I've been craving an Irish coffee today. I don't have any cream in the house though, and it was far to wet between bus stop and flat to want to prolong the walk or brave the Christmas crowds, so I'll just be writing about one instead.

I might be wrong about this (I don't get out that much) but I don't think Irish coffees have been a cool thing for a very long time (in my head they belong to the same era as frozen Black Forest gateaux) but a good Irish coffee is a splendid drink and something that I periodically have a bit of a craze for.

I'm not fussy about the kind of glass it goes in, the kind of whisky used (nothing peaty or over proof, and Irish if available, but if not a scotch or bourbon seems a perfectly sensible route to take), the coffee, or the kind of sugar used (though a light brown sugar seems the obvious choice), or even the exact ratio's they come in. It's the cream that matters, and ruins so many Irish coffees. Whipped cream is cheating, it should be poured, and it should be poured because the best thing about this drink is the heat and pungency of the coffee cutting through the cold, heavy, cream. Whipped cream just doesn't work in the same way.

Trying to come up with a book to go with this particular drink wasn't easy at first, but then I looked up the history of the Irish coffee. Apparently, and I don't care if this is myth or fact, it was first served in the 1940's to some American travellers who had arrived tired and cold at what's now Shannon airport in Ireland. Cream, coffee, alcohol mixes seem to go back a good bit further than that though.

After that the choice was clear - Dorothy B. Hughes' 'The Blackbirder'. First published in 1943 it's a noirish thriller that sees Julie Guille entangled in a couple of murders and on the run from both the FBI and the Gestapo, seeking the help of the Blackbirder, a shadowy figure whispered about amongst refugees in the dimly lit bars of New York and Santa Fé. (All straight from the back blurb, it's a while since I read this one and the details are hazy).

This has to be the book to help me reclaim the Irish coffee - to return it to its role of comforting the cold and weary rather than as an after dinner overindulgence. It also means there's a perfume to go with it too... The iconic Vol de Nuit, which doesn't actually suit me (I'm clearly not daring or passionate enough) it always reminds me a bit of unwashed skin and clothes that have been slept in (not really dirty, but not clean either). It does fit with the idea of a chaotic flight through the sky to safety though.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Nordic Cook Book with Aquavit

Christmas is almost here, and as ever it seems to have come round very quickly and also be taking an age. Miraculously I think I'm organised - by which I mean if I haven't done it now it's not going to happen - but most people have got cards, presents are bought and wrapped, I've run out of flour and sugar so there will be no more baking and I'm even finding a few spare hours to relax in. This will mostly take the form of seeing the new Star Wars film. This is the bit that's come round fast and will go even faster. The slow bit is work. It's felt like a long slog that started some time back at the beginning of November and hasn't let up since. The next few days are going to be a challenge (there will be blood, sweat, and tears - all mine) but at 5 o'clock on Christmas Eve I'll be done. I can't wait.

What I'm most looking forward to when I get a bit of time off is catching up with some of the books I've been piling up over the last couple of months (and family etc obviously, but also books). I got some crackers for my birthday, have bought some gems, been sent a few by publishers, and know there are more coming for Christmas.

One I'm particularly excited about is Magnus Nilsson's 'Nordic Cook Book'. It was a great big present to myself (it's a monster in size) bought not so much to cook from but just to enjoy and because I fell in love with the pictures. Normally pictures of landscape and details of rope and such like are a huge turn off in a cookbook but not this one.

The first time I tried Aquavit I was 15 and in the Faroe Islands. We were staying with someone dad knew for Ólavsøka. It was an interesting experience, I don't know what the laws around alcohol are there now, but then it was strictly rationed - which meant lots of illicit and anonymous booze, I've still never seen drinking like it. Still, I remember that Aquavit as being amazing. It was also clear, so not oak aged (or coloured with caramel) and I need to track down something like it. I had some from Ikea once but it wasn't anything like as good - this too will be a pleasant post Christmas task.

Aquavit is just the thing for cutting through some of the fatty and salty foods that feature in traditional Scandinavian food (I'm thinking of pickled herring as I write this, or something pork based. I'm emphatically not thinking of whale meat, or puffin, or any of the extremely pungent aged mutton - which is a nice way of saying decaying meat that I met in the Faroe's). Given the number of Scandinavian cookbooks just out or coming out that Aquavit is going to be useful, but 'The Nordic Cook Book' will almost certainly be the biggest, and maybe the best, of the bunch.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

20 Year old Tawny Port and Trollope

I presented 20 year old Graham's tawny at a wine tasting recently. It was for a university wine society and the theme was wines to enjoy by the fire with a good book. Id already started planning these posts and thought I'd be able to recycle some of the work - it hasn't worked out that way, but it was a fun tasting to do. Initially it looked like I was going to just get a budget and a free hand to choose the wines (bliss) but in the end there was some compromising to do (par for the course) after the organiser took fright over my predilection for sherry. 

Tawny port starts off as, well it starts off as port but it stays in the barrel and ages. Whilst it does this its colour fades to a tawny brown - hence the name. It also means that it won't need decanting as any sediment will stay in the barrel. It's easy enough to buy 10, 20, or 30 year old tawny's but the 20 year old is arguably the best of the bunch. The flavour becomes increasingly concentrated as it ages due to a combination of oxidisation (distinctive once you've tasted it) and evaporation. At 29 years you get the complexity and an impression of extra sweetness thanks to that ageing process, but still with a relative freshness and balancing acidity that can be lost in older examples. 

It pairs extremely well with dried fruit and nuts (so Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies, stollen) as well as blue cheeses - it's a safe bet some, if not all, of those will be available over the next few weeks. And because it's already relatively oxidised it's a wine that will keep well for up to a month which means plenty of time for civilised sipping. 

It also gives you plenty of time to get through one of Trollope's (Anthony rather than Joanna - I was almost offended to be asked such is my fondness for Anthony, but the group wasn't to know) great big sprawling epics. I gave 'The Prime Minister' waiting for me, though a month might give me a good run at 'The Way We Live Now' (accompanied by a thinble full of wine a night). If I was sharing the bottle the very seasonal Penguin edition of 'Christmas At Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories' would be more realistic. 

Or perhaps this is the time to read Trollope's autobiography to see if his idea of himself is anything like my idea of him. To me he is the quintessentially conservative figure with his middle class morals and prejudices, and I love him for it. I feel the same about the port as I do about Trollope. It's liquid shorthand for a comfortable chair in a library full of leather bound books, for a world of tradition and certainty, and for good things and cheer. But there is also that balancing act with the still racy acidity in the wine - so the library might have some improper books in it, and it's not all cosy sentimentality around the tradition and certainties either. Still, reading Trollope is a very particular pleasure, and so is a good tawny port, the two together seem perfect to me. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gin and Murder with Ginger

As soon as the madness of Christmas is out the way (Boxing Day) the first thing I need to do is have a good tidy - I've misplaced so many things over the last few weeks it's beyond a joke (gift tags, sellotape, the tin I use for setting fudge, sundry books, a lot of ribbon, matches, perspective, the list goes on). The upside is that whilst looking for all the misplaced things I've found 3 bottles of gin I had forgotten buying. Turns out I have a lot of gin, stashed much in the way that a squirrel hoards nuts for winter. the reason there's so much is that I can't resist bringing a bottle of something new back every time I go to London, and can't resist favourites when they're on a particularly good offer at work. 

Gin has been my drink since I was 18 (well, almost 18) and first faced with the dilemma of what to order in a pub. It's what my mother drank, it was the first thing I thought of, and I still struggle to think of anything else. It wasn't a fashionable drink back then, so at university it became something of an affectation, but a gin and tonic is an absolute classic, and at least the current gin craze leaves me feeling vindicated. 

Something I should probably make a New Years resolution is to keep a record of books lent, as I can't find my copy of Josephine Pullein-Thompson's 'Gin and Murder', I might have lent it to my mother, I hope I have, it's a book I'd hate to lose. I've borrowed its title for today's post, but actually as it deals with an alcoholic, and gin is used as a murder weapon, it might be in questionable taste to specifically pair it with a drink (if ever a book made me appreciate the virtues of a nice cup of tea it's this one). 

In Pullein-Thompson's equally horsey mystery 'Murder Strikes Pink' the drinks are marginally safer but the whiff of juniper is almost as tangible as the aroma of stables (or maybe that's because it turns out I'm never very far from a bottle of gin). This is the gin - Gordon's or Beefeater - of the club house,  the hospitality tent, the race course bar. It would sit in a tray in the corner of a room, or in a decanter with a silver label, and be drunk by women in pearls and twinsets with not enough ice, and a slice of lemon. It's the 6 o'clock drink that marks the gap between the working part of the day and the equally serious business of dinner. 

A really good gin and tonic hinges on lots of ice, lime rather than lemon, and for preference something like fever tree tonic rather than schweppes, or (shudders) some generic or supermarket own label effort. Pointing this out at home doesn't always make me popular. Seriously though, whatever gin you favour get a really good tonic. Fever tree is the best on the market that's widely available, it will make a cheap gin taste better, and do a fancy one justice. 

And after all that it's not a gin and tonic I'm going to recommend at all, but gin and ginger. When Ophir gin came in the market (pretty elephant on the label, selling point being that the botanicals are specific to the old spice route) they recommended it with ginger ale; it's quite a peppery gin and this works brilliantly. Tanqueray Rangpur which really emphasises a lime character is another good gin with ginger. What I discovered when we put it on tasting is that a lot of people who thought they didn't like gin turned out to not like tonic. It's also a warmer feeling drink than a G&T which is a bonus in winter (you still want just as much ice), and for the purposes of my Greyladies binge has a nod towards the very traditional whisky and ginger. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Fox and the Star with Sauternes

For anyone who's stepped inside a Waterstones in the last month Coralie Bickford-Smith's 'The Fox and the Star' has been hard to miss. The gentle hints to buy it worked, I purchased one for my godson and put it aside to wrap. 

With only a week until Christmas work is turning into all kinds of crazy, and I will admit that I struggle at this point to make sense of it all. I think there's a deep human need to light up the winter, to bring forth the good things stored up against this time, to give and receive, and to think about those we love. Naturally it should be a time for slowing down, taking stock, and creating warmth and comfort. It's also the time we're most likely to miss the people who are gone, and the older you get the more there are of them.

What I hate about Christmas is the pressure to spend, how angry and frustrated people get, and how in the rush to get everything done so much of the magic gets lost. I hate endlessly explaining that however much a customer might want a thing we don't actually have it, and that wanting it won't change that. I really hate that conversations I'd normally enjoy - say a lengthy discussion about which gin to choose - become a burden because of the constant pressure applied by the need to get, literally, tons of stock on the shelves. 

Meanwhile back in my flat, all candle and tree lit with radio 3 doing something seasonal in the background, I'm finishing cards, starting to wrap presents, and unwinding enough to enjoy it. Even more now that I've stopped to properly read 'The Fox and the Star'. Now I really get what all the fuss is about.

Firstly it's an absolute celebration of the book as an object. A beautiful cloth bound hardback, good quality paper, exquisite illustrations which recall William Morris, and even details like the orange thread that binds it and echos Foxes glorious marmalade colour, make it something special. The story is optimistic without being overly sentimental and simple enough to allow the reader to find their own meaning in it. What I found was some unexpected perspective, and a bit of Christmas magic in the form of total delight in a well made, beautiful thing. 

Sauternes is another well made beautiful thing that delights me, and as I was given a bottle yesterday it's very much at the front of my mind. Sauternes is a treat, a good bottle (don't stint on this) will start somewhere in the region of £15 for 35cl, and it's worth doing a bit of research (5 minutes googling to see what's a good vintage and a good vineyard) then buying to lay down for a bit as it just keeps getting better. A little can go a long way so even if a modest half bottle has gone round with the cheese, chances are there will be enough left over to enjoy a small glass in peace the next day. It's also perfectly reasonable to stash the whole bottle for personal enjoyment. 

I love this wine, love its complexity and the tremendous range of flavours in it, the balance of luscious sweetness and racey acidity, the way it develops over time, the expression of terroir, the romance of its long history, all of it. I know not everybody shares my love of sweet wines but try it, and let it take centre stage; it deserves it. The flavours I associate with Sauturnes are marmalade, candied pineapple, apricot, and a whiff of lanolin (familiar to anyone on a business footing with sheep). It should be thought about and concentrated on so a book like 'The Fox and the Star' is just the right kind of accompaniment. Something that also demands appreciation, but won't take your concentration from the wine in the glass. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rumpole of the Bailey and a Good (ordinary) Claret

After everything I said about wine (as opposed to spirits, fortified, or sweet wine) last night there is an exception coming up. I'm seeing a friend from Oddbins days later so a bottle of something good had to be dug out of the wardrobe and whilst on my hands and knees poking gingerly at the wine rack for fear of spiders (I know they're in there dammit, and spotting one at the wrong moment could lead to a serious wine casualty) Rumpole came to mind.

Well he sort of came to mind, mostly I was mourning the expense of really good claret (the British name for red wine from Bordeaux - which probably everybody knows, but just in case...) and my current lack of it. It takes a princely sum these days to get the sort of bottle that requires (and deserves) the carefull cellaring, years of happy anticipation, and scrutiny of vintage charts, that I used to so enjoy. Given that my 'cellar' is a lone wine rack in a wardrobe it's clear that princely sums are not at my disposal, but I do miss those wines.

Fortunately the wine world doesn't begin and end in the confines of Bordeaux and very good things indeed are still within the reach of even lowly wine saleswomen like myself. However if anyone could sympathise with my plight I'm sure it would be Rumpole. A man forced to take solace in the Very ordinary claret of Pommery's wine bar knows what it is to suffer.

Happily there are some very good Good Ordinary Claret's about which do excellent service for anyone looking for something traditional as well as reasonable (particularly if roast lamb is on the menu and it's not all about the wine). It's also just the kind of wine I'd buy to cook with, knowing that I'd be happy enough to drink the left overs (never cook with a wine you wouldn't drink). More importantly it's the kind of wine that venerable looking gentleman with neatly folded editions of the telegraph, impressive eyebrows (and joy of joys, in one case a monocle), and a natty line in coloured cords, will take me aside to confide about how decent it is.

I was tempted to make a sweeping statement about reading Rumpole, but I find something new to appreciate in him every time, as well as familiar refrains (often the way in a long collection of short stories) and in this the experience is very like drinking a familiar wine. Reading him with a really exciting wine would do both a disservice, it's the book that deserves the lions share of the attention with the wine providing a background whiff of atmosphere and self indulgent comfort.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Maria Edgeworth with a Gin Punch

Just over half way through this books and booze advent it seems timely to talk about drinking. I really don't drink a lot (at least I don't think I do) and that's one reason why not many wines will feature. I don't, generally, drink alone (I'm making an exception tonight for research purposes) but if I do it will be a small glass of something, and only 1. Because I basically live alone that means it's most likely to be spirits simply because they keep. Wine is, for me, an essentially convivial drink - something to be shared, talked over, talked about, and celebrated. I can't do that on my own, and I don't want to feel constrained to drink the couple of glasses a night it takes to get through a bottle before it loses its freshness.

Meanwhile, as I will keep saying, it's all about quality over quantity, when you don't drink much it makes sense to buy better and explore more. I also favour a drink that has a touch of ritual about it, the time it takes to make a cup of tea, a coffee, a hot chocolate, a gin punch, is time to anticipate the pleasure of settling down to read.

I know that gin divides people, but I'm extremely fond of it - as much for its long and colourful history as for the knife edge sharp juniper taste. I've been looking for some good gin based drinks for this series - something that would suggest a book to me as well as sound good, and found just the thing on the Sipsmith's website with the Bee's hot knees recipe. 

The Bee's Knees is a prohibition era classic which would have relied on the honey and lemon to disguise the roughness of bootleg gin. Eighteenth century gin would have been every bit as rough and honey and lemon would have been common enough punch ingredients then too, turning the Bee's Knees into a hot drink makes me think of that older tradition. 

There's no need to disguise the taste of modern gin (or worry about what exactly might be in it) but diligent research shows that this is an entirely acceptable way of drinking it. The honey just softens the astringency of the gin and lemon, but only just and the whole thing is wonderfully aromatic and warming. It might be worth experimenting with a syrup based on a light muscavado sugar rather than honey. The recipe calls for 25ml of honey syrup (make by warming equal amounts of honey and water to simmering point) 25ml of lemon juice, 50ml of gin, and 100ml of boiling water. Mix and drink. 

I've spent a good 20 minutes researching 18th century gin punch recipes without finding anything concrete to back up my assumption that this is just the sort of thing you might have been given in a coaching inn, or that more respectable gin drinkers may have made at home, but it feels right. It's not so far from a simple rum punch after all, and what really matters to me is that I can imagine it with 'Belinda'. Or 'Castle Rackrent' for that matter. 

Maria Edgeworth should be much better known, 'Belinda' still sticks in my memory after a good 5 years for its mix of serious issues and downright craziness (cross dressing women in duels, and why not). Belinda herself may toe the line of respectability, but Lady Delacour seems just the sort to enjoy a night on the town drinking hot gin in low taverns (at least at the start of the book before she reforms). 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Bucks Fizz and Silent Nights

The most important lesson to learn when selling alcohol (and many other things) is that it's the customers taste that matters, no matter how unappealing I might find their choice I don't have to drink it. Wine, spirits, the whole lot should be a pleasure for the consumer and on the whole I remember this, finding something polite to say about whatever bottle's in question, because in the end most people asking advice simply want to be reassured they've made a good choice - and generally they have, for them.

There is one product I struggle with though. It's pre made Buck's Fizz and I consider it to be a disgusting abomination (this is a deeply held personal prejudice, and this is neither the time nor place to argue me out of it). I still dutifully stick it in the shelf and point people towards it when asked, but inevitably some time in the next 10 days we will completely sell out and I'll spend the days before Christmas ( time I'm never getting back) explaining that although we don't have any, we do have plenty of very good sparkling wines and orange juice. The response, every bloody time (it will happen a lot, somehow stock forecasting is never right on this) is that it sounds like to much trouble.

I despair for a world, or a family, where opening a carton of orange juice, or even squeezing an actual orange is to much trouble. It really truly isn't to much trouble. And I feel a lot better for getting that if my chest. The truth is the pre made stuff available in most supermarkets just isn't great quality, and as such isn't great value either.

On the other hand there are plenty of very good, and reasonably priced, sparkling wines available (or champagne if you're feeling extravagant) and it's worth getting a really good orange juice (or squeezing some oranges). Made with a little love and all the care it takes to put some juice and wine in a glass (it really isn't to much trouble) this is a classic. A bright, light, and sparkling concoction to bring some colour to the typical grey sky of an English Christmas. Crisp, cold, and fruity it feels eminently suitable for a winter's day.

Our Christmas will be a small one this year and spent at my mothers. There will be fizz with breakfast, and in the interests of a civilised Christmas, Buck's Fizz makes sense (otherwise it's tears and a fight with my sister by lunch time, and at our age it's unseemly). It also means there's a golden window of a couple of hours when mum won't want, or need, help and I can hit the sofa and read.

It's the perfect time for short stories, anything long or involving and inevitably there will be interruptions just when you're getting really absorbed. My choice for this year, and I'm really looking forward to it, is the British Library's 'Silent Nights'. It's one of the crime classics short story collections, with (of course) a Christmas theme. If I didn't already have it there would have been extremely heavy hints for it to be in my stocking. I really love this series, and as this one has a Dorothy L. Sayers story in it that's a particular favourite along with offerings from Edgar Wallace, Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J. Jefferson Farjeon and others I know  I've got plenty to look forward to.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Martini's with Wodehouse

My idea of a martini isn't as sophisticated or as macho as it could be, purists can look away now. As far as I'm concerned it's a gin or vodka based drink with either the traditional dash of vermouth or, and here's where it gets contaversial, something far more frivolous. But then cocktails aren't really my thing (a good gin and tonic excepted).

Gin, however, really is my thing (if I was to have a vodka martini the vodka would need to be either the grape based ciroc, or the apple based Chase vodka - just so you know) so anything which makes the most of it is worth exploring. I have no particular opinion about which gin a person should buy (though for preference perhaps not a supermarket own brand), I generally get something different each time, dependant on what looks good and fits my budget on the day - I currently have around a dozen gins in the house (most unopened), the fun being in trying something new.

The last martini I made was from a recipe in Ruth Ball's excellent 'Rebellious Spirits' (another top tip for gift giving if you have a books on booze lover in your life). It's the excellent gypsy martini which called for some faffing around marinating raisins and Rosemary in gin for a week before mixing with lillet blanc and elderflower liqueur, and I can describe it in the present tense because I've still a good quantity of it in the freezer. Which leads me on to one of those blindingly obvious once you see it tips (I read it in a magazine). Pre mix your martini's in a generous quantity by chucking everything in a bottle, giving it a bit of a shake, and then leaving it in the freezer until you want it. It's an approach that might offend proper mixologists everywhere, but I found it worked very well for my purposes.

A very dry martini might call for something by Hemmingway, or Chandler, or indeed any good bit of noir if your not in a bourbon frame of mind. A vodka martini is obviously the accompaniment to a Bond novel, but as I favour a wetter martini and am quite happy to have a flavoured gin, or indeed other flavourings altogether I'm going with Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster and friends do drink a lot of cocktails, and to be frank if it's the kind of day when we're doing this at home than darker, or in anyway serious, books aren't getting a look in. I'm seeing this as just the ticket for Christmas and New Year house parties, when no one has to drive, be at work the next day, or do anything else along those lines. The sort of occasion when mild excess can be walked off the next day and pre dinner drinks can be indulged in along with old films, board games, and something like the 'Weekend Wodehouse' collection for those of us who prefer a book to anything else.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Notable Woman deserves Champagne

Today is my birthday so the last 24 hours have featured a few interesting bottles; though it turns out that these days/at my age 1 large gin and a shared bottle of champagne is quite enough to be going on with. When I was really very young, and thought the dryness of champagne was disgusting my mother told me it would be useful to develop a taste for it and that perseverance was the key. She was right about perseverance and as it happens a taste for champagne has turned out to be useful in my line of work - though otherwise the point might be debatable. Good champagne is a wonderful thing, other sparkling wines have their place, but nothing else has acquired quite the same carefully cultivated glamour.

Forgive me if what follows reads like instructions to suck eggs but this is my accumulated advice and wisdom based on 16 years of selling fizz to people and taking into account the most frequently asked questions. For larger parties where nobody is paying much attention to what they're drinking anything reasonably good will do, but if you like champagne and there's going to be time to appreciate it, get something really good. Don't wait until you need it to buy it; really big brands (Moët or Veuve Clicquot for example) are bought and sold really young, generally speaking they'll taste a lot rounder and more mellow if they've had 6 months peace and quiet - if you have a favourite and it's on a good offer somewhere pick it up and put it to one side. Non vintage (NV) champagne will keep (lay down) happily enough for 5 years or so provided that a) you don't keep it in a fridge - it'll lose its sparkle, b) you don't keep it on a fridge - or anywhere to warm or in direct sunlight, or where the temperature is prone to fluctuate wildly. I find the back of my wardrobe is a reasonably adequate cellar.

NV means it's fizz made from a mix of new and reserve wines, with the aim of providing consistency - it should always be the same. Vintage champagnes are made from grapes specific to that year, and only when the harvest is good enough to warrant it, there should be a distinctive house style but each vintage will be different. NV is not necessarily second best.

Demi-Sec champagne isn't as easy to find as it could be, but it's a much easier drink on an empty stomach, lovely as a dry (brut) champagne is the high acidity can be quite hard work at times. Demi-Sec is also much better with cake, and for people who think they don't like champagne.

Now that I've reached a sensible age I'm also a proper fan of half bottles. They're the perfect size for 1 person, or for 2 to share if a glass each is all that's wanted. They're not as heavy to carry on a picnic,  and are excellent Christmas stocking fillers. I like to have a few around for 'emergencies' and it's specifically a half bottle I'm recommending for a book pairing.

I've had 'A Notable Woman' for a couple of weeks, and have been desperate to get stuck into it but it's a big book and with everything else going on in December I haven't really had time. It's the romantic journals of Jean Lucy Pratt edited by Simon Garfield. Jean contributed to the mass observation project and Garfield has used her material in previous books. Eventually he got his hands on the journals she kept for most of her life from 1925 until 1986. I'm drawn to Jean partly because she didn't marry or have children (there are affairs), partly because she ran a bookshop too. I can't off hand think of another book which gives such a load and clear voice to a woman like Jean - a clever, talented, educated, funny, sometimes disappointed, professional (she trained as an architect and wrote criticism) ordinary woman who has to make the best of what comes along and sometimes finds it hard.

I can't do Jean justice from the skimming I've done through her journals, a proper review will follow, but meanwhile I can say with confidence that she'd make an excellent present for fans of Virago or Persephone and that she definitely deserves champagne. We both do.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Drambuie and The Master of Ballentrae

Drambuie is one of those things that hangs around the house for a long time looking for a good use, or at least that's the case in my home. I'm on my second ever bottle, the first bottle originally belonged to my mother, it lived next to the tumble dryer, and must have been on the go for about 20 years (there's still some of the original liqueur in the bottle, and I keep it because it looks particularly venerable and ornamental). It came as a bit of a surprise when I tried it more recently to realise that I really didn't know what it was meant to taste like. My current bottle has only been on the go for a couple of years.

The moral of that story is not to let things hang around to long but to drink them (always in moderation). I use drambuie in chranachan (though that to is sadly moderated) and soak the Christmas pudding in it, and just occasionally drink it too.

The legend of Drambuie is that it was a recipe passed on by Bonny Prince Charlie to a family that aided his escape. Wikipedia, some historians, (and boring common sense) suggest that this is probably a made up marketing ploy - which doesn't matter in the least; a good story is a glorious thing in its own right, true or not.

It also means that the obvious choice of reading material is anything that harks back to the 1745 uprising. The Master of Ballantrae hits the spot for me on this, the master himself has an over the top air that suits a Drambuie, and vice versa. 'Kidnapped' has an altogether different atmosphere. 'Waverley' might fit the bill as well though. whichever Jacobite themed romance (suggestions are welcome) you can think of though, a small glass of Drambuie (even better if its one of those beautiful jacobin glasses - or a Victorian knock off. And if only I owned either...) could only add to the atmosphere,

Friday, December 11, 2015


Wine, great wine at any rate, is pure liquid romance - it's not just something to drink, it's history, legend, memories, poetry, inspiration, and other such things. In my first wine job I had a manager who really bought all those things alive, he was also the one who introduced me to really good sweet wine. It's not always the most appreciated category, which is maybe no bad thing, because it's still possible to get really amazing wines for affordable amounts (by which I mean between £15 and £50, anywhere on that scale represents an extravagance for me, but one that's worth while. It's a
Ways about quality over quantity). 

The first time I tried Tokaji, which has had a glamorous reputation for its sweet wines since the 17th century, all I could do was smile. This was a reaction the boss was well acquainted with - it's the response that some wines demand, really good ones made us giggle with happiness (not inebriation). 

When I say Tokaji, I mean a 5 Puttonyos Aszú, a lusciously sweet, topaz coloured, gem of a wine that has woven itself into history and literature (the list of famous historical fans on Wikipedia is impressive). It's made from grapes that have developed noble rot (it basically drys them out leaving a very concentrated juice with a distinctive 'botrytis' character) is a delight with food (foie gras if you can stomach it - I prefer not to - blue cheese, chocolate desserts if they're not to sweet, or something fruity) but perhaps best on its own where the balance of rich sweetnes and uplifting acidity gets the spotlight. When people tell me they don't like sweet wines (fools!) it really annoys me - I feel they're just not approaching them in the right frame of mind. Treat them as the sweet thing at the end of a meal and ditch a pudding altogether if need be. (I do, begrudgingly, accept that some people really never will like these wines, and that's okay, but for the most part it's just a case of putting aside a few prejudices). 

Tokaji gets plenty of mentions in literature; Bram Stoker apparently had a fondness for it and Dracula actually wouldn't be a bad choice - the wine lends itself to the gloriously gothic (though I feel it's true heart is in the baroque) but my bottle is being saved for a couple of evenings with Stefan Zweig. 'Beware of Pity' was one of the best books I read last year, I loved the way it caught the tensions of a changing world. Tokaji is an opulent survivor, an aristocratic wine that made it through the communist regime. I have 'The Invisible Collection' (Tales of Obsession and Desire) waiting to be read, and that too seems to me like it would taste of Tokaji. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

L.B.V Port with Vanity Fair

I vividly remember my first sip of port - I'd have been 10 or 11 and dad let me try some, I had no idea it would be sweet, it was a formative moment; a glimpse of a whole world of possibility. An adolescent diet of Georgette Heyer sold me on the idea that knowledge of wine was an essential part of a cultured education. Brideshead Revisited finished the job, snobberies and all.

I like port rather more than it likes me so I've learnt to approach it with caution and only ever in company. It's just the thing for a family gathering where it can be shared round and over indulgence is unlikely. Once opened a bottle should be finished within a week, two at most, to get it at its best, which also makes it a good holiday ritual.

Port became popular in the UK in the 18th century during one of those endless wars with the French which cut off traditional supplies, and it's been popular ever since. With no cellar to hand in which to store pipes of vintage port (Heyer, Waugh, and my grandfather would doubtless all shake their heads over such a lack of amenities) I go for a good L.B.V.

Late bottled vintage is port from a specific year that spends longer in the barrel (typically 4-6 years) than a vintage (which would get about 18 months and then does the rest of its ageing in the bottle) which essentially means it's ready to drink when you buy it. If it says unfiltered on the bottle it will need decanting, or careful pouring to avoid the bitter sludgy dregs (or crust) in the bottle. Decanting doesn't need to be an elaborate affair. Pouring the wine through a fine sieve lined with muslin (or a clean pair of tights) and into a jug, giving the bottle a quick rinse and then returning the wine to it will do the trick (though it might be frowned on by purists). I would argue that it's worth spending a little bit more - quality rather than quantity is the key here, and why cut corners for something that's only going to be an occasional treat.

Port seems like such an archetypically conservative drink that the equally conservative Trollope (Anthony rather than Joanna) comes to mind, but so does the Duke of Wellington and his war with the French. I do have an edited collection of his dispatches, but I suspect it's a combination that would most likely lead to a nap on a comfortable sofa rather than dedicated reading. Scott on the aftermath of Waterloo might be more gripping, but neither is going to come close to 'Vanity Fair'.

 It's a testament to how exciting I found this book when I first read it that it comes as a shock to realise how long it is every time I consider a re read. The idea that in the other side of Christmas there's a spot by a fire, the peace to tackle it again, and the prospect of sharing a bottle of port (Warre's LBV to be specific) with my father is what's going to get me through the next 2 weeks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Very Short Introduction - Fino

Sherry. The great thing about working with wine is that you have to try things you might normally ignore. To encourage an open minded approach you often have to try them blind, and you have to properly evaluate what you're tasting. This is where my love of sherry has come from.

Selling sherry can be a tricky proposition, we get through a lot of Harvey's Bristol Cream and Croft original at this time of year, mostly sold too, or for, people of a certain generation and whilst there's nothing wrong with either of those there is so much more to sherry than those to can offer.

Fino is at the opposite end of the sherry scale - it's bone dry with a zesty tang, and is at least (at last) enjoying something of a revival due to the popularity of tapas. Fino is a great food wine, for anyone to whom sherry means sweet it can come as a bit of a shock, but (unless you really hate dry wine) stick with it and it grows on you. The thing to know about Fino is the fresher the better. Tio Pepe now print a bottled on date on the back of their bottles and recommend drinking within a year (never buy a dusty bottle of fino, chances are it's hung around far to long) and some others are following suit. Once you have a bottle open it should be treated like wine - kept in the fridge and finished within 2 or 3 days (not left another year).

We tend to start Christmas dinner with sherry (in and with the soup, my mother is a boozy cook) so it means there's always some in want of using over the next few days. To settle down post Christmas glut with a glass of something refreshingly dry and left over party staples (a bit of air dried ham or salami, some olives, a slice of manchego) is something to look forward to.

It's tempting to associate a good dry sherry with golden age detective fiction, especially anything with an academic setting, but as much as I like a match that really immerses me in a book I'm going for something else this time. I have a fluctuating collection of Oxford's A Very Short Introduction's. They arrive unannounced in the post from time to time direct from OUP, or sometimes as presents (they make excellent stocking fillers or little extras for the book lover in your life). The collection fluctuates because D 'borrows' them, sometimes I remember to retrieve them but books which are so well suited to fitting in a pocket should have a nomadic life (but not in a shoplifty way).

I think they're the perfect books for browsing through with a glass of really good fino to hand (and maybe those olives etc). Both deserve and encourage a bit of thoughtful consideration

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The King's Ginger - For the discerning and courageous drinker

My week feels like it's being sponsored by ginger (which on the whole I'm not very fond of). It's mostly come in the form of troublesome gingerbread (new recipe, delicious eating, far to soft for decorations which is why most of mine are now in bits on the floor. Tomorrow it's back to Nigella who knows the importance of a hard biscuit at a time like this.) these things are sent to try us.

Despite that ambivalence towards ginger I really do like the King's Ginger - a really pokey liqueur from Berry Bros and Rudd. The label says they invented it for Edward the seventh in 1903 to help keep the cold out when he was driving. Drunk neat it certainly does that, the first sip is take your breath away ginger (hence the courageous drinker - it has a kick like a mule, in a good way), but after that it mellows out with lemon zest and something sweet.

It's very good on its own, especially after a cold walk but it's also an extremely versatile cocktail ingredient (for both summer and winter drinks). It's website recommends using it to mull wine or cider with, to add to champagne Kir Royal style, and to use instead of ginger wine in a whisky Mac. A measure in a hot chocolate doesn't go amiss, or simply mixed with ginger ale if you want to keep it simple.

In terms of a book choice it seems only fitting to stay with the Edwardian feel of the thing - maybe it's the picture of Edward on the label that does the trick (it's a good enough drink to be able to play up to a mildly eccentric image) but it makes me reach for Dornford Yates, John Buchan, or similar.

I had a binge on Yates about a decade ago - I'm hazy about the details but generally it was all smart young men dashing about the continent in their customised Rolls Royce's rescuing damsels in distress and sorting out dastardly foreigners (not for those in a sensitive or politically correct frame of mind). Reading Buchan's 'The Three Hostages' a couple of months ago reminded me strongly of Yates - it's the same sort of boys own adventure, silly, but essentially entertaining. They're also books that I can share with D who likes this sort of thing so they make good holiday reading.

I have a copy of Buchan's 'A Lost Lady of Old Years' that's been hanging around unread for a while now - I can see myself getting stuck into both the book and the King's Ginger over new year.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Krupnik (Honey Vodka) for the guns

I was having a tidy out a bit ago and found the dregs of a very old bottle of krupnik in the wine rack. It had to go - what was left had lost much of its original flavour, but it reminded me of how good it was, and though it wouldn't be hard to find somewhere selling it, I'd quite like to make my own for next winter.

The bottle I had was Polish, and I had thought it was particularly a Polish thing but Wikipedia says it was invented by monks around the 16th century and is popular in a few Slavic countries. To be fair it's probably popular anywhere it's been tried. It's a heady, warming, blend of honey, spices, and vodka. 

Try as I might I couldn't think of any book I knew that had a polish connection, much less one that complimented the farm house kitchen feel this particular liqueur conjurs for me. In the end I thought about who I used to sell it to when I worked somewhere that stocked it. The answer, excepting Polish ex pats, was the shooting set. 

There turns out to be quite a bit of friendly competition amongst shooting types to provide interesting/different/obscure liqueurs on shoot days along the lines of sloe gin, Kings ginger, or similar. Krupnik falls right into that tradition so it seems quite fitting to pair it with 'BB's 'The Shooting Man's Bedside Book'.

I've been learning to shoot over the last couple of years, strictly clay pigeons - even if I could afford it the idea of shooting birds for sport doesn't appeal very much. Clay pigeons however are a lot of fun, not necessarily an expensive sport (the biggest cost is a gun, after that you don't need much - a hat, glasses, ear defenders, and pockets - and none of it needs to cost much) and is quite accessible for not terribly fit women approaching middle age... It doesn't have the drinking culture that game shooting has, but where guns are involved I can only see that as a plus. 

I picked up 'The Shooting Man's Bedside Book' as a Christmas present for my mother last year (she's the one that sold me on shooting) and liked it so much I got myself the next copy I managed to find. It's a compendium of all sorts of anecdotes, advice, poetry, records of things shot, and as a bonus has some charming illustrations. It's an oddly appealing little book, and just the thing to curl up with by a fire (ideally in a house with hot and cold running dogs on tap) on a cold winter afternoon with that glass of krupnik, and no intention of going anywhere. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hot Buttered Rum and Dickens - in a Christmas mood

Whilst I'm thinking about drinks I still haven't got round to trying (Constantia) there is also buttered rum. I love the idea of this but my experience with a run tea and cinnamon cocktail (disappointing) has put me off a bit. Ruth Ball has a recipe for buttered rum in the excellent Rebellious Spirits but mentions that it can get a bit oily as it cools which doesn't sound so tempting.

however, there is a recipe for Hot Buttered Rum in the Waitrose Christmas drinks list that sound like it might be worth trying. It adds some whipped cream which would cover any floating butter, and just generally makes it look extra appealing.

It seems all you need to do is heat a teaspoon of unsalted butter, a teaspoon of maple syrup, 1/4 of a teaspoon of ground allspice and an optional 3 cloves, in a pan until smooth and combined. Then turn off the heat and stir in 50ml of golden rum, and poor into a mug or heatproof glass. Top up with warm apple juice and whipped cream, finish with a grate of nutmeg. Increase quantities as desired.

I think a drink like this demand Dickens in full on festive force. 'A Christmas Carol' certainly seems appropriate, as do all those collections of Christmas stories. It's only recently I've come round to Dickens (I'm more of a Wilkie Collins fan) after reading 'Great Expectations' a couple of years ago (more of a purl - a hot mix of beer and gin - kind of book) but in these busy days before Christmas snatched moments between writing cards, hunting for presents, baking, and generally organising, only really leave time for short books, or better yet, short stories. It shouldn't be all work and stress over the next few weeks, and this is a combination which sounds appealingly cosy and festive.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jane Austen and Constantia

When I find either a wine I'm familiar with in a book, or a wine in real life that I've only previously met in literature, it's very much like meeting a friend. I'm even happier when a characters preferences run along the same lines as mine.

It's hard to express how excited I was to find that my local wine shop sells Constantia, or the depth of my shame when I say I still haven't bought it, never mind tried it. It's a terrible omission. Constantia has a venerable history, Klein Constantia was the first vineyard in South Africa (established in 1685), it's sweet wine a favourite of Napoleon's, mentioned by Dickens and Baudalaire - and most importantly (because this is where I first found mention of it, and so it's who I associate it with) by Jane Austen in 'Sense and Sensibility'.

The fortunes of Constantia have gone up and down over the years, and the wine available today is a 1980's recreation of the 19th century legend - which is quite good enough to satisfy me. Mrs Jennings recommends it for its healing properties on a disappointed heart which has the ring of personal experience about it. Anyone suffering from a disappointment could do worse than hit a bottle of really good dessert wine (in moderation, obviously) and any Austen fan could do much worse than purchase a bottle of this (maybe from Berry Brothers & Rudd who have been around almost as long as Constantia, and whose shop doesn't look like it can have changed much since Austen's day).

I was going to make it a Christmas present for myself, but spent the money on gin instead (Bath Gin, it has a winking Jane on the label, she presumably wouldn't have drunk gin though, I doubt it would have been respectable enough in her day - though someone may be able to correct me on this). Maybe in the new year (a bottle should be about £35-£40), but definatley the next time I re read any of her books. or if I suffer from a disappointed heart. There's something irresistible about being able to drink  something she mentions like this; it's almost like being able to have a drink with her (well, sort of).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Whisky Galore and Hot Toddy's

Despite any impression I might be giving with these book and booze posts I don't actually drink very much alcohol. Not drinking alone has been a rule ever since I started out in the wine trade and got a close up view of what can happen to habitual drinkers, and as I basically live alone it's a policy that keeps me fairly dry. The one exception to that rule is the occasional hot toddy (for colds and cold days), it's a perfect winter drink and I love them.

My guess is that purists would insist it has to be whisky in a toddy, but I feel that brandy or rum are perfectly acceptable substitutes according to taste and available ingredients. I always have more whisky around than anything else (apart from gin, there's quite a bit of gin in my flat too) so always use it, and it's always a single malt because again that's what I have. I like to keep it simple - a generous splash of whisky in the bottom of a mug, an equally generous slice of lemon given a bit of a squeeze, a spoon of honey to taste. I was looking up recipes before writing this post and am slightly, as well as irrationally, sniffy about how elaborate some of the recipes are (all-spice and juniper are all very well, as indeed is a cinnamon stick, but I'd argue that's moving towards a punch). It's clearly my deep held belief that a toddy should be confined to 3 good things and some almost boiling water. 

The book is obvious - Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie is a treasure. Funny, charming, sharp, and essentially affectionate as well as owing a debt to an actual incident it has a lot to recommend it. The film is just as good and something of a pre Christmas tradition for me. Watching it with some sort of whisky based drink in hand is surely essential - for authenticity it would be a blend (I'll confess that spotting the brands is an essential part of watching the film for me) because that's what we drank before Glenfiddich really launched the single malt market in the 1970's. It would also be neat spirit in the kind of little tot glasses rarely seen outside of charity shops these days - but a toddy better captures the spirit of both book and film, and something warm in a mug that won't knock you out is - well, it's civilised.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and 'Russian' coffee

Back in the '90's when I was a student in Aberdeen (often cold and wet in the winter, and on reflection also in the spring, summer, and autumn) I found a recipe in a cocktail book for Russian Coffee, you take a silver coin and place it in the bottom of a cup, fill it with coffee until you can't see the coin and then with vodka until it appears again. It appealed to me because it was warm, simple, and the coin bit is the sort of detail I like. I have no idea how authentically Russian this practice might be, but it fitted well with the Cold War stereotypes I had.

Tonight I've been hosting a wine tasting (which has made school night drinking seem like a better idea than it actually is) and walked back home through the sort of deluge that makes even ducks decide it's a bit wet. I'm cold, still a bit damp round the edges, and if I didn't need to be up at 6 for work would be drinking one of those coffee's right now. These days it wouldn't be the half and half mix the coin dictates but just enough to give the coffee a kick, but otherwise it's held its appeal for me. It's still the simplicity that appeals, as well as the aromatic, spiky, quality of the coffee (I'd go for something tangy and strong with fruity notes rather than smooth and mild), it's also one of the few times I see the point of vodka (I prefer gin. Because it tastes of something.).

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya does nothing to dispel my preconceived ideas of Communist Russia, I loved her collection of Love Stories and the scary fairy tales of 'There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby'. I have 'There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In' to look forward to. Her combination of fairy tale tropes, dark humour, and merciless observation, are deeply satisfying - and sometimes unexpectedly uplifting, much like the coffee and vodka. This is a combination for a really filthy day, when all you can do is embrace the crappy weather and exploit the atmosphere it creates.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Fairy tales and Madeira

Some months ago Oxford University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of 'Victorian Fairy Tales' edited by Michael Newton, and a bit later The latest edition of Jack Zipes 'The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales'. It is actually my birthday next week, and no pressure family and friends but OUP have set the bar pretty high already (when it wasn't even my birthday). To say I was delighted to come home and find these is an understatement so I've been feeling increasingly guilty for not writing about them.

I've been dipping in and out of 'Victorian Fairy Tales' for months, but still have a few to read, and now would need to reacquaint myself with those read a while ago before I could say anything very sensible. I can unequivocally say that the books a delight though. E. Nesbit's 'Melisande' has made me determined to read more of her (I missed her children's books when I was young, and still only know 'The Railway Children' from the film). It's a gorgeous looking book to - perfect Christmas present material for any fairy tale lovers in your life.

The 'Companion to Fairy Tales' is equally fabulous. Opening it is to start on a reading adventure - following links and finding all sorts of unexpected delights. If anything it's an even better present for fairy tale lovers (if, that is, you know such a person who's had the patience to wait this long to get a copy). I haven't spent nearly enough time with it yet (even now when I know I have a longish list of things to do, and not much time to do them in, before bed it's hard to resist the urge to forget it all and read through the night) but I will. It's a book with a definite magic about it.

These are books which deserve something really special in the way of wine, and happily I have just the thing. There's a touch of magic about Madeira's to. It's an utterly counter intuitive wine. The two things wine usually needs to avoid are heat and oxygen. Madeira is aged in open vats in heated rooms - it means it will basically never change once it's been in the bottle, even if the bottle's been open some time - years even. Almost the first thing I was taught about it was that nothing under 15 years old is really worth drinking. This is debatable, you can still get an idea of how marvellous it is at the younger end, but.... A few years ago I was lucky enough to be at a tasting of a range of older wines. The star was a 1905 vintage - it was a 102 years old when I tried it and easily the most wonderful thing I've ever had. Vintages from the 1920's and '30's were just as exciting. It wasn't just the complexity, or depth and concentration of flavour, but also the freshness of these wines - and the sense of drinking history, and maybe even time itself.

Relatively speaking those very old vintages are not so expensive; £355 for something drinkable from 1912 seems reasonable (extravagant, but reasonable). There are plenty of really interesting bottles to be had for something between £50 - £100 which compares well with really good whisky. My bottle of 1973 is as old as I am and ageing rather better than me. It's a rare treat rather than an everyday drink and maybe something of an acquired taste (good Madeira deserves a bit of thought and effort - learn to love it!). It has a Victorian gravitas about it (possibly because that's when it was last really appreciated) and it would be an acceptably authentic drop to pair with - well I can't help but think of Trollope at a time like this - but it's the fairy tale quality of the wine that appeals to me so fairy tales it is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Pastis and Zola

My interest in wine, and drinks generally, came from an interest in food. That and wine is a romantic sort of thing, or at least it is when you get past wanting to drink it primarily for its alcoholic properties. I really wanted to learn about what went with what, to get those combinations that create a meal that's so much more than the sum of its parts. In the end it took me ages to get a grip on it, and it's still something I find tricky at times. There are rules and guidelines but what really matters is matching people with wine with food - which is a slightly different skill, technically perfect matches mean nothing if you don't actually like the wine.

Thinking about matching booze with books is certainly adding a bit of fun to my working day and it's also making me consider things I wouldn't normally drink. I don't particularly like pastis, or any other anise flavoured drink, but it does one very attractive thing. It louche's - when you add water it produces the opalescent effect that absinthe is so famous for, but without the utterly obnoxious amount of alcohol that absinthe contains.

Pastis also strikes me as just so damn French, and if I'm matching a drink to a book I want it to be an immersive experience. I haven't got very far with my Zola project this year but Radio 4's recent dramatisations have given me a bit of a push, it might be time to make another effort with both the Rougon - Macquart's and a bottle of Henri Bardouin's finest (if it's to be pastis it had better be the best on the high street). It would also see me through a chunk of Oscar Wilde's output, any collection with the words French and decadent in the title, all those Sartre books I still haven't read after being bowled over by 'Nausea' at an impressionable age and so on.

But it's Zola with his vivid descriptions of physical surroundings - overly lush vegetation in the graveyard or the hot house, the grime and smoke in the stock exchange, perfumed boudoirs where things are amiss, who makes me want to make the extra effort.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Mince pies, Murder, and something nutty

The last day of November is almost done, I've dug out the advent calendar I fell in love with back in October (Angela Harding, very pretty), baked some lebkuchen, and whilst I was at it the first mince pies of the season. The best mince pies in the world are my mothers (best to me at any rate, because a) they're really good, and b) hers being the first I ever had are the benchmark by which all others are judged). It's a most unusual fit of post work enthusiasm.

I was feeling quietly smug about the home made mincemeat earlier until I had a flash back to the first time I tried making it. It was a disaster. I used an Elizabeth David recipe that made kilos of the stuff, it was dry, never ending, and dribbled all over the fridge. Thank god for Fiona Cairns and her altogether more sensible recipe (you will not be eyeing it up at the back of the cupboard for the best part of 5 years before you give in and shamefacedly bin it). Homemade mincemeat is minimal effort (the only bit I find tiresome is chopping the apple) and because it is dryer than shop bought doesn't weld itself to the tin like some sort of red hot superglue (a win).

Despite rarely drinking them, I find liqueurs hard to resist, the more unlikely they are the more appealing they seem. Inevitably it turns out the money would have been better spent on gin which I know I like (in moderation). My bottle of Fratello (like Frangellico, but disappointingly not in a bottle shaped like most of a monk) was bought primarily for cooking but I've had it for a year now and it really needs using up. A good slug of it went in the mincemeat so it seemed reasonable to drink it with a mince pie whilst deciding what the perfect book to finish the scene would be. It tastes like toasted hazelnuts, vanilla, and syrup so it's basically a very acceptable food match.

Book wise it's a bit trickier, Frangellico hasn't really been around that long, though traditional hazelnut liqueurs of some sort must have been. It's tempting to choose Hoffmann's 'The Devil's Elixir' because this isn't really the sort of drink I approve of (to sweet, not gin or whisky) for myself, and then the bottle is shaped like a monk, but it doesn't fit the tone of the book.

Mavis Doriel Hay's 'The Santa Klaus Murder' on the other hand... The British library have just re released this with a smart new jacket to fit in with the rest of the crime classics series. I wrote about it a couple of years ago Here when it first appeared at the begining of the series. Liqueurs like Fratello aren't what I think of as serious drinks, they're fun, designed to go into frivolous cocktails or Nigella style puddings. 'The Santa Klaus Murder' is similarly fun. A puzzle to be solved along with a few hours of escapism into a comfortable 1930's world (murders aside) and who knows, maybe the Melbury's are coffee and liqueur people too.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mulled wine and cookbooks.

Normally about this time of year I do a top ten titles from the last 12 months post, and I do it in November because December is always crazy at work and I don't have the energy (even if I have the time) to think about much but that and Christmas. This year I thought I'd try and do something different though and mix books with work.

My day job is selling wine (beers and spirits too), and despite this being my 17th Christmas in the trade I still love the stuff, love talking about it, and above all love learning about it. (I'll draw a discreet veil over the bits I don't enjoy so much but cardboard cuts are even worse than paper cuts, and we open a lot of boxes). So between now and Christmas each post should have a drink and my idea of appropriate reading material to go with it, which in my head sounds like a fun idea, we'll see. But first a disclaimer. It's not meant to be prescriptive - the choice of a book is clearly as much a matter of personal taste as the choice of drink to go with it!

That said I have some very strong feelings about mulled wine. I can confidentially expect to sell somewhere between 3 and 4 tonnes of it in the next 3 weeks. Inevitably we will totally run out by the 21st of December, and I will explain to far to many people that making your own is much nicer. They will tell me it's to much trouble (it's not) and there will be a moment of resentful silence all round. Then we'll sell out of the sachets anyway.

Mulled wine is an odd one. The premixed bottles so many people go crazy for (romantically labelled 'aromatic wine based beverage') is made of the cheapest ingredients, is everywhere before Christmas, nowhere after it when the days are just as cold and dark, and always disappoints me. The sachets (either the over priced but pretty things with the whole cinnamon stick, or the functional tea bag affairs) are okay but demand that you make quite a lot. Wine mulling syrup on the other hand is brilliant. You can buy it, but it's also really easy to make.

This recipe is from Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Christmas', an excellent winter cookbook and not just for Christmas. This will make enough to fill 2 x 250ml bottles, each bottle will do 1 quantity (basically a bottle of wine), there's no reason not to make up lots more. You need 200ml black currant juice, 75ml lemon juice, 20 cloves, 10 cardamom pods (lightly crushed) 2 small cinnamon sticks, and 200g of caster sugar. Chuck everything into a pan, cover, bring to a gentle boil, simmer for 30 mins, drain through a sieve to catch the bits, then stick into sterilised bottles. It will keep for months. When it's wanted heat it up with a bottle of cheap but drinkable red with a 150g of raisins and the same of almonds.

If you want to mull cider or white wine use apple juice instead. What I love about this is how versatile it is. It can be thrown into fruit juice (any mix of grape, pomegranate, cranberry - well, anything you like really) for a non alcoholic version. Adjusted with more or less sugar/ spices to suit personal taste, and used to rejuvenate any slightly tired, half drunk, bottle of wine that's hung around for a few days. Make plenty and it's there for you all winter too.

There are no shortage of book recommendations to accompany mulled wine, Dickens in Christmas mood probably drank buckets of something similar, Trollope when he's going on at length about hunting seems like a good bet too, and it probably wouldn't be out of keeping with Chaucer either but I'm going with cookbooks.

This - the begining of advent, is my favourite part of the festive season. It's still calm enough to enjoy making plans and I enjoy sitting with a pile of cookbooks looking for inspiration - not even with any serious intention of making half the things I bookmark. It's the time to check cupboards for ingredients, think about mince pies, candied oranges, gingerbread for the tree, to take pleasure in the prospect of cake to come. Mulled wine (technically Glogg in this case) is the perfect accompaniment; warm and fragrant it takes the sting out of cold, dark, wet, evenings just as the thought of all those other good things to share does.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Murder of a Lady - Anthony Wynne

I do love the British Library Crime Classics series, it feels like it goes from strength to strength, or maybe it's that this years offerings have just been particularly to my taste. Either way I get more and more enthusiastic about them. 'Death of a Lady' has such a splendid title that it would have been hard to resist (the cover is rather lovely too), add to that a Scottish setting (mid Argyle, specifically the loch Fyne area which I know just well enough to have a good visual image whilst reading) and the appeal is complete.

Duchlan castle is a brooding confection of Scottish baronial discomfort on the shores of Loch Fyne, home to the laird, his sister, Mary Gregor, his daughter in law, grandson, and a handful of faithful retainers. When Mary Gregor is found dead by her bed in a locked room, with no sign of a murderer or a weapon the first reaction of the community is shock. Who would do such a thing to a saintly old lady. Inspector Dundas is called in but soon has to admit defeat, it also happens that the eminent Doctor and gifted amateur sleuth, Eustace Hailey, is also on the scene. He has some different ideas to Dundas, but as the inexplicable deaths start to proliferate, he to seems at a loss and it starts to look like there may be something supernatural afoot.

There are times when it all got a little confusing, people popped up in odd places and Edinburgh and Glasgow sometimes seemed interchangeable (for plot purposes here they are) but is a minor quibble. The locked door mystery, and the subsequent murders are all on the face of it equally baffling. For fans of the genre it may be possible, may even be easy, to guess the how, but the who came as a surprise (certainly to me). It turns out that Mary Gregor, far from being a saint was a hard and difficult woman with a personality that allowed her to subjugate her family, only her brother is truly sorry to have lost her, and then because he has no idea how to cope without her.

The how is ingenious, the increasingly hysterical atmosphere which has otherwise sensible people believing in the possibility of a mythical fish creature as a murderer (it's not a huge spoiler, it's on the back blurb) carried me along too. I didn't believe in the killer fish, but the darkening atmosphere was just the right side of a ghost story to hold me in thrall. The other thing that makes this book stand out is the psychological element. The slow unravelling of the Gregor family history is far more horrifying than the fish men, and Mary Gregor a much more convincing monster by the end.

In truth though, it's the puzzle that matters most here, and it's a thoroughly satisfying one. Wynne undoubtedly has fun with it, and there has to be a little suspension of disbelief, but it's a good old fashioned page turner and I loved every moment of it.