Thursday, February 28, 2019

As You Like It at the RSC

We hadn't particularly planned to see As You Like It this season, but rush tickets were to much of a bargain to resist so we made an impromptu trip last night (as a non driver I'm inexpressibly grateful to have a friend who is even keener to go to the theatre than I am and happy to do the driving).

Those rush tickets were more of a bargain than we could have hoped, it's a delightful production that we would have been sorry to miss. I've always been a little bit ambivalent about Shakespeare's plays, too often they leave me cold. Something that I've learnt over the last few years is that I find the work of some of his contemporaries or immediate successors far more interesting, even when they're not technically as good. Shakespeare casts a long shadow but he's not the only playwright of his era worth listening to. This 'As You Like It' pulled us both in though and felt genuinely delightful.

Something else that it took me a long time to realise is that the same play can be so very different from production to production so it's only relatively recently that I've become really interested in seeing the same play again and appreciating the shifts in interpretation (I know this should have been obvious, but outside of London you have to take the theatre you can get, and the opportunities are limited).

This production is directed by Kimberley Sykes (her Dido, Queen of Carthage was also excellent a couple of years ago) has a 50/50 gender balance for the cast (more about that Here) and the character of Audrey is played by Charlotte Arrowsmith who is deaf. The casting is colour blind too, but that feels normal now (as it should).

To get that 50/50 balance some of the characters have had their genders flipped, so Jacques (who has a lot of the most famous lines) is played by Sophie Stanton, and the clergyman Oliver Martext becomes Olivia. Coming to the play without any of the preconceptions of familiarity I just know that Sophie Stanton was good in the role, in both cases gender didn't feel relevant.

More difficult is changing Silvius the shepherd to Silvia the shepherdess. Silvius is in love with Phoebe, who has fallen for Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. Rosalind/Ganymede promises she will marry no woman but Phoebe, but if Phoebe will not have Ganymede she must agree to marry Silvius. When Ganymede is shown to be Rosalind, Phoebe concedes the impossibility of any union, but if she then marries Silvia why should she have rejected Rosalind? That union isn't impossible in this scenario at all. Having a woman play Silvius would work perfectly well, changing Silvius to Silvia feels clumsy.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Audrey is excellent. I'm a fan of Sandy Grierson who plays Touchstone anyway (and love this performance which brings a feral touch of menace to the fool) and they play beautifully off each other. It's the character of William, also in love with Audrey, who signs for her until Touchstone runs him off changing this from potentially tedious low comedy to something that's much more finely nuanced - and still really funny.

David Ajao is an endearing Orlando, but what really made this for us are the performances of Lucy Phelps as Rosalind and Sophie Khan Levy as her cousin, Celia. The reviews I've seen all praise Phelps' Rosalind, deservedly - she's very good, but so is Sophie Khan Levy. The relationship between the two on stage radiates affection, it's the warm heart of the playand it's that pair of performances that made it such a joyful experience.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Lemon and Vanilla marmalade (Cocktails)

There's so much news at the moment that I'm finding it hard to concentrate on much beyond current affairs. I don't want to think about Brexit here, because it's everywhere else all day, every day - Leicester voted to remain and my customers are for the most part as unhappy about it as I am - and it's all a bit exhausting. I'm certainly not managing to concentrate on reading books.

It's my weekend off though, the weather has been glorious, today I saw what's thought to be Emmeline Pankhurst's personal cosh (her great grandson is our head of police) which was unexpected, and I've made marmalade.

The marmalade is the Leafy Lemon and Vanilla from Lillie O'Brien's 'Five Seasons of Jam'. It's a while since I opened this book, but I was after something inspiring to do with some Sorrento lemons (I knew I wanted marmalade) and it's just the place to look for that. It's also made me think I need to plan ahead a bit for other things as they come into season.

One thing I really like about this book is the relatively modest quantities of preserve you end up with,  this batch made 5 jars, which is enough. The Seville recipe I have left me with 14 jars; daunting if you don't have much cupboard space.

Most of the batch is still cooling in its jars as I write this, but there were a couple of spoons left and so we made some Marmalade cocktails with it. The results were extremely encouraging. To make enough for two you want the juice of a large lemon, a couple of dessert spoons of marmalade, and enough gin for both of you and plenty of ice. Shake everything together, check you like it, adjust proportions if necessary, strain and drink.

Because both the lemon juice and marmalade are throwing their weight around in this the trick is to find the right balance for your palate rather than being precise about measurements. I like a small cocktail that I can drink in good time, whilst it's cold, without having to gulp it, plenty of lemon because I love the sour flavour, and lighter on the marmalade than some recipes I've seen. The type of marmalade you use will make a difference too. Fortunately experimenting to get it right is fun.

The lemon and Vanilla marmalade made for an almost sherbety edge to begin with, and then a subtle, but distinct, Vanilla hit on the back palate - a really nice combination that I think we'll enjoy again. Definitely worth the effort of making the marmalade for on its own, never mind the toast possibilities tomorrow morning.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Lateral Cooking - Niki Segnit

It's been a busy week at work - Valentine's Day being the first big booze pushing opportunity of the year, but inbetween stacking shelves with ever more cheap pink fizz (D, and I bless him for this, knows better, he turned up with Pol Roger which is absolutely the way to my heart - a proper treat) and pink gin (left over stock to be recycled for Mother's Day) I've been catching up with podcasts.

I might already have said this, but podcasts are this winter's big discovery. There's a couple, most by friends or acquaintances, that I've listened to for the last few years, but I hadn't bothered to look for anything on subjects I'm interested in rather than just by people I like. It's been a bit of a revelation.  Catching up on the Honey & Co one has been a particular joy given that they've interviewed so many food writers I really like.

It's also been a reminder that I have a big pile of cookbooks that I've been meaning to write about, including Niki Segnit's 'Lateral Cooking'. I loved 'The Flavour Thesaurus' when it came out, so was always going to be interested in whatever she wrote next. 'Lateral Cooking' more than lived up to any expectations I had for it - it'll be interesting to see if it gains the same sort of classic status as the first book.

What I hadn't realised before listening to the podcast is that Segnit doesn't have a food industry background. Less surprising is that she had done some W.S.E.T courses. Flavour wheels are popular in wine, beers, and spirits education (because they're really useful) and one of the things that really appealed to me about the thesaurus was how much sense it made from a wine perspective (both in terms of how you think about flavours, and how you match wine and food). Both books have been things she looked to buy, but couldn't find so wrote herself, and both are slightly mind blowing in their scope.

'Lateral Cooking' is the perfect book for everybody from the beginner upwards. Even if you're so expert that it doesn't have much to teach you about technique it's still a likely source of inspiration, and it's still going to be an absolute pleasure to read. Segnit is brilliant at mixing anecdote with instruction which makes this one hell of a rabbit hole to fall down. Open it at any page and you soon get sucked in - either by the technical detail or it's general joy de vivre.

I armed myself with a copy of Delia Smith when I first left home, at the time it was the best bet I could find to answer any questions I might have had. This is the book I probably wanted. It takes a set of starting points and builds on them; so flatbreads take you to scones and soda bread, to yeasted breads, to buns, to brioche, to babas and savarins with any number of variations or modifications along the way.

Master the basic templates and the world is your oyster is the essential philosophy here, the how being more important than the what. But if you know how, or can easily find out, then it's a relatively simple matter to work out what you can do with what you've got, or can easily find. Except none of that gives much sense of the scale or variety of this book. Or it's charm. Or how you might well forget to cook anything at all because you've got so engrossed in reading it.

On which note I'm going to retire to bed with it, it's been a long week, we drank the champagne already, and I can't think of a better treat than this right now.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl - Kay Plunkett - Hogge

A memoir of food, family, film and fashion.

I found Kay Plunkett - Hogge's books fairly late when I bought a copy of 'Aperitivo' about 18 months ago. It was one of those things that doesn't look like it's for you (I have never developed a taste for Campari, or any real enthusiasm for Aperol - I do not care for Negroni's, and I have strong opinions about Martini's that are diametrically opposed to Kay's*) but you end up loving and finding really useful.

There was a good bit about vermouth in it - an underwritten drink - and it's an enjoyable book to read.  The Sherry and Tapas book remains on my wish list, and from what I've seen of 'Make Mine a Martini' it's full of excellent drinks advice too - but space is short, and so is money. I can't buy all the books, however much I want to.

I did get 'Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl' after a twitter exchange on Thursday evening though, and its seen me happily through the weekend. It's a sort of memoir with a couple of relevant recipes to round off each chapter. Kay Plunkett - Hogge has had an interesting life, early years in Thailand, and a varied career in food, fashion, and film. She's funny, opinionated, and has some excellent advice to impart.

This book is a light skim through her life, concentrating on the stories and memories she wants to share and I more or less read it in two sittings. Somewhere about half way through I went from thinking that it was fun but light to feeling it was something more than that. Her thoughts on clean eating where one turning point. It's a short and pithy section that makes the point that if the would be clean eating guru isn't photogenic they're not going to have much of a career.

Of all the things you can say about Clean Eating as a fashion what better highlights the underlying problems with it than that observation? The chapters 'An English Cook in a California Kitchen' and "It's All Fusion, Stupid!" are really worth reading at a moment where perceived authenticity is so highly valued, and just after the stramash about M&S's inauthentic vegan Biryani wrap with its attendant accusations of cultural appropriation.

There's also excellent advice about throwing parties, how to party through a coup (a stiff whisky and soda is part of the answer), the horror of finding a (live) rat in the toilet, or a snake in the bath. Many useful reminders that if a job isn't right you can change it, and so much more - and all with recipes to match. She's also absolutely right about cupcakes, and pretty much every thing else she writes about.

More than anything though it's the feeling of being in really excellent company when you read this book that's made it such a delight. Kay talks about thinking 'What would Martha (Stewart) do?' in the midst of various domestic mishaps. I think my mantra might well be what would Kay do? I'm pretty sure the answer would be to mix an excellent Martini and make the best of it which is advice I can follow.

*The perfect Martini described here is very dry, with just a dash of Noilly Prat vermouth in it. My preference is roughly a third vermouth, to two thirds gin.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Norman Ackroyd: The Furthest Lands

It turns out that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park doesn't take as long to get to from Leicestershire as I had assumed it might - it's straight up the M1 from here and about an hour and twenty minutes away. Which is good news, because it made going to see the Norman Ackroyd exhibition there much easier than we expected.

I've been a fan of Ackroyd's work since I first actively noticed it in an edition of the Archipelago journal about a decade ago. Mostly I've bought the occasional facsimile sketch books since then, and one very beautiful etching of Scarborough when money wasn't quite so tight. That came from the Zillah Bell gallery in Thirsk where I spent an interesting quarter of an hour in a small room with a lot of Ackroyds. But I was there to look at something specific and there was only limited time to yearn after things I couldn't have.

This current exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (on until the 24th of February) has been the best opportunity for us to go and look, not only at more, but at lots more together in a way that shows the work evolving over a couple of decades. Ackroyd is an absolute master of his medium, this exhibition has 77 etchings and 6 watercolours (all from his Shetland sketchbook) which explore the western edge of Britain and Ireland.

Another print was outside of my current budget, but I've got the exhibition catalogue and a tea towel and I'm happy with that. We got to the YSP early, which was ideal because most of the Ackroyd exhibition is displayed going up the stairs, and along a narrow corridor, before ending up in a small room. You want to be able to look at it when it's quiet, otherwise you're stuck in a very narrow corridor, or busy staircase being jostled by people heading to the cafe.

Every time I've been to the YSP it's rained. With conviction. Today was no exception so there's still a lot of exploring to do should we ever manage to hit it on a dry day, but we did manage to see quite a bit of Giuseppe Penone's 'A Tree in the Wood', or at least I did. D spent most of his time looking at the architecture of the underground gallery and admiring the quality of the concrete. We were both happy though.

Lightning Struck Tree (bronze and gold) was the piece that sucked me in, with a split and hollowed fir tree taking up most of the interior galleries a close second. Altogether it was a very good day out (the cafe is excellent, and so is the gift shop which is a nice bonus) and it's very handy to have been reminded that the YSP is a perfectly feasible day trip.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Drinking

Dry January is done for another year, I don't join in with it but as someone who makes their living selling alcohol I'm very aware of it. One noticible thing this time has been that whilst more people tell me they're doing it, our sales have been unusually buoyant for January which suggests that those who haven't, have been buying more than usual.

Because it's how I make my living I've also got a whole lot of opinions on drinking and now seems like as good a time as any to share them - not so much because people haven't been drinking, but because of the number of often judgemental articles about not drinking that January throws up. Like This one about Anne Hathaway which I find particularly troubling. Hathaway says she doesn't like the person she is when she's had a few, so has made the perfectly reasonable decision to avoid alcohol whilst her son is under age so he doesn't witness that.

An increasing, and enjoyable, part of my job is helping customers find alcohol free alternatives to their normal choices. There are some really good de alcoholised beers around (worth experimenting to find your own preference but the easily available range of these is increasing all the time), and excellent soft drinks aimed at adults. It's possible to find reasonably good de alcoholised wine (the Torres range is worth looking for, slightly more expensive than some, but it gets the best feedback by a mile). I'm not a fan of the alcohol free 'spirits' (distilled water with botanicals) they're expensive, and I've yet to find one that pulls its weight in a drink - but if you like them that's great.

For my money if I'm looking for a gin and tonic substitute I'll stick with just the tonic - I particularly like the fever tree aromatic tonic with angostura bark for this - plenty of ice, and a good garnish which might include a couple of crushed juniper berries. If it doesn't have to be 100% alcohol free a couple of drops of bitters will add variety to your normal mixer. Otherwise sparkling water mixed with all sorts of cordials or fruit juices remain an under rated option.

It's also true that when the drains got fixed yesterday I celebrated with a gin cocktail rather than a cup of tea. Getting the use of my kitchen sink and washing machine back made me positively giddy with joy. The perfect moment to enjoy one of those gins I keep collecting, but it was the relatively elaborate process of building the drink (and thevwashing up that created) that made it special.

And this is a key thing for me. I like a drink, any drink that isn't tap water, to be a treat made with a certain amount of ceremony and ritual. That's what makes a cup of tea, especially if it's loose leaf, or coffee (always freshly ground beans, never instant) something to anticipate for hours. I don't drink wine alone - there's not much fun in it for me if I can't talk about it, and I want wine that gives me something to think and talk about.

I hate feeling even slightly drunk - even more than I dislike hangovers, so I firmly believe in moderation. I also hate dealing with drunks - especially at work. It’s much easier to deal with junkies than drunks. Drunks are horribly unpredictable. So whilst I don’t personally hold with dry January I’m happy to support anyone who is doing it whatever their reasons. If you’ve been seriously overdoing it in December it should certainly be an easy way to drop weight and improve your sleep.

For me though this is the time of year when I have all the nice things I’ve been given for birthday or Christmas, and more leisure at home to enjoy them in (in a moderate and responsible manner). This is also why I’ve come to believe that the best way for a more or less single person to enjoy alcohol in moderation is through spirits.

The small effort of finding the right glass, and whatever other paraphernalia mixing a cocktail calls for is enough to give it a sense of occasion, or to put me off if I’m feeling lazy. A single drink is enough, and with long lived spirits there’s no pressure to finish the bottle before it oxidises as there is with wine. I can’t always find the enthusiasm for solo cooking, but pausing to mix a drink well is also a small act of self care.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Black Sea - Caroline Eden

 'Black Sea, Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light'. I grabbed this book the moment I saw it in my local Waterstones, pausing only for a lengthy conversation about how beautiful it is, before carrying it home in triumph late last autumn. I've mentioned it in passing a few times since but not written about it in detail, partly because I'm still reading it.

It won the James Avery special commendation award at the André Simon awards last night though and that's spurred me on to write this post because I'm going to be still reading this book for quite a long time. It lives by my bed for handy end of the day reading - first the recipes, then the chapters in no particular order, and soon back to the beginning to go from start to finish.

It's a remarkable book, and not quite like anything else I've read. I have plenty of food book which are part memoir or travelogue, or memoirs which talk a lot about food, or books that in some way mix food with a particular philosophy, but nothing that strikes the particular balance that Eden finds for this book.

I bought it assuming it was primarily a cook book, but it isn't - and although you could use it for nothing else but the recipes, if you did that you'd be seriously missing out. Thanks to Annis for pointing me towards the Honey & Co podcast (it's only really in the last couple of months that I've started really exploring podcasts so I'm late to discovering a lot of good stuff, but catching up is a delight) I caught up with Eden's episode about 'Black Sea' at the weekend which builds on the introduction.

Both explain that 'Black Sea' is meant as much as a travel book as anything else, and I think it's really the travel section that it belongs in (although it in food that you'll find it in any bookshop). The recipes give you the some of the flavour and aroma of the places that Eden is talking about, both through the traditional recipes that look to be a mix between home cooking and cafe or simple restaurant food, and those inspired by particular moments, like the Potemkin Cocktail, or other things which have caught her imagination.

Mark Twain's Debauched Ice Cream is just such a recipe, Twain wrote about eating ice cream in Odessa, he doesn't give specific details but the supposition that it would "...have been something simple but decadent." seems reasonable. What we get is an easy no churn recipe based on condensed milk with a generous shot of rum. I will be trying it just as soon as the weather turns warm enough, it's a combination which sounds as seductive as it does simple to make. The Potemkin is brilliant, and rather better than the Fireside cocktails it's based on. (At least that's true of the way I've made them).

Overall the book is structured on a journey around the Black Sea focusing on the three cities of Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon, with some stops along the way. Each chapter works well as a stand alone essay, full of stories, history, and Eden's own experience. It's meant to be read cover to cover like a travel book, and because it's a travel book I'm really enjoying the photographs that illustrate it, instead of finding them a distraction from the food. (Cookbooks with page after page of arty non food related images are a pet hate).

It's an overview as seductive as that ice cream recipe, of a region that I knew next to nothing about before I started reading. I cannot overstate how much I love this book, or how beautiful it is - the cover is particularly stunning - or how much I enjoy Eden's authorial voice which has a pitch perfect blend of erudition, warmth, and charm. She is the ideal guide, or maybe I mean host - always ready with a cocktail, a snack, a story, the suggestion of a book to read, and somewhere to explore.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Selected Stories - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Around about ten years ago I was collecting old Virago Modern Classics as diligently as I could in charity and second hand shops. I probably have something like 400 of them now - I'll make a proper list one day - but it was a good time for collecting. Plenty turned up and they were cheap, and now I have an excellent library of things just waiting for me.

One of the authors I got quite a bit of was Sylvia Townsend Warner, mostly because I thought I should like her, although I didn't really get on with the only one I tried to read (Lolly Willows) and haven't picked them up since. I'll give Lolly Willows another go sometime, but for now I'm particularly grateful to find I had a collection of her short stories.

It was the Handheld edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' that encouraged me to explore again, and more short stories seemed like a good place to start. My copy is in danger of falling apart - I'll replace it with a more robust one if I get the chance - because is it ever full of treasures.

There are some of the 'Kingdoms of Elfin' stories in here, along with things from I guess more or less every collection she wrote - more to list and consider tracking down. I started at the end of her writing life when I read 'Kingdoms of Elfin', which I understood to be a departure in subject matter for her. Using fairies as subjects might well be a departure but the themes and tone turn out to be more universal to her work.

There's a gentle melancholy that runs through these stories that gives them a particularly haunting quality. There's also a streak of humour for balance, it's a seductive combination - the sort of thing that has you thinking just one more, and kept me up reading far to late every time I picked this book up. Add to that her perception and sympathy, along with her willingness to tackle taboos and throw in startling images and the appeal deepens.

I can't really pick favourites from so many, I just feel I've found a book that's an absolute treasure by an author who offers far more than I had imagined from that half hearted attempt at Lolly Willows. Maybe it helps that I particularly like short stories, especially when they feel complete in themselves - as these do. Each one feels like a masterpiece, as well as a masterclass in the genre, to me - and I have all the enthusiasm of the late convert.*

*I'm still waiting for the plumbing issues to be resolved. The current plumber is not being especially communicative - he was meant to tell me when he was coming round today, he didn't, although apparently he has inspected the drains. After I called and emailed him he's asked when I can give the drain people access, but has not so far indicated when will work for them. Or if he's asking any of the affected neighbors for the same access. So it might be tomorrow, it might be Wednesday, I might have to mess work around, I might not. I won't sleep well because I'll spend half the night worrying about it, and I'd like to think I could have written rather better about this book if I wasn't so distracted by blocked bloody drains,

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Domestic Woes

I had planned to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner's collected short stories today, but domestic upsets are proving to much of a distraction to do her justice, so I'm falling back on what's bothering me instead. If nothing else I'll feel a bit better for writing it down.

On Thursday both the bath tap (quickly fixed) and the kitchen drainage gave up in me. With no obvious local blockage in the pipes the plumber tried a drain cleaner. Which didn't work. I live in a flat so the next step was to approach the management company because access to communal areas might well be necessary, and it's not altogether clear who bears responsibility once the pipes leave my property.

On Friday they promised a plumber would be in touch, he was, on Saturday, to say that I probably didn't need a plumber but a drain specialist- but that they wouldn't be at work over the weekend (I was) so he'd pass my details on, on Monday. Why we couldn't have had this conversation on Friday beats me, but never mind. At that point it looked like my flat was the only one with a problem.

Saturday's plumber, who I've very much taken against, suggested that it might be an ice issue - which it could be for all I know - because I was on the ground floor and all my neighbors are higher up and therefore warmer. I'm not on the ground floor, there are another 7 flats on this level, it's been colder, but whatever. The agents happily pointed out that if it was just me I'd be paying all the bills.

Because misery loves company, and doesn't like having tradesmens bills for undisclosed sums hanging over her (if the tradesmen ever appear) it was a relief to discover that both next door and upstairs are suffering in the same way. Meanwhile upstairs efforts to unblock the drain started coming through my sink. A trouble shared will at least be an expense divided, and knowing it's not just he has taken the edge off the 'why does this always happen to Me' paranoia that was brewing.

It could be worse, the bathroom is fine, and plenty of people have offered to do a load of washing for me if necessary. Which doesn't stop it being inconvenient. I don't like dirty washing hanging around on the floor, I hate having to wash up in the bathroom sink (there's nowhere to put anything so everything needs to go straight back to the kitchen as it's washed - it takes ages), it changes what I feel I can cook (the less washing up the better) and it's surprising how hard it is to remember not to use the sink.

Everything from under the sink is all over the place as well against the probability that someone is going to want access to the pipes. My kitchen doesn't feel like mine, something I find very dispiriting.   Hand washing is a pain too, and the amount of extra time being spent in normally simple chores eats away at reading time. The background stress of not knowing when it will be fixed isn't helping me sleep either.

After a bit of time on twitter you can bet I'm seeing this as a Brexit metaphor too. It doesn't take much of a disruption from the domestic norm to have a profound effect on your everyday life. Losing easy access to a washing machine is showing me that.