Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 - Goodbye to all that

I've been avoiding doing any sort of round up post of the last decade and am not about to start now in any serious way. It's the decade in which I became middle aged with all that that entails in the way of loss, aches, and pains. It's also a decade that I spent in a job I really didn't like much (it paid the bills and was in the right place, I worked with some great people and I'm grateful for that but if I'd known how happy redundancy would make me I would have gone long ago).

It is good to have this blog, started in 2009, to look back on for reading and other highlights, but right now I mostly want to be looking forward because despite a lot of the crap going on around us right now (and still having the absolutely revolting cold that made me a misery over Christmas) I'm personally feeling hopeful for my future in a way I haven't for a long time.

I'm also in the Scottish borders, which is one of my favourite places anywhere with D (just as we were 10 years ago) with good company, wine, and food, to look forward too tonight. And a lot of good books - some that I bought with me, and some that I bought from the magnificent Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells.

Whatever 2020 brings, I know it's got some great reading in it.

With all of that in mind I hope everybody reading this is also feeling more or less hopeful for what the New Year might bring, and has as many books lined up to look forward to as I do. Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Christmas Books

It's been quite a subdued Christmas this year - my mother has really unpleasant back problems, my sisters partner unexpectedly died earlier this year, my partners father is 93 and has been in and out of hospital. I've had a really nasty cold (and no job), and my mothers dog has had diarrhea (probably because she ate more turkey than the rest of us put together along with quite a few pigs in blankets).

Despite that it's also been a really good Christmas for me, mostly because I've had time to appreciate the people around me. If that sounds a bit trite after 20 years of being lucky to get 2 days off together for Christmas I can't tell you the difference it makes, or how much more I've noticed the effort my mother (particularly struggling with back pain) goes to.

She is also the source of a lot of the books I was given and I really appreciate those too.

I'm excited by all these (sorry for the terrible picture, I'm blaming the cold, and I'm away from home for now so can't get a better one - they'll all get more attention soon). The book at the bottom of the pile is Kate Young's 'The Little Library Year' which is an absolute delight - and apparently half price at the moment in Waterstones. I can particularly recommend it for both tempting looking recipes and being lovely to read. Maybe because Young is from Australia and when she came to the U.K. our seasons were new to her, or perhaps because of the way she takes books as an inspiration as well, it all feels fresh.

The Kate Hawkings book 'Aperitif' is also a joy to read. Mostly though I've been spending time in Kevin Crossley-Holland's folktales. Technically this is a children's book, which has been perfect for someone with a disgusting cold, but it's not childish, and I really love a good folk or fairy tale.

Voyaging Out by Carolyn Trant was a present to myself. It's a history of British women artists from suffrage to the sixties and looks amazing. I haven't bought it away with me but its a big part of my plans for January.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Bollinger Grand Année The Frayed Atlantic Edge, and Happy Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m at my mothers drinking champagne. Specifically Bollinger’s Grand Année  2008*. We have a tradition that we drink the nicest bottle I have on Christmas Eve. It’s very civilised (though now I’m out of the wine trade the best bottle might not be quite as grand as this next year).

Selfish or not I think the best bottles are better shared with the few, rather than the many - although wine is always better shared. I don’t really hold with waiting for a special occasion for good bottles either. The bottle can be the occasion, or choose a day, like today, to carve out a little bit of time to enjoy something good.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge has been sitting next to my bed for a while now, I’ve dipped in and out of it, and I plan on it being my New Year read. I could start it in earnest tonight but I know there’s a lot of books with my name on them under the tree (or specifically the footstool the dog likes to lounge on) which means I’ll be to distracted by them tomorrow to concentrate on any one thing.

I hope everybody reading this is enjoying similarly nice things tonight and looking forward to good things tomorrow whatever they may be. Happy Christmas.

*It’s rich, full bodied, and fruity with a yeasty character (brioche and toast) and every bit as good as you would hope. I absolutely believe it’s worth the money, though I don’t always think it’s worth that much of my money. I’m drinking this in circumstances where I can think about it and appreciate it. If there were more of us it would be a decent N.V (Taittinger, Pol Roger, Laurent Perrier, Bollinger - all excellent and widely available, there are many more smaller labels from excellent growers worth exploring as well) any good champagne is a treat, this Bollinger is my wine nerd treat.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sylvia Townsend Warner and batch made Martinis

Because I like the preparation for Christmas more than the actual event I’m already more or less organised (presents wrapped or distributed, all but ready to head off to my mother’s tomorrow- and yes, this is probably much easier because I don’t have children) and looking forward to Boxing Day and beyond.

If 20+ years in retail taught me anything about this time of year it’s that preparation really helps, as do well managed expectations, and not worrying about the things you didn’t get round too (this year was going to be all about biscuits but things kept getting in the way, and if I really want gingerbread I can make some in January after we’ve eaten the Christmas cake).

For now I’m done with running around, not least because this cold I’ve come down with is making me feel like a dish rag. More than that I want to spend some quality time with my Christmas tree before I have to say goodbye to it, and whilst I’m doing that I’m planning some book buying (for I have book tokens to spend, and it’s fun). I’ve been playing with a Persephone wish list, but I’m particularly excited by some of the books from Handheld press. Particularly Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘Of Cats and Elfin’ coming out on the 20th of January.* There’s a discount available on Kingdoms of Elfin and a collection of Warner’s letters until the end of December.

The Handheld list is really worth a good browse if you’re not already familiar with it, and it’s going from strength to strength, so definitely sign up for the newsletter. There’s more Women’s Weird coming in the autumn, and as the last collection edited by Melissa Edmundson was so good this is big news.

Batch made cocktails are another good bit of forward planning for the next week or so. The Martini family lends itself particularly well to being made ahead like this, and are useful for parties, or just for having to hand. It’s simply a case of mixing your preferred Martini (in my case a Gin and It, Negroni’s are also going to work like this) in bottle rather than glass quantity. Add about 10% of the liquid volume in water (this is to adjust for the dilution that ice would normally cause as you stir your drink) and pop it in the freezer.

When you take it out the freezer it’s worth letting it defrost just a little biting your not going to finish the lot in one go. If you don’t you get a lot of alcohol (which hasn’t frozen) in the first drinks you pour, and a lot less (with more ice) every time after that it comes out the freezer.

*I actually have a review copy of this so I know it’s amazing. The other thing about that January date is that it’s good to have something to anticipate to ward of those post holiday blues.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Wines for Christmas Day

I’ve been wary about writing a general guide for wine at Christmas - it’s something that was always a  bit of a bone of contention at work - because one size does not fit all. There are general rules about wine and food matching, but there are also a lot of variables so bespoke advice is better. Those variables include, but are not limited to, what you’re eating, how it’s flavoured, how many people there are, how many of them are drinking alcohol, what people like, what traditions people have, how much money they wish to spend, and how serious they are about their wine.

People who are serious about their wine will have all of this covered, because we’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. If you need a last minute present for someone who you know is a wine enthusiast when you are not, go somewhere you can get advice.

A decent wine merchant or dedicated wine specialist will be able to tell you what they have that’s interesting or unusual. When you’re selling it’s considered bad etiquette to ask how much someone wants to spend, but it can save a lot of time if you say the figure you have in mind. There’s a lot of good stuff to be had between £10 and £20. Do also look at dessert wine and sherry. It might not be your thing, but people like me love it.

Champagne. As a guideline, the more people there are the less I would spend per bottle, the reason being that the more conversation there is the less people are paying attention to what they’re drinking. If you have 20 people round for Christmas a case of a decent sparkling wine will be perfect and it’s not necessarily a compromise on quality. Quite a few of the big champagne houses make sparkling wines in other parts of the world and these are worth looking for too. I particularly like Jansz.

If you have a really nice champagne you want to drink, consider having it on Christmas Eve when all the chores are done and you have a bit of peace before the chaos of the next day. If it’s you on your own, or just 2 of you, half bottles are brilliant. If it’s got to be fizz for breakfast consider something sweeter like an Asti, or a sparkling moscato. They’re lower in alcohol, and don’t have the mouth puckering acidity of champagne which is quite hard work first thing. If you’re having Bucks Fizz use fresh (ideally freshly squeezed orange juice) it is so much better.

Turkey works well with a whole lot of wines. Chardonnay in many of its forms works well with it - is go for something big and buttery, and not be shy of the oak. Towards the other end of the scale a citrusy Macon Village is also good. Pinot Noir is a classic red match, however a good fruity new world Sauvignon blanc, an apricot filled Viognier, Rioja (red or white), a decent Chianti, Claret, most Rosé’s (according to taste) or a Pinot Grigio if you want something fairly neutral are all going to be fine. As will plenty of other wines. Frankly there’s so much flavour on the plate that a specific match is going to be tough. Go with something you know you like.

Goose will prefer a red, again a Pinot Noir would be a classic match - new world ones will be fruitier than old world ones, how you choose between them comes down to preference, budget (if you’ve paid for a goose don’t be mean about the wine though) and the trimmings. Rioja will be good here too, and Barolo (or a good Nebbiolo from elsewhere, if you’re lucky enough to find some please tell me). A good Claret won’t let you down (but again, be prepared to spend on it if you’re going that way).

With Beef a new world Cabernet, a Shiraz (Australia or Cotes Du Rhône - also fine with the turkey) or whatever you’re preferred full bodied red might be, will all be good.

Port is a Christmas staple, if it’s red port (Ruby, L.B.V, single Quinta, or vintage) look to see if the bottle says it’s filtered or not (Ruby port and a lot of L.B.V is). Filtered won’t need decanting, unfiltered means a sludgy bitter sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Decanting isn’t difficult but you don’t necessarily want another job to add to your to do list either.

Tawny port is aged and a little bit more like a sweet sherry. Both will be good with cheese, the tawny will be better with cake/pudding/mince pies. Also have a look at Australian Liqueur Muscat’s which are a similar beast. I like a Sauternes, often instead of a pudding- it’s a great cheese match, but it won’t particularly like mince pies etc. A good sweet Tokaji is the middle ground between them.

Finally, for this post - there’s a lot more I could say about wine - consider the non drinkers and potential hangovers. Good coffee, tea, fruit juice, sparkling water (excellent mixed with fruit juice or cordials) grown up cordials, and alcohol free punches are excellent options for everyone.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase and Irish Spiced Port

For the first time it felt a bit odd not to be working in retail today - I’ve obviously forgotten the worst part of these next few days, and am instead remembering the camaraderie and fun of my earlier Oddbins Christmases when the craziness was both enhanced and muted by fine wine and relative youth. Maybe it’s the lurking cold that’s responsible for the nostalgia. Fortunately a cup of tea and a nice lie down cured the feeling, if not the cold.

The cold has had me thinking about another joy of Christmas, and of feeling slightly ill, and that’s the excuse/opportunity for adult reading/re reading of children’s books. ‘Slightly Foxed’ reminded me of Joan Aiken’s ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, and that it was part of a whole sequence of books (which I did not know), and really made me want to revisit it.

For those of us who go home for Christmas, or to someone else’s home, there’s always the chance of rediscovering our own much loved children’s classics, or those belonging to younger siblings (there’s a considerable age gap between me and my half sister and brother) cousins etc. I got a second run at Terry Pratchett this way.

Tonight though it’s the gothic atmosphere of Willoughby Chase that’s appealing - it feels right for the solstice, and it’s probably now just obscure enough to be a safe present to bemuse a friends child with (I got a good few of my favourite childhood books like this; duty gifts mostly, from virtually unknown relatives or visitors who had plumped for a safe looking classic).

The drink is another one from Signe Johansen’s ‘Spirited’. It sounds a lot like smoking Bishop, but it’s a slightly simplified version, not as strong, and the quantities given are for 1, all of which sound like improvements to me. It’s also a great way to use up any port that’s hanging around.

You boil a kettle and pour about 70cl of hot water into a heat proof glass along with a teaspoon of light brown sugar. Take a thick slice of unwaxed lemon and stud the rind with 4 cloves, add to the glass, stir everything well, add 70cl of Port, give it a final stir, and drink whilst hot.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Signe Johansen’s Spirited and her Agua de Jamaica

It continues to be really very pleasant not working in retail over Christmas, but it’s made me more sympathetic towards those who do than ever. The city centre is taking on a bedraggled end of the party look. Sales have started in a lot of places, and we’ve reached the point where you get to buy what’s left as delivery dates pass. 

In retail the next few days are just about taking what money you can and getting through it all, and because that’s been me for the last 2 decades it’s easy to forget that some people are only just starting their plans as hey finish work for the year. 

With that in mind ‘Spirited’ might be an extremely useful book to have around over the next few weeks. Johansen’s books have always been good and her approach to drinks is no exception. She’s intent on breaking down the slightly matcho image of the mixologist with a lot of specialist equipment and replacing it with something much easier to do at home,

I also really like that she places proper emphasis on non alcoholic drinks, especially at a time of year when there’s so much pressure to drink a bit more than is sensible. There are a selection of recipes from ‘Spirited’ Here which give a good idea of what to expect from the book, and as with the hibiscus based recipes in Mark Diacono’s ‘Sour’ it’s the Agua de Jamaica that’s caught my eye.

There’s a lot to be said for drinks where the effort (although it hardly qualifies as such) can be done ahead of people being around. This calls for a couple of hibiscus tea bags, half a small pineapple sliced but not peeled, a 330ml bottle of ginger beer, a couple of untaxed limes sliced up, and ice.

Put the teabags in a heatproof pitcher with a litre of boiling water infuse for 10 minutes. Remove the teabags and add the pineapple then leave to completely cool. Add the other ingredients, taste and adjust as needed, add some ice and it’s good to go. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Murder at Christmas and Vin Chaud

I’m specifically mentioning ‘Murder at Christmas’, which is the latest in Profile books now annual series of crime anthologies, but what I really thinking about here is a good comfort read. For me that would almost certainly be a Georgette Heyer, but it might be something like ‘The Dark Is Rising’ or indeed some Classic Crime.

I bought ‘Murder at Christmas’ because I couldn’t resist the cover, or the names on it. It’s a decent collection, and anyone who likes a bit of golden age crime will enjoy it. I do think the British Library anthologies do this just a little bit better - one or two of the stories in here were a bit patchy, but I’ve read all of those already and there are definite gems in this too, and it was easy, comfortable, reading.

I’m really enjoying not working this Christmas, it’s been really good for me physically and mentally. I’m not bone weary, aching, covered in cuts and bruises, stressed, or especially tearful. Nobody has made me particularly angry or frustrated - and if they did I could walk away with impunity, which feels amazing. It’s still a difficult time of year. 

Yesterday I bought a new address book, partly because addresses are spread through note books, old diaries, scraps of paper, and years old messages on social media that take forever to track down. Partly because people move and my old address book was a mess of crossed out names. Mostly though because every time I look through that old book now I see a list of people who have died and it’s depressing. 

Inevitably, despite all the glitter and sparkle of the season, and sometimes because of it, there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of memories to deal with. There’s also a good bit of what might of beens and the stress of needing to keep up a festive front. It’s not an easy time, and I feel like this is the point that it really hits home. By this time next week it’ll all be over anyway, and we can start looking forward to new beginnings. 

I keep reading things that say Mulled wine is now distinctly passé whilst trying to sell me on a new cocktail, but I’m having non of it. I’m all for mulling beer, cider, stout, spiced spirit concoctions, hot vermouth - all of it, as innovative or traditional as you like (now I’m not working in wine I’ve even relaxed my views on the pre made stuff) but what’s not to love about a warm, gently spicy, drink.

I really like this Vin Chaud recipe from Ambrose Heath’s ‘Good Drinks’ because it should be easy to scale up or down and it’s simple. I’d recommend using any bottle that labels itself Good Ordinary Claret, an Eastern European Pinot Noir if you know it’s decent, a basic Beaujolais, or a Cabernet Sauvignon/merlot heavy blend from the Languedoc. 

“Sweeten a bottle of Claret or Burgundy to your taste, and heat it up slowly in a pan with a stick of Cinnamon. As soon as it approaches boiling point (for on no account must it actually boil), take it off the fire, remove the Cinnamon stick, and serve the hot wine in glasses in the bottom of which there is already a slice of lemon.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Guys and Dolls and Fireside Rum Tea

Thinking about Raymond Chandler reminded me of another vintage American comfort read - Damon Runyon’s funny, charming, occasionally shocking, New York Stories centred around the gangsters, hustlers, and dancers of Broadway and the Bowery in the prohibition era.

Treading similar boards, but each with their own distinctive atmosphere I can also recommend Gypsy Rose Lee’s 2 murder mysteries which are currently in print, and Mae West’s books which sadly are not, but the Virago paperback editions still seem to be available second hand at a reasonable price.

‘Guys and Dolls’ also seems currently to be the most easily available Runyon, the film of the same name is based on it, but any collection of his short stories is worth grabbing. It’s wet, dark, and cold outside, there is no better weather to find yourself in the company of Runyon’s wise guys, dudes, and dolls.

The Fireside Rum Tea is exactly the sort of drink you want in this weather too. This one is inspired by a recipe from Miss Hope’s Teatime Treats. The Hope and Greenwood books are also out of print, which is kind of a shame because it’s where I found the best fudge recipe I’ve ever eaten, and other good things.

I wanted something warm, not to alcoholic, and didn’t want to pound cardamom pods, and couldn’t find any cinnamon sticks (I know I have some somewhere) so the original recipe went by the wayside. What I do have is some Assamica chocolate spice tea from The Tea Maker’s of London (it was an impulse add on when I was ordering some Tarry Souchong for D, which I’ve become particularly fond of. The mail order service is excellent) which has ginger, cardamom, pepper, and cocoa nibs in it. Brewing a cup of this (or any chai or Christmas type tea) saves a lot of messing around.

Cup or glass of tea at the ready add rum to taste - not a white rum, or anything that costs more than £30, I’ve used a golden rum, but I’d happily use spiced rum, or a dark rum like Captain Morgan’s. If you prefer a sweeter drink, flavour it with a bit of maple syrup - add sparingly testing as you go along  because it’s easy to go over the top with this. Give it a good stir and garnish with a slice of clementine or a cinnamon stick.

Rum and tea is an excellent combination and using a spiced tea makes this particularly low effort. I like just enough rum to be able to taste it, the same with the maple syrup, and I can happily report that neither my hands or feet are any longer numb with cold.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Raymond Chandler and Rye Whiskey

In my ideal world Christmas television would have a lot more black and white films in it, and quite a few of them would be classic Noir (which is how I remember it being not so long ago - or is that just how I choose to remember it?). Anyway, it’s ages since I’ve seen a good Raymond Chandler film and I’m missing them.

Fortunately I found a nice fat paperback full of what are being called short stories, but which are novella length, in my local bookshop. I haven’t read any of them, and am very much looking forward to getting stuck in to it. The collection is ‘Killer In The Rain’ published by Penguin.

Another excellent Noir collection which would make a brilliant gift are Sarah Weinman’s Woman Crime Writers anthologies. There are a couple of handsome hard backs which each have 4 novels in them. One book covers the 1940’s, the other the 1950’s. Her ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ selection of short stories is tremendous, and more budget friendly. The Feminist Press also does a good line in Noir, and the Pushkin Vertigo range is worth a look.

Still, it’s Chandler who introduced me to the genre (or at least it was Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, which is close enough) and his style is so iconic that I keep going back to him.

Chandler brings up booze quite a lot in his books - he gives a slightly unorthodox Gimlet (gin and lime, or lime cordial) recipe in one of them, but along with ‘Killer in the Rain’ I’m also eyeing up a bottle of Wild Turkey Rye whisky that I found at the back of my wardrobe, an unopened survivor of last Christmas.

Due to a youthful prejudice in favour of Scottish single malt whisky, I don’t know as much about American whiskey as I should. Good bourbon isn’t to hard to find on UK high streets. Maker’s Mark,  and Woodford Reserve are staples which won’t let you down, and taking those as a benchmark there’s  plenty more to explore (Waitrose does a decent selection, wine merchants will always be able to advise you, and any big supermarket ought to come up with something worthwhile).

Straight Rye whiskey turns out to be harder to find. The difference between the two is the base grain used - Bourbon uses a corn mash that gives a sweet, full bodied, profile. Rye produces something drier and spicier. When I say harder to find, there’s obviously no shortage of choice online, but I find delivery charges push the price higher than I generally like, and it’s not always easy to be in for deliveries that have to be signed for. Waitrose is generally good for spirits (not so much for liqueurs) which is where I found the Wild Turkey Rye, I also have a really good local shop that specialises in spirits.

I wanted my Rye specifically for cocktails (probably a Manhattan, but as it goes I’m still using bourbon to make them) although I’m open to drinking it on the rocks too. After years of being a malt snob it turns out that it’s never to late to learn about new things, and Rye with its dry, spicy, nose does an excellent job of evoking good cologne and leather shoes, along with dark bars and late nights.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Book Tokens and Gin

Or my own etiquette of gift giving.

I read This article in the Guardian the other day - it’s not got anything particularly interesting to say, but the topic is something I think about quite a bit anyway so I thought I’d talk about it a bit. I like being given books, I like giving them, and there are 3 sensible ways to do it.

The first is to ask someone what’s on their wish list, choose something, and feel virtuous that you’ve ticked a job off the list, whilst in turn they can anticipate getting something they want.

The second is to choose carefully, which if you like books is fun, something that you think the recipient will like. I’ve bought a selection of fiction titles for my now 10 year old godson for the last couple of years which he seems more or less happy with. I’ve also made sure to include gift receipts, so if he already has the book, or would prefer a different one changing is easy.

The third way is book tokens. I loved getting book tokens as a kid, and I love it even more now, and I’m beyond delighted that I got a very generous one for my birthday from a good friend who is an English teacher. When she asked what I might want I suggested them, and we’re both happy now.

That book token is a talisman against the gloom of a Brexit blighted January, and the inevitable knock backs of job hunting. I am planning on taking it to a couple of my favourite independents, it’s going to be fun, and that anticipation is as much part of the gift as the books at the end of it will be.

In turn I bought that friend her favourite gin (Gin Mare, a really good Mediterranean gin from Spain with a distinctive herbal character) and handed it over. It’s a distinctive shape so she knows what she’s getting, so also has the satisfaction of anticipating treats to come.

Obviously I also think that wine and spirits make excellent presents, and again the same rules as above more or less apply. Gins, the flavoured sort aside, might have more in common with each other  than something like whisky, but there’s still enough variation for things to disappoint. Choosing a flavoured gin if you don’t know how someone feels about it is risky, even if it’s from a distillery they otherwise like (I’m not personally convinced by the lurid pink appearance of City Of London Distilleries Rhubarb and Rose gin for example, but that’s just me).

It really is worth finding out what someone likes before buying - and the great thing about booze is that whilst 3 copies of a book, however much you wanted it, are 2 copies to many, 3 bottles of your favourite gin are a bonus.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Spirited Guide to Vermouth and more about how much I love Vermouth

This post is coming to you with all the conviction and enthusiasm you could expect from the recent convert. Sometime a couple of years back I went from someone who probably had a bottle of dry white vermouth around, mostly for cooking with, to someone who has a lot more vermouth than that around.

It was a slow burning sort of affair until this year when I read Jack Adair Bevan’s ‘A Spirited Guide to Vermouth’ and tried a lot more vermouth and vermouth based cocktails. The more I get to know the more interesting it becomes so I’m particularly pleased to have been given a couple of bottles for my birthday (an amazing sounding Rosso made by Bramley and Gage, and the Regal Rogue Bold Red which is a dry Australian Vermouth that kick started my interest a couple of years ago).

The thing I love about Vermouth is how endlessly versatile it is, and the variety it comes in. The Regal Rogues have much less sugar than most Vermouth, owing (if I remember anything like correctly) to the natural sweetness of the riper Australian grapes and some of the local botanicals (please don’t quote me on this, it’s a half remembered conversation from 2 years ago with a rep during a lengthy wine tasting). They recommend it principally as a long drink, in this case with ginger ale, over plenty of ice and garnished with orange. The other suggestion on the website is to reverse classic cocktails, flipping around the proportions of vermouth to spirit.

Both sound like a good idea, both mean you’re keeping a slightly better control on the amount of alcohol you’re drinking. The abv of Vermouth isn't much above that of wine, so as a long drink it’s not going to knock you out. A well chosen* bottle with an accompanying book such as ‘The Spirited Guide to Vermouth’,  or Kate Hawkins ‘Aperitif’ is my idea of a decent present. Both these books are decent introductions, a quick look at amazon tells me there are more to choose from.

This is the perfect gift for anybody of a foody persuasion, or who has a love of cocktails.

By well chosen I mean anything that’s a step up from a supermarket own label, or the basic martini range - we can all buy those for ourselves, but those aside there’s a lot of choice from around £10 up.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

From the Oven to the Table by Diana Henry and Wine to Cook With

I wasn’t going to include this in my Christmas recommendations purely because of all the books I’ve loved this year this one has been the biggest release. It was on tables in Waterstones, (who have an exclusive edition with extra recipes) available in supermarkets, and widely talked about. I can’t really imagine anybody waiting any longer than I did to buy it (which was literally as it was being unpacked in my local bookshop). Still, I could be wrong and as it was this book that saved the day for me yesterday I’m here to tell you how good it is. 

It’s very good. Buy it.

I had used it a bit, mostly for chicken thigh recipes because I share Diana Henry’s enthusiasm for them (they get a whole chapter) and the simple suppers, but yesterday I needed something a bit more. It was my birthday and the original plan was to go to mum’s, but she had to cancel last minute. The whole point of ‘From the Oven to the Table’ is that it’s simple dishes that more or less look after themselves - which is really what you want when you’re unexpectedly cooking dinner for everyone on a day you had earmarked for not slaving over a hot stove. 

The Weekends, High days and Holidays chapter came through for me with Slow Cooked Leg Of Lamb With Sherry and Autumn Vegetables. It was very little effort and completely delicious. Had I wanted to make a cake there’s a Chocolate and Red Wine Cake recipe that is on my to do list, but the lamb sounded rich enough to make chocolate cake seem too much for this occasion. 

All of Diana Henry’s books are good, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ (the preserving one) is probably my favourite and ‘Roast Figs, Sugar Snow’ is a brilliant wintery themed book from her back list if you’re relatively new to her writing. Her style is big on flavour, low on fuss, and a whole world of different influences - it’s a combination I find irresistible.

What wine to cook with is something I used to get asked about a lot, and there’s one simple rule. Always use something you would be happy to drink. I’ll admit that’s easier said then done with the Amontillado sherry I needed for the lamb. There was nowhere near me that sold a decent selection so I ended up with Sainsbury’s own label. The wine snob in me would have preferred something better to drink*, but it was decent to cook with and that’s what I’ll use the rest for.

If you’re buying wine for something like a beef bourguignon, or any other regional dish, it helps to know the grape associated with the local wine. In this case it would be Pinot Noir, and as even the most basic Red Burgundy costs quite a bit it makes much more sense to go for a decent, but much cheaper Romanian Pinot as an alternative. For that chocolate cake I’ll definitely be using a good value (around the £7-£8 mark) Australian Cabernet.

It’s normally possible to find a really decent Portuguese red for around £6-£7 which makes for great everyday drinking as well as cooking. It also genuinely makes sense to keep a wine rack full of wine (not next to a heater, an oven, on top of a fridge, or in direct sun) with a mix of good, better, and best wines on it. Remember which is which though.

Never, ever, be tempted to cook with corked wine, or something that’s been hanging around and has oxidised beyond good drinking - it will spoil your dinner. 

*Sherry is something I love, but because it doesn’t keep well I’m much more interested in quality than quantity and much more fussy about it then wine. There’s nothing wrong with Sainsbury’s own label, it’s just not that exciting.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Forager’s Calendar and Żubrówka Vodka

Friday the 13th (today is my birthday) really feels like it’s trying to do a number on me so far. Between election results which I cannot celebrate, my mother coming down with a really nasty bug (she was going to cook, she’s a brilliant cook, and whilst the food will wait she’s had such a run of bad health recently that I’m worried about her, and we’re really going to miss her company tonight), uninspiring weather, and the knitting needles I really need for the project I’m itching to start being somewhere in the postal system it’s tempting to crawl back to bed. Possibly with the whisky I was given.

 But that really won’t make anything better so onwards. Helen has posted a John Donne poem about St Lucies day Here which I’ve found unexpectedly cheering. Under the old calendar the 13th would have been more or less the midwinter solstice. These might be the darkest days, but the year will turn soon - and that returning light is why on the whole I find winter a hopeful time.

Meanwhile today’s book recommendation is John Wright’s The Forager’s Calandar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest’. This came out in the spring (the paperback is due in April, which is what I’m waiting for if nobody fancies giving it to me for Christmas) and is Barbour* jacket pocket size. John Wright’s River Cottage handbooks have been reliably delightful as well as useful and this book follows on nicely from that.

Perfect for everyone from the person who would just like to know more about what they’re looking at out on a walk, to anyone with legitimate concerns about what Brexit might do to the supply chain, and all of those in-between. Wright is an excellent guide, and crucially he’s enjoyable to read as well as informative.

It doesn’t look like I’ve written about Żubrówka (Polish Bison grass flavoured vodka) before, but it’s something I’m quite fond of. Poles are good at flavoured vodka, and I’m very much in favour of drinking it by the shot straight out of the freezer as well. (Krupnik honey vodka is another favourite, and going into any Polish shop is an education when it comes to flavoured vodkas.) Żubrówka makes me think of freshly mown grass (which is what you’d expect from something flavoured with grass) it’s distinctive but not overpowering, and does work well in cocktails, but I really like it best on its own, very cold, and drunk straight down, pickles in the side are a good thing too.

*I have a bit of a thing for the Barbour border coat, waxing it might be a pain, but the poachers pockets will comfortably accommodate 4 bottles of wine, the outer pockets are proper book size, and you can more or less pack the thing for a weekend away.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Christmas Egg and a Silver Fizz

Christmas is a time for two things in book terms; murder mysteries and ghost stories. That is at least my point of view (I should probably disclose that it’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m currently full of vodka martinis and champagne. I’m trying not to go off on a rant and to pay some attention to typos - but no promises).

Golden age crime is my preference at all times, I’m not keen on anything to brutal, and after decades of Agatha Christie adaptations for Christmas it just feels right for the season. The British Library Crime Classics series are perfect for this (their Tales of the Weird series will oblige for something uncanny too). There are plenty of good anthologies of short stories with a festive theme, and this years title, ‘The Christmas Egg’ has Bolsheviks and Faberge eggs which sounds like a gift in itself. 

It’s worth saying that the quality of the BL crime classics short story anthologies is particularly high. I’ve read a few others, notably the ones from Profile books, and whilst they’re good Martin Edwards selections are (certainly in my opinion) better. A full length mystery is more a matter of personal taste, but I’ve never been disappointed, and again these are brilliant stocking fillers or secret Santa type gifts.

The drink is a silver fizz - fizzes get a whole chapter in the Savoy Cocktail book and are pleasantly refreshing. You need the juice of half a lemon, a dessert spoonful of powdered sugar (or a little less depending on taste) and a large measure of gin. The white of an egg is an optional extra - it adds to the drama, appearance, and texture of the drink, but taste wise makes little difference if you don’t fancy it/have an allergy. Shake well over ice and strain into a Collins glass then top up with soda water. It’s the soda water that makes it a fizz, but this is also really good without the soda (but with the egg, and make sure to use the freshest eggs you can) as a close relation to a White Lady or Clover Club.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Stephen Rutt’s Wintering and Italicus Liqueur

‘Wintering’ is the book I’m currently reading, and it is every bit as good as ‘The Seafarers’ was (definitely one of the best books of my reading year). I love the way that Rutt makes birding and reasonably technical information feel really accessible to someone like me (interested but lacking in anything more than general knowledge).

‘Wintering’ is about a season with geese, and that’s another thing I love about this book - I live in a city centre, geese are one of the few birds I can reliably see on the river outside my flat, and one of the very few birds I hear as they fly overhead in autumn. A lot of nature writing can feel exclusive, but this doesn’t. More than anything though Rutt is just really good at what he does, and an absolute pleasure to read. Both his books would make wonderful presents.

The only link between Italicus, a bergamot flavoured liqueur, and ‘Wintering’ is a vague idea in my own mind about migration - in this case to the south via the medium of drink. As far as I can gather Italicus has been around on the market for about 2 years, and is slowly appearing in more shops and bars. It is a particularly attractive looking bottle which is a bonus if it’s meant for a gift.

It’s also part of the amaro family (so a kind of cousin to Vermouth) and according to their website the number one trending aperitivo of 2019. There’s an origin story that says it’s based on a recipe from the 1850’s (I also heard that the original recipe needed a lot of tweaking) but that’s sort of besides the point. The key think here is that it’s a really good drink.

The citrusy bergamot flavour is interesting without being outlandish, other floral notes blend well - it’s kind of a liquid version of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’, it was sweeter than I expected, and has more than enough punch to hold its own in all sorts of cocktails. There are plenty of recipes for those around, including one where you drink it like a toddy with a spoon of honey, and a dash of orange bitters garnished with a cinnamon stick and clove studded lemon. It would definitely be an interesting addition for any home bar.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories with Orange Bitters

Books make great presents for people who have more or less everything they need, and like books. Anthologies of short stories are one of my favourite things and if I didn’t already have it I’d have been particularly delighted to open this on Christmas Day. It’s a satisfyingly varied collection with a few favourites in it, enough writers I know I like to get excited by (from Hans Christian Anderson to Angela Carter...), and plenty of things which are new to me. There’s nothing more I could want for under £20.

Over £20 I’m after some new pillows - which nobody is likely to buy me for Christmas (they’d be a devil to wrap).

A good collection of short stories is perfect for Christmas reading, they’re easier to fit around the various commitments, responsibilities, and emotions that plague the season, and a safer bet if you’re not entirely sure of someone’s literary taste.

Bitters are a remarkably useful thing to have around, and a very good grown up stocking filler. A lot of classic cocktails will call for either Angostura or orange bitters. Angostura bitters are easy to buy - most big supermarkets will carry them, Orange bitters are inexplicably harder to find on the high street unless you have a good independent locally. They’re very easy to find online though, and a great thing to have in the kitchen. They’re good for more than just drinks.

An interesting bottle of bitters (Fee Brothers will give an idea of the variety out there, but they’re by no means the only brand to explore) is a great house or hostess gift too, and a very useful thing to pack if you’re off to some idyllic rented house in the country. They take up very little space and go a long way (some companies make travel packs which are brilliant for this).

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Weatherhouse and Whisky

Nan Shepherd can’t really be described as a neglected, forgotten, or underrated writer. Her image is on the Bank of Scotland’s five pound note, there’s a newly inaugurated literary prize named after her, and The Living Mountain is rightly considered both a Scottish, and nature writing classic that’s been championed far and wide.

Despite that I’m not sure how widely known her novels are. When I read ‘The Weatherhouse’ earlier this year and tried searching out other reviews for it there really weren’t many. Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable novel that would be worth reading just for the description of the Aberdeenshire countryside alone. As it is, there’s much more to it than that. The drama also starts to unfold over a Christmas season, and there’s always something satisfying about the seasons inside and out of a book matching up. If you like Virago Modern Classics this book is basically exactly your cup of tea.

The book is set during the First World War, and whisky features both as a signifier of more prosperous pre war hospitality, and is the catalyst for near disaster. It’s Aberdeenshire setting is also a rich one in terms of whisky heritage. Head west from Aberdeen and you’re soon into Speyside (and Nan’s beloved Cairngorms). This gives you a serious concentration of distilleries. Aberlour, Balvenie, Glen Rothes, Glenfiddich, or Macallan are the ones I’d recommend as being both easy to find on the high street or in supermarkets, and excellent quality, but that’s not even all my favourites from the area.

I have a really soft spot for Douglas Laing’s blended malts (more Here) Scallywag is the Speyside, Timorous Beastie is made up of Highland Malts. Both have excellent all round appeal (nothing to peaty). I’m also a fan of the Famous Grouse, which has Macallan in its blend, the Naked Grouse is an absolute bargain in terms of what you get for your money. Blends like Grouse are what most people would have trusted in back in the day.

Closer to Aberdeen, Royal Lochnagar is another favourite whisky (it’s all soft smoke, gingerbread spice, and Demerara sugar - delicious) and Ardmore is particularly good for the money, as well as being easy to find.

When I was first discovering whisky for myself 20 years ago blends were very much out of favour, and single malt was a lot cheaper than it is now. Currently if I’m looking for something interesting/different my first choice would be the premium blends and blended malts between £20 - £40. There’s still a bit of snobbishness around them, but seriously, ditch it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Diana Holman-Hunt - Slightly Foxed with Champagne

I’ve been reading Diana Holman-Hunt’s memoir ‘My Grandmothers and I’ by way of research and bought my Slightly Foxed paperback edition cheaply secondhand. It looks like there’s been a bit of a rush on it since, the only copies I see listed now are quite pricey - which means if you want it you might as well go for a handsome Slightly Foxed hardback (they gift wrap too).

Diana was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, bought up on stories of the great man and his friends. ‘My Grandmothers and I’ very specifically recounts episodes from her life from the age of 5 to 17 as she’s passed between the two matriarchs. Her father is in India, her mother never mentioned (we can only guess dead). Most of the time Diana lives with her mothers parents (Grandmother Freeman) but there are visits to Gran H-H, who lives a life of miserly eccentricity in a house that’s more or less a shrine to her dead husband.

What makes this book fun is the mix of anecdotes about life with Grand, and the sense that Diana is getting her revenge, or at least the last word, on her family, who seem to have richly deserved it. If you like Elizabeth Von Arnim at her more acerbic, Nancy Mitford, or Evelyn Waugh (who was her cousin) then this book will definitely appeal.

Slightly Foxed are also more generally a good place to look for presents for book lovers. A subscription to their Quarterly Journal has been my Christmas present of choice to me for a good decade now. The books they produce are lovely to handle, and conveniently pocket sized. I recommend the podcast too.

Champagne features a couple of times in ‘My Grandmothers and I’ - first with a rare appearance from her father when she’s 15, and after Grands funeral - both times she gets horribly drunk very quickly. As drinks go it perfectly evokes the spirit of the book. Moët et Chandon is name checked so this seems like a good time to talk about the best way to buy champagne.

If you have a good wine merchant take their advice on what they have, they should know where the best balance between quality and price is to be found. Otherwise supermarket own label champagne is generally a good buy and a safer bet than an unknown name with a heavy discount. That said, much of the appeal of champagne is in the associated glamour that comes with the grand marques. If you can, it’s worth buying these by the case when you see something at a good price and keeping it.

There are a few reasons for this - case discounts are one, another is that a lot of champagne like Moët is very young when it hits retailers shelves, and you can taste it in the acidity. Six months to a year somewhere cool, with an even temperature, and reasonably dark (in my case the back of a wardrobe) will allow it to mellow a bit. If you have a slightly better arrangement than the back of a wardrobe then a non vintage champagne will happily develop for 5 years or more before you really need to think about drinking it. Do Not keep it in a fridge for any length of time - it goes flat.

Other advantages of keeping a bit of champagne on hand is that you always have an excellent emergency present, something for a celebration, or a well earns treat for yourself. Half bottles are brilliant for 1 or 2 people. Crémant de Bourgogne is an excellent budget alternative, and so are some of the new world fizzes that use traditional grapes and methods, plenty of which are made by the big Champagne houses.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Hepple’s Douglas Fir Vodka

A new Kathleen Jamie book is something to get excited about, and ‘Surfacing’ hasn’t disappointed me. It’s also another beautifully produced object. My reading/book buying life started around the very end of the 1970’s with the Famous Five, it still sometimes surprises me as much as it delights me, how much more beautiful books have become in the last decade or so.

If you don’t already know Jamie’s essay collections ‘Surfacing’ is the third in a loose trilogy that also includes ‘Sightlines’ and ‘Findings’. She writes about nature, family, archeology, history, travels and more with knife sharp insight. I think of ‘Findings’, the 1st in the trilogy, as my favourite but it’s been 7 years since I read the earlier books, and I’m wondering if I re read them now if I’d still feel the same. They are all absolutely worth seeking out.

I read about Hepple’s Douglas Fir vodka in Jack Bevan’s Vermouth book and Immediately wanted to try it because I’m an absolute sucker for the kind of thing (there was a terrible experience with some holly eau de vie which should have taught me a lesson, but didn’t). It’s available online for around £35 for a 50cl bottle which makes it an expensive vodka, especially if you have to add delivery costs on top of that, but unlike the holly eau de vie it’s good so I don’t regret the cost.

I’ve seen it suggested as a gin alternative, and certainly the Douglas fir flavour has something in common with gin’s piney juniper notes, but I think it’s to subtle to treat in the same way. The back label declares that Hepple’s renowned ‘Triple Technique’ is able to capture the cold breath of the forest - and honestly, it feels like it does just that.

It’s a beautifully smooth vodka with a distinctive pine wood (or for wood) nose, and an almost menthol freshness about it. It’s very good neat over ice and in a vodka martini. I haven’t tried it in any cocktails yet, but if I do they’re going to be the very pared back simple kind that allow that cold breath of fresh air feel to shine through. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk anything so evocative of a certain type of landscape before (it’s undoubtedly the vodka talking, but if I close my eyes whilst tasting it I can see the small stand of Douglas firs near my dad's place in the Borders, frost on the ground, stars blazing... all of it). Definitely worth a look if you’re after something interesting on the spirit front.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Sue Quinn’s ‘Cocoa’ with Cupsmith’s Hot Chocolate

Sticking with cookbooks and not necessarily alcoholic drinks todays recommendations are for Sue Quinn’s ‘Cocoa’ and Cupsmith hot chocolate. I’ve got a few other books about chocolate and confectionery, all of which are excellent but ‘Cocoa’ is something more.

What I like so much about this one (which I notice is published by Quadrille and is adding to my conviction that they've totally nailed it this year) is the discussion about what chocolate is, how it’s made, how to taste it, buy it, store it, and more, along with the range of recipes. It’s a beautiful, and ultimately really inspiring book. It’s also made cocoa nibs a stable store cupboard ingredient (I’ve put them in some of the mincemeat I’ve made this year, and am really excited to see how that’s worked out).

The recipes aren’t all sweet by a long way - there’s a lot of savoury stuff here that uses nibs (which have the most incredible smell) to add an extra something. The sweet Dukkah recipe alone is worth buying the book for - it’s amazingly versatile and totally addictive. There’s also a handful of fabulous hot chocolate recipes - the Medici inspired jasmine tea infused hot chocolate has become a particular favourite.

Leafing through the book now I’m also tempted to make a Cocoa - Infused Tipple. Vodka, tequila, bourbon, whisky, and rum are all suggested as possible base spirits - I’d be most inclined to use rum or vodka.

You want 500mls of spirit, 50g of Cocoa nibs, 2 tbsp of lightly crushed coffee beans, and a vanilla pod. Pour the booze into a stoppered bottle, add everything else, and leave to infuse for a couple of weeks shaking often. Then strain through a coffee filter or similar before returning it to the bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 3 months.

Over the years I’ve tried a few posh hot chocolate brands, but so far Cupsmith has been my favourite. It’s not cheap, but it makes an excellent hot chocolate. I’ve been buying either the plain or the salted caramel versions from Waitrose and before today had never looked at their website. Turns out there are other exciting flavours available (I want to try all of them). I like this so much because it’s the one that seems to mix best, and most quickly, with milk. At +£5 a pack it’s a luxury, and definitely in welcome present territory, but on cold, wet, grey days like today a little luxury is welcome.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sour with Shrubs and Switchels

I’ve been putting up my Christmas tree this afternoon, and if it seems early to you to do that I’m working on the principles that if I’m spending money on it I want to get the maximum enjoyment out of it, and that I’ll spend the next week at least rearranging decorations to get them in the right place. I’m also away over New Year so it’s going to have to come down early.

This years tree currently smells of what I think might be fox pee and superglue - some decorations needed first aid. I’m also realising (again) that the red through to burgundy decorations I like so much in shops look quite oppressively dark together on a tree that’s backlit by a large window (which means I can never get a decent photo of it either). Silver and gold would look better but...

Mark Diacono’s ‘Sour’ brings just the right balancing acidity to where I’m at with decorating. It’s been an interesting year for cookbooks - not so many big name releases (though obviously there are a few of those around) but quite a few focused on specific flavours or ingredients which have been particularly good. ‘Sour’ is excellent.

I’ve always found Diacono an interesting writer, and in this book more than ever, a charming one too.   As well as being a book to cook from it’s a delight to read. If you saw it in a bookshop I’m fairly sure the cover design would catch your eye (Quadrille’s design team are producing the most beautiful books at the moment) but unfortunately I’ve not seen it in my local bookshops (small Waterstones, and a W H Smiths) which is a shame because this is a book that deserves a lot of love. I wrote a bit more about it Here.

Shrub is an old fashioned sort of drink which comes in two sorts, one is spirit based and liqueur like, or there’s a sweetened vinegar version (both are acidic in character). The shrub recipes in ‘Sour’ are of the second type which harks back to early American style cocktails. Shrub can take a bit of planning ahead to make - ingredients might need time to ferment, and the whole thing will want to mature a bit, but they’re also a really useful thing to have around to either add a bit of personality to a cocktail, or to have as an adult tasting soft drink.

The switchel recipes don’t take as long to make and are probably less useful as mixers (although worth playing with) but again an excellent, complex, non alcoholic drink. The combination of honey, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and lemon juice has a virtuous, healthy, kind of ring to it as well which is just what the season requires. I would give a recipe - but seriously, buy the book - you’ll be glad you
did, and there are a few other cracking good drink recipes in it too (the Zobo sounds amazing, and the cranberry sour recipe is a winner).

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Ale

I really don’t know very much about beer, far less than I should considering that some level of knowledge has been part of my job description for the last 2 decades. Mostly I’ve either bluffed my way through a conversation or straight out admitted to relative ignorance (a lot of people simply want to be reassured they’ve made a good choice of product in which case a confidant yes is a reasonable bluff. Anything more detailed than that calls for honesty).

The reason for this is that I don’t really drink beer in any of its forms, and if I’m buying it, it’s almost certainly to be cooked with where either the recipe will tell me what I want, or I have a good idea of the flavour profile or abv I want. Last week I stayed with a friend who’s serious about his beer making though, and he had made a Christmas ale which was amazing. Rich, dark, malty, spiced, and with a touch of chilli and ginger to warm it up, drinking it was both a revelation and a reminder.

The revelation was how much I liked it, the reminder was that smaller bottles are now a thing and that it’s perfectly possible to split a bottle and drink it from goblet type glasses rather than by the pint (my issue with beer has always been about quantity, a pint being almost always more than I want). The range of beers available on the high street has changed a lot whilst I’ve been working with them too.

There’s been a lot of innovation with a whole range of flavour profiles which would have sounded outlandish when I was starting out (I’m thinking of things like Black Sheep’s Pineapple Milkshake IPA at the moment, which does taste of pineapple and is also excellent) but means there’s a whole lot of new routes to finding the right beer for you.

I bought the Simon Armitage translation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ last year thinking it would be great winter reading - but never got round to it. I’ve pulled it off the shelf again with more good intentions, and can’t help but think reading it by a warm fire (or at least some flickering candles) with a glass of warmly spiced Christmas ale (or a mulled ale) would really add to the winter’s tale atmosphere.

I also think a bit of poetry is a brilliant Christmas present - it’s too seldom the sort of thing we buy ourselves, a bit of a push is no bad thing here. I’ve got a handful of plays and poetry books I’d never have looked at if they hadn’t been presents which would have been very much my loss.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Sip: 100 Gin Cocktails with an Aviation or a Hot Gin Twist

I wrote about just how much I like this book back in September when it came out, nothing has changed and I think it will make an excellent present for any of the gin lovers in your life (some of the gin lovers in my life might well find they’re getting copies this year).

The reason I like it so much is the 3 ingredient rule. It’s not that all the ingredients mentioned are likely to be on a supermarket shelf - some might need a bit of effort to track down, but the way it makes you think about a drink and how to build it.

There’s also a lot of things that only require the most basic ingredients, and everything in between. On the long list of things I do not understand sits the fashionability of Parma violet flavoured gin. In my opinion it’s altogether too much, violet being the kind of flavour you need to go easy on. Much better to buy a bottle of violet liqueur that can be used with discretion.

The Aviation is a cocktail for an occasion. It seems to have first emerged around 1911, and since then a few different recipes have sprung up. The Sipsmith take on it is as good as any of them, and I particularly like the suggestion of serving it with a roll of Parma violet sweets on the side. It’s a nice touch for an extra festive feel. It’s 50mls of a good juniper led gin, 10mls of lemon juice, and 10mls of crème de violette shaken over ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. A maraschino cherry adds a finishing touch.

The Hot Gin Twist doesn’t call for any special ingredients, and is just the thing to have after a cold walk. I don’t think we pay enough attention to hot alcoholic drinks, this one is apparently inspired by the Hot Gin sold during the London frost fairs. It’s simply 40mls of gin, 25mls of fresh lemon juice, and 25mls of simple sugar syrup (or a heaped tablespoon of white sugar) topped up with 100-150mls of boiling water and garnished with a twist of lemon peel.

To further get into the eighteenth century spirit I might serve this with some gingerbread. The light pollution in Leicester makes star gazing more or less impossible, even if I did have a garden, which I don’t, but next time I’m in the country on a clear night I’m wrapping up warm, making this, and heading outside.

Monday, December 2, 2019

This Golden Fleece and Edinburgh Gin Apple and Spice Liqueur

I’ve been reading Esther Rutter’s ‘This Golden Fleece’ for months now, putting it down to deal with other commitments (including some knitting projects) and other books. It’s travelled all over the place with me, and now it looks like it. It’s a journey through Britain’s knitted history which mean two of my favourite places (Shetland, and the bit of the Scottish Borders I’m best acquainted with) get chapters.

Rutter is an engaging writer who explores all sorts of avenues in her journey around the country as well as sharing a good bit about herself. Her enthusiasm for the project she’s undertaken jumps off every page and for anyone who follows her on social media it’s clear the adventure continues. It will be interesting to see what she writes next, but meanwhile this is a great book for anyone interested in making or British history.

I bought the Apple & Spice gin liqueur as a Christmas present, but am tempted to get another bottle for myself (common sense argues that I have a lot of booze in the house already, and no job...). Flavoured gins are not really my thing, and as a category they’re a little bit troubling, but Edinburgh Gin is an exception to that.

The problem for me is that a lot of what’s currently being labelled as flavoured gin is basically flavoured vodka - there’s nothing wrong with flavoured vodka, but it’s not as fashionable as gin hence the rebranding and it doesn’t feel entirely honest. Gin should taste predominantly of juniper but  there’s not actually much active regulation over labelling so the boundaries between gin and liqueurs is blurring in a way that isn’t terribly helpful.

Edinburgh Gin, to be clear, are not part of the problem. Their flavoured products are clearly marketed as gin based liqueurs, and the serving suggestions they come with reflect that. I’m looking at the Apple & Spice as something that would be fun to add to a Martini instead of vermouth for a seasonal twist, or to drink over ice.

Edinburgh Gin do a whole range of these, they’re beautifully packaged, a sensible 50cl size (nobody needs liqueurs hanging around for to long) and at around £18 a bottle not stupidly expensive. If you’re looking for something fun to add to the Christmas bar or to personalise a classic cocktail they’re a great place to start.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Wassail Bowl with Ambrose Heath’s Good Drinks

I was in two minds about doing anything drink related here this December, but then I went to church this morning. It seemed like a good way to mark the beginning of advent, and a Bishop was visiting my parish church, he officially blessed the new toilets they’ve had installed which was more than I had expected. When he had done with the toilets he gave a sermon which included a 19th century recipe for a wassail or loving cup.

The Bishop’s recipe was something like a mulled wine with added egg. I’d very much like to know his 19th century source because none of my books have anything like it under either wassail or loving cup - but my collection is by no means extensive - and I’m always interested to learn more.

Wassailing falls into two different winter traditions, one (which seems to be having a bit of a comeback) is to bless apple trees in the hope of a good cider harvest the following year and takes place around twelfth night. The other is a house visiting wassail where people go door to door singing, and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in return for presents.

Regardless of which tradition appeals most I’m a big fan of warm drinks at this time of year and don’t think we make nearly enough of them. I’m also a big fan of alternatives to Mulled wine, and an even bigger fan of Ambrose Heath.

Persephone Books have reprinted a couple of his titles, and so have Faber & Faber. All make for delightful reading, and not for the first time I’m going to laud them as potential presents. Anybody who’s followed this blog for a while will know how much I love ‘Good Drinks’ though, and how often I refer to it for recipes.

The Faber & Faber edition is a handsome hardback, the recipes mostly at the practical end of vintage. There’s something for more or less every occasion in it, and it includes a wassail. This one is ale based and asks for 2 pints (it asks for a quart, conversion tables tell me that’s 2 pints, I’m taking it on trust) of hot ale to which you add a quarter of an ounce each of grated nutmeg, powdered ginger, and cinnamon. Then add half a bottle of Sherry (I’d use an oloroso or amontillado) two slices of toast, the juice and peel of a lemon, and two baked apples. Then sweeten the whole lot to taste.

I haven’t actually tried this, though I did once make Lamb’s Wool which is also ale based, but with a lot more apple and no toast or Sherry, it was excellent. This year it will be the wassail as soon as I’m back near an Aga (perfect for casually baking a couple of apples and not worrying about having an almost empty oven).