Thursday, March 31, 2022

Back Again and Cornucopia

Sorry for the silence, it's been a mix of being overwhelmed by the news, wedding planning, and poor connectivity. We've been up in Scotland for a few days with my mother and sister so that they could work out where everything was pre-wedding. We also took the dog, who absolutely had the time of her life. There were pheasants in the garden that she spent quality time staring at out of the window, hares sprang up beneath her feet (she's well past the age of being able to give serious chase, a dozen yards does it).

I cannot overstate how great it was to have fields with wide margins to walk around where you could let a dog off without worrying about meeting anybody else, disturbing nesting birds, busy roads, or trespassing. I wish this were common in England as well as Scotland.

The unexpected highlight of the trip was following a sign for a bookshop from the museum in Hawick (which was closed but is on my list to go to when we're back up there for the wedding), it took us around the corner and landed us in Cornucopia Magazine's office, bookshop, exhibition space. The bookshop is mostly Turkish related titles, with the surprise addition of Shetland-born Edinburgh-based poet, Christine De Luca's back catalogue, she'd been there for an event.

I'm genuinely excited by this find and looking forward to going back when we're back in the area pre-wedding. It was also a reminder to look beyond somewhat dilapidated high streets - there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Hawick if you look for it (the Borders distillery is also worth checking out if you're in the area). 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Wine Tasting

It's not actually that often that I miss the wine world, maybe only days like today when I've been buying quantities of it and really miss the discounts. I do miss the people, but that's a separate issue... I also promised a colleague some how-to-taste wine notes which has had me thinking back too, and in case they're useful to anyone else I'm sharing them here.

Tasting and drinking wine are not the same things, and whilst it isn't practical, or even desirable to give your full critical attention to every bottle you open you will get more out of the whole thing if you have a grasp of the basics. The first thing to understand about the process is how central your sense of smell is to what you taste. There's a really easy and kind of fun way to demonstrate this with the help of a spoon of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon - mix the two together, pinch your nose so you can't smell anything, and put a little of the sugar on your tongue and think about what you can taste. After a moment un-pinch your nose, breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose, and see the difference...

It's also worth swishing cold tea around your mouth to see where tannin hits and sucking on a lemon to understand where you detect acidity and sourness if you really want to be thorough - and now you have a good idea of how your mouth and nose are working it's time to begin.

Glassware - a reasonably thin glass gives a better experience, but the most important thing is that its tulip shaped (with the top tapering inwards), this collects the aromas and makes them easier for you to smell. Should you want to swirl your wine around it also makes it harder to spill. Once the wine is poured - and keep samples small - have a good look at it. A piece of white paper is useful at this point. It should be nice and clean-looking - and clear. A wine full of sediment will taste bitter. If you have that bit of paper the colour of the rim (where wine meets glass at the top) will tell you a bit about the age of your wine. Red wines lose their colour over time, so if it's a purple or ruby kind of colour you have something young - brick red and it's ageing. White wines will also take on a more honeyed colour with age. 

The next thing to look for are the 'legs'. These are the trails of wine that slip back down the inside of the glass after you give it a swirl. The thicker and slower moving they are the higher the alcohol content. 

When you've had a good look at your wine it's time to sniff it. Unless it's very cold, or very young, the swirling business isn't really necessary. What that does is help oxygenate the wine and bring out the aromas, the warmer the wine the more you will smell. Very cold wine will be 'dumb', room temperature is fine for red, white wine should be a little warmer than fridge temperature, but not much. Talking about all the things you can smell might seem pretentious but it's genuinely a handy way of describing, and remembering, what you're tasting so be specific - what kind of fruit? Red, black, stone, apple? Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry? These things will help you identify the grapes used. Toast and vanilla will tell you that the wine has been oak-aged, and so on. 

Now is also the time to think about a couple of common faults - corked wine (wine tainted by TCA, not wine with cork in it) will have a distinctive damp/mouldy cardboard smell. Don't drink it, it won't harm you but it tastes like it smells. Rare now, but if you get a strong smell of sulphur leave the wine to one side until it fades. Sulpher isn't a bad thing in wine, it's been used since Roman times to stabilise and preserve - for an idea of what it's doing have a look at ordinary apricot coloured dried apricots (full of sulphur) and the dark brown organic ones. Some sulphur is also a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process. If your wine doesn't smell of anything much let it warm up a little and maybe gently swirl it around, 

Once you've had a good sniff it's finally time to taste the wine - take a sip, swish it thoroughly around your mouth, note if it has tannins (that grippy, cold tea, effect on the sides of your tongue - the younger the (red) wine the stronger the tannins, they soften out as wine ages or warms up. With white wine are you getting lovely fresh acidity (think about the difference between this and bitterness - they're not the same) or is it flabby and dull? Are all the elements well balanced or do you just feel like you're sucking a lemon again? Practice breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose without dribbling (it happens), note if the aromas you identified when nosing the wine translate into the same flavours in the mouth, or if they've changed - what can you taste - again, be specific.

If you're tasting a lot of wine now is a good time to spit it out (into something sensible, and preferably closed, spittoons are kind of disgusting to deal with). You can always go back to the wines you really liked. Plain crackers and water are a good palate cleanser between wines, sniffing coffee beans will help recalibrate your nose - and failing these the skin on the back of your hand.

The finish! This is how long you can detect the flavours and aromas whilst you breathe in and out after drinking. The longer the better!

Sunday, March 13, 2022


I didn't mean to leave it so long between posts, but with everything that's going on at the moment, home and abroad, I haven't managed to do much sensible reading. I've dipped in and out of a handful of books I haven't really liked or got much to say about. Most of them have been Tik Tok favourites and are primarily aimed at a younger audience who also enjoy fantasy more than I do.

It's been useful for me to read bits of them from a work perspective - they're hugely popular with a significant part of our customer base, and I can see why. I've not really had any interest in reading anything more demanding either, and they've stopped me doom scrolling for which I'm grateful. A better use of my time was spending part of my weekend off with mum and her dog though. Some decent walks, and a lot of snuggling on the sofa, and eventually (after the dog had scared off what we think might have been a would-be burglar from getting in the garden in the early hours) on my bed - but she'd earned duvet and a blast of electric blanket privileges by then, and I was glad of the company. 

This evening though I've finally had a go at a recipe I've been contemplating for a week or more. I've been following the Cook for Ukraine hashtag (the just giving page is here #CookForUkraine all proceeds are going to Unicef). When I was looking through Olia Hercules 'Summer Cooking' for rhubarb inspiration the only reference I found was for some filled buns in the Summer Kitchen Memories. I had a bit of a google for something like a recipe without much luck so I've started making one up and this is my first attempt. 

The Summer Kitchen Recipes section is one of the things that make 'Summer Kitchens' such a special book, and these accounts have even more resonance now. It's Sofia Vozniuk's memory that bought up rhubarb. She spent her childhood in the Volyn region near the Polish border and she talks about sweet yeasted buns filled with rhubarb, the tops brushed with beaten egg applied by cockerel feathers.

As Easter more or less coincides with the beginning of garden rhubarb (rather than forced rhubarb) I've taken a paska (traditional Slavic Easter bread) and adapted it a bit. For the dough, gently warm 150ml whole milk with 50g of unsalted butter until the butter has melted. Leave a pinch of saffron strands to steep in 1 tablespoon of boiling water. Mix 350g of white bread flour, a teaspoon of ground cardamom 1/2 teaspoon of fine salt, 85g of granulated sugar, 2 sachets of instant yeast, a beaten egg, 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 1/2 a teaspoon of almond extract, add the milk and butter mix. Knead with a dough hook for 5 - 10 minutes then cover in a bowl and let double in size (should take about an hour). 

Knock back the dough and let it rise again for half an hour. Chop up about 100g of tender new rhubarb into cm long chunks, mix it up with a generous spoonful of sugar. I also added some vanilla paste, but I'm not sure it was necessary. Divide the dough into 8 more or less equal lumps, flatten each one slightly and put a scant dessert spoon of rhubarb in the middle. Fold the dough around it until it's a nice bun shape, and place on a baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (around 180C fan for about 15 mins, or until they sound hollow. If they're colouring too much cover with baking paper.

I iced the first bun with an almond and rhubarb glaze - didn't much like it, so won't be bothering to do that again. I will be donating to #CookForUkraine though, and having another go at getting this recipe just so. It's good at the moment but not perfect so do feel free to tinker. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Rizzio - Denise Mina

There are a lot of things I'm loving about the Polygon Darklands series not the least of which is that it's already introduced me to two writers I wouldn't otherwise have paid any attention to. I had heard of Jenni Fagan who's Hex is spectacular enough to make me think I might pick up 'Luckenbooth', but I hadn't heard of Denise Mina at all, and wouldn't have paid much attention to her books if I saw them as contemporary crime really isn't my normal choice of reading. 

I'm intrigued now though as I really loved this book. David Rizzio was murdered in front of a heavily pregnant Mary on the 9th of March 1566 as the starting point of a failed coup. Her husband, Lord Darnley was in on the plot - there's speculation that he tried to ensure Mary miscarried the future King James and hoped that she might die in the process so that he could claim the Scottish crown for himself. 

Anybody who has visited Holyrood in Edinburgh, or has an interest in Mary, will be familiar with the story, which I think increases in its power to shock over time. Rizzio was Mary's secretary and confidant, they were eating supper with a group of other nobles when armed men burst in on them and slaughtered him, despite her efforts to protect him. Half the nobles of Scotland were involved in the plot, and whilst on one level it failed - Mary got away, and her child survived, it's also the beginning of the end for her. 

Most of the action takes place on the day and night of the assassination, and it's utterly compelling. This is only a novella, little more than 100 pages long but it feels monumental. Mina is a genius at mixing established historical facts and detail with supposition and commentary. The characters come to life in her hands; drunk, scared, determined, ruthless, ambitious, cowardly, dishonest, weak, desperate, calculating, brave, and surprising - everything is here. 

Everything about this book worked for me. I'm not going to compare it directly to Hex, they're different beasts altogether - Hex had the greater emotional punch for me but Rizzio is the book I'll be recommending to anyone who stands still long enough for the way it relates history, for how compelling it is, and for just being an all-round masterclass in story telling. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Hex - Jenni Fagan

I'm getting out of sync with everything - not helped by a long night waiting for an engineer to turn up and turn off a fire alarm yesterday. It went off at 9.30pm, finally got to bed around 12.45am and I've been a grumpy mess all day on the back of it and a relatively sleepless night.

'Hex' is the last book I finished (over lunch yesterday), somewhere buried on my desk are a couple of others that I really should be writing about first, but that's all going to have to wait for my next day off and a proper tidy. 

Meanwhile 'Hex' was such a blisteringly good read it probably makes sense to write about it now whilst it's so fresh in my mind. It's the second of Polygon's Darkland series. Each book will take a defining episode from Scottish history - the first one was Denise Mina's 'Rizzio' which I read over the weekend and was also amazing (probably the next post), and sets a contemporary author loose on it. The first 2 are novella length which I assume will be the blueprint for the series and both deal with well-known but maybe not universally known moments.

'Hex' is set the night before the execution of Geillis Duncan for witchcraft on the 4th of December 1591. Geillis Duncan was unlucky, a teenage girl caught up in James VI's witch-hunting paranoia. Accused by her employer, David Seaton, she was tortured by him until she accused as many as 60 others. This kicked off the North Berwick witch trials, but these are also attitudes that the puritans transported to America and which go a long way to explaining the Salem witch trials too. 

Seaton's suspicions seem to have been based on Geillis Duncan's skill as a healer, and I share every bit of Jenni Fagan's anger about the way she, and the other accused women were treated. It honestly feels like it's scorching the page sometimes. Geillis tried to retract her confession and accusations before her execution, explaining that they were solely the result of the torture she endured. All of this is covered in 'Hex' which is framed as a conversation between Geillis and a woman called Iris who's (kind of) traveled through time from 2021 to see her through her last night.

'Hex' outlines the facts we know about Geillis, draws parallels with how women are still being treated (contemporary murders are referenced) and why. I'm aware that I'm doing a really bad job of explaining all this, but it's an immensely powerful, poetic, hopeful, and anger-inducing 100 pages that I can't recommend highly enough - although maybe best not read when you're feeling particularly fragile.

I knew a little bit about the North Berwick trials before I started reading, I've looked up a lot more since which must be at least part of the point of this series which really is shaping up to be remarkable. It would be easy to further sensationalise a story like this, but Fagan's handling is perfect The horror is there but with much more besides, so what we get is part fiction, part manifesto, and entirely a call to arms.