Thursday, February 23, 2023

Haunters At The Hearth - edited by Tanya Kirk

Yes, this is me catching up with my Christmas reading at the end of February. What of it, books are nothing if not for life. It's also part and parcel of working retail that the time to relax and enjoy Christmas things is well after the event, which is how I came to be eating panettone for breakfast yesterday. 

Haunters at the Hearth may be subtitled Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights but genuinely it's not just for Christmas, are particularly Christmas heavy - although the feel of all the stories is distinctly wintery. It's also every bit the excellent selection I've come to rely on from Tanya Kirk (all the BL anthologies with her name on are favourites, and well worth having) who excels at putting together a set of stories that balance the genuinely disturbing with something more light hearted. 

Mildred Clingerman's The Wild Wood for example, really made my skin crawl, but Celia Fremlin's Don't Tell Cissie which finishes off the collection was a delight - mostly funny with a twist at the end that makes it more than just funny. There's a D. H. Lawrence that confirms a 30 year antipathy towards D. H. Lawrence which dates from an A level English teacher telling us that nobody understood women like Lawrence, he absolutely refused to accept that actual women might disagree with his assessment. 

My personal dislike of  D. H. Lawrence aside the whole collection is gem after gem - and again makes me wish that the habit of reading ghost stories aloud on winter nights was still a thing (these need to be available as audio books). Some of these are crying out to be performed. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Table Full of Love - Skye McAlpine

Cookbooks are very much on my mind at the moment. I've got a few of them recently with a few more interesting ones on the horizon. Regula Yswijn's Dark Rye and Honey Cake and Misa Hay's A Year in My Shetland Garden have, between them, shaken me out of a bit of a cooking and writing rut. It's been a while since I've felt any particular enthusiasm for both, but it's coming back in spades.

Another cookbook that's really caught my attention is Skye McAlpine's 'A Table Full of Love'. It's the second of her cookbooks I've got and I wonder if this might be her breakthrough title and lifts her out of the reliable mid-list? 'A Table Full of Love' deserves to make a considerable splash for a few reasons. On a very shallow level it's a particularly pretty book, more importantly, it's full of good things.

I also really like the concept behind it too. It turns out that her doctorate is on ancient love poetry (specifically Ovid) and she has remained interested in the way different kinds of love were defined in the ancient world. This cookbook reflects something similar in that it's divided into recipes to comfort, seduce, nourish, spoil, and cocoon. 

For those of us who use food as a love language, this is a concept that is both seductive and intuitive. What better way to choose what I want to cook than for what I want the dish to convey? It's also great to have whole sections, Seduce, that specifically have you cooking for two, or Cocoon, with recipes for one, and makes it easy to build a menu around that. Good recipes for one or two people are still thin on the ground but for most of our lives, that's what we actually need. 

There's everything in here from pull out all the stops birthday cakes (cakes do feature a lot - which I consider a bonus) to the disarmingly simple. I don't know if anybody has ever collected a good number of recipes which are hardly recipes at all and put them together in a book, but I would buy it if they had. There are a couple of crackers in here - Sourdough toast with chocolate and olive oil sounds heavenly, depending on good quality ingredients to provide a luxurious pick me up, but my favourite has to be for spiced oranges with brandy and sugar,

All you need to do is peel a couple of oranges and remove the pith then slice them into 5mm-1cm thick round, put them in a bowl to macerate with 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 2 of brandy, and a sprinkling of cinnamon then put in the fridge for anything from an hour to overnight. Use less sugar, a brown sugar, a red wine, a sweet wine, rum, cardamom instead of cinnamon, full-on mulled wine spices, blood oranges, navel oranges, clementines, or mandarins. Have it on its own, with cream, use them to dress up a plain sort of cake - it's hardly a recipe, but it's elegant, adaptable, and easy. A very useful thing to have tucked away at the back of your mind.

And that's the charm of this book in a nutshell - it's full of elegant, adaptable recipes that'll see you through a variety of situations, as good for special occasions as it is for something quick comforting, and everything in between. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

A Year In My Shetland Garden - Misa Hay

Or perhaps more specifically Misa's Ořechová Bábovka (Walnut Bundt Cake) with which I have fallen in love. Fortunately, it's a new found passion that D shares and there's a lot to celebrate with cake in a marriage. 

Once upon a time, my favourite cake would always have been chocolate, but preferences change and now it's whatever has the least icing on it that attracts me (the craze for cupcakes with great big dollops of frosting on top of them did for me). A walnut cake studded with juicy raisins is perfect. This cake turns out to be light, flavoursome, elegant, excellent with coffee, smart enough to serve with dinner, easy to make, and altogether exactly what I want in my repertoire. 

It also nicely sums up how I feel about Misa's book in general. It's full of food that feels contemporary, sounds delicious, and which tells a story. In this case, it's Misa's journey from the Czech republic to making a life and family in Shetland. These are flavours from her childhood, bought back from travels, and homegrown. 

Shetland is a challenging place to grow things (unless it's rhubarb which does exceptionally well there, and is equally well represented in this book) but not impossible. Over the last couple of decades, a more robust version of a polytunnel has sprung up and it's revolutionised what people can grow. That's really useful in a place where the weather can seriously disrupt supply chains. For those of us not dealing with Shetlands climate though, this is a book full of easy to buy or grow vegetables and that's a definite plus too.

There are so many things I like about this book, but overall I think it's mostly about the attitude. It's a book about the possible, and about roots (in every sense). That walnut bundt cake is one of Misa's childhood favorites which brings its own twist to the Shetland love of baking. I would normally share the recipe here, but on this occasion, I'm going to strongly recommend buying the book - find it here or order from any good bookshop. 

On a side note, I couldn't find my sensible bundt tin - I think it's buried under a lot of jam jars, so used a very posh nordic ware one shaped like snow-covered fir trees that I bought in a fit of enthusiasm with amazon vouchers a couple of years ago and had never used. It was a nightmare to butter, and worse to clean, so that's a lesson learned. I also got distracted by a phone call and should have had the cake out of the oven 5 - 10 minutes before I did, but it was still fine - which is another virtue to award it!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Peerie Leaves Jumper - Donna Smith

I've had it in mind to make this jumper for a while, so after getting a cone of DK yarn (Dusk from Jamieson's of Shetland) I knew that's what it was going to be for. I started on this between Christmas and new year, so to have finished already is fast for me. 

This is the fourth jumper I've finished and a clear favourite so far despite still coming out a bit bigger than I intended. I did try swatching this time, but either my maths was out, or I radically changed my tension when I started working on a larger scale (probably both happened). At least it's the kind of too big that I can get away with, and next time I knit one (there will be a next time just as soon as I can find another yarn I like as much) it'll be sized down a little. 

Knitting with DK rather than a Shetland jumper weight was a treat - thicker yarn, bigger needles, faster progress, which is very encouraging. I like the fabric it's made as well - chunkier than I'm used too and squishier. It's very pleasing. 

I really liked Donna Smith's pattern which is available on Ravelry, and in the 2020 Shetland Wool Week Annual (volume 6 - it's got some cracking patterns in it). The Peerie Leaves jumper design is well written, easy to follow, doesn't have any nasty surprises in it, and has come up as a useful sort of jumper that I know I'm going to wear a lot (I've been wearing it all day at work already). One small quibble would be over the photographs that go with the pattern - they're beautiful, but they don't give the clearest idea of how the jumper will look - the close up shots have the model in a closer fitting version, the pattern suggests quite a lot of positive ease. 

I added one and a half repeats to get the sort of length I need and made the rib at the bottom a couple of rows longer too. I actually judged this about right for the first time so don't have a jumper that almost hits my knees again - this may be the single thing I'm most pleased about. 

I also kind of wish this had been the first jumper I tried to knit - I think it's an ideal place to start. The speed with which it knits up is great, the lace element is a simple pattern that has a nice rhythm to it, and you can see within a couple of stitches if you've gone wrong which is definitly a bonus. The rest is stocking stitch which is relaxing. The finished jumper feels like more than the sum of it's parts (that's definitely a hallmark of an excellent design). 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Shadows Between Us - Tricia Levenseller

This is an example of a book where I should have known better, but I didn't, and it disappointed me. I've been intrigued by Trica Levenseller's books for a couple of months - Daughter of the Pirate King and Daughter of the Siran Queen sounded fun, I trust Pushkin press, and there's a lot of positive buzz about these books online. In truth I didn't really finish this one, I read the first 50 pages in growing irritation and then skimmed through the rest of the book, felt it was going even further downhill, and then gave it up as a bad job.

There was a discussion and radio 4's Women's hour earlier this week around a lot of Young Adult fiction being too dark for its intended audience - the postman rang my doorbell halfway through it so I may have missed something crucial, but to me the bigger issue is quality and I don't think that was touched on. 

I'm 30 years past warning to spend a lot of time reading about teenage protagonists, but a good book is a good book and there's some great YA writing out there - none of which is inherently darker than Wuthering Heights, anything by Dostoevsky, or The Picture of Dorian Gray all of which are popular with the youth. There's also the obvious point that being a teen is fairly grim a lot of the time, so you'd want a good choice of books that reflect that and help you work through some of it.

Quality is key though. The Shadows Between Us looks like a fairly typical dark/fantasy romance - a genre where I expect to find more smut than I'm interested in, and where a lot of our customers find exactly the amount of smut they're in the mood for, so that's money well spent. Young adult authors can't rely on smut so I expect decent plots and characters but that's perhaps before the book took started driving sales the way it has. 

The Shadows Between Us starts with a cracking first line; "They never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart." but for me at least it falls off from there. I didn't find any of the characters particularly well drawn, their interactions too often seemed off, the world-building was shoddy, and a cynical woman would end up thinking that this book was snapped up first and foremost to appeal to a trend.

I'll be watching sales with interest, it's quite possible the teens will agree with me. It's just as possible that they'll be oblivious to the things I see as glaring faults or horribly toxic - perhaps these are characters a 14-year-old could love. I mostly hope not because you need this stuff to be done well to better build an understanding of what is and isn't acceptable behavior, not the kind of lazy writing that normalizes the unacceptable.  

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Dark Rye and Honey Cake - Regula Ysewijn

I've been off work using up the last of my holiday allowance, my plans had included lots of blogging and other writing, but after a couple of flu-type bugs over the last couple of months, I've mostly spent the time recuperating. It's been very welcome, I still think I might just have had covid again despite tests being negative it's so exactly like I felt last time. It's the fatigue that gets me!

I didn't manage to catch up on reading in the way I'd hoped either, but I have caught up with people I really needed to see and it's coincided with one of the first big publishing weeks of the year - from my point of view at least - let's forget about Harry, and Spare, for now.

I've been looking forward to 'Dark Rye and Honey Cake' (Festival baking from the heart of the low countries) for a while. I think it was originally slated for publication last year and got pushed back. It's more than worth the wait. I've been a fan of Regula Ysewijn's writing since 'Pride and Pudding', and her photography since I first came across it in 'The Taste of Belgium' (published by Grub Street).

To be honest it's hard to think of a book that would appeal to me more even if I wasn't already a fan the enthusiastic quotes from Diana Henry, Felicity Cloake, Dr Annie Gray, and Caroline Eden (4 of my favourite food/food history writers right there) would have pulled me in. As it is there are the beautiful photographs that are a hallmark of Regula's books, along with the equally stunning illustrations by her husband, Bruno Vergauwen. It's a combination that really adds to the character of the books. 

There's impeccable research that brings the history of the bakes here to life along with a sense of the cultures it comes from and does it in an extremely engaging way - this isn't a series of lectures, it's stories being passed between generations and cooks. And then there are the recipes. I've spent all weekend alternately reading and researching waffle irons.

Honestly, the only waffles I've had have been the supermarket sort which I don't think are going to be much of an indicator as to how these waffles will taste. Despite this, after reading through the several recipes here I'm quite willing to spend hundreds of pounds to buy a good electric waffle maker and a range of plates to go with it for making the different kinds of waffles. There's some handy advice on a couple of options to go for at the back of the book, perhaps fortunately neither is quickly available in the UK. 

As an aside I had no idea that it was a thing to buy a traveling waffle iron suitable for camping, and I'm a little confused by the insistence for a lot of the non-electric ones that they need to be held over a fire or a gas ring. My electric hob seems a no. The sensible thing is probably to curb myself a bit, get one of the basic and fairly inexpensive electric models, find out how much I like homemade waffles, and then invest in more serious kit. It's not an approach commensurate with my enthusiasm. 

Never mind, there are pancakes to make, fritters to fry, bread to bake, tarts to consider, and spice biscuits. The biscuit recipes are luring me online again because I'm frankly envious of Ysewijn's collection of wooden molds. I've wanted to find some antique biscuit molds for a very long time, but haven't ever managed to find any out and about in the UK. It's a much longer time since they've been part of our tradition so this isn't really surprising (sorry, that's another 15 minutes lost to etsy browsing).

It's an amazing book, the result of years of work and clearly a labour of love. It's got so much going for it that it wouldn't matter if you never baked a thing in it. Buy it for the pictures, or for the history, or the anecdotes, or all the personal touches and details that make it such a very charming book, or for the recipes - you wouldn't be disappointed on any of those fronts, I'm beyond happy with the whole package.