Thursday, November 30, 2023

Foula, Island West of the Sun and Shetland Wool Adventures

It's been quite a month and one that I won't be sorry to see the back of. I'm still distinctly anemic, my dad broke his hand, mum's second cataract operation didn't work very well... the list goes on. But here's to looking forward. I've got my Christmas tree, an advent calendar ready to go, and a treatment plan with the gynecology department at my local hospital, and there's always a slim chance that at least one of my parents will accept they might need to slow down for a little bit and be sensible. 

There's a new Shetland Wool Adventures Journal in the offing in time for Christmas too - I write for this and love it, it's a great journal with patterns, recipes, and all sorts of insights into life and creativity in Shetland. Any volume would make an excellent present for the knitter, cook, or Shetland fan in your life. My Christmas knitting is about done and I'm very much looking forward to planning my next projects - which will mostly be for me. A new jumper is likely, but I've also really got the beret/tam knitting bug and I see something tempting in the preview HERE. Misa's Cookbook is also brilliant - consider buying that too.

A different sort of Shetland adventure is the Northus reprint of Sheila Gear's Foula, Island West of the Sun - I genuinely think this is a lost classic of nature writing as well as a deeply personal biography of an extraordinary woman. It's come back to mind because in it Sheila writes about preparing a traditional yule bread. I've struggled for a while to find any sort of recipe for this, but I've been speaking to the Foula Heritage group and they've given me a bit more information so I'm going to have a go at making it. It would have been baked on a griddle pan over an open fire which might be a challenge to replicate, but I have some reading to do and things to try - the crucial thing is that I have the flavourings and a few books with references to play with. 

Buy Foula Island West of the Sun here and support a really lovely independent publisher.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Book Tokens

probably because I work in a bookshop nobody ever gives me book tokens, which is a shame because I love them. They're something we sell a lot of at this time of year, but they're also something I find myself recommending a lot to harrassed present givers who almost all have the same light bulb moment, so I'll add them to my gift suggestions here.

National Book Tokens can be used in any participating shop, but only for books. As far as I'm aware in the UK The Works doesn't take them, but any independent book shop will and it's a great way to support them. The only reason I wouldn't buy them is if they were for youngish children who might really want toys or stationery - which most bookshops also sell because disappointing small children isn't fun for us. 

If you have a good independent local bookshop, or know that your intended recipient has, that does its own gift vouchers it's a great way to support them and whilst I work for a national chain I strongly believe we all do better when there's more choice and good local competition - or perhaps more accurately, the independent shops around us can do things we can't which means a richer literary scene for everyone if we support them. The local bookshop scene across the English and Scottish borders is fabulous, and a testament to what supportive communities will get. 

The advantage of buying a voucher for a big chain are that most people will be reasonably close to a branch in Mainland UK and you get a wide range of games, jigsaws and other bits to choose from if you're not entirely sure books are what will be wanted. 

I like getting tokens because it's something to open, and then there's the anticipation of what I'll buy, followed by my final choice - it's nice to have something that can only be spent on a self-indulgence with no thoughts of saving or using it for a sensible cause (my front door apparently doesn't meet current fire regulations and will need work done to bring it up to code in the new year). 

I like giving gift tokens because I can direct the spending of whoever is getting it - normally the children of friends who have given me instructions - whilst still providing the excitement of getting a choice. Or because I know I'm passing on the same pleasure I get from them. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Iliad - Emily Wilson

This is a mildly embarrassing confession, but although I've read The Odyssey, I haven't read Emily Wilson's translation yet - despite having had it on my shelf for a while. I was reminded about this last week when someone returned a copy because they didn't like the deckled edge. A quick look on Wikipedia suggests they're not alone and that the misconception that it's a printing error instead of a design choice is a common one. I'm not overly fond of deckled edges either, but I do like it here with it's nod to our historical obsession with the Greek and Roman classics. 

Wilson's Odyssey was, and remains, a hit. The youth are also really into Marcus Aurelias, and locally I'm pushing Ovid's Metamorphoses because I really enjoyed it and it's so relevant to a lot of the very popular mythology retellings around at the moment. It's not really surprising that Wilson's Iliad would fly off the shelves either, and yet I don't know that I ever expected to see young women come in for a £30 hardback on publication day and leave with it and Bea Fitzgerald's 'Girl Goddess Queen' under their arms - but I did. 

The Iliad is currently being reprinted so it's not easily available online if you want a physical copy (that big website doesn't have it) but there are plenty around in actual bookshops and this might be on more teen wishlists than you imagine. And just generally on more wishlists. I got over-excited and bought my copy straight away - now I really need to make sure I read it before it comes out in paperback...

Girl Goddess Queen is a funny and smart take on the Hades and Persephone myth appropriate for teens and above - as an adult reader there were some repetitive bits I thought could have been cut, but that's most YA books for me. I really liked the combination of banter and historical detail on ancient Greek buildings and customs. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Stir up Sunday

I'm finally beginning to feel like all the meds are doing some good and that I might be able to leave not just my sofa, but even my flat for longer than it takes to collect my post - which will be nice. 

I had planned to spend this weekend doing pre-birthday and Christmas things including starting some biscuit baking. None of that has happened and whilst in the greater scheme of things it doesn't really matter it's something I look forward to; a tradition that reclaims a bit of Christmas spirit from the madness of Christmas in retail. 

It's probably why I have such a weakness for books about Christmas - I have the River Cottage one, Nigella Lawson's take on it, Kate Young's Little Library version (a definite favourite) a Gingerbread cookbook bought for £3 in The Works a long time ago that's surprisingly good, Annie Rigg's Gifts From the Kitchen, Anja Dunk's Advent, and a whole lot more with Chrismas chapters. 

I have never hosted a Christmas - although I've helped with a few, and maybe never will for more than 2 of us, and have very mixed feelings about the day itself. There's never enough time to enjoy it properly, it really should still be a 12 day festival season, and it brings up a lot of complicated memories. This year it's the absence of my friend Lorna who discovered she had cancer in January. The last things we did together before we knew she was ill were Christmas shopping and present swapping. I have just finished the coffee she bought me and have almost burnt through the candle she gave me with it. She's very much on my mind as is the family she left behind.

The mixed emotions Christmas brings as we get older are part of why I've found making my own traditions around the season so important. Puddings were made at the beginning of the month, a little earlier than actual Stir Up Sunday - and it's not too late to make one yet if you want a crack at it. It makes your kitchen smell amazing. 

Not that it matters what the traditions are so much as that we make time to share good things with the people we care about whilst we can. The specifics evolve anyway as life keeps changing and maybe my biggest constant will end up being to buy myself another Christmas-themed book each year and daydream about the perfect celebration whilst reading biscuit recipes. Lizzie Collingham's The Biscuit, The History of a Very British Indulgence is therefore my recommendation of the day. 


Saturday, November 25, 2023

Renard Press Christmas Cards

This week went seriously sideways on Thursday when I ended up in A&E and then admitted to gynecology. A month ago, or 5 weeks on Monday, I had a hysteroscopy (it's a camera shoved into your uterus with a whole lot of fluid) and biopsy. I've had very heavy bleeding ever since, so I'm now noticeably anaemic, very run down, and blood tests showed infection markers. I've had a hysteroscopy before, the aftermath was nowhere near this dramatic, I'm very fed up with being told that what's happening is normal. If it is then I certainly didn't give informed consent. I'm also fed up feeling useless at a busy time of year.

I feel like a case study from Caroline Criado Perez's Invisible Women, or a sofa bound side character in a Victorian novel. Peri-menopause is giving me a very different perspective on that stereotype. I'm not sure that Invisible Women, which makes me literally want to set fire to the patriarchy, is the best Christmas present, although it's an important book that I'd encourage anyone to read. Winter is a very good time for Victorian novels though, and if you're lucky enough to have down time between Christmas and New Year, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, Anthony Trollope - all sound choices. 

Today's recommendation though is Renard Presses splendid Christmas Cards this year it's Hans Christian Anderson's The Fir Tree, beautifully printed and ready to disturb anyone unfamiliar with Hans Christian Anderson's storytelling. Renard have a really interesting list of older oddities and gems along with great contemporary fiction, especially if you're looking for queer voices, but I particularly love the Christmas book/card. It's the perfect thing to send that's more than a card, but isn't quite in full on present territory with the obligations and expectations that can bring. Also, they're just a really cool bookish thing that people like me really love getting. 


Wednesday, November 22, 2023


Twelve new stories, twelve great writers, one Agatha Christie. This is another book that did well last Christmas in hardback and is now doing quite well in paperback for this autumn. I managed the rare self-restraint of waiting for the paperback to come out, then entirely predictably did nothing about reading it until this week. 

Now I am reading it I really like it. I'm not exactly scaling back on present buying this year, but there's not much that many of my friends want or need that they haven't already got. I'm opting for things like well chosen (I hope) paperbacks and good quality coffee, biscuits, and other small indulgences (if anyone wants to give me a Terry's chocolate orange I'm very fond of them). 

Marple strikes me as an excellent small gift too. I'm more of a fan of Agatha Christie on the screen than in book form - she's amazing at plots, but not, in my opinion - though I'm not going to fight anyone on this, so good at character, but she's the Queen and I do enjoy her. I don't generally love other people taking on an author's characters but the detection club did it back in the day, and Christie's characters have long taken on their own lives. 

The 12 writers here are interesting, and not necessarily obvious choices either which really helps - they come from across genres so although there are a few crime writers on the list there are also names that I associate with science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. And then I've really enjoyed the stories I've read so far - so this should be a winner for crime lovers, curiosity lovers, and fans of classic crime. 

I also recommend looking up the Detection Club titles, Ask A Policeman is particularly fun in that the writers involved swap their detectives and write some splendid pastiches of each other's work. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Brutto - Russell Norman

It's a terrible admission to make, but not only do I not own a copy of Polpo, I've never even really read it. Brutto came in briefly at the beginning of the month and then disappeared, it turned up again today and after a very brief glance bought it, then spent my lunch break looking at it in more depth. 

It looks amazing - it had me at Cucumber, Mint, and Celery leaf salad, and sealed the deal with a BaccalĂ  recipe - because yes, I have some salt cod to use and a lack of a good Spanish recipe for Bacaloa. I didn't realise it was an Italian thing too so this is lucky. 

Basically, the book is exactly what it says - a (simple) Florentine cookbook - full of food that sounds exactly the kind of thing I want to eat and is entirely accessible to the home cook. There are drinks too. That's everything I want from a cookbook. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Lost Realms - Thomas Williams

Amy Jeff's Storyland (lovely children;s edition now available) was a big hit in hardback my first Christmas back in bookshops, and then a bigger hit in paperback last year. Thomas William's Lost Realms feels like an obvious choice if you want to follow that interest in the early medieval world, it's ticking over at the moment, and I think that by the end of the year it'll prove to have been a considerable hit.

I haven't read my copy yet because it was immediately claimed by my husband - he says it's excellent. It concentrates on the forgotten kingdoms of ancient Britain - the ones '..that hover in the twilight between history and fable, whose stories hum with gods and miracles..' That was enough to sell me on it. Reviews have been excellent as well which is also encouraging, and what little I have read suggests that there's plenty of the sort of vigorous debunking that's always fun to read. It probably doesn't hurt that it's Anglo-Saxon adjacent given my current enthusiasm either. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Winter Spirits; Ghostly Tales for Frosty Nights

I love a good ghost story, and as I've said (more than once) they're not just for Halloween - or perhaps it's more accurate to say that spooky season is from when the clocks go back and until they jump forward again.

The Haunting Season is a shop favourite for us, and Winter Spirits looks set to follow it. There are three (at least) excellent reasons to buy this - there's the great cover, shallow - but it looks splendid and that's a consideration for a potential present. Then there's the fun of a dozen contemporary ghost stories - this is not an anthology that's going to have any of the usual suspects in it. And finally it's a great way to sample the work of writers that might be on your radar but you haven't quite committed to.

I've been on the fence about Kiran Millwood Hargrave since really disliking Julia and the Shark - this is a good place to try again. There's a couple of other writers I've meant to read for ages as well so altogether this book makes me feel the same way as I do when I win approximately £9.20 on the lottery - thoroughly pleased with the world. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

A. S. Byatt

A very long time ago the friend I lost to cancer this summer gave me a collection of A. S. Byatt short stories as a Christmas present - I think we were still at school. I loved them, I read Possession and I loved that too, and I kept on reading her. 

I'm not sure what's in print at the moment, but if you've never read her seek out her short story collections and work from there. It's the best tribute to a wonderful writer I can think of.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Good Drinks - Ambrose Heath

I thought this book was out of print, but apparently it isn't and I highly recommend getting a copy. I have a decent selection of cocktail books that I really like, and though this one might not technically be the best of them it's definitely my favorite. I love the Edward Bawden illustrations, the mix of hot, cold, hard, and soft drinks, the inclusion of punches and cups, and most of all Ambrose Heath's writing.

A good drinks book is an extremely useful thing to have around as Christmas approaches, there's a strong argument for saying that a single cocktail is better than opening a bottle of wine, and even stronger argument in favour of soft drinks. Punches and cups are not as fashionable as they should be, but they're easy to scale up or down, and to keep relatively light on alcohol as desired - so the perfect party drink. They're also easy to adapt so that you end up with your own signature drink which is also a fun thing.

After years in the wine trade, one thing that frustrates me about bookselling is how resistant my customers are to buying good cocktail books - they buy the gimmicky ones, or the cheap ones, or the over complicated ones, and as a bookseller that's none of my business so I have to hold back on the lecture each and every time.

The lecture is this: if you're making drinks at home keep it simple, buy good quality but not over-expensive ingredients - pay attention to the ABV, it matters, get the balance of ingredients right and you're all good. Once you've got the basics you can start adding little twists - Alice Lascelles The Cocktail Edit is excellent for this. Or keep it really simple with something like Sipsmith's Sip - 100 gin cocktails with only 3 ingredients in each. Richard Godwin's The Spirits is another excellent and underappreciated book, and so is Kate Hawkings Aperitif - all are full of classics and good advice for making them perfectly. 

I couldn't say any of them have quite the wit of Ambrose Heath though, and if not all his drinks are drinkable - do not under any circumstances be tempted to make the Mahogany, it's a hellish combination of gin and treacle that I found absolutely unpalatable - most of them are. The number of hot drinks and soft drinks is also a bonus that most modern guides don't have - unless you buy a specifically alcohol free cocktail guide, and there are a lot more of those around. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Winters In The World - Eleanor Parks

Do I have an Anglo-Saxon obsession? Yes, I do. It's kind of a chicken and an egg thing - I don't know if my obsession came first, or if it's been fuelled by a whole lot of excellent and accessible titles around right now. They're popular with customers too which is what makes me think I'll recommend another after Hana Videen's Deorhord.

Winter's in the World is a small present to myself, I'm only a few pages in and already fascinated by it - it's a journey through the cycle of the year in Anglo Saxon England and I plan on dipping in and out of it following the seasons, starting at winter. I have Maria Dahvana Headley's translation of Beowulf still to read and might try the Tolkien version too, and then there's Basilisks and Beowulf by Tim Flight so if all my reading goes to plan (it never does) I'll have an interesting new (or old?) world view.


Tuesday, November 14, 2023

British Library Books

It's been a tough day - I had a fairly routine medical procedure just over 3 weeks ago but am still dealing with after effects. Apparently, this is within the range of normal. It would have been nice to have been warned. A kind GP did offer to sign me off work this morning for as long as I needed; I declined because I'm not clear how long that'll be and I think I can cope for now, but all I really want at this point is to go to bed and cry for a bit.

When I got back to work though I had a really great conversation with a charming customer about the British Library weird series - he wanted Haunters of the Hearth (excellent choice that's on its way to him), then I saw the cover for Scotland The Strange in the hardback premium weird collection and imagine a middle-aged woman making heart eyes at it. 

I'm wondering about starting Who Killed Father Christmas instead of tears for an evening treat, or there's the brilliant women's series Stories for Winter which has cracking stuff in it. I have just spent the last half hour browsing the online shop and honestly, if you like books and book related stuff - it's amazing. I'm almost tempted to cough for a train ticket (East Midland mainline is obnoxiously expensive) to see the Fantasy exhibition - and I could go on...

Any local bookshop will order you any of these titles if they don't already have them in stock or obviously you can order straight from the website (facsimile Shakespeare first folio people). I will be giving a good selection of the weird stories this year, especially Dead Drunk to friends from my wine trade days. Have a look and be inspired. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Fried Eggs and Rioja - Victoria Moore

I entered the wine trade pre smartphone, when books were still both the obvious and best way to learn the theories of wine and food matching. A lot has changed since 1999 - most notably what wine costs. if you take the cost of a Grand Marque champagne they sat between £20 and £25 for a good non vintage bottle and for the same money you could get really good still wine - everything but the most prestigious of names. Those champagnes cost around £50 now, but some of the clarets I used to love are £150 and more which is unrealistic on a bookseller's wage. 

How we buy wine changed too - Supermarkets hadn't entirely dominated how and what we drink in the late 90s - at the end of my time as a wine specialist for Waitrose the sheer quantity of Sauvignon Blanc and the slow disappearance of varietals was not making my job any more interesting. The search for cheaper wines to mitigate rising costs is turning that around again and sometimes I feel like an absolute beginner again when I look around the shelves. 

Apps make the business of choosing something to go with dinner relatively easy, though I do not believe that they can do the same thing as I did - it's not just about finding the technically right match, but understanding what the person buying likes and being able to accurately identify what the main flavour in a dish actually is. 

Books might not be the most obvious place to learn from anymore (certainly not judging by sales - classic annual wine guides no longer sell quite like hot cakes) but I'd argue they're still the best because they teach you all the how and why so you can more or less work it out for yourself after a while. Even if you're not familiar with a grape the description on the label ought to provide the necessary clues to figure out if it'll work the way you want it too with food. 

Which brings me to Victoria Moore's Fried Eggs and Rioja: What to Drink With Absolutley Everything. The paperback came out in 2022 so it's still up to date in terms of what we're eating. Moore is an excellent writer and this is a perfect little gift/stocking filler for anyone interested in getting the most out of their food and wine.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Grand Shetland Adventure Knits - Gudrun Johnstone and Mary Jane Mucklestone

I'm currently knitting my third Christmas Stocking of the autumn and planning post Christmas gift knitting projects - Gudrun Johnston and Mary Jane Mucklestone's beautiful Grand Shetland Adventure Knits has got a couple of things in it that are high up my list to try. There are socks with a new to me heel construction, a couple of really lovely looking jumpers, and a whole lot of photographs from my part of Shetland which are obviously a personal attraction.

Grand Shetland Adventure knits is published by Laine so has high production values throughout, and is available either direct from the publisher or from good local yarn stores. I'm a fan of both Mary Jane and Gudrun's designs and particularly like having a collection that features both of them to add to my knitting library of books (which also has previous books by both of them). It would be a great present for any knitter in your life with an interest in Fair Isle or Shetland lace - simple mitts and hats are a great place for less confident knitters to start and there's plenty of variety.

I bought my copy from Jamieson and Smith also known as The Woolbrokers, partly so I could get some of their new 5 ply sports weight at the same time to have a play with (likely one of those post Christmas projects now) because it saved on postage - which I suppose is classic girl maths. Both the Woolbrokers and Jamieson's of Shetland do a really good mail order service, but it's already time to think about last posting dates, not least because the weather at this time of year can seriously disrupt ferries and planes meaning things just don't move. 

Jamieson's of Shetland has DK which is what I'm using for my Christmas stockings and I love their heathered colours, they also have an excellent range of DPN's. The Woolbrokers sell cones of yarn, they're oiled for machine use so take a little extra washing but they're exceptionally good value and again something that would make an amazing present for a knitter. A 500g cone will do you a serious project. The heritage natural shades are particularly gorgeous. They also have an excellent range of books along with glove and mitten boards. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Secret of Helmersbruk Manor - Eva Frantz

This is a Pushkin Children's title translated from Swedish by A. A. Prime and I'm a little bit in love with it. There's a chapter for every day of advent, suitably spooky illustrations - which is just enough for atmosphere and it's gripping enough for adult parts of a family to enjoy reading with younger children. 

I'm sentimental enough to really like the idea of people reading aloud together. I would have loved something like this as a kid, both to read myself and to be read to me and I'm hard pressed to think of a nicer Christmas tradition to start. Obviously it works perfectly well outside of advent, and away from Christmas. 

It starts with Flora and her mother moving to an isolated gate lodge for a month so that Flora's mother can concentrate on writing a book, and both of them can get over the death of Flora's father. Flora is grateful to be getting away from school bullies, but isn't prepared for the strange pull of Helmersbruk Manor or how familiar it seems... 

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Living Stone, Stories of Uncanny Sculpture 1858-1943 - ed Henry Bartholomew

This post is partly a recommendation for this book, which is excellent - we've been reading stories aloud from it to each other for a good part of the evening which is both as nerdy and enjoyable as I could have imagined. People do not read me weird and uncanny stories half as much as I'd like as a rule. It's also a recommendation to support independent publishers.

I really like Handheld Press - it's a consistently interesting list, they wrap books beautifully when they send direct, and they're lovely people to deal with. I'm also a big fan of finding a press I like and then taking a wider chance on their books either browsing in an actual bookshop or on their websites. Going direct means more money for your publisher of choice to carry on paying their bills and doing interesting things 

Christmas/winter was traditionally the time for ghost stories - spooky season begins at Halloween, not ends. My favourite collections currently come from Handheld and the British Library weird series. Both are better at unsettling me as a reader rather than frightening me stupid, which is very much how I like it. My architect husband is very taken with the concept of The Living Stone' which is why he consented to reading aloud and being read too. 

This is the next thing I really like about a good weird collection - there's now enough of them based on an inspiringly broad range of topics that there's bound to be something appropriate for the readers in your life that's tailored to their particular interests. The glorious thing about a well chosen paperback is that it's a thoughtful and budget option.

The glorious thing about The Living Stone is all it's literary gothic flourishes. Almost miraculously it doesn't have Man Size in Marble in it (I adore E Nesbit, but that one gets in A Lot of anthologies), even better there are two different stories titled the Marble Hands, one of which is a mini masterpiece - which one that is, is up to the individual reader! 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

At Christmas We Feast - Annie Gray

I have a growing collection of books about Christmas - I'm a sucker for them. Ghost stories, crime stories, seasonal tales of all sorts, books on traditions, and books about food. I mostly love my job, we have a lot of great customers, and selling books is mostly fun. It's not always easy, there's a lot more heavy lifting, and cleaning than people seem to imagine (a lot less sitting around reading and meeting cute too) but overall there's a sense of community that I really love. The biggest downside is probably the holiday arrangements - we work bank holidays including Boxing Day and New Year's Day. We can't have time off from the beginning of December through to the middle of January. Easter is off the cards as well.

I don't think this is natural. Deep winter is a time when we should slow down, get cosy, and enjoy the good things we have. Two days off after a crazy busy week and then straight back into it is all wrong, there's no time for feeling any goodwill for mankind when people are squabbling over prices and demanding refunds for books that they've a) obviously had lying around for years, b) have come from amazon, c) are badly damaged - and no you can't use a gift receipt to get cash, only the person who paid for the book can have a money refund. In a better world, we'd have a bit more of a breather.

To cope with the whole show I try and make the most of this time and at least enjoy the preparation. Advent is a good time for reflection and for drawing out the celebrations. My collection of Christmas books is part of my advent tradition. At Christmas We Feast is definitely a favourite title, out for a couple of years now and with obvious stocking filler appeal, Annie Gray is an excellent food historian, this is a fascinating book to read and reread, and there are things to cook in it. 

She traces the history of Christmas feasting from its origins to the present day and there's just a lot to enjoy. Some myths about Cromwell are busted, there's a recipe for hot chocolate wine, and hours worth of interesting rabbit holes to explore. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

A Cook Book Double

Plans for posting last night were derailed by internet issues so I have two fabulous cook books to suggest tonight. I'm currently somewhat obsessed with Diana Henry's recipe for Hete Bliksen (hot lightening), it's a simple supper dish of sauteed new potatoes, bacon, and apple, with a little thyme. Quick, easy, and extra good with a bit of wilted cabbage on the side. It's a Dutch dish and can be found in the newly re-issued Roast Figs and Sugar Snow. It is my perfect winter cookbook and an absolute classic (though probably not ideal for vegetarians and vegans - it's quite a meaty book).

Whilst making my Hete Bliksen I was thinking again what a shame it is that there aren't yet many books on Dutch cooking in English - and then I remembered Regula Ysewijn's splendid 'Dark Rye and Honey Cake' which looks specifically at festival baking of the low countries. 

I love this book, the research, the photography, the illustrations, and the recipes. It's a masterpiece, as good to read as to cook from - and now is the time to start cooking from it and then follow the festive year through. There are a lot of recipes for waffles (I'm still considering a waffle maker - my tiny kitchen won't easily accommodate another mug much less anything larger, and yet...) which was a revelation to me, and a lot of recipes for breads which are a delight. Had I thought of it in time I could have made Gentse mastel, eaten as a preventative against rabies on St Hubert's day (3rd of November). I'll take my chances with the rabies but I need more cinnamon bread in my life. 

Dark Rye and Honey Cake is a cookbook full of projects - things that take a little time, and maybe a little practice, to make well. That's a great way to spend a winter's day off. Roast Figs and Sugar Snow does everything from comfort food to dinner party specials taking in some Christmas inspiration along the way. It also has the richest, most indulgent, brownies I've ever had the pleasure of making. Either or both would be useful and inspiring gifts. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

Divine Might - Natalie Haynes

A strong contender for one of my books of the year, I've used Haynes earlier 'Pandora's Jar' quite a bit to look things up - it's useful to have around when there are so very many retellings of Greek myths about and you're not sure how fanciful some of them are (also, do not necessarily trust the advice of very young colleagues who tell you a Persephone and Hades retelling is amazing, there's an unreasonably high chance it's going to turn out to be appallingly badly written smut). Much as I like Pandora's Jar though, I've never been inclined to sit and read it from cover to cover, or carry it around with me.

Divine Might is a further exploration of Greek goddesses in myth, and also into popular culture. It's funny, clever, and compelling. It persuaded me to watch Disney's Hercules - which at least has a happy ending, and the chapter on Hera is a masterclass in critical thinking. I really liked Haynes 'Stone Blind' which came out in paperback earlier this summer, but as good as that is and I bored everybody at work for a good two weeks telling them repeatedly how good it is, I like this book even more.

It's probably because only Natalie Haynes would sit down and compare the goddess Artemis to Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and make it make sense. There's a Thames and Hudson series on Myths That Shape The Way We Think (volumes on Celtic, Norse, and Greek) which I also recommend, but good as they are they don't quite have Haynes humour, or perhaps what feels like her deep personal connection to these stories.  

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Veg-Table - Nik Sharma

I don't know if I'm out of step (possibly) or if it's a slow year for cookbooks. Normally about this time there would be a dozen or so on my wish list but right now there's not a lot I'm really excited by. Of course it's also possible that I've reached a cookbook saturation point - I absolutely ran out of space for anymore a couple of years ago.

One title that did cut through for me though was Nik Sharma's Veg-Table - and yes I do love the periodic table style classification of different vegetables that make up the endpapers, it's clever and effective. This is Sharma's third book and it's both very much in his big flavour, science forward, style, and a distinctive addition to his oeuvre. 

Sharma is based in California (I think I'm right in saying that) so there are things here that we'd struggle to find in the UK, although Leicester is fairly good for a broad range of produce as we're such a multicultural city - I can find plenty of things in the Turkish, Indian, and Afro Caribbean shops and market stalls that I've never seen in a supermarket and don't easily recognise. Books like this are great for cities like mine.

On the other hand, even if I can't buy everything, there's a lot of good stuff in here, and honestly recipes that make brussels sprouts seem appealing are probably the most useful thing I'll ever find in a cookbook. The distinctly scientific approach might not appeal to everybody - I find it interesting when I've got time to read and I like the thoughtfulness behind each recipe, but it's not something I'd particularly look for. If it is your thing you're going to love this.

Altogether a great gift for the foodies in your life, especially the veg lovers and if you don't know Nik Sharma's books yet now is an excellent time to discover them. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Mincemeat and other Christmas preperations

Last night I got caught up in knitting and the new Ali Hazelwood romance and completely forgot my intention to post daily in November - never mind. Tonight I'm back after prepping dried fruit for making a Christmas cake and putting together a batch of mincemeat.

I love the calm hours in October and November spent on making the things that need to mature when there's no particular rush or pressure - this day off or the next one, doesn't matter, there's still plenty of time and a pleasant sense of anticipation before it all gets to be too much later in December. I think a Christmas cake, a pudding, mincemeat, and Chutney all make thoughtful gifts according to the inclinations of the recipient too. 

Of all of them, mincemeat is probably my favourite thing though - I love mince pies, and like them even more now I'm in complete control of the ingredients. Bought ones always have too high a pastry-to-filling ratio, and bought mincemeat has too much sugar and apple in it so inevitably it boils over the side of my tin and makes a red hot glue that's a nightmare to deal with.

Homemade has less of the cheap filler and behaves much better - I can also tailor it to suit myself which is as much fun as I'm getting on a cold, wet, November night with work the next day. There are a lot of mincemeat recipes out there - Nigella does a good one with (I think) cranberry and port, Mark Diacono does an excellent quince and ginger if you have any quinces left. Both of those need cooking before bottling. My go-to recipe is a Fiona Cairns one from the now out of print Seasonal Baking. It doesn't need cooking ahead of time, and it's endlessly adaptable.

The original recipe was for fig and almond mincemeat, but I don't like figs very much and don't always use almonds. The sugar is doing the majority of the work in preserving the mincemeat - and any leftover from this Christmas will keep perfectly well in a full, sealed, jar until next year - at most, it'll only want a little bit more alcohol to rejuvenate it. 

This year I've made Cherry, Almond, And Coffee mincemeat - it needs 100g of flaked almonds lightly toasted, 250g of Bramley apples peeled cored, and finely chopped, 200g of raisins, 150g of currents, 150g of dried sour cherries, 100g of suet, 100g of mixed peel, 100g of demerara sugar, 100g of dark muscovado sugar, 60ml of coffee liqueur (or cherry brandy, or a mix of cherry brandy and brandy, or ameretto and brandy...), the zest and juice of an orange and a lemon, 1.5 teaspoons of mixed spice and 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Mix everything together, cover with clingfilm, and leave for the flavours to blend for around 24 hours re-mixing from time to time before potting into sterilised jars.

As long as the proportions between sugar, fruit, and liquid are more or less stable exactly what you use to make this is up to you - there are endless combinations of alcohol and preferred dried fruits to play with and it makes your kitchen smell amazing - highly recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Donna Smith's Muckle Leaves Beret and The Shetland Wool Week Annual 2023

I have a new favorite knitting pattern to add to the small library of things I'll return to again and again - even though as it turns out I haven't made it properly yet. 

There are a few patterns in this year's Shetland Wool Week annual that I really liked, but the one I was drawn to first was Donna Smith's beret - there's an error in the instructions - a repeat pattern sequence has been missed out - it came up on the website about an hour after I cast off hat one, which did at least answer the question of why it came out on the small side. It's still a pleasing hat that will do nicely for someone with a smaller head than mine.

I love this pattern for its elegant simplicity. It would be an excellent place to start if you're new to Fair Isle or knitting in the round. It's stylish enough to want to wear - the books I first re-learned to knit from were full of things that were not and that was an issue. It's hard to develop your skills if everything you have a pattern and instructions for is entirely unappealing. That it only uses two colours is a bonus as well.

Mixing colours for Fair Isle knitting is a whole lot of challenges and decisions - using only two is a useful step back and a chance to let odd balls of things that have been sitting a while in your yarn stash shine. In my case, that's a lot of colours I've bought that are slightly outside my comfort zone. Because this pattern doesn't need a lot of yarn (2 balls of the main colour, 1 of the other) it's a really satisfying way to use some of those things up at last.

It's a quick pattern too, so altogether excellent for making and giving away. I'll add a picture when I've finished hat two! 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The Deorhord - Hana Videen

 I really liked Hana Videen's The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, though in fairness I am a sucker for anything that throws a little more light on the Anglo-Saxon world. I haven't read this one yet - or not more than a couple of pages of the introduction because I only bought it today. Still, I've been anticipating it for months now and it's an excellent potential present for people who love history, the Anglo-Saxons specifically, or bestiary's/animal stories. 

I follow Hana Videen's Twitter (X), it's the kind of account that makes me not mind so much that  I still need to use it for work purposes. I really fell for the Anglo-Saxon world at the British Library exhibition a few years ago, much more written material has survived than the relatively meager architectural remains might let you think. 

Deorhord promises the chance to explore the Anglo-Saxon world view through how they viewed animals. I don't know if it's surprising or not that historians still can't identify some of the things they describe - what is a moon-head? It does create an intriguing mystery - why can't we identify these beasts, what have we lost? The description of whales being thought of as sneaky as wolves interests me too. Altogether a lot to look forward to.