Thursday, June 30, 2022

Food Made in Shetland - Marian Armitage

I'm finally testing covid negative and starting to feel considerably less under the weather. My sense of smell has come back, I have more energy, and the dizziness has stopped - I think I'm probably going to feel somewhat grotty for a while, but am definitely on the mend. People, take the current varients of Covid seriously! It might be relatively mild but it's still utterly miserable. 


Meanwhile, tonight is the official launch of 'Food Made in Shetland' by Marian Armitage, the second book from Misa Hay's 60 North Publishing company. At the moment it's only available through a few local retailers and Misa's Shetland Wool Adventures website. 

I've corresponded a little with Marian in the past, mostly about rhubarb, she's both helpful and knowledgable and I'm very much a fan. I haven't got her earlier cookbook; Shetland Food and Cooking (available here from the Shetland Times bookshop) mostly because it's been stubbornly out of print whenever I've been home and thought about buying it. Now I've read through 'Food Made in Shetland' it's gone right back up to the top of my wish list.

Marian's whole professional life has been based around food, a lot of it teaching food and nutrition in schools. It's a background that makes her instructions admirably clear and that leaves me confident that even relatively complicated recipes (pastel de nata) will turn out as hoped for. More than that it reminds me of the excellent home economics teacher I had at junior high in Shetland, who more than anyone inspired my love of cooking and confidence I could do it. She taught me for a bare 2 years when I was 12/13 - good teachers really are the best.

For 'Food Made in Shetland' Marian has a series of chapters that focus on ingredients that are easily available in the islands - so fish, eggs, and dairy produced locally (milk, cream, buttermilk - nobody is currently making cheese), beef, lamb/mutton, and pork, vegetables and fruit that are increasingly being homegrown again, and home baking which is a big feature of Shetland life. Beyond that, the recipes aren't particularly traditional - which is also kind of traditional. Shetlanders travel, and bring back or send back all sorts of things, recipes and flavours included.

I was going to try and describe what 'Food Made in Shetland' was not, but got tied in knots, so I'll tell you what it is - a really good snapshot of the sort of food people are eating in Shetland, made from the really amazing ingredients that are available there. It might be light on the still popular mince and tatties kind of plain food, but it really celebrates what can be done despite the sometimes limited growing opportunities, and some of the more exciting projects happening - especially when it comes to growing more fruit and veg.

It's also a really beautifully produced book, so do check out the link to the Shetland Wool Adventures shop and consider ordering. 



Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Book of Night - Holly Black

I've read most of Holly Black's young adult titles - certainly all the Fairy-based ones and really enjoyed them. I think she's a really interesting writer, a great world builder who incorporates all sorts of established myth, folklore and fictional sources into her work. Those books are funny, smart, complex, interesting, and entertaining. My relationship with YA is a bit uneasy, on the one hand, there are excellent writers doing interesting things, on the other I'm a bit old to want to read many books aimed squarely at a teenage audience - and that's just fine. 


News then that Holly Black was writing a book for adults was more than interesting, I bought this the day it came into the shop - and then sat on it for a couple of weeks, nervous that I just wouldn't like it that much. For the first 50 or so pages, I didn't. And then I clicked with it. The tone is definitely different; it's much darker and grittier than the already quite dark teen books, and whilst there's a supernatural/fantasy element it's miles away from the established fairy tale world I associate Black with.

Here, the heroine, Charlie Hall is a bartender and recovering con artist. She's been shot and is trying to go straight, but it's not entirely working for her. She lives with her sister, Posey, and boyfriend Vince who is himself something of a mystery. It's a contemporary world, but one where shadows can have a life of their own and confer powers on those they belong to, they can also be stolen. 

The feel of the book is distinctly noir - I'm thinking of Ross Macdonald, Margeret Miller, Vera Caspary, Sherwood King. Charlie has seen something she shouldn't have, started looking for answers, and found herself in more trouble than she wanted. She also keeps coming up against the mystery of Vince who has always seemed too good to be true.

It took me a while to care about Charlie, but when I started to the book really took off for me. Black is good on morally ambiguous characters and Charlie perhaps isn't quite the mess she first seems to be as her character fills out. There's quite a bit of world-building to get through - I think I'm right in saying this is part of a duology - which also slowed things down initially, but worked as the book carried on. Especially with the character of Vince...

Altogether it's definitely a Holly Black with a  lot of her characteristic flourishes, but distinctly different in mood to her YA books, and in the best way. One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sarah J Maas is the way that her A Court of Thorns and Roses series reads like teen fiction with a lot of added smut. Black has never really done smut and doesn't do it here either (there's some sex but she's all about the plot), but she nails the 30s state of slowly losing time to turn things around and the sense of your choices starting to define you.

It's been a really successful hardback, and if you like something a little bit dark, with a fantasy element that still feels grounded in our own world, lots of twists, and a good mystery I recommend it. 


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Got Married, Got Covid, Got Home

It's been a big few weeks - the wedding went well, I think - and we certainly enjoyed it, apart from an outbreak of Covid that seems to have hit about half the guests including me. This despite the whole thing being outside.

I have books to write about and other things, but first, there's a little bit of wedding wisdom to impart because it's still all new and exciting and I'm not quite ready to stop thinking or talking about it yet.

We did this on a fairly small scale, just over 50 people, and all very much homemade. We couldn't have done that if we'd gone much bigger (there was a lot of washing up) but as it was it worked really well. We ditched everything we're not wild about at weddings - including a photographer which I don't regret, but it would have been a good idea to draft people into taking specific photos. They may yet turn up. 

It meant we could spend the budget on things that really mattered to us - food, drink, shoes and also that there were no unpleasant surprises to stress over. It turned out to be really hard to find a good, fresh, whole, salmon - after a couple of days and a bit of hunting, I managed to get two whole fillets instead - bone-free and quicker to cook. It was the first thing to get eaten, but I could have done something else as necessary. The single best thing I bought was probably a 4 kilo wheel of stilton (about half a whole cheese) from the market in Leicester. It made an excellent centerpiece, was immensely popular, fed us through a couple of days of clear up, and is still just about hanging on back with my dad. It was a great bit of Leicestershire to take with us.

I had 3 weeks off work for this, and taking 2 of those before the wedding was every bit the great idea I thought it would be. Even better given the covid situation because we got to the big day fairly chilled and well-rested having had a really nice time together sorting stuff out before people arrived. The week after the wedding was probably always going to be a bit of an anti-climax, but with no big plans to be ruined by a positive test result being ill hasn't been the big deal it could have been.

Shoes! I always knew where these were going to come from; Pavilion Parade in Brighton. I fell in love with this pair which were happily in my size although we did also look at different bits of fabric to make a bespoke pair. They're more or less all 1 offs anyway and after speaking to a couple of friends I realise that going grass colour (chartreuse) was an accidental stroke of genius. It was dry anyway but my shoes look pristine whereas a lot seem to end up thrown away due to grass stains. I love that I can wear these again whenever an occasion presents.


And that's about it, I'm still reeling from a mix of mild fever and people's generosity; friends did flowers, played music, and put us in touch with men about tents, and breweries. My mother and sisters cooked, cleaned, and cleaned some more, and people face us lovely things and lovelier memories. I hundred percent recommend getting married - it genuinely was one of the very best days of my life, arguably the very best to date. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Strawberry Cup

Wedding preparations continue with the new hiccup of my youngest sister (at home with father and stepmother for the weekend) testing positive for covid. The main thing is hoping she's okay, not too miserable now, and stays free of long covid - but it does put a question mark over Shetland Family getting here in time - which is, in turn, a sign of the times we live in.

Looking for a suitable punch or cup recipe has at least been fun. After regretfully dismissing the clarified milk punch the next one we tried was a winner - Strawberry Cup. The recipe comes from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' first published in 1939 - a time even more complicated than our own. As regular readers will know I use this book a lot, it's full of drinks forgotten enough to feel new, is admirably simple to follow, and has provided me with some absolute gems.

The strawberry cup calls for a pound of strawberries - that's very roughly 450g, wild being best if you can get them. I can't, it's too early, and although there are plenty of them around here it would take a long time to gather half as many, so supermarket it is - the best strawberries I had last summer came from Morrisons, I don't know what type they were but they were head and shoulders above M&S and Waitrose berries.

Chop your strawberries up a bit (unless you do find wild ones in which case you're good) and put them in a bowl with half a pound (or half the weight) of sugar, leave to macerate for at least an hour. Then add 3 bottles of hock - this is the cheap, sweet, low alcohol (9% abv) German wine that mostly gets overlooked by anybody too young to remember what we drank before the 1980's. It's not got the best reputation now, and what you can buy in supermarkets is basic compared to what Ambrose Heath would have known back when German wines were better appreciated here - and this is just fine for our purposes. Put the mixture on ice and leave until needed, just before serving add a bottle of iced champagne - or as I will be doing something like a Cremant de Limoux.


 

We made a scaled down version of this to try - it's not overly potent and quite sweet - but in a very enjoyable on a hot summers day way, very much in line with Pimm's. I'm thinking I might add a bottle of soda water into the mix to cut the abv further, and possibly some strips of lemon peel to counter the sweetness just slightly. Borage flowers would be great if you had them, or a couple of leaves of mint would work too. If you want an easy alternative to Pimm's with its own distinct character and low enough in alcohol that you can drink plenty of it without falling over of falling asleep this is an excellent contender.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Clarified Milk Punch

This is a thing I've thought about making for a long time, and thanks to Richard Godwin's admirably clear instructions which managed to make it sound less trouble than the old versions I've seen (and came in less terrifying quantities too) I've finally done it. This was partly in search of a good wedding punch - which I'm not sure this is, and also because this week I've got the time to have a go at things like this. 

What the milk punch has going for it is that it's relatively low in alcohol, has a wonderfully silky texture, an impressive history (it's associated with Aphra Benn), and is shelf-stable. What puts me off is that filtering it through a V20 paper took hours and that on first sip neither of us were entirely sure what to make of it. Almost a glass down I'm much more enthusiastic. Doug is asleep so unable to comment. 

There are things I could change - the Lady Grey tea I used and the Star Anise (I don't hate it, Doug really isn't a fan of aniseed flavours) could go in favour of other things, and I think I'll definitely make this again but to do it in proper party quantities would mean finding a slightly quicker way to filter it. The creamy texture and the fact it's clear are both impressive things though, so if you do have the time and curiosity definitely give this a go. The link to the recipe I used is HERE and Richard Godwin is absolutely worth a follow if you're interested in drinks.


Glamorous image, I know, but this is made with Milk, and look at it!






Friday, May 27, 2022

Rhubarb, Lemon, and Elderflower Pancakes

These were heavily inspired by Gill Meller's Elderflower and Gooseberry pancakes in his new book 'Outside', but I had to be up early and wait in for a man to come and inspect my front door to make sure it was fireproof (everything is fine apart from the hinges which are apparently some sort of not fireproof metal) and I didn't have any gooseberries.


There are elder bushes just outside our building so I gathered 4 flower heads and gave them a wash - the smell was amazing, and then used my normal pancake mix (200g of self-raising flour, a pinch of salt, a melted knob of butter - about an ounce - and added milk until I was happy with the consistency - spoonable, not too runny not too stiff). I added the grated rind of a lemon, the flowers from a couple of the elderflower heads, and a stick of rhubarb chopped into roughly 1cm chunks. 

If you have a decent nonstick frying pan you shouldn't need any oil for making pancakes and I much prefer them without - they just need to go on a medium heat and get a couple of minutes on each side, I also prefer not to add sugar or sweeteners to the batter mix, with rhubarb it means it keeps its sourness for a much better contrast with the syrup. For the syrup I added a bit of elderflower cordial to maple syrup, but I'd also use honey on these depending on what's open, and some of the leftover flowers. 

I really liked these, they absolutely tasted of early summer/late spring. The scent of the elderflower was incredible, better even than coffee for waking me up this morning and rhubarb is great in pancakes - it just has time to go soft and I love its tartness against maple syrup.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Life of Crime - Martin Edwards

I really wish I had the energy and focus of Martin Edwards - there are the novels, the editorial work for the British Library Crime Classics series, and now 3 impressive doorstoppers of books that give an overview of the crime writing genre, meanwhile I struggle to hold down a job, keep up with my reading, and fit in some knitting time. 

I've had 'The Life of Crime' for about 10 days, so full disclosure I've only been able to dip in and out of it - even excluding the 80 pages that make up the select (!) bibliography and index there's still 622 pages book; it's fair to say it's comprehensive. Dipping in and out is also probably going to be the best way for most of us to approach this book anyway - unless you want to fully immerse yourself in the history of crime fiction in which case you might also want to arm yourself with Edwards' earlier books. 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' published by the British Library, and 'The Golden Age of Murder' from Harper Collins'. I've enjoyed both but I think 'The Life of Crime' has the edge.


It's a combination of Edwards enthusiasm for his subject (he makes it very clear how much of a fan he is as well as a writer) the signposts he gives us for following our own lines of research and enthusiasm, and his acknowledgment that this is his journey through the history of the genre's past 'with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies'. He's a charming, courteous, and well-informed guide to the world of classic crime fiction who knows how to deliver a good anecdote and tell a joke. In short, we're in good company with Edwards. 

'The Life of Crime' is both good company and a constant source of distraction - where can I find a cheap copy of Joanna Cannan's 'No Walls of Jasper' which is dedicated to her friend Georgette Heyer, apparently the model for one of the characters? Do I need to read William Godwin, there's a compelling case here for his role in the development of the crime novel (common sense says no, it'll probably be on a par with reading Samual Richardson)? The examination of how elements from 18th century Gothic fiction make their way into crime fiction in the first chapter, 'Revolutions' is fascinating, and something I'll bring with me if I ever read Jane Austen's 'Emma' again. 

Overall Edwards opinion of where Crime fiction deserves to sit in terms of literary merit is particularly interesting to me. We spend a good bit of time at work debating how to break down fiction - we currently divide it into science fiction and fantasy, crime, and fiction - there's a good argument to be made for romance having its own section, though we currently don't have space for it, and an equally good argument to say that none of these distinctions really make sense. We do it for the convenience of customers who like their preferences signposted but there's a lot of crossover, as well as a pernicious belief that genre fiction is somehow lesser. 

Arguments about literary merit aside, books written and marketed to have a popular appeal are an excellent way to understand contemporary opinions on almost any subject, and again as Edwards discusses in his introduction "...if a book written decades ago evinces attitudes that we now deplore, that isn't a reason to airbrush it from history. If we ignore the follies of the past...we'll fail to understand what caused them, and what continues to cause them..." Reading older books is often an odd mix of finding attitudes that seem remarkably enlightened alongside ones that are absolutely not.

So, 55 chapters, an excellent bibliography, pages of notes with gossip, trivia, and more suggested reading to follow up on. Household names and almost forgotten ones, a chronology that takes us from the 18th century to the present day and which looks beyond the usual English-speaking writers to take in some of the bigger European names should provide something of interest for any crime fiction fan. I think the biggest compliment I can pay this book though is to tell you that despite its weight and size it's the one I've been carrying in my bag all week to read on breaks as well as at home - it's very unusual for anything but a slim paperback to make it into my bag. 

Follow the rest of the blog tour here:


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Storyland - Amy Jeffs

I'm still immersed in wedding preparations - less than 4 weeks to go now and still a lot to do. Mostly it's working out what to feed people, and making sure that there's enough of whatever we choose, that and people keep asking me what I'm going to do with my hair (no clue) so busy times ahead. 

As well as browsing through endless recipe books and reading around a few commitments for other things that also have deadlines looming I've managed to read Storyland over a couple of weeks' worth of lunch breaks. This is a remarkable book that I've really enjoyed, and can't stop recommending (happily that's literally my job so...)


It's also ideal for reading in small chunks. The chapters are short but give plenty to think about, it's not a book to race through, not least because so much of what I read was unexpected. Storyland is a collection of Britain's foundation myths, mostly pulled from Anglo-Saxon and medieval sources, retold, illustrated, and discussed by Art Historian Dr. Amy Jeffs.

What made the collection so interesting to me was how many of these stories are more than half-forgotten. I'd maybe come across a few fragments outside of the King Arthur and Merlin section, but really not much, including the connection between King Lear and Leicester - apparently he's credited with founding the city (there's no proof he was a real person) and is buried somewhere under the river that runs past my flat. I love this for Leicester, it does not need to be true - or at least the fact that the city has an origin myth matters more to me than the truth of the myth itself. 

Where we see Jeff's skill as an academic as well as a storyteller is in the way she convincingly argues that although they've been mostly forgotten these stories are so deeply ingrained in our sense of who we are as a people that they still affect the way we think and see ourselves. There are unexpected delights too - dragons that turn into pigs, giants - begot by demons and exiled Syrian princesses, the magical doings of Merlin, traces of the Picts, classical roots, Scandinavian roots, Germanic roots, and Biblical allusions. Truly something for everyone. 

Jeff's has another book out this Autumn - 'Wild' which I'm really looking forward to, and meanwhile, if you're interested in folklore and mythology 'Storyland' really shouldn't be missed. 



Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Rhubarb Syrup and Semolina cake

This is based on a greek revani cake but I'm not sure how authentic it is at this point (I can't remember where I found the original recipe and there have been modifications since then) so I'm going to go with the strictly accurate Syrup and Semolina description. 

It's really good in small squares with a coffee, maybe a little yogurt on the side if you want it as a smartish dessert, and great for using up bits of fruit. I used some citrus cordial based on Georgina Hayden's recipe in 'Nistisima' - this is 750ml of water heated with 750g of sugar until it has dissolved and then steadily simmered for about 8-10 mins - you don't want it to colour, but to reduce a bit and be properly syrupy. Then add 750ml of freshly squeezed citrus. Grapefruits, lemons, oranges, limes, bergamots - whatever you can get and a good mix of them - it's always going to be sweet so I prefer sharper citrus like lemon, lime and grapefruit. Simmer for 4 - 5 mins, long enough to combine the flavours but still leave plenty of fruit character, skim off any scum, allow to cool for a bit, and then pour into sterilized bottles. 


I've been using this in everything I can think of because I underestimated how much the recipe would make (more than a single person really needs).

For the cake, you want the finely grated rinds of 2-3 lemons, 150 mls of sunflower oil, 175g of caster sugar, 4 medium eggs, 175 mls of milk, 200g of fine semolina, 75g of plain flour, and 3tsps of baking powder. Line a 20cm square cake time with tinfoil that comes well up the sides, heat the oven to 160 degrees fan or gas 4. 

Add the finely grated lemon zest, oil, sugar, and eggs. Beat well then add the flour, semolina, baking powder, and milk. Mix until smooth, the batter will seem thin but don't worry. Pour it into the time and bake for about 50 mins or until done. 

Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. I simmered 300g of rhubarb with a good glug of my citrus cordial and added the juice of a lemon and a packet of passion fruit seeds to the strained liquid, as well as enough water to make 400mls, add 200g of sugar to this (240 if you haven't already used any) and gently simmer to make a syrup. Strawberries would also work for this, just lemon juice is great, and passion fruit would also have been fine on its own.

When the cake comes out of the oven leave it to cool slightly and then cut into squares (or diamonds) I find 16 is right, then gently pour the syrup over it taking care to get reasonably even coverage. Leave to cool. Because I'd used passion fruit I already had something crunchy on top of the cake, otherwise, I'd scatter some chopped almonds or pistachios over it. This keeps well. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Death of Bookseller - Bernard J. Farmer

I'm currently obsessed with getting a jumper finished and busy with wedding planning and work. Reading and blogging have very much taken a back seat and I'm guessing that won't change much until after the wedding in June (maybe a bit earlier if I get the jumper done in good time). 

I did recently read and enjoy 'Death of a Bookseller' though - the 100th title in the British Library's Crime Classic series - and an excellent choice it was too. This series has evolved over the years from showcasing some interesting curiosities to being an increasingly comprehensive survey of classic crime. It has some real gems in it by any standard you choose to use as a measure, some beguiling oddities, and a lot of entertaining books in between. (My mother phoned me from her bathroom last night, she'd spent an hour reading Lorac's Bats in the Belfry, the water had gone cold whilst she sat in the bath and she hadn't even noticed she was so engrossed).


As a bookseller, the title for this latest book amused me, and so did the actual story. Set in 1950's London (written in 1956) a local policeman helps a drunk home. The drunk turns out to be a celebrating book buyer. Michael Fisk has found Keats' own copy of Endymion, he's holding a fortune in his hands, a career coup that obviously deserved getting drunk on. Sergeant Wigan strikes up a friendship with his drunken charge who initiates him into the mysteries of rare book-buying so when Fisk is murdered and the Endymion goes missing Sergeant Wigan is lent to CID to help track down the killer.

Book buyers turn out to be a violent lot, ever happy to pull a knife or commit a robbery - a depressingly accurate description of retail then and now*, there also seems to be a lot of attempts to raise the devil, with some delightful rumours of a demonic goat or bull known to have been loose in Soho. Altogether no world for a god-fearing policeman to find himself in, so initially Wigan is relieved when the murderer seems to have been caught, but then he begins to doubt they have the right man and because he's a truly decent man he continues to search for more clues despite the disapproval of his superiors.

There's a lot to enjoy about this book. The occult element is a delightfully gothic distraction, there are plenty of amusing character sketches and some interesting observations on post-war London and what a great time it was for abject chancers to make a fortune. Wigan provides a solid counterpoint to all the frivolous madness going on around him and altogether it's a satisfying mystery with a decent conclusion. Highly recomended.


*Obviously most people are both lovely and honest, but not all of them are, and dealing with shoplifters on a daily basis is an eye-opener.