Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Not a Christmas cake

The last couple of weeks at work have been so busy that it's sometimes hard to remember that it's still only November (just). All the baking has been Christmas orientated recently as well and it seems like a long time since I've made anything new but this week I've been craving a really good, deep, apple cake and after a bit of browsing I found exactly what I wanted in Anne Shooter's 'Sesame &Spice'.

'Grandma's Apple Cake' is spectacular with coffee - the idea of cake to go with coffee rather than tea (I'm a tea drinker) 'coffee cakes' feels weirdly exotic to me (I'm not just a tea drinker, I'm also a creature of habit). There's nothing especially exotic about the combination of apples, cinnamon, and cake but it's a classic and the particular joy of this one is its generous dimensions.

Grease and properly line a 20 x 8cm springform or loose bottomed tin. I was lazy, didn't properly line the tin, and caramelised some of the apples.

Measure out 450g of caster sugar (I know it's a lot) and put 5 tablespoons of it in a bowl along with the juice of a lemon and 3 teaspoons of cinnamon. Take 5 eating apples, no need to peel, and cut them into thin slices, removing the cores. Toss them in the sugar mix.

Turn the oven to170 degrees C/ Gas 3 (fan oven 150, which may be why this cake took a really long time to book in my oven)

Take the rest of the sugar and mix it with 4 eggs, a tablespoon of vanilla extract, 250mls of sunflower oil, 60mls of milk, and 60mls of orange juice. Add 375g of plain flour, 1 tablespoon of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt. The batter will be runny.

Pour a quarter of the batter into the cake tin, then a third of the apples, continue layering finishing up with batter on top. Bake for roughly an hour and a half or until done (my oven took closer to 2 hours). Leave in the tin for a good ten minutes before turning out (I didn't read that bit properly, the cake was hot as hell, it needs the 10 mins).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How The Heather Looks - Joan Bodger

I've heard about this book a few times, it's come up on my Amazon recommends list more than once, and it's been at the back of my mind to read it for a while, so I was delighted when it turned up in the last round of a postal book group. Unfortunately I got monumentally stuck on it and it's taken me a good 3 weeks to finally read all of its 225 pages. With a bit of effort (though to be fair there really hasn't been the opportunity) I should have done it in a day.

'How The Heather Looks' is 'a joyous journey to the British sources of children's books' it was first published in 1965 and is the account of the Bodger families summer in Britain (they're American) hunting for the locations immortalised in their favourite children's books. It seems to have quickly gone out of print, but to have made a deep enough impression on those who knew it to not have been quite forgotten and to have been ripe for rediscovery when it finally made it back into print.

It's 1958 and the Bodger's have come into some money, enough that they can make a long dreamed of trip over to the UK. Both Joan and John had British mothers, and both had happy memories of (I presume pre war trips) to England, something they want to share with their own children (Ian, almost 9, and Lucy, 2). The books they are seeking to fall into are family favourites shared between the generations, but I must admit few of them are particularly familiar to me, even if none are precisely unknown either.

There are a few reasons I struggled to get to grips with this book, the first being how overwhelmingly American I found the Bodger's, it's a neat illustration of the point Joan makes about how subtly foreign the UK is to her family despite their connections to it. Still the sense remains that this is a book written primarily for a different audience. It would also help if the books were favourites but for whatever reasons none of them were, not even 'Swallows and Amazons' or 'The Wind in the Willows'. 'Mistress Masham's Repose' is also discussed, and it would have been a favourite but I only read it for the first time this year.

There is also my perennial problem with non fiction - however well it's written, however engaging (and this is an engaging book) without a plot to keep me turning the page I'm very much out of sight out of mind. As interesting as I found 'How The Heather Looks' I'm now really craving an all out page turner that I can't put down.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Good news about bookshops.

It seems that Waterstones has finally turned a profit (article here) and James Daunt is up beat and full of plans. Since the dark days of 4 or 5 years ago when it looked like the business was done for things have got progressively better - at least in the remaining bookshops. Leicester sadly lost the larger branch it had (still really miss it) and is left with a small one which offers limited scope for browsers. Though now that I realise click and collect is an option things are looking up.

In an ideal world the high street would be a haven for good independent bookshops - but it rarely is. A thriving Waterstones is a hopeful sign though. I'm not starry eyed about the realities of bookselling, I know exactly what it's like (not especially glamorous) but actual shops, with people you can speak to are great. Trying to negotiate deliveries around work time through a company that's notoriously poor both in the way it treats its employees and its tax paying habits is problematic.

It's the way employees are treated and the frustration of trying to get my deliveries that make Amazon so hard for me to deal with. Their local courier service actually isn't bad but being able to go to an actual shop (where staff seem reasonably happy) is so much better. Waterstones isn't perfect but knowing that it can be turned round suggests that there's a future not only for them but for well run independents too - which brings me to civilised Saturday...

Good shops add something to the community, good bookshops are certainly bastions of civilisation, Black Friday is, in this country at least (where it makes no bloody sense), not civilised. Civilised Saturday sounds like a much more fun marketing strategy. Kibworth bookshop is also close to me, it's excellent, and I would love to be there next weekend (instead I'll be flogging wine to the masses). I'll just have to settle for doing my bit and buying a book as soon as ever I can.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Perfume A Century of Scent - Lizzie Ostrom

The season for trying to resist new books is here. Amazon might not be good for much but the wish list is really handy for directing family to if they're at a loss for a suitable birthday or Christmas present (and anybody else asking for that matter). At least it would be really handy if I stopped buying things off it the moment I see them in an actual shop.

Lizzie Ostrom's 'Perfume A Century of Scents' is just such a book. It would have made life much easier for my sister if I'd left it on my wish list but I couldn't resist it. I love perfume, I particularly love vintage perfume, or at least the (albeit reworked) classics that have survived. They survive for a reason - because they still capture the imagination.

Lizzie Ostrom's is also Odette Toilette, and she does smell the decade sessions at Les Sentuers. I would love to go along to one of these but the London location is inconvenient (by which I mean the train is prohibitively expensive, damn you East Midland Mainline). Maybe one day.

Meanwhile this book lets me read all about it. The difference between 'A Century of Scents' and other perfume books I've bought over the years is that this one focuses as much, if not more, on the social history as it does the juice in the bottle. There is a scent from every year, not just classics - some are now history, but all with a story to tell. It's by no means an exhaustive list of the centuries scents, there are even a couple of surprising omissions, but it captures what was popular.

It's also a really entertaining book. Previous perfume books I've read have tended to be either over reverential towards the scent, or deliberately snarky about those not destined to be classics. Ostrom doesn't really do either; she's maybe extra enthusiastic about favourites (quite natural) but because of the focus on social history there's more to talk about, more room for humour, and just a lot of enthusiasm for what is a fascinating subject. I love this book.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Private 12768 - John Jackson

I started reading this last November, I really am hopeless at themed reading though, for whatever reason they never are the books for the moment, and by the time I'd finished it, it was Christmas and didn't feel like the book to write about. I bought 'Private 12768' when it came out in 2005  after reading a review of it somewhere. It's the First World War memoir of John Jackson, based on his diaries and written in 1926. As far as I can tell it wasn't published before 2005.

Today of all days is the right time to give John Jackson some thought again though. He isn't precisely the First World War soldier we think of now. He joined up in September 1914, served all through the war with only a small gap for relatively minor injuries. After the war he returned to his job on the railways, married, and seems to have adjusted well to life back out of the army. It may have helped that he had not joined up straight from school. More than that he describes his wartime experience as his great adventure. He's clear enough about how foul it could be in the trenches but he seems to have taken it all in his stride.

So many of the memories or narratives I've read concerning the First World War have been overwhelmingly negative about the experience that Jackson's pride in his regiment, respect for his officers, and belief in the reason for fighting seem almost subversive but his attitude is one that must have been shared by thousands of his comrades. He doesn't romanticise his experience, doesn't glamourise war, and makes quite clear the depth of loss and sacrifice, but he ties bring alive the concept of fighting for king and country and something of what that meant to these men.

Leicester's war memorial is solar aligned so that the sun rises through it on November 11th. It's a Lutyens arch and he chose the site specifically to be able to do this (originally I believe the council had a spot in the city centre in mind). Standing there waiting for the sun to come up on a November morning with only a few dog walkers around to share the moment with is unexpectedly uplifting. It's a touch of optimism, a promise that not only will we remember them, but that we should make sure it wasn't all for nothing.

John Jackson's memoir is worth reading, and should be as well known as 'Goodnye to all That', 'Memoires of a Fox-Hunting Man', or 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. The disillusionment of Graves and Sasoon and their contemporaries is more than understandable but it's only part of the story.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cotillion - Georgette Heyer

I do love Georgette Heyer, she's the perfect antidote to a crappy day. Her books might not be the deepest or most philosophical on the shelf but they're always reliably entertaining and every time I read one I find something new in it.

Back in my early teens 'Cotillion' wasn't a particular favourite, there are worrying subplots. One character seems likely to be sold into upmarket prostitution for the lack of an eligible husband, and it might be better than the only offer of marriage that she does look likely to get from a much older and distinctly unpleasant man. There's another business like match on the cards between the not very bright Lord Dolphinton (in fear of his mother who controls the money by threatening to have him institutionalised) and Hannah, who doesn't love him but would rather be married than not. The deal she's proposing is a fair one but it certainly underscores how bleak women's lives could be when marriage was basically the only respectable option for a middle class girl.

Meanwhile our heroine, Kitty, is in love with the dashing Jack. He's handsome, charismatic, wild - a typical romantic hero, but he's also selfish and unreliable. In the other corner is Freddy Standon, he's kind, pleasant, and without any discernible dash of brilliance - unless it's in his skill as a dancer and his generally impeccable manners but he is reliable.

Now, this is one of my favourite Heyer's simply because it does celebrate the reliable man. It feels like she's stuck a metaphorical finger up at the accepted romantic conventions (not to much of a finger, but still...). Beauty isn't necessarily going to be enough for the poor girl, the Earl lacks money and intellect (learning difficulties is, I believe, the current term), the man who looks the part of the hero is a cad, but the reliable man will prevail. He really is reliable too, it's more than being the nice guy or the underdog. He is a nice guy (though not really an underdog) it's the undeniable attraction of a man who won't forget your anniversary, who turns up on time, who knows just how to behave in any situation, and how to keep out of a mess.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Re-posting Puddings and Chutney

Between crazy work, finishing off Christmas cake baking, and all the chopping for making mincemeat I've not spent much time reading this week and none at all today so this is a lazy post but it's just possible someone will find it useful.

Cranberries are on sale again and there's time to make chutney that will be ready for Christmas, and if anyone is half thinking about making Christmas puddings the simple old fashioned one from Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet' is brilliant and worth the steaming time.

The Christmas chutney came from Diana Henry's brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' - everyone who has tried it has been enthusiastic, two of them have requested the recipe. I can't recommend this book highly enough, it's one I keep going back to - it's not just that everything in it works brilliantly, but everything I've made from it has since been made again and again. The Christmas chutney is filled with fresh and dried cranberries, dried cherries, dates, prunes, raisins, sultanas, cinnamon, mixed spice and other good things. It proved excellent with cheese, pork pies, cold meat and the like. I'd been waiting since late October to try it, it most certainly didn't disappoint.

The thing that had put me off making chutney for so long is the same thing that put me off making Christmas puddings in the past - they take such a long time to cook. With the puddings this feels like even more of a commitment than the chutney because they require hours more boiling again before eating. 

Turns out it's worth it. They're much lighter and juicer than anything I've had that's been through a microwave and now that I've adjusted to the idea of cooking it properly it turns out that sticking something into a pan to simmer isn't really so much effort.

 The winning pudding was the 'Simple Christmas Pudding' based on a 1930's recipe. It may not be the ultimate in puddings but we were all more than impressed with it. It serves 6 -8 and contains 400g of mixed dried fruit including prunes, 75g suet, 200g muscovado sugar, 100g black treacle, 125g breadcrumbs, 50g plain flour, half a teaspoon of baking powder, 2 teaspoons of mixed spice, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 2 beaten eggs, 50g grated carrot, 100g blanched almonds, zest and juice of a lemon and an orange (unwaxed), and 125mls of stout.

Mix everything together, butter an 18cm diameter pudding basin and place a disc of non stick baking paper in the bottom of it.* Fill the basin and then take large squares of baking paper and foil, place then together, fold a pleat in the middle and with the paper pudding side tie them securely round the lip of the basin with some string, trim the foil so it doesn't come to far down the basin. Either make a handle of string or wrap the whole lot in a square of muslin so you can lift the whole lot in and out of the pan. Find a large enough pan to hold the basin which needs to be placed on a trivet or old upturned saucer, pour water half way up the sides (don't let it touch the foil, it leaves nasty marks on your pan) and summer for 3 hours. Diverging from Lepard's instructions I uncovered the pudding after cooking and cooling so that it could be fed weekly with a liberal amount of drambuie before covering it with paper and foil again for it's final 3 hours boiling on the day of use.

*18cm diameter makes a big pudding. This year there won't be so many of us so I used smaller bowls to make a medium pudding and a tiny pudding. This seems practical and was easier than scaling down quantities. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Love for Love - William Congreve

It's been a week since we went to see this (where does the time go?) and I'm still telling anyone I can get to sit still for long enough how brilliant it was. It helps that I love The Swan, and that Stratford favoured us with an afternoon of glorious sunshine and general autumn perfection sandwiched in between days of miserable rain, and that The RSC is always reliable - I mean we were always going to enjoy ourselves, but this was still something special.

The last RSC outing was for Henry V which was an altogether more serious affair - thought provoking but not really about the laughs - this was all about the laughs. In all honesty Shakespeare generally leaves me a little cold, the language is so dense I find it hard to fall into his world, and the low humour is lower than I like, so it's been a surprise over the last couple of seasons to find how much I've enjoyed his contemporaries.

When it comes to restoration comedy I already have a very soft spot for Vanbrugh (soldier, spy, architect, play-write - like a cooler 17th century Version of Bond) so the chance to see something by Congreve was definitely to be jumped at. Even with all those stars aligned this was just so much more than we expected - it was that good.

The plot is simple enough, Valentine loves Angelica but he's run out of money. To keep his creditors at bay he agrees to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother for a cash settlement from his father, but he's still determined to try and secure that inheritance by the simple measure of not signing the final paperwork. Meanwhile Angelica avoids making her feelings known, she has money and marrying will be an end to independence so she needs to be sure that the man she chooses is sincere in his love. Sir Sampson Legend, Valentine's father, is determined to exact total obedience from his sons, he also entertains designs on Angelica amongst other sub plots.

The plot isn't overly important (though the end is satisfyingly romantic) in the wider scheme of things it's the chance to share joke after joke. First nights have a specific atmosphere anyway (we've been to a few for a combination of cheaper tickets, and early finishes from work) there will be the odd fluffed line or similar mishap and it breaks down the barrier between the actors and the audience, it's an atmosphere I've come to love. In this production the fourth wall is thoroughly demolished, the audience are acknowledged throughout so there was a real sense of taking part in something.

We also loved the way the action started before the play did, with the cast all on stage - the idea is that they're a group of strolling players setting up for a performance somewhere - throwing props around and playing with ropes. The same sort of thing happens in the interval and it was delightful. Tom Turner who plays Valentine has a proper comedy back ground which tells because he made it look effortless (he's really good in this) but the whole cast were excellent (I really hope they were having as much fun as it looked).

It's a bright, light, colourful, funny, romp of a play, we enjoyed it so much that both of us would go again (I'm seriously considering it). It runs until the 22nd of January and is the perfect antidote to winter blues

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sunday - baking and books

So much for Halloween, I did briefly consider posting a picture of all the appropriate books I didn't get round to reading but I'm feeling something of a reaction to how much of a thing, and especially how much of a retail thing, it's become so I didn't. Instead on the warmest November day since records began (it really was glorious) when it didn't feel terribly seasonal to be making Christmas puddings, that's what I've been doing. That and baking a couple of Christmas cakes, buying some Christmas decorations, and generally bargain hunting around town. I hope it's not to soon to mention Christmas...

This bit, the time for making and baking, is my favourite part of Christmas. I find when it actually arrives I'm to exhausted by work to really care about what's going on around me, that and after what amounts to a quarter of the year spent preparing for little else the tinsel has really lost its sparkle. Now though, when there's still plenty of time, and the long baking or steaming hours that cake and pudding demand impose a dawdling pace to the day, I can enjoy the moment. It's a process of collecting together good things which makes me relish the thought of winter cold and dark nights to come too.

Those long cooking hours also meant a couple of hours free to sneak into town whilst the cake did its thing. I, in turn, did mine and got carried away in The Works (bargain book chain for non UK readers). They have some excellent cookbooks at the moment, almost all of which I paid full price for not so long ago. I did pick up Tamasin Day-Lewis' 'Food You Can't Say No To' after it passed the flick test in style by offering up a recipe for Torta Della Nonna. Someone fed me this a couple of years ago, it was wonderfully good, and I've wanted to make it ever since. This is clearly a hint to get on with it, and there are other good looking things in here too. For a mere £5 it was a proper bargain.

Mima Sinclair's 'Gingerbread Wonderland' was another bargain at £3. I picked it up with the intention of giving it to a friend, but think I'll have to get her another copy. It's a cute little thing with some nice ideas in it, not a book I'd have bought full price, but for not much more than a cup of coffee it's worth having.

I also bought Magnus Nilsson's monumental 'The Nordic Cookbook' (from Waterstones this time, and with the aid of loyalty points). I should probably have left this on my wish list until after Christmas (or begged my sister for it) but I didn't have the patience. It's such a beautiful thing, and promises to be a thoroughly interesting book to read, that I had to have it today. It's just a shame that I'm back at work tomorrow when staying at home to read and cook is so much more attractive.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Three Hostages - John Buchan

The Three Hostages - John Buchan

I love the idea of the 1924 book club and thought it would be a fantastic way to get me to pull something unread off the shelf and dive right in. It turned out to not be quite that simple. Simon and Kaggsy helpfully provided a list of some of the years best known/more easily available titles, a few of which I had. Unfortunately the ones I haven't read failed to raise any enthusiasm in me, and the ones I had didn't seem right for re-reading. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' was looking hopeful but the date turned out to be wrong (damn you for raising false hope Internet). And then I found a copy of 'The Three Hostages'.

My knowledge of Buchan is mostly confined to various adaptations of 'The 39 Steps', I've had good intentions to actually read him for an age, and this was my chance. I've come out of the experience with mixed feelings.

Plot wise you just have to go with Buchan on this one. It doesn't always make a lot of sense and a lot of things are glossed over, but it's an effective thriller and I didn't mind that. There are some really exciting set pieces - even the last chapter which is mostly descriptions of mountaineering kept me gripped as a life and death struggle unfolded on a Scottish hillside.

Briefly, 3 people have been kidnapped, the daughter of a Rothschild style banker, the young son of a respected soldier, and the heir to a dukedom. They are to be leverage if some sort of international plot goes wrong (details never revealed but there are hints that Ireland is significant). Richard Hannay's help is sought in foiling these dastardly scoundrels, he is at first reluctant and then gets stuck in. Thanks to the help of his wife and various friends the forces of British decency prevail, but only just. 

What I learnt about 1924 is how much resentment and distrust was felt towards the Irish, how ingrained racism was (not a huge surprise), how rampant snobbery and class distinctions still were, how emancipated Lady Hannay is (more surprising), a growing sympathy for Germany after the treaty of Versailles, and a deeply ingrained anti-semitism. 

It's an interesting snapshot of attitudes at a specific point in time and is as effective a way as any of understanding what history has coming next. The attitude towards the Irish is particularly interesting, at first I assumed the villain was going to have his eye on, or be from, some Ruritanian style Balkan state, but he's Irish, at least on his mothers side. Celtic rather than Anglo Saxon, undoubtedly brilliant but also subtle, devious, mad, and without the moral code a proper Englishman should possess. Seeing this prejudice in print is new to me - the prejudice is not - and it's illuminating. 

Reading this primarily because of the year it was published in, and thinking about what it could tell me about that year, was fun. Buchan knows how to tell a story, Hannay, jingoistic cliches and all is an entertaining character, and the concluding chapters are particularly good. It should come with a bit of a health warning though - there are attitudes which are fairly unpalatable to this modern reader and without treating it in part as a historical document I'm not sure I'd recommend it. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Quince Brandy

Autumn last year I went a bit over the top preserving things. When I realised I'd got through over a hundred jam jars it was clear my habit was getting out of hand (and expensive). Part of the reason for all that activity was an uncomplicated love of preserving - it's weirdly addictive, it's also quite helpful for dealing with stress.

This year I've managed to keep something of a lid on the jam making but have started a tremendous amount of liqueurs. They're all under my bed maturing away (I think the Angels share might be helping me sleep more easily), It's a far more expensive habit than jam as well as a longer term one. The damson gin and mulberry vodka won't be properly ready until next Christmas, so for this Christmas it seemed like a good idea to make some quince brandy as well. 

The recipe I've gone for is from Nigella Lawson's 'How to be a Domestic Goddess', it was the first I found, is simple, and with 'Simply Nigella' to remind me of how much I love that book it's a good time to re explore it. 

For the quince brandy it's just a decent size kilner jar (or similar) suitably sterilised. Make sure the quinces are clean, then quarter them (no need to peel or core) fill the jar, then cover them in brandy (cheap will do) and pop in a couple of cinnamon sticks and some a couple of heads of star anise. Leave for 6 weeks. I'm not a huge fan of brandy in the general way (it's mostly about whisky and gin in this household) but I'm assuming the fruit and spices will take the rough edges off and make something a bit special. If nothing else it should be great for feeding Christmas cakes and making mincemeat. 

(I got jam jars and bottles from Wares of Knutsford this year. They have some lovely ones, and they also do some great bottles at very reasonable prices. I've gone for mini milk bottles, 25cl size, which I'm delighted with.) 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer

I got very excited a few weeks back when Amazon recommended 'A Christmas Mystery' by Georgette Heyer, thinking for a moment that it was a new (rediscovered? previously suppressed?) title. It then transpired that it was a re titled, repackaged, edition of 'Envious Casca'. Natural disappointment lasted as long as it took me to remember it's years since I've read any of her detective fiction and I could have my pick the moment I got home.

Naturally I chose 'Envious Casca', it being in my mind and all though it took more than a moment to get round to reading it. It also turned out to be long enough since I had last read it to have become hazy about the plot, though to be fair it's easy enough to work out who did it, and how is also sign posted. The suspense comes from wondering if the police will work it out too.

Heyer's detective fiction was never as highly regarded as her historical romances, but I've always enjoyed them. The plot for the murders were apparently supplied by her barrister husband, though the inevitable romance in each one is presumably all Heyer, and her characterisation is what makes these so much fun to read.

In 'Envious Casca' we get a locked door mystery. Nat Herriard is persuaded by his brother, Joseph, to throw a Christmas party. The guests will be Nat's business partner, a distant cousin, Mathilda Clare, his niece and nephew, Paula and Steven, and their respective partners, both of whom Nat dislikes. There is of course also Joseph intent on playing jolly old uncle, and his curiously inexpressive wife, Maud. It doesn't look like it's going to be a particularly happy party, and when Nat is found dead, stabbed in the back, locked in his room with the keys in the door the stage is set.

For anyone who knows a bit of trivia about Elizabeth, Empress of Austria (or who watches Sherlock Holmes) the how is clear enough, and by a simple process of eliminating the obvious red herrings it's clear who's done it to. Even the title serves as something of a clue. But how you pin it on the culprit - that's the mystery, and it's not entirely clear how it'll be solved.

Meanwhile, Maud is a much more intriguing character than I had remembered; the Herriard's are a somewhat over the top dramatic family, sailing perilously close to melodrama and cliche, but Maud is a perfect counterpoint with her flat refusal to be drawn into any of it and her sensible advice on the topic of liver salts. She also gets the last word, hinting yet again at hidden depths. She's an excellent example of Heyer's craftsmanship, as is Sturry the butler (though with him we're back in cliche territory).

Altogether it's a good old fashioned murder mystery with enough humour and romance about it to help me unwind at the end of a trying day, or to be a self indulgent treat over a rainy weekend. The new cover does a good job of summing up the general mood (it's certainly better than the one on my copy, or the last stock image used) and right now this is exactly the sort of book I feel in need of. If I didn't already have it, it would have been top of my holiday wish list.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Simply Nigella - Nigella Lawson

As part of the promotional effort for this book Nigella was on radio 4's Woman's Hour talking, amongst other things, about food and feminism. It was an excellent episode which should still be available for a week or two, it's well worth a listen and raises all sorts of interesting points.

My first Nigella book was 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' bought around the time it came out, which was also the time when I was discovering the joy of cookbooks, as well as finding my place in a kitchen of my own. I had also just started working with some some proper foodies (these were my early Oddbins days) and that too had a significant impact on how I think about food - we spent a lot of time talking about food and wine in a way that I really miss these days.

Nigella's books have become such a part of my kitchen that it's hard to remember life before them or how different they seemed, but with this new one in front of me I'm trying to pin down the magic again. Maybe it's because she makes the kitchen feel like a place to escape to rather than from, it certainly helps that her recipes are reliable and achievable as well - the relief of thinking 'I can do this' (and generally without much trouble) shouldn't be underestimated.

The collection of recipes here - well summed up by the title 'Simply Nigella - Feel Good Food' - are appealing even to someone ambivalent about avocados and emphatically not a fan of liquorice (avocados feature heavily, liquorice thankfully not as much). There are quick things, easy things that can casually be thrown together then left to do their thing so that the cook can do much the same for themselves, balanced delicious self indulgent things (I am thinking principally of potatoes braised with jars of char grilled peppers or butternut squash with za'atar and green tahini sauce). Bundt cakes that promise to be the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee and radio 4 (or a good book). There are breakfasts which can be grabbed quickly in the week or the sort that can see you through Sunday morning with the papers. In short it's classic Nigella; generous, hospitable, adaptable, easy food that's a pleasure to cook and eat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Thirteen Guests - J. Jefferson Farejeon

I can't get enough of vintage crime and thrillers at the moment so it's just as well there is a more general vogue for them right now which is seeing plenty being re discovered. J. Jefferson Farejeon is a particularly good find, it genuinely is baffling why he dropped so completely out of the public eye for so long. I loved 'Mystery in White' which was last years tremendously (and deservedly) successful Christmas offering from the British Library and enjoyed 'Thirteen Guests' just as much.

I can't resist a golden age country house murder, I'm not sure if it's nostalgia precisely (I never lived in a country house before the war) but there's something irresistible about the mix of snobbery, upstairs downstairs tension, teatime and cocktail rituals, the claustrophobia of the setting, and the clipped dialogue.

In 'Thirteen Guests' John Foss has had a bad day, in a bit of a daze he buys a train ticket to an unknown destination (he simply asks for the same station as the person in front of him at the ticket office). Disaster strikes when he has a bad fall getting off the train, a fellow passenger (a very glamorous fellow passenger) takes pity on him, packs him up, and takes him to the house party she's on her way to join.

John makes 13 guests in all which gives him a momentarily superstitious shiver, which in turn is exacerbated by a house full of incompatible guests and disturbing emotional undercurrents. Bad things soon start to happen; a painting is damaged, a dog killed, and then murder committed. John, stuck in an anti room is on the edge of the action, but also in a position to hear, and sometimes see, more than might be expected.

'Thirteen Guests' also does something else I find irresistible in a murder mystery, but as it's the final twist I won't reveal more.

Farejeon is a delightful writer, his plot holds up - though plot isn't entirely the point of a book like this, not for me anyway, the background colour is delectable - much more to the point. But best of all he has a way of veering off for a moment with a bit of humour or a general observation that's delicious. If I quoted an example it probably wouldn't look like much, but reading the book they are things that make me stop, smile, and generally feel pleased with the world for allowing me to be comfortable and so well entertained for the moment.

I say this every time, but the British Library crime classics series is excellent. It's a really well chosen collection (I can't bring myself to say curated, though in this context it might almost be appropriate) doing a really interesting job of opening up the genre and bringing some very good books back into print.