Monday, January 16, 2017


Ever since I first flipped through Sarah Randell's 'Marmalade' I've wanted to get my hands on some bergamots and only 3 years later I've finally realised that ambition.

Leicestershire isn't the easiest place to source the more exotic citrus fruits. Finding blood oranges is an annual challenge - Waitrose sells them, though they call them blush oranges which seems positively Victorian in its desire to spare the customers delicate sensibilities (have squeamish shoppers swooned at the very mention of blood?) but I can't find them anywhere else. It's not always easy to find Seville oranges either, though thankfully that's changing.

It was whilst hunting for blood oranges that I got the promise of bergamots - the blood oranges aren't available yet but, and bless Waitrose for this, bergamots apparently are. They had to be ordered specially, so on the strict understanding that I was a serious buyer and not just teasing the fruit and veg specialist with empty promises - and now I'm the proud owner of 10 of them. They cost a pound each and I have no particular idea what to do with them, but they're a cheery yellow colour and smell fabulous.

Having got my prize home I thought I ought to do some research - it turns out that bergamots are the love child of bitter oranges and lemons, they come from Calabria, and obviously go into Earl Grey tea. It also seems that the things that the French call bergamots are specifically a sort of sweet lemon, not a bergamot as the Calabrians would recognise it, in terms of recipes this is probably important.

Sarah Randell adds bergamot juice to lemons to make a marmalade, but says she was told, and her experiments confirmed, that they are too bitter to make marmalade from just on their own. Some of mine will definitely go into a marmalade, a lemon and bergamot curd is also looking like an option. Digging around I've found a recipes for syrups (fine in principle, but in practice do you know anyone who ever uses these things?), a drizzle cake (much more promising), and I understand they make an excellent garnish for a gin and tonic.

I assume they will freeze much like Seville oranges, but for now even if I don't use all of them I'm so excited to have finally acquired some I'm happy. Even more so because the scent of them is making them far better value than flowers would have been.

Any suggestions or recommendations as to what else they can be used for would be gratefully received.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

My Top Ten Books of 2016

I'm feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the number of books, both read and unread, in my flat at the moment. There's a pile of them waiting to be written up too, and I ought to hoover, and clean the good candlesticks ahead of a grown up lunch tomorrow (or maybe I'll just stick them somewhere out the way) but all I really want to do tonight is crack in with a knitting project I've just started.

There's also the traditional top ten list of last years reading to think about, something I like doing because it's both enjoyable and sort of useful (though the useful part really only applies to myself) to look back at the last 12 months reading.

The first book to talk about is 'Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing' edited by Adrian Cooper, and published by Little Toller. I haven't written about it properly here yet, but it's an exceptional book. Both a thing of beauty, and full of ideas to explore. There are over 40 chapters, each offering a lot to think about, so I've been taking my time reading through this one - basically I can't recommend it highly enough, or come close to over selling it.

Also from Little Toller (and embarrassingly, one of only a very small handful of last years Christmas books I managed to read) was Sophie Kingshill's 'Mermaids'. This is one of Little Toller's series of monographs, they're the perfect pocket size, and for short books cram a lot in. This was the first in the series I read, and it made me want the lot (I really, really, need more space for books and more time for reading them).

2016 also felt like a really strong year for cookbooks (I think I say that every year, but even so...) highlights include Diana Henry's 'Simple', Gill Meller's 'Gather', Zuza Zak's 'Polska' and 'Samerkand'.  The cookbook I'm most enthusiastic about though is Regula Ysewijn's 'Pride and Pudding'. It's because it's far more than a cookbook, and I found the combination of history, recipes, ceramics, gorgeous photography, and artwork, irrisistable.

I'm also particularly enthusiastic about 'Classic German Baking'. I'd wanted a book on German baking for such a long time, and this one didn't disappoint. There's such a range of things in it, but the sunken Apple cake alone is worth the cover price. It's partly sentiment - my grandmother was German, and although we've weren't close and I don't ever remember her baking, it still feels like I'm exploring a part of my heritage. I need all honesty though, it may be that my enthusiasm has a lot to do with a deep love of Apple cake.

The British Library Crime Classics continue to be a delight, They're impeccably packaged and are always entertaining. I have a stack of them to read and am wholeheartedly looking forward to it. I particularly enjoyed 'Lost in a Pyramid' though which is a diversion away from crime. Lost in a Pyramid initially appealed because it sounded (over used word) fun, and it is, but there's much more to it than that.

Mikhail Lermontov's 'A Hero of our Time' was an unexpected joy, and has encouraged me to tackle more Russian literature - or at least not to automatically avoid it. Blessedly short, and bleakly funny in places, it was a gem. Also in translation, and this time overcoming a general prejudice against, well- not so much the French, as francophiles, was Frederic Dard's 'Bird in a Cage'. A little slice of French Noir with what I think is the best twist I've yet read. I have more Dard to read and a more really looking forward to it.

For all round over the top gothic nonsense it's hard to choose between Wilkie Collins 'Jezabel's Daughter' - not his best work, but still with a lot to recommend it, there's  a sympathetic villain (I sympathised with her anyway) and a cracking episode that takes place at night in a morgue, and W. Somerset Maugham's 'The Magician'. On balance 'The Magician' would win for all out craziness, it's also an entertaining book to read, and an interesting historical curiosity for Maugham's take on Crowley.

Finally I'm choosing Susan Pleydell's 'The Road to the Harbour'. It's currently in print thanks to Grey Ladies and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It's sort of a spy thriller, but more about the consequences that our own and other people should actions can have on us. What made it special was the way Pleydell really made me care about her heroine, and how real she made what was, in the end, quite an unlikely predicament, seem.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Belgian Café Culture - Regula Ysewijn

Around 15 years ago I had a friend who was working as a tour guide (I still have the friend but her job, most inconviently, has changed) in various European cities. Most of the tours were coach based, and if there was a spare seat on the coach she could take someone along with her for next to no money at all. The job I had at the time wasn't very well paid but the hours were flexible, and the exchange rate was good so whenever she offered me the chance I'd go - which is how I fell in love with Belgium.

I know one trip was in November because we were in Ypres on armistice day (cold and overwhelming) but I feel like I saw Bruxelles in the spring, though maybe that's just the effect it had on me. I don't know why I had such low expectations now, but whatever I'd been thinking was totally wrong. Of all the places I've ever been, Bruxelles is quite possibly my favourite (though Islay could be a contender for that title).

It had stunning architecture, good food, great chocolate and beer, and a beguiling cafe culture - and as I write this I'm wondering why it's been so long since I was last there.

Fittingly it was the ex tour guide friend who took the hint and got me Regula Ysewijn's 'Belgian Café Culture' (though I suppose really I should have got it for her as a mark of appreciation for those trips) not least because we drank in some of the cafés featured. Primarily I wanted this book because I'm a huge fan of Ysewijn's photography - anything with her name on it is going to be worth a look (Pride and Pudding was a highlight of last year and is a book treasure), that I was already interested in the subject is a bonus.

It's easy to take traditional institutions for granted to the point that we hardly notice how fragile they've become, and sadly this seems to be the case with Belgium's cafés. Some change is inevitable, and probably healthy, but there's a real danger of losing something precious through apathy and thoughtlessness (village pubs and shops in the U.K. are going the same way) so Ysewijn's project to record some of these places is timely.

The photographs are every bit as compelling as I'd expected, the text is in both Dutch and English, and it would be lovely to use this as a guide book - there are 45 cafés featured, all look well worth a visit. For those of us who are still badly paid, whose jobs are no longer flexible, and who look with dismay at the current exchange rate, and who don't see themselves getting to enjoy the actual cafés anytime soon this is a good second best. It's far more than just a picture book, or even a history of café culture - though there's that too, and it's fascinating. It's also a celebration of the people who own, work in, and use the cafés

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Back from the (near) North

I've had a really lovely week in the Scottish Borders (complete with a day in Edinburgh) and now I'm back at home - and back within reach of a wifi signal. I took 5 books away with me, was given a sixth, and bought two more, I failed to read any of them. I was also given two more bottles of gin (Shetland Reel Holly days, and a home made damson) and bought another one (Rock Rose winter edition) - I've not drunk any of those either - but we did drink plenty of other gins so that was understandable.

What I have been doing is thinking about knitting. I finally finished a neck warmer that I'd hoped to get done before Christmas, the pattern is a traditional fair isle one, the colours are from the Jamieson and Smith's heritage range (100% Shetland wool, but worsted - I'm hazy about what that actually means, but the yarn is delightfully soft) but the inspiration was Kate Davies Sixareen design. I wouldn't wear something like that enough to give me the neccesary push to finish it, but I loved the way she put the colours together, and I do love a neck warmer. I plan to knit another one with a few more small changes and general refinements but I love the colourway more than ever.

I also spent a lot of time charting pattern ideas. I bought a new rug which I like do much I feel inspired to turn it's design into a pattern for yet another neck warmer, and maybe a hot water bottle cover, and there were a few other things I've had at the back of my mind for a while.

It's been relaxing, I could have stayed for a lot longer doing the same sort of things. But it's good to be home too, and time to get on, and catch up, with all the things that got pushed out of the way by the festive season. I'm officially ready for 2017.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Seasons Greetings

I had hoped I'd be organised enough to write some book posts between Christmas and going to spend time with family over New Year, but with only Christmas Day and Boxing Day off work, I've not managed to organise myself. It doesn't help that I've not been thinking about books at all, but a lot about what this time of year means, and represents, to me.

Like many people I find Christmas Day itself challenging, and whilst I used to enjoy the run up to Christmas, the current challenging retail environment makes that a big ask - and it's a shame. I like winter, the cold and the dark don't particularly bother me, but I feel increasingly separated from what I think should be the natural rhythm of the year, and it bothers me.

I've mostly spent the last ten days at work listening to people complain. Complain because some item they want is unavailable, complain about how much things cost, complain about how much effort it is to make things*. A small amount of effort is a good thing. As autumn turns into winter I've found Making mince meat, Christmas cakes, Christmas puddings, chutney something to look forward too**. I love the way the kitchen smells when I do these things, the slow pace they demand which lets me listen to the radio, read a bit, potter around, make lists, plan things, and most of all think about the people I'll be sharing this stuff with. That, to me, is the point of Christmas - a time to share, in the dead of winter, when community matters the most.

It's not just for December either - it's the light at the end of the tunnel of dark days, so gentle preparations from the point the clocks go back seem sensible to me. The way advent is celebrated in the colder parts of Europe makes perfect sense as well, and surely Christmas itself lasts until 12th night? And yes, if it was up to me there would be far more time off for everyone around now. One of the things I miss most about working at Oddbins is how slack January was as everyone swore off the booze for the first few weeks of the new year. However cold it could be in that shop (it could be very cold, we were meant to leave the doors open) and dull without a constant stream of customers, it meant time to re-charge, to gossip, drink endless cups of tea, skive a little, and tidy up.

There's a reason too that this is traditionally a time for ghost stories. The older I get the more Christmas becomes about the people who aren't here anymore. Which in turn stirs up all sorts of things (there are always tears in our house at Christmas because we all pitch up tired and on edge, sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes not). Sharing the sort of ghost stories that replace the genuine fears that lurk in the dark (fear of being cold, hungry, a lack of basic security) with ones you can begin to laugh at suddenly seems like a good idea.

Mostly though, and I know I'm middle aged when I say things like this, I miss the sense of general goodwill that I used to find at this time of year, which increasingly seems to have been replaced with a sullen sense of entitlement (retail makes you hate people). I'm not sure why anyone thinks it's okay to berate a shop assistant over an unavailable cake until they cry, but I've seen it done, and more than once. A little genuine goodwill and kindness goes a long way, so too, unfortunately, does ill will. Be nice to people, especially strangers. It's dark, and cold, everyone is dealing with crap, so why make it worse?

All of which is why I rather prefer 'Seasons Greetings' to 'Happy Christmas' - it covers so much more. And on that note - I'll be back in the New Year.

*Mulled wine, mince pies, and Buck's Fizz are top of this list, none of which require any particular effort. I might add that the threat to go to Marks & Spencer's instead is something I'm more inclined to view as a promise (just go), and seriously, how is opening a bottle of orange juice, or even squeezing an orange (god forbid) more effort than getting in a car, driving to another retailer, finding a parking space, searching for the product in question, and then queuing to pay for it?

**I like doing these things, I know not everyone does, and there's no earthly reason why they should.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Christmas

Work is done, I have 2 days off, and I think I'm organised.  We'll see. Meanwhile I just want to say happy Christmas, whatever you're doing I hope the next few days leave you feeling content and relaxed.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Winter Tales with Highland Park Whisky

For the last of this years books and booze posts I've chosen a collection of George Mackay Brown stories - 'Winter Tales' was the obvious one to go for, but 'A Time To Keep' and 'A Calendar Of Love' are two other particular favourites, and as the same themes run through all of his collections, all are an equally good place to start.

George Mackay Brown is an interesting figure, based in Orkney for the majority of his life, his work is deeply rooted in the culture and history of the islands, and also in his catholic faith. I've found the full length novels heavy going, and have no strong feelings about his poetry either way, but his short stories shine for me (I've deleted a whole lot of exubarent metaphors from this space).

They deliberately look back to record an Orkney before oil money and technology radically accelerated changes in people's way of life and expectations. Here are the islands of his childhood, of his parents childhoods, and of millennia before that. He records the rhythms of the farming year, and an existence defined by the weather, the sea, and the hours of daylight. The stories don't just feel written, they feel told - some of them could be often repeated gossip, local legends, and just generally part of the fabric of island life. Part of why I ldon't be themnis because I do find them them comfortingly familiar and nostalgic, but there's more to them than that suggests - they're worth a look.

Highland Park whisky is another Orkney icon, and probably far more famous than George Mackay Brown. It's not the only working whisky distillery in Orkney - there's also Scapa, which mostly goes into blends, but they do some distillery bottlings (which are probably worth collecting, anyone who has done do over the last twenty years would have an interesting liquid history of a distilleries mixed fortunes).

Highland Park 12 year old was described as one of the best all round whisky's in the world by the late Micheal Jackson (not that one, but the whisky and beer writer) - and it is. Ignore the increasingly expensive and exuberantly packaged special editions (though anything reasonably priced in an airport is worth investigating) and stick with the 12 year old. The 18 year old is good, the 25 year old extraordinary - both, very sadly, now out of my price range (the 25 year old was never in it, but I wish I'd spent a £100 on a bottle 15 years ago, it's over £300 now and further out of reach than ever.)

It's the 12 year old that's the gold standard though, a whisky to measure others against, and undoubtedly a great all rounder. There's a touch of smoke and peat, but not enough to make it the defining characteristic, rich sherry fruit, and honey heather sweenes. Identify the elements of Highland Park you like the best and use it as a signpost to discover other malts. Or just enjoy it for the excellent dram that it is. For such a small place, Orkney has produced some remarkable things.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Waverley with Claret

When I was reading the introduction to Buchan's 'John Macnab' there was something about Buchan writing in the tradition of Stevenson rather than Sir Walter Scott. It's not the first time I've seen disparaging comments about Scott and how readable he is, and I'm not having it.

I won't deny that he's a man who will happily use 20 words where 2 might have done, sometimes he even makes a joke out of it, and I'll also admit that some of his books are nowhere near as good as others - but the good books are great.

So far my favourite has been 'Waverley' (so good they named a train station after it), which was thoroughly entertaining, still relevant for the sidelight it throws on British history with reference to the 1707 Act of union, and the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, and in every way a tremendously influential novel. It's long enough to take a bit of time to read, and Scott's loquacity demands a bit of patience whilst you adjust to his pace, but it's worth the small amount of effort it takes to do that, and holidays provide the reading time to do him justice.

After spending yesterday considering the best clarets I've had, or can still afford, today is about the other end - the sort that are often labelled 'Good Ordinary' and come in under £10. Sometimes it's possible to find something that punches well above it's weight in this bracket (in which case buy a couple of cases) but the key thing to consider is that 'Good Ordinary' title. They're not meant to be special wines, but they should be pleasant drinking, smooth, soft, fruity, discreet (no blockbusting new world Cabernet fireworks here) and food friendly.

I'm wary of anything to cheap because of the way wine is priced in the U.K. Duty is a flat rate on each bottle, though the percentage of alcohol by volume will effect the amount that is, VAT goes on top of that - so if you buy a £5 bottle of wine at 13% abv, £2.91 of that is going straight to the inland revenue. After that there are bottling, labelling, boxing and transport costs to consider. And you haven't even paid your wine producer or merchant yet.

Pay a couple of pounds more and the duty and other fixed costs stay the same (the VAT doesn't, but you can't win them all) so the wine in your glass is likely to be much better, and at least there's the chance the wine maker will be able to make a living out of it (and the wine merchant too, we work hard, we deserve it).

Scott, who seems to have liked his wine (he certainly bought a lot of it) would, wars with France allowing, certainly have drunk Claret, and French wine is fitting to celebrate the auld alliance with Scotland (which seems to have worked rather like the special relationship we currently enjoy with America). There's something about these wines - for want of a better description it's maybe best called an old fashioned charm - which really makes me think of Scott too. The important thing is that he's worth having a go at, set aside a few hours, get comfortable, and give him a chance.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Elightenment with Claret

Just how magical you want this experience to be depends entirely on the wine (which in turn has a lot to do with budget).

The book is one I bought myself as a birthday present because who could resist this blurb?

 "This rich, fascinating anthology of the western magical tradition stretches from its roots in the wizardry of the Old Testament and the rituals of the ancient world, through writers such as Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, John Dee, and Matthew Hopkins, and up to the tangled, arcane beginnings of the scientific revolution. Arranged historically, with commentary, this book includes incantations, charms, curses, Golems, demons and witches, as well as astrology, divination, and alchemy, with some ancient and medieval works which were once viewed as too dangerous even to open."

Obviously I couldn't resist it at all. I see it as a book to dip in and out of, and one that should provide some useful and interesting context when looking at carvings and symbols in medieval churches. It should also fit into a wider interest in folklore, mythology, and fairy tales, though I'm not sure it'll help me answer the age old question of why so many people confessed to witchcraft.

I've chosen Claret (the British term for red wines from Bordeaux) for this book because for all the poetic flights a fine Pinot noir sends people off on, there's no wine I personally prefer to a really good  Claret. When it's a really good Claret it's also best enjoyed either with a like minded wine friend, or the sort of book which will allow you to concentrate on the wine. 'The Book of Magic' is a scrapbook of interesting odds and ends, and as such is easy to break away from, to appreciate what might be in your glass (or have a nap, or make a cup of tea) at regular intervals.

Specifically I see this as a book to go with the best quality claret available to you (or me), and for which I'm thinking in terms of champagne prices. I'm not sure if it was lucky or not that 20 years ago when I was really beginning to find an interest in wine it was possible to buy things like Ch Lynch-Bages at around £25 a bottle (£150 the last time I looked, and way out of my price range), but back then it was claret that I really fell for. It's a love that's lasted. Spend £20 plus and it's still possible to get something interesting, something worth tasting as well as drinking.

The tasting process starts with assessing the colour and clarity of the wine in the glass (colour can indicate both grape varieties and the age of the wine, if it doesn't look clear it may have to much sediment in it, or some more troubling fault, and the viscosity of the 'legs' that form round the fire of the glass indicate the alcohol content. Nosing the wine will tell you first of all if it smells clean (if it smells of wet mouldy cardboard for example, its corked, rotten eggs- to much sulphur, something like sherry means it's oxodised, very little smell and it might need time to breath, and if it's good - warm up a little.) If it smells good the next step is to make a note of what it smells like - this is mostly a way of helping you remember and describe the wine. A good claret will have black fruit aromas (blackberry, black current) and something reminiscent of cedar or cigar boxes and who knows what else in the mix. Most of what we taste is determined by what we smell so it's worth having a good sniff. Then taste the wine, swish it around your mouth, see what the tannins are doing, breath in through the mouth and out through the nose to get an indication of how long the finish is, see if those fruit flavours from the nose come through in the mouth. Think about it all for a few minutes, and then enjoy the rest of the glass.

Tasting (rather than drinking) is fun, even if you feel a bit self conscious about it at first, it helps you get the most out of the bottle in front of you, turns wine into far more than just a drink, and when you have a decent example of the winemakers art in your hands - well, it can be magical.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Melissa Harrison's Anthology for the Changing Seasons with Campbell's Rutherglen Muscat

I've been dipping in and out of these books all year without having read enough of any one of them at any time to feel ready to post about it. That's partly because once I've posted about a book I feel like I'm finished with it, at least for the time being. It disappears onto a shelf, it's space by my bed, chair, or in my bag, taken up by something new. I'm not ready to put these books away yet.

Melissa Harrison has done a fantastic job of drawing together different peices of writing to capture each season (George Orwell writing about toads in 'Spring' was the point where I fell in love with the series). There's old writing and new, things which will probably be already familiar and things which are not, excerpts that remind me I've got, unread, whichever book they originally came from and that it's long past time I read it. There's also an inevitable list of things I want to explore further. They're friendly books to carry around, both comforting and thought provoking, and I thoroughly recommend them.

Campbell's Rutherglen Muscat specifically reflects 'Winter', and maybe late autumn, to me. It's another sweet and sticky Australian wine, and those are winter treats. At least this one is easy for me to get my hands on (it's widely available in the U.K.). The lazy way to describe it is as being a bit like a mince pie in wine form. It's a slightly more evocative description than 'raisined' - images of dried fruit don't capture the lushness of the wine, or it's freshness.

I've been reading a bit about Australian dessert wines over the last few days (both reminiscing and exploring) and one thing I can't help but notice is how often they still compare themselves to European wines. It's not that there's anything wrong with describing a wine as being reminiscent of Vin Santo (as this one has been) but it doesn't do the muscat justice. It doesn't give any indication of how exciting and imaginative Australian wine making can be either, which is something else I've been remembering over the last few days. The range of wine I currently work with is good, but it's also very safe, so I'd rather forgotten just how much interesting stuff is happening, especially outside of Europe where the rules that protect quality and local identity can also prohibit innovation*.

Anyway, Campbell's Rutherglen Muscat is widely available, around £13 for a 35cl bottle, and an excellent introduction to the world of liqueur muscats. It's an excellent alternative to a tawny port or a  PX sherry (both of which share the raisin/dried fruit characteristics to some extent). It's very good with a cheese board, more than acceptable with a mince pie, and, yes, like Vin Santo you could happily dunk cantuccini in it (I certainly have). It's also pretty good on its own, and is, in short, just the sort of thing to come home to after a winters walk - or sip appreciatively whilst reading about someone else's winter walk.

*A subject for another time maybe.