Friday, September 22, 2017

The Living Mountain - Nan Shepherd

I bought this book back in April, partly inspired by the lovely (Scottish) £5 note that bears Shepherd's  face (the other side has a pair of mackerel, and I need to keep the next one I get). It's a short book that I thought I might read in an afternoon. I started it in August, and finished it today.

Generally speaking I haven't been reading a lot recently - I've been knitting instead, but even so that's a long time to get through 108 pages. One reason it's taken so long is that this has to be just about the most perfectly written thing I've ever read. It's perfect in the way that frost patterns and snowflakes are perfect. If I'd made a note of everything I wanted to keep as a quote I would have transcribed almost the whole book, and it's left me more than slightly obsessed with the work of Susie Leiper (specifically the calligraphy pieces).

'The Living Mountain' describes Shepherd's experience of, and love for, the Cairngorms. Somewhere she had a lifelong relationship with. I've never really understood the appeal of mountains before; Shetland is hilly, but not mountainous, Leicestershire is flat, when I lived in Aberdeen I was more inclined to look to the sea than the hills, and it will always be the shoreline that captures my imagination in the way that the Cairngorms captured Shepherd's, but even so she's hooked me in here.

Maybe it helps that the Cairngorms are the only mountains I've ever got really close too, and even if it was mostly via a funicular railway (which Shepherd would not have approved of) it only took a few minutes for what is essentially an arctic landscape to beguile me. It's such a harsh, uncompromising, environment  that I couldn't help but fall for it in the same way that I love the Sea. There's nothing easy about the place, the views are impressive if they're not covered by clouds, but there are others just as good. What makes it special is that you really have to look, to find the beauty in the place, and when you do, as Shepherd did, there's so much to see.

She describes walking in every sort of condition, and all the many rewards it brings, the moments of clarity, of joy, and of fear - of literally looking into the abyss. It's a remarkable book, one that demands to be read over and over - because like the mountains it's too much, too rich, to take in all at once.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dido Queen of Carthage - Christopher Marlowe

We saw this on Monday night at the RSC, and all I really want to say about it is go and see it.

I've been enthusiastic about Marlowe since studying 'Doctor Faustus for' A levels (decades ago) and would happily go much further out of my way than Stratford to see anything of his performed. I found no such enthusiasm for Anthony and Cleopatra, which was one of our Shakespeare texts (or Twelth Night, which was the other one) so I was interested when I read that Virgil, who provides the source material, turned her into a Cleopatra prototype..

I can see the parallels in the doomed and obsessive love affair that will be the ruin of a queen, but I never had much patience for Anthony, and on the whole I think the themes explored in Dido are quite different.

The play opens with Jupiter lusting after Ganymede, angering both his wife, Juno, and his daughter, Venus - who feels that he should be paying rather more attention to what's happening to her son, Aeneas, as he flees the sack of Troy.

Jupiter tells Venus not to worry, and Aeneas along with his son and a handful of followers find themselves cast ashore in Carthage where they're soon reunited with more of their band of refugees, who are enjoying the hospitality of Dido's court.

Dido takes in Aeneas as well, promising him whatever aid he may need, and asking in return to hear the fate of Troy. Venus, wanting to be sure that Dido will do everything possible for her son, sends Cupid to make sure she falls in love with him. She does, to distraction, but it's a cruel fate.

Aeneas has a fate awaiting him, he is to go to Italy and build a new Troy, and when Jupiter sends Hermes to remind him of this he eventually turns his back on Dido with devastating consequences for her.

The set design was brilliant, a sand covered stage consistently evokes an idea of land and a home land. It is desert and beach, something to be rooted in, and something to travel across. There's also a curtain of water that's tremendously effective - when the shipwrecked Aeneas tumbles through it onto the stage for the first time it really felt like he was being delivered from the storm.

Best of all though is Chipo Chung's performance as Dido. She was mesmerising. The story of the real Dido is frankly inspiring; as a young widow she founded Carthage, building it from nothing into a successful mercantile and navel nation, whilst successfully avoiding pressure from a neighbouring king to marry and submit her subjects to him. Parallels that might conceivably have amused Queen Elizabeth. Which also makes it interesting that when Dido does fall in love and tries to make Aeneas King of Carthage to keep him by her side it works out so badly.

Virgil and Marlowe's Dido has a somewhat different history, but she's still an impressive woman ultimately screwed over by the machinations of the gods. Aeneas is a trickier proposition. When he chooses his duty/destiny to go to Italy and found Rome over her it feels like the cruelest of betrayals after all she has done for him, but love is only really enough in the pages of a romance.

But back to how damn good Chipo Chang was, it all comes together in the final scene (possible spoiler - there's quite a lot of suicide) nobody on our row had dry eyes at the end - also down to Amber Jones, playing Anna (Dido's sister). She doesn't get to do a lot until the end, but the dynamic between the two women makes the emotion so real.

We loved this, it's Wednesday and I'm still buzzing about it - if you can go and see it, go and see it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kingdom Come at the RSC

R and I haven't been to Stratford as often as we generally do this year (though we're making up for it with two visits in 5 days here), that's mostly because the theme has been Rome which hasn't captured our joint imaginations as much as some other seasons have. But then her parents turned up with glowing reports of how good 'Kingdom Come' was so we compared diaries, realised we were both free 2 days later, booked tickets and went.

It's the first time I've been in 'The Other Place' since it was reopened last year - and very nice it is too. The foyer is one big Café and feels particularly welcoming. The ticket price was also welcoming, £10, for which I'm more than happy to take a chance on something that says it's immersive and features nudity. 

The year is 1640, parliament is rebellious, and King Charles 1 is playing a god in a court masque. We know how this ends. One of the things I really liked about The Other Place is the way it feels like a box, the chairs we sat in were divided from the stage space by a row of lights on the floor about 2 feet in front of us - it makes it very easy to pull the audience into the play, or push them out, with a few props or bits of scenery. 

The Masque ends with Charles on trial, and then the audience is urged to follow the cast through the building (into the scene dock) to witness his execution. I imagine the mood of the audience makes a considerable difference here, our audience was muted, which contributed to a specific mood, change the audience and I guess you change the mood with it (I'd happily go back to test that theory). Anyway, huddled in a dark room, surrounded by scaffold, jostling for a view, whilst also trying to hang back a bit (just in case), and movement around the room that you could hear rather than see was very effectively immersive. 

The third act deals with the reality of puritan rule, mostly through the eyes of a troop of actors, and has the most obvious parallels to contemporary issues  (such as religious tolerance, and intolerance, attitudes towards gender, personal freedom, PTSD), although all things considered it's done with a light touch. There are also a series of beautifully lit (chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have been proud of) tableaux that recall seventeenth century genre paintings. It really made me wish that I could have taken pictures - it was mesmerising (I'd also have liked to see if I could match some of those tableaux to actual paintings). The effect echoed both the carefully created images of a world seen through Instagram, but also to suggest a nostalgic longing for good old days. 

The FT described this as an honours failure, the Guardian gave itva more enthusiastic 4 stars. I'm with the Gaurdian. It was thought provoking, visually and orally delightful, unexpectedly exciting to be able to move around the building, and altogether invigorating. We both came out feeling deeply enthusiastic, and ready to take a chance on pretty much anything the Other Place decides to put on. 

Kingdom Come is on until the 30th of September and is absolutely worth taking a chance on if you're  in or near Stratford between now and then. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Vineyard Cake from Sweet

The promise of this cake was what sold me on 'Sweet', Vineyard cake, also called Cleopatra cake, is filled with grapes, and uses most of a bottle of Muscat - that's an attractive combination for a wine merchant.

Closer inspection of the recipe shows that it wants an inconvenient amount of Muscat - 450ml, we sell bottles of the suggested Muscat Beaumes de Venise in 375ml bottles, and I knew I had an elderly half bottle of Californian Muscat at home needed using (if it was still okay). Because of the size of the original recipe it also needs to be made in a chiffon or angel food cake tin, which I don't have either. A bundt tin won't do because there's a sugar crust and grapes on top of it, which is where you want them to stay.

Happily it was an easy recipe to half, so I made it as a loaf cake instead, and it's cooked through beautifully. The old bottle of Muscat I had (2009 vintage) was past it's best but still basically sound. There's no point in cooking with wine that's corked (cork taint smells and tastes like musty cardboard,  it's caused by a bacteria in the cork, and nothing will fix it), oxidised, or otherwise faulty. Wine that is older than it should be to be at its best is slightly different. As it ages it loses its fruit flavours, which is what was happening to my Muscat, but it still had enough of its distinctive sweet grapey character to be drinkable, and as cooking it would have much the same effect on it as aging had, I was happy to use it. For future baking I'll be looking for 500ml bottles of moscatel (basically the same grape, but Spanish rather than French) though I'm also curious to see how it might work with a pale cream sherry.

Meanwhile, grease and flour a 2 pound loaf tin, wash and slice lengthways 50g of seedless grapes (which turned out to be far fewer than I expected) and finely grate the zest of a lemon and half an orange. Preheat the oven to 210°C/190°c fan oven/gas 6.

Take 170g of caster sugar, 90g of butter at room temp, 40 ml of olive oil, and the scraped seeds of half a vanilla pod and mix for a couple of minutes until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating well each time, and then take 250g of plain flour, a good pinch of salt, 1 tsp of baking powder, and 1/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda and add about a third of it to the mix followed by half the (225ml's total) of wine, blend and then add half the remaining flour and the rest of the wine, followed by the rest of the flour.

Pour the batter in the tin, scatter the grapes evenly across the top, and put in the oven. Now take 35g of caster sugar and 35g of butter and mix in a small bowl until it's a thick paste. Wash and half another 50g of grapes (no longer surprised at how few that is) and when the cake has been in the oven 15-20 minutes carefully remove it and spread the sugar crust evenly over the top, breaking it into small pieces as you go, scatter the grapes on top of it and stick it back in the oven, wearing the temperature to 180°c/160° fan/ Gas 4 and continue to bake for another half hour or so until a skewer comes out of the cake clean. Allow to cool for half an hour in the tin before removing.

It's a gloriously light cake, with an attractive grapey, almost incense smokey note from the Muscat (you can smell the wine, it's great). It's very good with a cup of coffee but I'm going to get that chiffon tin because I think this would be a brilliant dinner party cake (possibly with some whipped cream laced with the remaining Muscat on the side). Apparently it keeps well - I'll report back on that.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sweet - Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh

Today has been a bank holiday lieu day, much needed after a couple of very hectic weeks at work have left me feeling thoroughly washed out. Initial plans to spend the morning walking a friends dog around the really beautiful Bradgate Park were rained off (we're not keen on the rain, her dog really hates it), and the doctors appointment that I had for today didn't turn out quite as I hoped it would either. 

Last year middle age inflicted a fallen arch on me, this turns out to be a really painful nuisance, and over the last couple of months has got far more so. Normally the really lovely doctor who deals with this kind of thing at my surgery sends me away with a simple exercise and advice regarding insoles or wrist straps (moving wine all day is liable to give you tennis and golfers elbows and some carpel tunnel issues). This time he's booked me in for an ultra sound - so no quick fix and a further reminder that I'm not as young as I used to be.

To cheer myself up and get the day back on track inwent and had a good look around Waterstones. Truthfully I would have done better to have gone straight home and actually read one of the Mountain of books that are waiting for me, but it's September and the pre Christmas releases are starting to appear. This is always an exciting time for cookbooks and I was tempted by a few; Sabrina Ghayour's 'Feasts' looks good, and although it's been out a couple of months so isn't precisely a new book, I really, really, want Tiko Tuskadze's 'Supra' on Georgian cooking. Every time I look at this book it tempts me more. I already bought Olia Hercules' 'Kaukasis' which touches on the same part of the world, and need to have a proper look at it before I buy another book on the same kind of food. Still, 'Supra' looks excellent, and every time I flick through a copy something else catches my eye and looks irresistible. 

Meanwhile I did get 'Sweet'. I had been on the fence about this before I saw it, previous Ottolenghi books have been full of things I'd like to eat, but not so much the sort of food I want to cook. This one  is different. Everything sounds special, the flavour combinations really appeal to me - apart from Baileys and Guinness cake, nothing can reconcile me to Baileys. The Vineyard cake, full of grapes and using really quite a lot of Muscat Beames de Venise sounds amazing though, or pineapple and star anise chiffon cake, or chocolate tart with hazelnut, Rosemary, and orange, or gingerbread with brandy apples and crème fraîche, or cinnamon pavlova, praline cream nod fresh figs, or prune cake with Armagnac and walnuts... the list goes on. 

It's not even necessarily about cooking these things, I should be avoiding sugar (but dear god, rum and raisin cake with rum caramel icing) they just sound so damn good that it's a book to live vicariously through. Though I will cook from it, and with enthusiasm, I just need to make sure I share, but I think I'll also be using it a lot as a jumping off point. It's making me think about flavour combinations new to me - this seems to be the moment when I finally 'get' Ottolenghi. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wightwick Manor

Given that it's only just over an hour away from me I don't know why it took me so long to find out about Wightwick Manor (there's a list of National Trust places like this that make me think they could be doing a better job of letting people know what's out there), but now I have I'm here to spread the word.

I read about Wightwick in an article someone had posted somewhere (details are hazy) about Pre Raphaelite houses. Wightwick is on the outskirts of Wolverhampton and sounded intriguing, the reviews for the cafe were also excellent (I can personally recommend the coconut and pineapple cake). We went today, which also turned out to be a heritage open day so entry was free which was a bonus that went some way towards mitigating the cost of (William Morris themed) umbrellas. It was sunny and dry when we set out, but that didn't last.

Wightwick Manor was to be the family home of the Manders, reasonably wealthy, and rising, industrialists from Wolverhampton, with keen social consciences. The project was started in 1887, and then the size of the house was doubled between 1892-3. The Manders taste ran to the arts and crafts so the went to Morris & Co for their wallpaper and various bits of furniture.

Geoffrey Mander, who inherited the house from his parents, seems to have shared both their taste and their socialism. In 1937 he gave the house, its contents, and an endowment to the National Trust. At that time it was still technically a modern house, but it was also a well preserved piece of late Victorian taste, and it's gone on to be something more. The Manders continued to live in the house and in partnership with the Trust further built the arts and crafts and Pre Raphaelite collection - this is an ongoing process.

There are some remarkable things here; an extensive collection of Rossetti's work, pieces by Elizabeth Siddel, Burne Jones, ceramics by William de Morgan, paintings by Evelyn de Morgan (there's also an extensive exhibition of both their work in the Malt House gallery which is quite stunning). There's also a wonderful Cecil Aldin freeze around the nursery wall. There is wonderful Pre Raphaelite stained glass - and essentially I would happily move in tomorrow.

If I had a criticism, it's that it isn't always clear what your looking at, the pictures aren't labelled and though some of the rooms had lists and guides that helped answer questions, not all did. Altogether though it's a brilliant opportunity to see the art against its intended background, and see the wallpapers and textiles together. The house itself is a delightfully romantic confection full of alcoves, hidden corners, and treasures. It is well worth visiting.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A New Piece of Art

Collecting art is one of the things that makes my heart sing, it's also something I spend a lot of time thinking, plotting, and planning over. Both budget and space are limited so decisions have to be made carefully - which is part of the fun of it. Will whatever I'm looking at work in my flat, will it work with everything else in my flat, is it light sensitive which limits where it can be hung, how will it be framed, do I really love it, and so on.

I have pictures on the wall that I've spent years considering before actually buying them and if they're still available after 2-3 years careful consideration it's clearly meant to be, and regrets, or buyers remorse, are unlikely (I've never regretted any of these purchases).

What I don't generally do is buy things online, not anything really (with the excelption of books where you basically know what you're getting anyway) but especially not pictures. The risk is that unless you're already quite familiar with the artists work, the small image on screen can look very different, and quite disappointing compared to expectation, in actual life. That's nobody's fault, it's just how it is.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I bought something online that I'd not had a chance to have a proper look at first and I'm beyond delighted with it. The piece in question is by Debbie George, I've admired pictures of her work for a while, but never managed to see anything first hand. (The only time I was anywhere near a gallery she exhibits in, it was closed). Then early this year I found The Edition Shop online, they sell original works under £200 with everything clearly priced.

The pricing thing is important. Look at works for sale on a lot of gallery websites and you won't find prices anywhere, a lot of artists websites miss them off as well and it's deeply frustrating, especially when you eventually do find a price and its way out of range of your budget.

Anyway, after watching a number of pictures I really liked get sold before I could make my mind up, infinally saw something I couldn't resist and bought it. Pictures from The Edition come unframed which is both a much cheaper way of buying things, and means that you get the frame you want (one that works with both the thing that's going in it, and the other framed things you already have). Their packing was excellent so my picture arrived both swiftly and in perfect condition, and again, I'm just so happy with this - which is why I'm telling you all about it!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heirloom Knitting - Sharon Miller

One of the great joys of blogging (and life generally, I cannot over sell how exciting this is) is that occasionally a highly coveted book will fall through your letterbox completely unexpectedly. Sharon Miller’s updated and enlarged new edition of ‘Heirloom Knitting A Shetland Lace and Pattern Workbook’ delivered that moment in spades.

It was even more exciting because I didn't even know it was being reprinted, and had become resigned to never seeing this seminal work. I first heard about it watching back the 'Authenticity in Culturally-Based Knitting' conference held at the Shetland Museum early last year (and if that sounds dry, it really wasn't - if it's still available to watch it's time well spent). It was the tremendously talented jeweller, Helen Robertson  saying what a game changer this book was that got my interest, but at the time it was out of print, and second hand copies were prohibitively expensive.

My interest in Knitting, especially Shetland knitting, is partly driven by its links to women's history and creativity (though it was by no means an exclusively female occupation, there are documented cases of men who were unable to earn money in any other way also turning to knitting to contribute to household finances). In many ways it's an undertold story, but the more I read and discover the more interesting it becomes.

Long story short, the best, most accomplished, Shetland lace is stunning stuff, and as a knitter I find there's something addictive about the process of creating even the most basic openwork pieces. And the reason I can create these basic pieces at all is largely thanks to the work that Sharon Miller did. Before Miller if traditional lace patterns were recorded at all it would have been in a string of barely comprehensible abbreviations (which may have been particular to individual knitters, and would have assumed a fairly advanced degree of proficiency). Women taught to knit by mothers and grandmothers from their earliest years rarely needed to write this stuff down.

What Miller did was come along, study the archive collection in Shetland, and then chart it. The basic techniques of increases via yarn overs, and decreases by knitting stitches together are not difficult (the refinements on the basics are another matter), and in chart form they're relatively easy to follow. It meant that knitters everywhere could have a go at this, including a generation of Shetland knitters who hadn't been taught how as a matter of course. More than that the documenting of fragile garments, or even recreating them from photographs is just generally a valuable exercise in preserving a record of the creativity of the original knitters.

That on its own would be more than enough, but this book does more than that. It records where the designs came from, who they're associated with, covers every aspect of how to knit them, how to dress them, how to preserve them, how to put motifs together, how to adapt and refine patterns . There's a collection of projects for every skill level and so much more.

Finally, one detail I really like is that all the illustrations of the individual stitch patterns are black and white, and look like they've been knitted in single ply Shetland cobweb yarn -

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Death in the Tunnel with a 'Maiden's Prayer'

This is the last of this series of books and booze posts, and probably the last cocktail I'll drink in a while (or maybe not, I've started to get into the habit now, and those bottles of vermouth need using). It's been a real pleasure doing the research for these drinks, after an enthusiastic attempt to master the art of cocktail making about 20 years ago I thought it was something I was really not very good at. It turns out that all I needed were good quality ingredients (vital) and to find drinks I actually like and that are simple to make at home. It's been just as much of a pleasure to take a good look at the British Library crime classics as a series rather than as individual books.

I've always been a fan of vintage fiction - for all sorts of reasons, so these books are absolutely my thing. It's fair to say that as novels some are considerably better than others, but even when I've not been totally convinced by one element of a book I've found other things of interest in it, and I've enjoyed every one of them I've read. The short story collections are, without exception, excellent, and just generally I'm looking forward to seeing whatever they turn up next.

Meanwhile 'Death in the Tunnel' (by Cecil Street writing as Miles Burton) is a good example of a bit of plotting that I didn't love, but a book that I still really enjoyed. Sir Wilfred Saxonby is traveling alone in a locked compartment on the 5 o'clock from Cannon Street. The train stops in a tunnel, and when it emerges again a few minutes later Sir Wilfred is dead, shot through the heart by a single bullet. The obvious conclusion is suicide, but something doesn't quite add up about that...

The Maiden's Prayer is fr Sir Wilfred's niece, Olivia Saxonby. Around 40, unmarried, and dependant on her uncle she acts as something between a companion and a housekeeper for him. Burton gives her circumstances (she is after all a possible suspect) quite a bit of consideration and in the process we get a sidelight on the options available for the interwar generation of surplus women. Living with her uncle, subject to his whims and strictures, doesn't sound like a lot of fun for Olivia, but her job options would have been limited anyway by both education and opportunity so giving into family pressure and filling this particular role makes sense.

Given the outlook for middle aged maidens it's not surprising that the Maiden's Prayer is essentially a stronger version of a white lady. 3/8ths Gin, 3/8ths Cointreau, 1/8th lemon juice, 1/8th orange juice all well shaken over ice and strained into a coctail glass (from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks'). The relative sweetness of the orange juice initially disguises the alcoholic heft of this drink (though now I've finished it, I have no doubt at all about it's kick) but this Prayer is heartfelt, and means business.

And that's the end of this books and booze series.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Notting Hill Mystery with a 'Brandy Smash'

'The Notting Hill Mystery' is one of the very early detective novels (1862-3, originally published, anonymously in serial form). It's told in the form of a report from an insurance agent, investigating after the wife of a mysterious Baron dies. If he hadn't taken out five sizeable life insurance policies on her, one after the other, mere weeks before she met her end it might not have looked quite as suspicious. The mystery here isn't who or why, but how, and how to prove it.

This was also one of the earlier books in the Crime Classics series, and whilst I'd bought the first couple (which specifically featured female detectives) I'd passed this one over. Reading about it a couple of weeks ago though, I saw that one of the characters has the same surname as me - which was enough of a push to send me out in search of a copy, and I started reading it yesterday. So far so good...

It also presented the perfect opportunity to go back to Jerry Thomas to look for a suitably contemporary drink. I found the Brandy Smash. Smashes, he tells us, are simply juleps on a small plan, instructions for making them with gin or whisky, as well as brandy, follow.

To make one take a teaspoon of white sugar, two tablespoons of water, 3 or 4 sprigs of mint, and a generous measure of brandy. Press the mint in the sugar and water to extract the flavour, add the brandy, and fill the glass 2/3rds full of shaved ice (ice in my case). Stir thoroughly and ornament with  a few sprigs of fresh mint, and  half a slice of orange. Beautify with berries in season.

I really like this combination of brandy, mint, with a bit of sweetness (I'll admit I didn't beautify with berries, but the possibility is intriguing). It's not a particularly strong drink, especially as the ice begins to melt, and if you've gone easy on the brandy, but it's extremely good late into a hot afternoon.