Saturday, December 3, 2016

Scotland: Mapping The Islands with Lagavulin 16 year old

It's hard to overstate how fascinating I found 'Scotland: Mapping the Islands'. It helped that I opened it with, if not low expectations, then definitely well managed ones. I expected it to be interesting, but not to feel like a child presented with a genuine treasure map - which I did. D continues to try and appropriate it, and as it's very definatley his area of interest I suppose I should gracefully give in, but it's a real inner struggle to do it. (Not that it really makes much difference if it's his book or mine, but still...)

The obvious drink to go with this book is whisky, and obviously it should be an island whisky. There are some great ones to choose from which cover a range of styles but I'm opting for Lagavulin 16 year old in all its peaty splendour.

When I started out in the wine trade whisky, specifically single malt whisky, was very much the spirit of the moment and I fell in love with it. It was the late 1990's and the ideal time to discover it. Single malt as a category was effectively invented by Glenfiddich in the '70's, before then it had been a really niche market with blends still pre-eminent. When I got started interesting whisky's were easy to find at what felt like reasonable prices (God bless those pre mortgage days) and there was plenty of interesting stuff to be found (a more sensible woman would be sitting on a decent collection now).

These days the market feels distinctly over heated, the distillery bottlings have doubled in price over the last decade, and special editions, which often come in huge runs, routinely have 3 figure price tags. It takes a lot of the fun out of it if what you buy feels to expensive to drink.

Meanwhile the traditional bottlings with an age statement on them are increasingly being replaced by those without (no age statement or nas's). The marketing line is that it frees the master distiller to do more interesting things and whilst this may be true, it also means you can sell much younger whisky and get a quicker return on the sizeable investment involved.

Lagavulin 16 year old currently retails at around £50 which is the upper end of my budget but I really love a peaty malt so once in a while I'll get a bottle. When I was learning my way round whisky they were defined geographically (highland, island, speyside, lowland, Campbeltown) which wasn't actually very helpful as island and highland can mean all sorts of things, Campbeltown only has 2 working distilleries left, and there aren't actually that many lowland malts around either.

Currently it seems more popular to use a flavour map of some sort and categorise by style, which makes more sense, but debates with customers suggest that those classifications can be just as problematic and open to interpretation as the previous system.

Which ever way you look at it though Lagavulin, from the southern end of Islay, is peaty. It's a challenging aroma and flavour for some (think of tcp, smoke, and maybe a touch of seaweed). Peat smoke is part of the smell of a Shetland childhood so I was always predisposed to like it, it's also another reason I think the whisky goes so well with this book.

If it's a style of malt you're unfamiliar with I suggest finding a bar that sells it, or a miniature to try, before committing to a full bottle. Underneath that peat smoke there's a rich, malty, sweetness that chases out the cold of a winters day. The whole package is essentially the Scottish islands (in all their rugged glory) in a bottle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Crimson Snow with Mulberry Gin

'Crimson Snow' (splendid title) is this years Christmas collection from the British Library crime classics series. How I love these books. Martin Edwards has done a great job on finding stories with a suitably Christmassy/wintery setting and which range from the gently numerous to surprisingly chilling.

If I wasn't basically up to date with the entire series, these books, and especially the short story collections, would be precisely what I want to find in a stocking or under the tree. 'Crimson Snow' has some absolute belters in it - 'Death in December' features a castle in Derbyshire, ghostly goings on, a house party of riotous young things, a Death Room, and everyone getting snowed in with a murderer. It was a particular highlight. S. C. Roberts 'Christmas Eve' Sherlock Holmes skit is great fun too, as is Michael Gilbert's 'Deep and Crisp and Even'. Ianthe Jerrold's 'Off the Tiles' is rather more disturbing - there's a genuine sense that someone has died and that it's a tragedy (no bad thing to remember). Josaphine Bell's 'The Carol Singers' does that to, but at more length, and also reminds us how vulnerable the elderly and lonely are at this time of year.
*

It's that balance between cosy escapism along with glimpses of something distinctly un-cosy that make this such a strong collection. It's a must for any lovers of vintage crime out there.

Meanwhile, Boodles Mulberry gin is a new acquisition. M&S have lots of gin on offer this week, and this one proved irrisistable - they're generally worth a look for interesting liqueurs, spirits, and bitters. They have an imaginative range for the high street, and whilst not all of it appeals to me, there's generally something really interesting to be found.

In line with the general gin explosion, flavoured gins are obviously becoming a much bigger thing, with mulberry suddenly appearing all over the place (also rhubarb, raspberry, elderflower, damson, sloe, and so on). In the past I've made my own (damson) but it's increasingly tempting to buy a range rather than committing to quite a lot of one flavour.

More gins on the market has also meant more suggestions as to how you might want to drink it, and for mulberry/sloe/damson gin there are all sorts of mulling recipes around. The general idea seems to be to gently heat it with apple juice, a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and maybe some cardamom (I might throw in some slices of orange or clementine as well). I meant to try doing this tonight but got sidetracked by making gingerbread for the Christmas tree. Maybe tomorrow.

I think more warm punches in the world are an excellent idea, and the apple juice versions which are going to be easy to make in smallish quantities, and could be made with relativley little alcohol, seem like a great idea all round. It's exactly the sort of cosy with a bit of a kick drink to settle down with to read 'Crimson Snow' (or last years 'Silent Nights') with.

*The wrench is because the bottle lid was extremely unwilling to be undone, there were almost tears of frustration, but fortunately it did the job without breakages so the day was saved

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Marcus Sedgwick's Snow and Ice Wine

It's December which means that I've already had a solid month of full on Christmas, complete with migraine inducing flashing lights, at work. What I'd really like to do right now is retire to some relativley peaceful spot where I could bake and read until it's all over. By some cruel twist of fate that's not an option, so instead I'm going to mark the days off on my advent calendar and focus on great books and matching drinks and hope for the best.


When I have more time to do 'Snow' justice I'll write about it again, it's the second of the Little Toller monographs I've read 'Mermaids' was the first) and its confirmed my impression that I really want the whole series. They're beautifully produced, elegant, little books that fit perfectly into a pocket and odd moments for reading (the chapters in this one neatly filled my bus journey to and from work - perfect). They're exactly the sort of book I like to give and receive, both because short as they are they pack a lot in, and they're so perfectly desirable as objects.

In 'Snow', Sedgwick covers a little bit of science, etymology, art, mythology, and history. He shares a few stories, and considers the transformative effects of snow, all in a way that sends the reader off on their own journey through memory and association, gently signposting some possible directions of thought along the way.

The obvious wine to go with a book like this has a magic and romance of its own - Ice Wine, or Eiswein can only be made under very specific conditions. The grapes, often Riesling (which is suitably disease resistant) are left on the vine to continue ripening deep into winter, until a frost of at least -8 comes along, and they're frozen on the vine. At this point they have to be quickly picked by hand as the grapes need to be 'clean' (no noble rot desired) and then they're pressed, still frozen. The result is a small amount of very concentrated juice which creates an intense, sweet, wine.

Because making it is both risky (if the frosts don't come in time and the grapes rot, there's no wine) and labour intensive, Ice Wine ranges from comparitivley, to eye wateringly, expensive. It's also very sweet - though well balanced with a zingy acidity that makes it taste incredibly fresh, and for want of a better word, pure.

There's a lot of prejudice against sweet wine which I do my bit to fight against. There will be people who don't like them under any circumstances, but for most of us its just a question of how we think about it. For me that means treating the wine as the main event rather than as an accompniement to a dessert (though if you like a salty blue cheese, these wines love them, and it's an incredible match). A modest glass of something as exquisite as an Ice Wine is a great alternative to a pudding, and as it deserves a bit of leisurely appreciation enjoying it with a book seems entirely sensible too.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Seven Acts of Mercy

Our final RSC trip of the year was chosen on the back of not being able to get tickets to see a lecture about original pronunciation in Shakespeare (which obviously sounded really interesting to enough people to sell out really quickly). Stratford seemed the next best option, there were plenty of preview night tickets left for 'The Seven Acts of Mercy' and early pictures of the set looked amazing.

The set, was amazing. I'm always impressed with what they do at The Swan, but this was exceptional. The play explores themes in several Caravaggio paintings, the set plays with the chiaroscuro lighting effects he was famous for, and also uses projected images of his paintings to excellent effect.

I don't read very much contemporary fiction, and don't think I've ever been to see a contemporary play before - I find I feel much the same about both. I'm much more interested in the novels which survive, or resurface, the ones which stand the test of time. The same is definatley true of theatre, so it was probably inevitable that I wouldn't be overly taken with this one.

Switching between Caravaggio painting his altarpiece showing the seven acts of mercy in Naples, and contemporary Liverpool where a dying man is trying to instil both a love of art, and a sense of compassion, into his grandson. Throughout both strands some of the reality of extreme poverty is explored, with specific reference to food banks and the social housing crisis.

Our problem was that as good Guardian reading socialists it was preaching to the choir. I'm not an expert on the iniquities of government policy and how it affects the most vulnerable in society (my companion is, it's her job), I am very aware of how the Just About Managing manage, because that's me and many of my friends.

The issues covered and examples given are important and horrifying, but I'm not sure who this play is meant to reach. Who will see it who isn't fully aware, and already quite angry, about all of these things?

More fundamentally it worried me that all of these people were essentially decent, they were the deserving poor. In my line of work (retail) I see a fair number of people who just about manage by stealing. I'm lucky, I've never been seriously threatened - though I have been threatened, and spent a goodish bit of this year waiting for the police to pick up a shoplifter who has the endearing habit of arming himself with taped together bunches of used syringes. It is mostly my job to avoid him, but in such a way that puts him off stealing (I don't actually know how to do that - if you were wondering). I have colleagues who have been spat on, hit, and threatened with knives as well as syringes. I've seen parents with teenage children come shoplifting as a family, a heavily pregnant woman break down in tears after realising she'd been spotted trying to steal litres of vodka, organised gangs who will clear £500 of spirits of the shelf and be gone in less than 5 minutes. I've also seen alcoholics open bottles and drink them on the shop floor, beyond caring if they're caught or not, and many, many, more.

These are not always the easiest people to feel compassion for, for many of them the system has beyond failed, and conversation about what the answer might be often leads to some really uncomfortable places. I would much rather have watched a play that tried to make sense of that.

We also felt that the Liverpool setting was something of a stereotype. Stratford has food banks, as do the affluent market towns around me in Leicestershire. That speaks to me far more of how big a problem we have as a society, of how badly things are failing, and it's much more uncomfortably close to home for the average attendee at the RSC.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Luisa Weiss' Sunken Apple Cake

Finding a really good Apple cake has become something of a preoccupation over the last few years. I find the older I get the less I like icing, or indeed anything very sweet, and the more appealing cakes which feature nuts or fruit are, especially apples with their hint of tartness. This one from Classic German Baking is the best one I've found yet.

It has a good combination of sponge to apple (lots of apple, but enough sponge to balance it) a very nice texture, doesn't call for anything I'm not likely to have to hand (or relatively expensive, like ground almonds), doesn't have almost a kilo of sugar in it (I have a recipe that does, it's a good cake, but bloody hell - that's a lot of sugar), is quick to throw together, and is absolutely delicious. A total winner in fact.

Luisa tells us that in Germany cakes like this are often called Mittwochskuchen - Wednesday cake - because they're so easy to throw together when time is short but cake is wanted. I love the idea of mid week cake.

This one wants a 9 inch springform tin lined with baking parchment, the oven set to 180 degrees C (a bit less in a fan oven) and 3 apples (or there abouts) peeled cored and cut into quarters. The quarters then want to be cut, not quite all the way through, lengthways - they will fan out a bit as they cook. (I used Bramley's because I had them, and I like their flavour, but they do go very mushy - something that stays a little firmer might be better).

Apples set aside, grate half a lemon rind into a bowl, add 130g of soft butter, and 125g of sugar, then beat together until light and fluffy. Add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 3 eggs, 1 at a time. Finally add 190g of self raising flour, (or plain with 2 teaspoons of added baking powder), 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt, and the juice from the half a lemon. Beat together until combined. Stick in the baking tin, press the Apple quarters into the mix (core side down), sprinkle with a tablespoon of Demerara sugar, and bake for 35-40 mins or until a skewer comes out of the cake clean.

There are so many things I want to make in 'Classic German Baking', if they all turn out as well as this Apple cake (I'm sorry about Apple with a capital A, I can't cure the iPad of it so am embracing it instead) I'll be very happy indeed.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Another knitting post

I've (almost) finished another scarf (just a few ends to tidy away). It's taken far longer then it should have done because I kept getting distracted by other things, but it's done, its in good time for the recipients birthday, and I'm pleased with it.

I couldn't get a decent picture on my phone and under electric light, which is a pity because the whole point of the thing was the texture in it. I wanted it to be vaguely reminiscent of gloomy North Sea weather and waves on the beach. When D, the only person to see the finished article so far, had a look at it that was the first thing he said so I think that counts as a success.


Waiting to be blocked - which has to be my least favourite part of the process.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club - Dorothy L. Sayers

Ive had my first weekend off in a month (and possibly last before Christmas), which I've spent doing all sorts of useful things. I also thought that after weeks of very slowly reading perfectly good books that I haven't felt any particular enthusiasm for (frustrating stuff, if they were bad books I could call it quits and move on, but they're not, they're just not what I'm in the mood for) I would follow Goergette Heyer with some Dorothy L. Sayers.

I discovered both writers at roughly the same point and read them continuously throughout my teens. At the time I was more interested in Sayers when she was following Peter and Harriet's romance. I found her through the really excellent BBC series in the mid '80's (Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter - perfect casting) and was young enough to be entirely uncritical about how she handles that romance. All things considered it surprises me a bit to find that whilst I think Heyer ages well, Sayers is increasingly troubling to read.

It turned out I didn't have a copy of 'The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club', so I bought one in its smart new jacket (I'm still 90% sure I hadn't read it before) and got through it on Saturday between chores. In terms of plotting it's a belter.

It's armistice day 1928 (at least 1928 is when it was published, so maybe it's armistice day 1927) and Lotd Peter is at the Bellona to meet the father of a fallen comrade for dinner. He meets a friend, George Fentiman, who still suffers the after effects of shell shock, and together they discover that Fentiman's grandfather (90 years old, and part of the clubs furniture) has died.

His doctor is on hand and happy to state that he's died of heart failure, and then it all gets a bit complicated. The old general had a rich sister, also dying, who has left her money to her brother if he survives her, a niece if he doesn't. She does die, but it's not clear who went first, and as the sum in question is about half a million (if the inflation calculator I insulted is correct that's about twenty seven and a half million in today's money) it starts to matter rather a lot to the junior Fentiman's.

Lord Peter is called in to establish the time line, in the course of which he has to reveal that the body was tampered with post mortem, and it eventually transpires that the general was murdered... The likely culprit isn't so hard to guess, but the way all the bits fit together is eminently satisfying. It was also fun to find myself reading on basically the same day that the investigation starts (accidental, but I liked the way my weather outside was reflected inside the book). Interesting too to read about contemporary attitudes to armistice day and see the effect the war is still having on the generation of young men who survived it, and in a different way the women too.

What's harder to take is how much of a snob Sayers is - she'd put Nancy Mitford to shame; I could well believe she'd swallowed whole 'U and Non-U'. It's not that her sleuth is an aristocrat so much but that she's always at pains to point out how wide the gulf is between the upper classes and everyone else. Even Parker comes in for it. Then there are the references to wine and food (though I could quite agree that a girl who prefers burgundy to champagne is the right sort), music, manuscripts, and other such details (since reading 'Ask a Policeman' it's harder to take these seriously).

It doesn't bother me that Sayers likes to mock the bohemian set that presumably annoyed her in actual
life, but she does it with a very heavy hand. What I really don't like very much is how misogonistic her tone is when she talks about women generally. It might be a fair reflection of prevailing attitudes, but the more I revisit Sayers the more she worries me. I can't help but think she would always have thought of sex with a capital S, and has a few too many of the complexes she accuses some of her minor characters of. Her obvious crush on Lord Peter isn't encouraging either.

Meanwhile the end of the book came as something of a shock, and genuinely chilled me. I'm really pleased I finally read this one.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Snowdrift and Other Stories - Georgette Heyer

This is 'Pistols For Two' repackaged for Christmas and with three recently rediscovered stories added. It's a hardback (which means it'll take up too much space on my shelf - space is more than ever at a premium), but at £9.99 it's a very reasonably priced one and if the publisher hadn't been kind enough to send me a copy I'd have been begging for it as a stocking filler.

My love of Georgette Heyer is no secret, and whilst her short stories don't necessarily show her at her best* they're still wonderful bits of escapism. The reason I'd say they don't show her at her best however is also one of the things I find particularly interesting about them - with less space to expand out into her technique and particular mannerisms are much more noticeable.

Because every story is inevitably a variation on a couple meeting and deciding to marry in fairly short order (after overcoming some sort of obstacle first) it's a collection that's best dipped in and out of - it's also very good company on a 20 minute bus journey when it's either to early, or to late, to concentrate on anything more demanding.

I periodically return to Heyer, generally in times of stress, when the mix of her familiar and well ordered world along with her sense of humour is particularly comforting. Another part of her enduring appeal is how generally capable her heroines are, which I think reflects both Heyer's own life, and more generally her generation of women. This was a generation that grew up in the aftermath of the First World War, and then had to deal with the Second World War and someday I'll sit down and try and work out my thoughts on this and how it's reflected in her books.

As far as this collection goes 'Pistols for Two' is a gem for not really being a romance at all (at least not in the traditional sense) but rather an account of what happens when two young men start competing for the same girl. 'Night at the Inn' has a bit of romance, but rather more in the way of gothic horror - though again, shot through with humour and is another highlight. Both show Heyer's versatility.

The three 'new' stories were written for magazines, and if on first reading seem particularly familiar it's probably because all seem to be prototypes for later books (it was fun working out which ones). 'Incident on the Bath Road' was my favourite - but all three are fun. They do alter the balance of the original 'Pistols For Two' anthology - more stories feels like less variety as the new ones all fit a very traditional romance mould - but more Heyer is unquestionably a good thing.

Sometimes reissues, especially with a new name (like last years reissue of 'Envious Casca'as 'A Christmas Party') are mildly annoying - you get all excited by the promise of something new only to discover it's not. 'Snowdrift', however, delivers with the new material, it's pretty to look at as well, so for long time Heyer fans it's probably (if your copy of Pistols for Two is as tatty as mine) a timely replacement. New fans are lucky however I look at it.

It's also just really good to see Heyer getting a bit of love. Whatever her faults she was a remarkable woman who deserves a bit of celebrating.

*I kept thinking of Angela Thirkell's, Laura Morland and her books about cloths and romance every time an outfit was described (and an outfit is described every time). There's room for it in a full length novel where the details are part of the pleasure. In a short story it's something of a distraction.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sheer Torture - Robert Barnard

'Sheer Torture' is, I think, the first in the series of Perry Trethowan books, it certainly precedes 'The Case of the Missing Brontë' (events from 'Sheer Torture' are alluded to in the later book). It's also my favourite of the three Barnard's I've read, mostly because it's gloriously, and slightly inappropriately funny.

I'm just going to quote the back blurb in full because it gives an accurate flavour of the book...

"It can be a bit of an embarrassment when your old man is done in. Particularly when you are a rising inspector with CID, and hated his guts. Particularly when your old man was at the time subjecting himself to a do-it-yourself version of a Spanish Inquisition torture. And wearing spangled tights. What it meant was that Perry Trethowan had to go back to the home of his ancestors and do a bit of semi-official sleuthing.

Like the Sitwells and the Mitfords, the Trethowans proved that Birth and Artistic Talent could go together. The Trethowans, though, made one hope it didn't happen to often. Percy's father had been a dilettante composer so minor that he stopped composing long before he started decomposing. His uncle Lawrence, head of the family, was a poet of sorts, one of his aunts a stage designer, another an overgrown schoolgirl who had never grown out of her Thirties crush on Adolf Hitler. And that's only the older generation...."

First published in 1981, which probably pre dates the wholesale Mitford mania we've seen in the last couple of decades this is a book that will either really appeal to you (it did me) or not. If the blurb didn't sound promising don't read it.

I know just enough about the Sitwell's and (a bit more about) the Mitford's to make the parody funny. Ugly Victorian gothic houses, family feuds, Perry's understandable reluctance to have his wife and son meet the rest of the family, and the fear that he might end up as head of the family are all also right up my street.

The salacious details about the death (and general habits) of Trethowan senior are mercifully brief, there's a vigorous nod towards Victorian sensation fiction, and a general feeling that Barnard had a high old time writing this. I loved it, and now I wonder - will any other Barnard I read be a disappointment in comparison?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Comforting

I woke up at 3am on Wednesday morning, looked at Twitter to see what was happening in the American election, despaired, fell back asleep and didn't wake up again until I should have been on my way to work. Neither Donald Trumps victory, or my oversleeping, were auspicious starts to the day. I wish the results had been different, but they're not, and at least against all the odds I got to work on time. The rest of this week has been about seeking comfort.

I don't want to be overly pessimistic about what the future holds, or even to speculate about it, but at the moment it does feel like old certainties are dissolving. The ensuing uncertainties are not comforting, and nor is the rise in racist harassment some of my colleagues are being subjected to. It was bad enough after the European referendum result, it doesn't seem likely to get better now after Trump's anti Muslim rhetoric- even here in the UK.

Meanwhile I decided to go to London on Thursday for a change of scene and to see the Abstract Expressionists exhibition at the Royal Acadamy. It's excellent, though perhaps not precisely cheering. What really struck me was how much impact these paintings still have, despite 60 odd years in which the world has had the chance to become familiar with these images some of them still feel quite shocking. The Clyfford Still's felt particularly challenging - or maybe untamed is a better word. The Jackson Pollock's have far more impact in life, and en masse, than any illustration suggests, it's also suddenly clear how controlled they are, and interesting to find how desperately eye and mind start searching for recognisable figures (it seems like they're there, just lurking out of reach). It's all good though, in that it's an exhibition that provides a lot to think about.

Much more traditionally comforting was a quick visit to Persephone books to buy a copy of 'Long Live Great Bardfield', Tirzah Garwood's autobiography. I'd like to start reading it now, but think I'll keep it for when I'm away over New Year. It's a longish book, and deserves a bit of time to get really stuck into it, and there a few things I've committed to read first, or have half finished (which feels annoyingly untidy) so should be dealt with first.

Another book I'm really trying to keep my hands off of is an arc of Carol Dyhouse's 'Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire' from Oxford university press. It's not out until February, if I read it now I'll forget about it by then, but it looks so good that I haven't been able to resist dipping in and out of it (so far it's as good as it looks). It turned up all unexpectedly on Wednesday And definatley lifted my mood.

I also bought Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Comfort Food', it suggests it'll help me embrace the art of hygge* - about which I have my doubts, but I have no doubts about Trine Hahnemann, who's books I generally like.

*I don't really know much about hygge beyond that it's becoming an irritatingly overused word and marketing tool. That's been enough to put me off learning more.