Saturday, 22 December 2007

Roast figs, sugar snow by Diana Henry

This book has been my constant companion for the last three days, while I decided what to contribute to Christmas cooking. And it's been a pleasure to spend time in its company - for a start it is beautifully produced, with the most unctuous set of photographs I can remember. More than that, I can't read it without my mouth watering all the time. When I want to cook I generally head for my pasta cookbook, since I love Italian food and the range of dusky tomato-y sauces loaded with basil and other pungent herbs, but a visit to Genoa reminded me how delicious northern Italian dishes are. This book ranges from New England and Quebec, through Scandinavia and Russia through the Alps to northern Italy, celebrating winter food and making me long to create slow-cooked stews of wild boar, Friulian winter salads (spicy sausage, walnuts and radicchio) and melting apple cakes.

The book is subtitled "Food to warm the soul" and it does. Each chapter (with titles redolent of hedgerow and bonfire) has a long, informative introduction discussing the range of dishes which can be made from particular ingredients, the food common to an area, or offering further suggestions; each dish also has a brief preamble, usually a celebration of dish or contents, and there are carefully chosen snippets of poetry and other quotations sprinkled throughout, combining to offer a pleasurable read while curled up in front of the fire (although I usually read my cookery books in bed with a dog, so we drool together).
Some familiar flavourings, such as ginger, allspice, cinnamon, caradmom and dill, can be given a new slant by looking at how they are treated in other cool climates. Dill, for example, is an comforting, non-assertive herb...Or try caraway, once popular in Britain in breads and cakes, and now a signature flavouring in Austria, Hungary and Alsace, rubbed into roast pork or fried with potatoes.
Caraway cake was the bane of my childhood; I can't think how many times we would arrive at a relative's house to be told, "I've just made a caraway cake." You'd know that you would have to eat it to be polite, and that every mouthful would taste of dust and mice. (Why mice? I don't know, but that's what it tasted of.) But Diana Henry persuades me that I might fry a spoonful in with the saute potatoes, just to see. After all, she's convinced me that beetroot is delicious.

If you are looking for a real comfort food book, I heartily recommend this one.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Booking through Thursday - and, the Nominees are

  1. What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  2. What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  3. And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?
Best fiction: that's difficult, I've spent a lot of this year reading older books. Most of those I've bought that were published this year are still on my to be read pile. I like to anticipate. In fact, I'm having great difficulty in seeing anything on the shelves that was published this year - no nominee here!

Best non-fiction? Wildwood by Roger Deakin. Beautifully produced, a pleasure to read and just to look at. It's such a delight when a book is an object of beauty as well as an immensely satisfying read.

I rarely even look at "Best of" lists - there are very few people whose judgement I trust over that sort of thing. These days I much prefer to head for the blogs I read regularly and see what's recommended there.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

You say tom-ah-to...

My stepfather is one of the few people I know who still says "pi-ah-no". I expect there are more of you out there, but drug up as I was in the wilds of Scotland, if I had added "pi-ah-no" to my pronunciatory infelicities, my dead body would probably have been discovered in some dour and dreary dyke, a frightful warning to the Sassenach to encroach no further.

"Pi-ah-no" aside, I have just bought my stepfather for Christmas a recording of Bach's English Suites played by Angela Hewitt. Now I will wait to see whether he will be pleased with the recording, or if he will consider Hewitt – a limpid and lucid interpreter of our greatest composer, I aver – too Canadian for the English Suites, in which case I sincerely hope he will return them to me (where they will remain) with a demand for the composer and recording he would prefer. Since he trained as a pianist, I find it hard to choose for him.

In a perfect world, I would first buy him something better on which to listen than the Walkman and mini-speakers which live by his chair. Perhaps for his birthday I could embark on such a fearful quest, one which would meet with much resistance and protest about unnecessary extravagance. I should seek a system which is small and unassuming in appearance, yet with excellent sound reproduction – not Bose, which even he is bound to have seen advertised, and to have realised that, where no price is published, it must be exorbitant. Were I to find such a system, my mother could then inherit the Walkman, in order to listen to Maggie May in the kitchen, something I know she would welcome.

It can be difficult for our generation of conspicuous consumers to offer small creature comforts to the older one. If my mother knew my annual book budget (and no, I don't either) she would probably be shocked to her core. On the other hand, it's considerably less than my annual mother-budget which, on the whole, she doesn't notice. "Had you thought what you might buy me for Christmas?" she enquired on Sunday. "Well, sort of," I replied, suppressing the thought of the fairly hefty sum I'd put in her bank account to pay for her – much needed – new camera, and thinking instead of the rather beautiful pale green wallet in softest nappa leather which I had just finished wrapping. "But you've got a birthday coming up immediately afterwards. What would you like?"

Can anyone recommend a really good coffee-table book on cave painting?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Booking through Thursday - Catalog

Do you use any of the online book-cataloguing sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not? (Or . . . do you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking to?? (grin))

If not an online catalog, do you use any other method to catalog your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?

As far as I'm concerned, Library Thing opened up a whole new world for me. One day I was a solitary reader sitting at my computer when I saw it mentioned and thought I would take a look; half an hour later I had a lifetime account and was pulling books off shelves, banging the dust off them and discovering that half of them predated ISBN numbers. Nonetheless I have catalogued that 760-books that are on the shelves in my room and the hallway (haven't finished the hallway yet). Then there are the books in our upstairs living room - hundreds more. But I've already found books I'd forgotten I had (so many of the shelves are double-stacked) and I can spend happy hours checking I've got the right book jacket showing, or adding information to share with other users. I'm fairly meticulous about adding books as I buy them but, unlike some people, I only include books I actually own.

The most important change for me was that it was through Library Thing that I ventured into a world of like-minded people, at first through the groups on Library Thing itself, which are many and varied. However, following a link on another reader's profile one day led to the discovery that there were more sites devoted to talking about books! Once I started reading other people's blogs it didn't take long to decide that I would enjoy doing it too, although I didn't expect anyone but me to read what I wrote. I use my other blog to keep a monthly record of all the books I've read, now (though I haven't quite decided whether this is the most convenient way of recording this information) and try to review as many as possible. Over Christmas I shall update my Library Thing links to reviews and do some more cataloguing. The family may laugh, but I'm pretty sure my elder son keeps a music catalogue.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Water, water everywhere...

Not a flood!

...and my digital camera is 350 miles away in Berwick. I have been in Devon over the weekend and it has rained almost without cease. Yesterday my mother and I went Christmas shopping and barely got home through the floods. Today – Sunday - they have gone down somewhat and, although the forecast was for more extreme weather tonight, that has been ameliorated and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that I will be able to get out to my 8.10 train tomorrow. I have meetings in London and will be unpopular and unhappy if I miss them.

In the meantime I have been a good and dutiful daughter, endlessly washing up, sewing leather patches on my stepfather's jacket, teaching my mother to use her new camera, deadheading the pelargoniums and being nice to the over-boisterous dog, with an ear on the rain all the while. Shortly I will list all the Morse videos in the drawing room, so that I can track down more, and see if I can make the DVD menu intelligible to those who are not computer literate (if not, I will request that next door's 12-year-old will come in and explain it).

I'm an indulged daughter, I'm ashamed to admit – my mother told her butcher I would be here for the weekend and he replied "Oh, you'll want a rib then." Embarrassing that my likes are quite so widely known, but the knowledge that tonight's dinner will be of beef reared in the lush green fields around this beautiful village is making my mouth water. I'm off now to make plum crumble, my stepfather likes a good pudding.

Written Sunday 5.30pm - I did get out on Monday morning!

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Christmas Meme

Margaret at BookPlease has tagged me for this meme, and yet again, I'm posting from the train – becoming a habit! The sun rising behind Durham Cathedral this morning was very dramatic, too bright to look at and gloriously celestial.

What is your most enduring Christmas memory?
This is a difficult question for me because my most enduring memory is of the Christmas something very bad happened, and for the entire community where we lived, Christmas was more or less ignored. People just tried to make Christmas Day as happy as possible for their children, which I suppose says a good deal about its enduring power as a festival. I wondered whether to mention this at all, but decided that it’s wrong to pretend everything is always sweetness and light, and I know that for some people, their faith sustained them through the days that followed. And although I didn’t really celebrate Christmas itself that year, I saw many examples of the love and generosity that the festival should exemplify and which shone through far beyond Twelfth Night.

Do you have a favourite piece of Christmas music?
I love Christmas carols, particularly those of the 18th century and the West Gallery tradition of church music. My actual favourite probably changes from year to year (haven’t started listening this year) but “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is a must. However, give me anything played by a band with a serpent in it and I'll probably be happy!

Do you stick to the old family traditions?
A Christmas Day walk is the most important one for me. Since we moved to Northumberland we usually take the dogs to the dunes, but one year we were snowed in and could only walk along the farm track. We had days of sunshine while the snow lay deep and crisp and even, and the dogs had a glorious time. Fortunately we always buy too much food at Christmas so we were in no hurry to get out.

What makes your mouth water at Christmas time!?
My mother’s Christmas pudding. She makes one for us every year. And those little tiny sausages.

How soon do you put the Christmas tree up and when do you take it down?
We didn’t have a tree last year – first time ever – and may not again, as I can’t find an artificial one I like. What finally put us off real trees, which we all love, is the problem that our house is upside down, and the tree has to go up – and worse, come down – a rather narrow flight of stairs. Even wrapped in a dustsheet it sheds more needles than Senior Dog does hair. We may have a Christmas twig – our corkscrew willow provides some very dramatic, twisted branches on which baubles hang rather effectively – and there will be strings of lights along the beams, which do look rather pretty. Decorations never go up before the 20 December and generally come down before I start work again, so usually about 3 January. When I was a fulltime mother they stayed up until Twelfth Night, which is how it was during my childhood.

I won't tag anyone else specifically but, if you haven't already done this meme and you would like to, please do consider yourself tagged – it's such fun reading about everyone else's Christmas preparations.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

A syren’s tea-party of two

Clarify 1 lb. butter. When cold beat to a cream, add 12 oz. sugar, 1 lb. potato flour (sieved), 4 whole eggs and the yolks of two, the zest of 1 lemon. Beat the whole mass for 1 hour, when it should form bubbles. Bake in a buttered and finely bread-crumbed mould in a moderate oven. Halve these quantities for a small cake.

[M]ight be served with honey-dew and the milk of Paradise when procurable.

I should think that if I beat a cake by hand for an hour, I would form bubbles.

Lady Jekyll’s charming and amusing book of essays offers all sorts of culinary advice, from preparing shooting lunches to managing without your cook (goodness, unthinkable – but it is she who would beat the Venus Torte for an hour, not the lady of the house). First published in 1922 (and reprinted by the redoubtable Persephone Books), the essays combine humour with practical information, thereby ensuring our lady housewife’s dining table will be a pleasure to all comers, young and old. Should you need to provide a light supper for artists and performers, Lady Jekyll will be your guide:

Mrs Gladstone’s practice of sending her husband into battle on an egg-flip, cleverly produced at the psychological moment, can be imitated with this Frothed Wine Soup, good for a prima donna or pianist soon going into action, and can be made simply by anybody who can whisk an egg.

I have informed OH that, should I be ill, a better recovery will be aided by regular small and tempting meals. For lunch, Lady Jekyll advises a “nicely cut and fried bread canapé, on which may be placed partridge breasts resting on softly-mashed potato and “some mushrooms buttered, grilled and added piping hot”. OH reassured me that he will do his best, and added that he hoped for my sake I would be stricken soon.

I am determined that, over Christmas, we shall dine en famille in grace and elegance; recommended for a first dinner party, for example, is a “very small Selle de Pré Sâle (Saddle of Welsh Mutton) in winter”. The recipe begins “For a saddle weighing about 8 lb. . . .”. We might start with home-made foiegras, perhaps, and finish with Cold Lemon Soufflé accompanied by some delicate Cat’s Tongue Biscuits. Now, if you will excuse me, I am just going to telephone The Lady to place within its pages an advertisement for a good, plain cook.