The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, the once highly-popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have risen rapidly in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the “polyester of lettuces” by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian but God love her, she is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if Iceberg contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale? Just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Deliciously Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the Iceberg was once the most celebrated of lettuces. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, Iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time-faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the Iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed-like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

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Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, Iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and all kinds of vinegar. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with Iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the Iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and Chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard-boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?

A dab of heat

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Like a lot of people, I struggle to find an economical way of feeding large amounts of people with fish: it is rarely inexpensive and nor should it be bearing in mind the time and effort it takes fishermen and women to catch and land their bounty. I am a dab hand (sorry) at stretching a few fish into bright curries, mash topped pies and little round cakes hiding nuggets of melting cheese but for me, the ultimate luxury is a large white plate topped with a single perfect fish, prepared simply, served whole. And if you choose to serve sole or plaice, flounder, skate or brill (turbot, is sadly out of the question) to several diners then the pounds rack up: some of these are high end fish for high days and holidays and none are cheap as chips any more.

This is where the dab should take a bow. They are prolific breeders in the cold dark waters of the North Sea and around the UK in general and are capable of breeding within two years, when they are only fifteen centimetres long. A precocious ability to reproduce explains in part why dab are so numerous and they are also a reliable catch because they will apparently feed in both daylight and darkness, gliding silently onto sandy beaches, estuaries and anywhere where rock clusters and sandy bottomed gullies have attracted the sea creatures they, in turn, feed upon. Their price reflects this and when I visited a local fishmonger, Fish Burwell LTd in Newmarket, I bought a bag full of dabs at only £1,75 each for fish that weighed in just over a pound (usual for a sold dab). They were beautifully fresh- still in rigor- irridescent, splodged with marmalade coloured spots and I bought them as nature made them although they are a lot easier to fillet than roundfish if you wish to serve them in this manner.

On the fishmongers slab, you’ll notice it has beady dark eyes on the right side of its body and skin the colour of wet sand at Walton on the Naze. Take it home and rub your fingers over its uncooked flanks and you’ll feel a roughness like a kittens tongue, pushing against the pads of your fingertips. You can cook them with head and fins attached and they tolerate pan, grill, oven and flame happily, without breaking up- a result of that determined and pliable skin which makes great eating too. The flavour is rich – a result of their marine diet of prawns, molluscs, shellfish and small crustaceans- and the meat falls away from their cartilaginous skeleton with a light touch of the fork.

I’ve written before about how I think what we refer to as ‘trash fish’ will gain popularity as it becomes the marine equivalent of nose to tail eating and dabs are a prime example of an under rated commercial fish, often disposed of when caught as by-catch by trawlers although things are changing. The fishing industry has realised there is a need to create a market for dab and other by catch. In the past they’ve been regarded as little more than flotsam and jetsam, not worth landing and certainly not worth the fuel miles to port where they would no doubt have lingered behind unsold. However there is a long way to go as of yet, with skippers having to return to shore with their entire by-catch, regardless of whether it can be eaten or sold. This is a terrible waste of fish, time and fuel, especially when fishing crews report that some by-catch fish might well have survived a return to the sea. Ultimately, the inability to return under-sized fish to the seas can only harm future stocks. Even if the by-catch has perished, all is not lost as indigenous marine animals such as birds and other fish would eat the discarded fish or their carcasses would decompose on the ocean floor, releasing essential nutrients into the water and sea-bed.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, DEFRA and the Marine Institute have all been working with people employed in the fishing industries to reduce the amount of undersized catches. The recommended strategies have included an increase in the size of the mesh in cod nets. From the first of January 2016, all whiting, haddock, prawns and hake will be subject to an extended ban on by-catch, as part of measures being phased in by the European Commission to tackle the problem of by catch which resulted from its previous quota system. However, this has its critics because Irish and British waters are heavily fished by fishing crews of boats registered to other mainland European countries. These can continue to catch the most lucrative fish whilst Irish and British vessels are moored in port because they have reached their quota of caught fish.

The Burwells fish team had this to say about the problem: “By catch is being reduced by a change in legislation allowing fishermen to land more product avoiding the need to throw by catch back into the sea. As a fishmongers we promote the use of less know fish on a daily basis.”

Asked about their own stock, they told me: “We stock fish such as Dabs, Hake, Gurnard on a regular basis along with a recipe for people to try it with. We believe that some of the lesser known varieties of fish hold a lot more flavour and are also lighter on the wallet too. We would like to see people eating more Hake, Gurnard, Red Fish, Whiting and Coley.” Certainly, whenever I visit, I enjoy that interaction, the chance to gain more knowledge about what I am buying, about what I ought to be eating more of and what could benefit from a ‘ piscine close season’ because stocks are getting a bit too low for comfort.

Much of what I do starts with something read in a book and my search for a nice little pan fish to take kindly to began with Katy Carr’s food adventures in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next:

“Soles and muffins she finally decided upon and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam. ‘Muffins sounds so very good in Dickens you know, she explained to Mrs Ashe, “and I never saw a sole.’ The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called scup. All the party took kindly to them but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them of scorched flannel.”

After reading What Katy Did Next, I laboured under the illusion that New England scups were the same as sole which were similar to what we call dabs- I was wrong. Properly known as Limanda Limanda, the dab is a member of the Flounder family and similar in appearance to the sole and plaice, which of course Katy Carr had already noted. The dab fitted the bill for our hungry and on the side of large, family. I was keen to serve whole fish too, because it has always been important for children to understand what ‘real’ fish look like and to not only eat it neatly filleted and parcelled up with all the trickier parts- head, fins, tail, skin- removed and disposed of lest they be too, um, ‘fishy’. But how best to cook it?

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Keep it simple stupid is definitely the mantra here. I like the sound of the Fisherman’s Roll, made with the best of the catch and hence, little added bells and whistles are required, but it requires the dabs to be filleted and I wanted to serve them intact. If, however, you like the idea of this, then ask the fishmonger to fillet the dab and  then dredge them in seasoned flour, fry in olive oil and serve in a buttered soft bap with a squeeze of lemon and liberal shakes of good salt and black pepper. Nigella’s  soft white dinner rolls are a good match, otherwise look for pale flour covered baps sold in independent bakeries- the kind with a soft and spreading girth. In the USA, Parker House Rolls with their buttery glazed tops are delicious with fried fish or pair the sweet, fluffy Hawaiian rolls with the toothsome dab. Hawaiian rolls are yeast risen, enriched with milk, eggs and sugar and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who flocked there to work in the sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. It is a short and logical step to pair the sweet rolls with the fried fish that Portuguese people so love and together they compliment rather than overload the palate. Spread the rolls with a good unsalted butter, add a slice of tomato (choose Jack Hawkins if they are well ripened) and season the fish well. For those of you without access to Hawaiian bread, use brioche rolls sold in store for burgers- the kind with toffee coloured glazed tops. (Aldi and Waitrose both sell good versions or ask your local indy baker if they make them.)

Fish Burwells LTD enjoy a dab or six and although most of their stock tends to be sold to older customers, there is a decent demand for them locally. The fish team recommend serving them tapas style, using a paillard technique to flatten the fillets out even more before spreading with smoked salmon pate, rolling, eggwashing and shallow frying each one. I’ve seen a more complicated version of this 18th century dish cooked by Chef Michel Roux Jnr from Le Gavroche, who stuffed a Dover sole with lobster before frying in a similar manner. The dish can also be made with trout which was one of the signature dishes of Chef Charles Elme Francatelli who was a pupil of Carême and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen. (From Francatelli’s Modern Cook, 1886 edition.)

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We prepared ours simply in two different ways. First off, the classic pan fry in brown butter after a dredge with seasoned flour, swiftly cooked and tipped onto a plate with little more than a lemon half, plenty of black pepper and Maldon salt. The light flour crust tightens around the flesh as it cooks and the pan juices become deliciously enriched with that nutty, crunchy flour residue. The juices can be sopped with white bread- and it must be white bread to give you that soft deep crumb which becomes deliciously sweet/ soggy when used to sandwich the fish. Secondly, we dusted the fish with powdered achiote (from Seasoned Pioneers if you are in the UK), added salt and a schmear of chipotle paste which can be either freshly made or in a jar from a deli, Waitrose or M&S. ( I use the Gran Luchito or Santa Maria brands in the UK.) The fish was then grilled until it developed a crisp, smoky carapace although you could just as easily pan fry it too. Remember to get the grill decently hot before sliding the fish under it on its protective bed of silver foil.

Achiote gives the fish a woody, earthy flavour very similar to the taste of the clay cooking vessels we ate from in Northern Mexico and the spice is geographically specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine, although our housekeeper had southern roots, meaning achiote became a regular feature of our northern cuisine. Also referred to as sázone, you can buy ready prepared packets of achiote without added MSG and it lends a vivid yellow-orange hue to foods. Sometimes it is sold as ground Saffron but you’ll know you’ve been had because of its inexpensive price tag. Combined with the schmear of chipotle (which is actually smoked and dried Jalopenos), the result is a deliciously rich and fruity smokiness which doesn’t overpower the dab and allows you to ramp up the accompaniments- maybe serve wrapped inside soft corn tortillas or piled inside fried taco shells with lime, avocado, fridge cool shredded salad and sliced jicama for a vegetal and much needed crunch?

 

 

 

Hidden tiger, crouching bluetits

Image of Bluetits fighting via Creative Commons
via Creative Commons

Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.

Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:

A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.

(Summer Like)

In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April.  The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.

The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.

His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.

Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr
Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr

DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:

“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!

She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.

“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”

…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.

“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”

And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”

Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:

“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.” 

Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:

“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”

The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:

“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”

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Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.

The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.

A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.

So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.

Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.

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Nick Stone writes Invisible Works
Thank you to Andrew MacDonald and Helen Bristol.

Give a book for Christmas- an annual gift guide

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When it comes to buying gifts, I’ve become stuck in a very pleasant rut- my number one choice will always be a book and compiling my regular biblio-gift guides will always be one of my very favourite things to do. So here’s the latest and whether you are buying for Hanukah, Christmas, Diwali or for no reason at all, I hope you’ll find something to please you from my selection of wonders, both newly published and a few older classics.

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 Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is a timely reminder of a country, culture and cuisine possessed of riches, magnificence and generosity of spirit. “Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions” explains Engin Akin as she folds and pleats delicate boreki pastries and the reader is taken on a magical and thorough exploration of the way that geography and culture has influenced what is eaten, by whom and in what way. Engin owns a cooking school in Ula and this means her recipes are well tested and possess cultural veracity. They work.

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This Autumn has seen the release of cookbooks by Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, an embarrassment of riches indeed. Simply Nigella was reviewed more extensively here but, simply put,  Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and kitchen via her usual well tested, humorous and alluring recipes which are liberally scattered with useful micro-recipes and tips to help you eat well. Slater’s latest in his kitchen diaries series, A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III reflects the “endless delight I get from giving people, loved ones, friends, complete strangers, something good to eat” as he stated. His recipes are understated, economical of word and deeply reflective of seasonal time and place, collated into a diary form recipe per day structure.

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Creole Kitchen

Creole Kitchen by Vanessa Bolosier is fabulous in every way from the fabulous jacket design to the recipes and words which tell of joy, brightness and life. Her cuisine is drenched in history and is birthed from the ancestry and migration of island people. Starting with an explanation of the term ‘Creole’, Vanessa tells their story and then instructs us as to how best to equip a kitchen Creole style. These are perfect little vignettes in themselves and we then move onto the recipes and a pattern emerges of bold bright flavours infused with a sophistication born from the authors skill and ability. Bolosier has a Guadeloupian, Martinique Creole background, worked as a model and moved to London where she now runs a food company, cooking school and supper club so she makes a great mentor.

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Not a cookbook but containing some recipes which are closely tied to its story, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal is a mother and daughter coming of age novel set against the food and culture of the American Midwest. We meet Eva, grower of chilli peppers in her wardrobe, effectively an orphan and now looked after by her aunt and uncle. Eva is heart and soul of a story which both skewers and celebrates the emerging global food culture and plays with opposites, placing the authentic (Eva) against those who posture, postulate and pontificate about food in a totally unauthentic manner. Eva is destined to sing through food, becoming a culinary goddess and this lovely novel tells her story and that of the people she meets along the way.

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The revival of old homesteader crafts such as pickling, fermenting and smoking has resulted in a slew of books showing us how to do this safely because ignorance of hygiene (among other factors) can result in some pretty nasty consequences. And that is where Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson comes in because although it is an American book, the meat preserving techniques it demonstrates are universal. There’s a great balance between the European origins of a lot of the charcuterie and recipes that show the American versions of such- the frankfurters, sausage, salami and confits that have made their store and restaurant so popular.

Inspired by jägermeisters, the charcuterie makers who smoke, cure, and can animals that they’ve hunted or raised on their farm which the author met during her 4 year apprenticeship in the Swiss Alps (before the opening of Olympic Provisions, known as OP), this is a hearty, muscular exploration of the craft. Illustrated with stunning shots of places, food and people the book is not just a coffee table tome for those of us *thinking* about *one day* curing our own meats, it is a call to action because it balances the glossy aspirational aspects of food writing with the practical how to side that is vital in ensuring readers actually get off their butts and DO it.

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For those of you who like cookbooks inspired by hot new restaurants, the following books should provide you with plenty of inspiration.  Nanban: Japanese Soul Food by Tim Anderson is a sensory delight with bold recipes and unexpected flavours and ingredients by a Masterchef winner. His take on Japanese cuisine resulted in a restaurant from which these recipes are based whilst the restaurant Hartwood in the Mexican Yucatan inspired the eponymous Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry. Hartwood cooks with local ingredients over an open flame, on the grill or in a wood-burning oven. The fish is all freshly caught from nearby waters, the produce is purchased from Mayan farmers, and technique marries the eclectic with timeless ancestral methodology.

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The Brodo Cookbook was written by Marco Canora who has been the owner and Executive Chef at Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village since its opening in 2003. After revitalizing his health by integrating bone broth into his diet, Marco began to make his nourishing broths available by the cupful to New Yorkers from a small window in his East Village restaurant, drawing sell-out crowds virtually from the beginning. No longer just a building block for soups and sauces, bone broths are now being embraced for these perceived health benefits and in Brodo, Marco shares the recipes for his flavorful, nutritious broths and shows how to serve them year round as well as incorporate them into recipes and as a daily health practice. For those people interested in perfecting technique, this is the perfect book.

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The appeal of a cookbook starts with the words and images for many of us and although it is highly likely that many purchasers of Sea and Smoke by Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not cook from it, judging a cookbook by this kind of misses the point. The descriptions of food are wistful and beautiful: A broth of roasted Madrona bark,” “Nootka rose petals and salmonberries” and serve as jewelled treasure map to the tiny Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, which can only be reached by an open-air ferry. Ray spent a year here and his words capture the four distinct seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine without losing any of its wildness, spirit and fleeting beauty.

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If you are a fan of everyday French cooking, In a French Kitchen: tales and traditions of everyday home cooking in France by the author of the now-classic memoir, “On Rue Tatine” Susan Hermann Loomis will keep you comforted entertained and informed. Loomis introduces the reader to the busy people of Louviers, the ingredients available locally and what to do with them. Eighty five recipes and a multiplicity of stories later, Loomis learns that delicious, even decadent meals don’t have to be complicated. Definitely one to read on the darkest of winter evenings, curled up by the fire with a glass of wine: I first read her back in the very late eighties when I was learning to cook for my family and she has been a reliable and warm companion ever since.

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For the sweet toothed among you, Sweeter Off the Vine: fruit desserts for every season by Yosy Arefi will provide you with a collection of heirloom-quality recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, ice cream, preserves, and other sweet treats. From raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet, ruby red rhubarb pavlova, juicy apricots and berry galettes with saffron sugar to blood orange donuts and tangerine cream pie, Arefi shows us how to incorporate seasonal ingredients with the more exotic (such as rose and orange flower water from her native Iran), all photographed sumptuously by her.

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The publication of the Groundnut Cookbook followed a successful Guardian Cook residency where authors Timothy Duval, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fidio Todd wowed readers with their witty, fresh and culturally intriguing collection of recipes. From Jollof Rice, Butterbean Terrine and Pork in Tamarind to Cardamom Mandazi, Yorkshire Pudding with Mango Curd and Puna Yam Cake, the clear instructions, easily sourced ingredients and sumptuous photography will ensure you’ll cook from it again and again.

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Finally, if you have a small child keen to get involved in cooking, then this lovely picture book which focuses upon all those lovely festive scents will make a perfect post lunch read. The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about Little Bear who knows that Christmas is nearly here because of all the amazing scents floating in the air. From soft gingerbread men to sweet mint candy, there are so many smells to accompany the festivities; it’s hard to choose a favourite. The book contains six different scratch-and-sniff scents, so kids can interact with the story and smell some of the things that Little Bear smells too. And for older kids, teens and adults who like a bit of GBBO style creativity, The Great British Cake Off by Harriet Popham will encourage them to put sprinkles and cake tin aside and pick up a pencil in order to tackle over seventy colouring in designs. Beautiful illustrations of favourite cakes and bakes are just waiting to be brought to life alongside colouring ‘technical challenges’ to push you just that little bit harder.

Words of Adventure, art and history

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Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in Atlas of Cursed Places.  Accompany him to 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death, including the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most ‘popular’ suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

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In Sidewalking, David L. Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking and psychogeography. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

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Paul Theroux turns his travelling eye on America’s Deep South in his latest eponymous book and this well seasoned traveller of over five decades roams through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Alabama then wades through the slow moving bayous, low country rice fields and marshy Delta backwaters, all of them way below the Mason Dixon Line and still haunted by Mr Crow’s ugly decision. This is a place which is still chained to the past: from older people who cling to the misnomer ‘the war of Northern aggression’ to the problems with who ‘can’ use the ‘N’ word, to multiple losses of industry to ‘abroad’. The book relates the sum total of four trips over eighteen months as opposed to a single linear voyage of discovery and for that reason, the reader has a sense of thoughts revised and cumulative impressions laying on top of each other like the leaves of a book. Yet there is the other side of the South too: the literature and music which Theroux writes of; the food, and hospitality, We go to potlucks and dinners on the ground with Theroux, we see the gun fairs and football and febrile religious observances which divide as much as they enjoin. This is not an especially cheerful book but how could it be? Much of what we believe about the South is not yet a cliche but what we end up with is still a fascinating, frustrating and haunting account of one of the worlds most culturally distinctive places.

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For cycling fans, What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is an exhilarating and well written account of the life of a cycle courier in London. We experience vicariously, her six years of pain and pleasure-both mental and physical-of life on wheels: the hurtling, dangerous missions; the ebb and flow of seasonal work; the moments of fear and freedom, anger and exhaustion; the camaraderie of the courier tribe and its idiosyncratic characters; the conflict and harmony between bicycle and road, body and mind. I feel in turns, both frightened for her and envious of her unique bikes eye view of the city.

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Near the top of Mount Everest, on 10 May 1996, eight climbers died. It was the worst tragedy in the mountain’s history and Lou Kasischke was there. After the Wind tells the harrowing story of what went wrong, as it has never been told before – including why the climbers were so desperately out of time as the rogue storm struck. His personal story tells about the intense moments near the top and these moments also revealed the love story that saved his life.

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Long evenings are pefect for getting to grips with a good historical biography and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford takes a more balanced view of the last Ptolemaic Queen whom history has traduced and maligned as an infamous woman, given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy. Bradford depicts her as a woman of infinite courage and political resource who, from the age of eighteen until her death, fought to free her country from the iron dominance of Rome and to secure its inheritance for the son of her first lover Julius Caesar. It was right that she should be buried in Alexandria, for in her spirit and in her ambition she was worthy of Alexander himself. The subject of biography and tragedy, Queen Cleopatra remains a subject to which historians are attracted two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

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What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  is the perfect book for any science enthusiast with a penchant for big questions and a side of humour. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website.

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For those of you hooked on Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire is an in-depth history of the Seven Kingdoms, sumptuously detailed to clear up any gaps in knowledge. We go from one world peopled with thrones, swords and fantastical themes to another with our next choice because many of us have grown up with tales of glass slippers, evil queens, and magic spells, but where did they come from and what inspired them? Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale explores these famous stories, their origins, and their modern film, literature, and stage adaptations. In addition, if you are studying literature or have a child in the middle of an English GCSE course, this is such a useful contextual read.

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There are days so crepuscular, wet and cold that even the most dedicated gardener will baulk at going out in them: this is the time to curl up with Dear Christo: memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter by Rosemary Alexander, a lovely commemoration of a book where well known  garden writers and celebrities such as Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord, Helen Dillon, Hugh Johnson, Simon Jenkins and Mary Keen remark upon their memories of Great Dixter and the great man who gardened here. Or escape the cold by taking yourself off on an imaginative odyssey and literary exploration of Sicily in the capable hands of John Julius Norwich. “Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties. Sicily: an island at the crossroads of history is the first to knit together all of the colourful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study.

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If you are looking for another peaceful, meditative and thoughtful space inside the pages of a book then The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury will please: it has been one of the best books I have read all year and destined to be re-read. Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions and what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

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Wood has provided a worthy subject for this years surprise runaway bestseller: Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way by Lars Mytting, so when we found Robert Penn had written a lovely book about using ash wood to create a myriad of items, we had to suggest it as a worthy companion. Ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history so Penn decided to fell one and see how many things he could make from it. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Penn finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood and reading it is deeply calming.

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If you have a Wes Anderson film buff in your home then what better gift to give than this? The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson’s filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in an intricately designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish and thoroughly original. And for those of you who appreciate the art of a great interview, The Smith Tapes by Howard Smith gathers together the best of this journalists revealing interviews with the likes of Jagger, Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol. Unedited transcripts are published here for the first time in all their counter cultural glory.

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Other people’s letters are always fascinating and in this digital age, the epistolary arts risk being lost to us all. Feast upon Letters of Note then, a gorgeously designed collection of over one hundred of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

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From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

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At a time of busy domesticity, this next book might seem like an odd and possibly even insensitive choice after weeks of gift shopping, turkey stuffing and tree decorating, but Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson makes riveting reading. Giving voice to women at a time when domestic politics often rendered them unheard, the pain, lack of fulfilment and frustration behind the popular image of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores and kept themselves and their home immaculate is revealed. Betty Halbreich is a legendary New York City figure and I’ll Drink to That, her amazing life story is also in development by Lena Dunham for HBO. Halbeich is a personal shopper and stylist and now in her eighties, she has spent nearly forty years at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman, working with socialites, stars and ordinary women. She has led many to appreciate their real selves through clothes, frank advice and her unique brand of wisdom; she is trusted by the most discriminating persons – including Hollywood’s top stylists – to tell them what looks best. But her own transformation from cosseted girl to fearless truth-teller is the greatest makeover of all, best read in this wonderful autobiography.

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If you need to ramp up your personal grooming or feel you are floundering when it comes to the make up arts, then Face Paint by top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge will become your friend. This glossy history of cosmetics from the early days of bodily adornment to the present day machinations of the giant beauty industry is explored by a pro who is also known for her excellent YouTube beauty vlogs and practical down to earth assistance.

Fiction

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From Jane Lotter comes The Bette Davis Club, a madcap road adventure with Margo, a spirited woman in the prime of life whose adventures are triggered by a double martini on the morning of her niece’s wedding.

When the young bride flees—taking with her a family heirloom and leaving behind six hundred bewildered guests—her mother offers Margo fifty grand to retrieve her spoiled brat of a daughter and the invaluable property she stole. So, together with the bride’s jilted and justifiably crabby fiancé, Margo sets out in a borrowed 1955 red MG on a cross-country chase. Along the way, none of what she discovers will be quite what she expected. But it might be exactly what she’s been seeking all along.

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I’m always pleased by fiction set in less familiar places and in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma we meet Renuka Sharma, a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it? A new voice in Indian fiction, Ratika Kapur writes with an equal dose of humour and pathos and her novel is a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity.

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Secrets and family estrangement lie at the heart of Kelly Romo’s Whistling Women, set against the backdrop of the 1935 World Fair in San Diego, a city where everything went terribly awry for Addie Bates. This is all the more heartbreaking because of the tentative hopes Addie had about a new start as she arrived there from the Kansas orphanage she had previously lived in before travelling to live with her newly married sister, Wavey. Years later, Addie flees to the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony which provided her with a safe haven for her for 15 years, until she starts to realise that the loss of her more nubile younger body will cause the colonies owner, Heinrick, to eject her. Addie must make her way in a world for which she is ill equipped to live in and following the example of some of the other colony performers, she realises that family is her best hope.

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A little bit of horror doesn’t go amiss in the Winter either and the stunning ‘lost’ horror novel of the late William Gay is deeply unsettling.  Little Sister Death is inspired by the famous 19th Century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee and follows the unraveling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to try and find inspiration for his faltering work. There’s no irony or post modern trickery in Gay’s novel: it is a classic Haunted House tale and written by a master of the genre.

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Horror and confusion of a more contemporary kind in Tim Washburn‘s Powerless where a massive geomagnetic solar storm destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages. This is something many of us contemplate: can we manage without the sophisticated and interrelated technological matrixes we’ve become dependent upon? Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive.

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Just out in cinemas is Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and this book which was first published by the London Review of Books has been re-released. In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years. Altogether darker in tone is David Mitchell’s Slade House which was born out of the short story he published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabits the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks. 

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Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. More mysteries abound in the newly published The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra as he takes readers on a grand tour of the Prado museum in this historical novel that illuminates the fascinating mysteries behind European art—complete with gorgeous, full-color inserts of artwork by da Vinci, Boticelli, and other master artists. Historical figures are brought to life and dazzling secrets, conspiracies and prophecies hidden within artistic masterpieces are uncovered in this intriguing story.

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I loved Purge, the earlier novel by Sofi Oksanen and her latest, When the Doves Disappeared ( translated by Lola Rogers) doesn’t disappoint. Her plot is fast paced and explores Estonia’s terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, collaboration and occupation, shining a light upon a part of the world which is often neglected by writings about the Second World War. The translation is superb too. Another well translated novel is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman which became a sleeper hit over the late Summer via word of mouth. The titular Ove is a cantankerous Swedish misanthrope, constantly cross and combative with neighbours, shop assistants and everything, to be honest. But beneath this gruff exterior is a decent man with a generous spirit. Read and smile as he becomes an unexpected saviour to the unfortunates who come his way.

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Finally, 2015 saw us saying goodbye and thank you to Jackie Collins who died far too soon of breast cancer. In tribute to a writer who kept me entertained and helped to educate me about what kind of men I needed to avoid, I’ll be rereading two of her novels: Hollywood Wives and Lovers and Gamblers, both classics of the sex, shopping and backstabbing genre. The former provides hours of fun trying to identify the thinly disguised real life Hollywood people who inspired her characters and the latter is a romp involving beauty queens. a male hero who is a priapic hybrid of Tom Jones and Rod Stewart and a plane crash in the South American jungle. Enjoy.

Seasonally themed books

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Christmas themed books are a yearly tradition in our house and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is where we recommend you start. Scrooge actively hates Christmas and he’s not shy about spreading his misanthropy. A timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remind him about life, love and priorities. Another favourite of mine is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and set in Alabama during the great depression. We meet seven-year-old Buddy whose parents leave him with relatives over Christmas whose gift-buying imagination doesn’t stretch to much more than a religious magazine subscription. His friendship with an elderly cousin saves the day as they both get drunk on whiskey, bake cakes and decorate trees after a muddy cold expedition to find one.

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For young children, Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast is jolly Christmas whodunnit because Beast has been robbed and so has the whole village. Without tools the villagers can’t put on their legendary Winter Festival, so Beast sets off to solve the mystery. Discovering that a stranded Snow Beast is behind the robbery, Beast has to decide whether to help this odd-looking stranger.

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For both children and adults, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss tells of the journey towards love, acceptance and forgiveness which the Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, undergoes, after stealing everyone’s gifts because he hates Christmas. Closer to home, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is based on his own experiences, growing up in a small Welsh town and ideal for reading aloud. Christmas in the country provided Laurie Lee with plenty to write about in Village Christmas, a moving, lyrical portrait of England through the changing years and seasons. Laurie Lee left his childhood home in the Cotswolds when he was nineteen, but it remained with him throughout his life until, many years later, he returned for good. This collection brings to life the sights, sounds, landscapes and traditions of his home – from centuries-old May Day rituals to his own patch of garden, from carol singing in crunching snow to pub conversations and songs.

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For those in need of humour after spending hours servicing the needs of others, the writings of humourist David Sedaris might do the trick of putting you back together again (along with a large gin). Holidays on Ice boasts six humorous short Christmas stories impregnated with the sardonic and darkly dry humour Sedaris is known for. If reading about such things as the banality of life working as a Christmas elf in Macys amuses you, because life could always be worse, this is the book for you. Known for her sardonic nature in real life, Fox in the Manger by  P.L Travers has been reissued in a whimsical new edition by Virago. This charming retelling of the Christmas story by the author of Mary Poppins. Printed on board, with beautiful illustrations, this will be the perfect gift book for Christmas.

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Finally, how can it be Christmas if someone hasn’t been murdered? Bring Poirot to the rescue with  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie or enjoy the recently reissued Mystery in White: a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon who was highly acclaimed back in the day. Read on as heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near a tiny village, leaving passengers at the mercy of a murderer in the deserted home they shelter in. Good classic stuff.

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Simply Nigella reviewed

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Every time a new Nigella cookbook is published I feel compelled to go back and read her first one, How to Eat, and the urge to do this was particularly acute when Simply Nigella arrived on the book shelves in early October. In part this was because of the tumultuous time she has had (and I have no intention of rehashing it here) which triggered a desire to get out my mental broom and sweep out everything except her food and her words. The other reason was a desire to celebrate Lawson herself because she bloody deserves this.

Back in 1998, Lawson questioned what she referred to as ‘strenuous originality’ in recipes and food where the innovative ‘too often turns out to be inedible’ and now, in 2015, we have some pretty unpalatable and inedible attitudes towards food, appetite and the body in the media. We have glossily packaged eating disorders in the form of blogs about ‘clean eating’, ‘dirty food’ and hashtags impregnated with moral values. Awards are given to ‘food writers’ who devise what are in reality, barely edible recipes, selling them as healthy despite their damaged and unhealthy underpinnings. Many of us (and especially females) eat a side order of judgement and self-recrimination with every meal. It is sadly something that I, a woman who absorbed distorted schemas about food, love and comfort from her own mother, struggle with all the time. I have never eaten a meal that isn’t laced with feelings of anxiety, self-blame and agitation no matter how delicious the food, no matter how lovingly prepared it is. The gastro-demons always lie in wait for women like me but in her latest book, Lawson appears determined to address this tidal wave of orthorexia.

Despite the fashion for ‘clean eating’ and ‘clean food’, ingredients do not have an innate moral value although methods of production certainly do. Focus upon what that palm oil does to orang utans and their environment. Focus upon cattle kept in giant feed lots which turn the land into a toxic slurry soup. Focus upon the poor conditions and low pay endured by immigrants who toil in broiling hot fields to grow our salad greens and the difficulty poorer socio economic groups face when trying to source non processed foods at prices they can afford. This is where the guilt and blame lies as opposed to inside a slice of pie or a bar of chocolate.

Nigella Lawson has always reminded us that food is life, the fundamental part of Maslow’s triangle and its preparation need not become a toil despite this. Indeed, as she points out in her introduction, a disinclination to cook where once it brought peace, joy and a sense of rightness is a warning sign that the rest of ones life has become out of whack. Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and I find the way in which the usually private Lawson has shared this with her readers both moving and dignified. It must have been very hard for her.

I appreciate her consistency and the way she stands against that tide of ‘strenuous originality’. Lawson seems to have a strong sense of self when it comes to food and how to eat it, borne from childhood experiences and loss. As she has said in the past, watching loved ones struggle to eat because of illness, being unable to nourish them with food when the rest of the country appears to be eating under her tutelage must have been torturous. It is this consistency that I find most helpful. Unlike other super successful chefs and food writers, she doesn’t clamber aboard every gastro fad and doesn’t compulsively adopt trends which then undermine the work which has gone before. The only thing Lawson eulogises is the pleasure we can all find in food and its preparation.

And the recipes in Simply Nigella? Well yes, some of them are more technique, method or clever trick which a few critics have criticised as not ‘real’ cooking, more assembly. But think back again to How to Eat and remember the last few lines of her introduction. “As much as possible, I have wanted to make you feel that I’m there with you, in the kitchen as you cook. The book that follows is the conversation we might be having” she wrote. Take the criss cross potatoes (p247), a Hettie Potter contribution and attributed as such. No it isn’t a twenty stage pot au feu, more a method or handy tip than a recipe compliqué and something you’d imagine a friend passing on as they sat perched on your kitchen worktop, glass of wine in hand: “if you do your roasties like this, they’ll be better.” They are potatoes halved, roasted and cross hatched on top to make them even fluffier and crunchier, a way of tarting up something deeply familiar. 

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Caesar salad from Simply Nigella

 The same applies to her opening salvo, a deconstructed Caesar salad that pushed me out of the door late in the evening to the nearest store in search of a new bottle of anchovies. Adorned with a fried egg on top of a a halved Romano lettuce, wafer-thin slivers of parmesan and a sauce made from the anchovies, this is just the kind of assembly cum recipe that people find less intimidating. It has crunch and creaminess from the egg yolk which I fried to the point of it just starting to coalesce plus that salty umami from the fish.

Roasted radishes from Simply Nigella
Roasted radishes from Simply Nigella

I’d say similar about the roasted radishes (p227) which takes an ingredient which I can imagine some folks being a bit ‘meh’ about apart from eating with fridge-cold butter and torn-up bread. Roasting them with chives or scallions in olive oil produces an embarrassment of pink-cheeked riches. It’s not a new technique for some: I have eaten them roasted like this in Brittany and Haute Vienne but knowing you can roast radishes might save them from an elongated stay in the fridge drawer before they are finally chucked out, woody and under-appreciated.

There is lots more shiny newness. A nod to the chia seed revolution with a chia blueberry-bedecked pudding comes with a disclaimer that what she is most concerned with is its glutinous texture -which is not for everyone. (And not for me either.) Lawson demonstrates a consistent appreciation of texture from her early love of Halloumi and its joyous ‘squeaky polystyrene’ description to the gellified bubbles of tapioca and chia seed. Like the people of south east Asia, China and Japan, Lawson has always been partial to a bit of textural oddness.

Lawson seems to have exercised more restraint over her fondness for alliteration although from time to time she gives it free reign (beef chilli with bourbon, beer and black beans, Middle Eastern minestrone, sake sticky drumsticks). It had, of late, got a little out of control in her TV work (almost as if she was deliberately parodying herself ) and this restraint has produced a more readable book as a result. She’s travelled extensively too, including a recipe for pan de quiejo from Brazil- serendipitously- as I recently made this but wasn’t happy with the recipe. Hers works better. I loved a recipe for crackling made from chicken skin, a creative take on established British favourite and such a logical thing to do, WHY haven’t we heard of it before? A plate of Malaysian red cooked chicken is the culmination of a process which saw her posting a photo of her first attempt to much helpful feedback from Malay readers: “add more chillies!” which made me laugh and think how amazing it is that we have such immediate access to expertise.

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Dutch baby from Simply Nigella

Dutch Babies have clearly become a *thing* and making them is a short jump for those of us with northern grandparents who served great spongy wodges of Yorkshire pudding with jam or syrup as a prelude to the Sunday roast. There’s a practical tip too- make one giant one to avoid being chained to a hot stove top- and some American culinary history in her intro about its Pennsylvanian Dutch origins. (Nigella, please write a regional American cookbook.)

This is SUCH a delicate book, all pistachio, sugar pink and celadon whilst avoiding a descent into My Little Pony levels of pinkness (not that this would be necessarily a BAD thing). The art directors deserve to take a bow. Nigella’s “all about the pink and green at the moment” and there’s strength and fragility in the design: strength of knowledge and research; a visual reminder that life is precious and fragile, and the cake recipes aren’t just about heft although Lawson does like a bit of tension between light/dark in her ingredients. The apricot and almond cake with rosewater and cardamom is pure golden light though,  a love child that might have been the result of trips to Honey & Co with its treasure chest menu of Israeli and other Middle Eastern foods. This cake simply glows, a warm, autumnal mouthful, easy to make with most of the prep emanating from the steeping of the apricots. Go easy on that Rosewater or you’ll think you’ve ingested a Yardley factory.

Apricot almond and rosewater cake from Simply Nigella
Apricot almond and rosewater cake from Simply Nigella

The matcha cake with cherry juice icing is deservedly popular with bloggers and the food pages but pud wise, the stand out for me is the no churn blackcurrant ice cream with liquorice ripple (p336), the freezer twin of her chocolate and blackcurrant cake. Lawson’s fondness for, and talent in identifying and reformulating nostalgic and well known flavour combinations has birthed this ice cream, all rivulets of darkly aromatic juice against a glossy base made from condensed milk and double cream. It takes a curious and sensitive palate to pick up on the commonalities between blackcurrant and liquorice and the recipe continues her experiments with liquorice which we were introduced to in her last book, Nigellissima (little liquorice pots). I’ve ended up ordering thirty quids worth of the stuff from All Things Liquorice as a result: boxes of hard little pastilles from Italy; metal tins decorated with Christmas trolls filled with mint-centred liquorice tablets and salty chewy Finnish liquorice in a cat-patterned box.

Matcha cake with cherry juice from Simply Nigella
Matcha cake with cherry juice from Simply Nigella

Her previous books and social media feeds offer us a cornucopia of recommendations and tips for ingredients, equipment and other peoples recipes but Simply Nigella lacks a bibliography- a puzzling omission. She’s always been super-generous in crediting her sources even when she has changed the original recipe beyond all recognition (take note Mumsnet when you ask for recipe ideas for your cookbooks!) and I’ve grown fond of playing my own version of Nigella Snap! where I compare my food library with hers. Bibliographies can help with tracing the culinary genealogy of a recipe and those of us who enjoy the anthropology of food and eating do like to map family trees.

A small gripe though and teeny tiny in the face of a book which matches Kitchen and Feast for useful comprehensiveness and How to Eat for life love and warmth.

SimplyNigella.com

Where to buy

All photographs are taken from Simply Nigella and are by photographer Keiko Oikawa

Pheasants…

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“Don’t go in there!”

The shout reached me a hundred yards down a rutted track, plashy along its edges where the water table rose up. The caution from my husband came just in time to stop me from stepping over a sagging chicken-wire fence to follow the dog walkers ahead of me into a stand of pines, forest-dark and upright as a Japanese etching against a sky the colour of porridge.

Ahead of me, a semi-circle of straw bales moldered and sagging after a wet summer, and underfoot, discarded grain hulled by the sharp beaks of the thousands of young pheasants released from their pens into the countryside. They are now ready for the lucrative meets which will soon pepper our skies with shot.

Slades Covert, where I stood, lies next to the village of Gt Livermere and acts as an elementary school for game birds, a place for them to clatter around until they pluck up the courage to venture forth onto the open fields which surround their feeding pens.

This time of year country roads become the avian version of a crapshoot. These immature birds have yet to turn wise to what happens when feathers meet car bumpers: they burst out of hedgerows, putter about in the middle of the road, and change their mind mid-crossing meaning our roads soon become decorated with brightly coloured smears as pheasant meets car.

We’d only stopped here so I could boost some dandelions, couch grass, and assorted other weeds to take home for my rabbits from the roadside but I’m a sucker for field-edge footpaths and cannot stop myself from wandering along them, even at dusk when the chances are high that I will have to navigate back using my phone torch and wearing the most of unsuitable shoes.

Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons
Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons

I’d spent half the journey mourning the passing of every creature splattered on the tarmac and the other half delivering lectures on road safety to the partridge families that were scratting about in the washes of grit that are left after a cloud burst, those channels of yellow mud and tiny stones that braid the road verges. It wasn’t just game birds either; a kestrel was eating its fill of roadkill and another was further along the road, pecking at grit, perched on the verge, and reaching down over the edge. He was clearly older and in possession of road wisdom. The surrounding fields, clodded in brown and devoid of crops operate as a partridge fight club where the birds went for it, hell for leather, their wings rayed and furious as they flew at each other until one surrendered and ran away, head extended, a feathered stealth bomber in retreat.

Walk the back lanes of Gt Livermere in the late afternoon and the noise is deafening as hundreds of water birds return to the mere and settle down for the night on waters turning mercury grey as night approaches. The clamour rises for a time then starts to fall: ‘In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon…Where is? I’m here? An upward inflection in query and in response’ as Alice Ostriker writes in ‘Birdcall.’

Silhouetted against the risen moon was an inbound wedge of geese and ducks who skillfully wove a flight path through the thick brush that lay between mere and us. The splashes as the geese settled onto the waters into a tight plump bounced around the fields. There was no wind at all to stifle the noise down on the ground, unusual for this exposed part of the county although up high, their powerful wingbeats rebuffed the wind, hurling, and gliding.

Binoculars do nothing to close the space between us and birds in flight and seeing the mechanical struts and bolts of their extended wings only amplifies the essential mystery of flight. I know how the science works, but I am still wondrously unknowing at the same time. Staring up at the geese, my head tilted back as far as it will go, I turn slowly, 360 degrees and then again until dizziness overtakes and feel like I might swirl through the thick viscous grey of the skies, shedding the magnetic grounding in time and space which keeps me pulled tight against the sticky cracked clay of the field.

 

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Gt Livermere Church faces the mere.

The plant hunters of Suffolk

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Cedars of Lebanon on Hardwick Heath in Bury St Edmunds

Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.

The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”

Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.

Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.

Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”

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Joseph Dalton Hooker

In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.

Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.

One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.

But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.

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Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.

Yay! Best Food Writing 2015 will be with us soon. #reviews

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“Anthony Bourdain, John T. Edge, Jonathan Gold, Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Alice Waters. These are just some of the celebrated writers and foodies whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing over the past fifteen years. Whether written by an established journalist or an up-and-coming blogger, the essays offered in each edition represent the cream of that year’s crop in food writing. And 2015 promises to uphold the same high standards with a dynamic mix of writers offering provocative journalism, intriguing profiles, moving memoir, and more.”

I own every single one of the Best Food Writing series and have read each one countless times. Editor Holly Hughes proves there is still vigour in food writing with her annual collation of though provoking, quirky and intelligent pieces from food writers both well known and less so. I eagerly await the publication of each annual volume because although I consider myself a voracious consumer of the genre, even I will not be able to access the very best writing, scattered as it is across all manner of journals, newspapers, blogs, websites and magazines all over the globe. This really does bother me.

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My own collection.

Hughes provides a trustworthy food-wire service in book form. There’s always some standouts and in this collection, Tim Hanni’s ‘Maverick Wine Guru’ is one of them. Published by the Sacramento Bee (nope, me neither), he develops upon a phenomenon I first encountered via Jeffry Steingarten’s essay- the supertaster- and he applies this to the world of wine tasting, turning some popular pre-conceptions on their head as he does it. Ever wondered why Zinfandel, Asti and Moscato are the only wines you are able to palate? Well Hanni might be onto an explanation here.

Sara Deseran’s ‘Kidsnobs’ is another fresh angle on a food movement we see more and more and have (probably) our own private views upon- that of the super engaged child foodie. Relating her own experiences of children who are obsessively interested in food and the acquisition of food related experiences, she asks us to draw our own line and is honest in her appraisal of her own children and the fact that in their case, nurture is all and down to both parents working in the industry. Where does the education and empowerment stop and the over indulged, over privileged entitled show off-ness start?

This is a world where top chefs are both celebrated and self define as rock gods and this anthology is heavy on chef profiles. These always polarise readers and reviewers with some complaining that the focus of these anthologies has become too food nerdish. However if Hughes is to accurately reflect the culinary world, the cult of cheff-ly personality cannot be ignored. So we have Blue Hills’ leftover pop up dinners where fish skin, old noodles and veg peelings are fought over in a reservations war and charm food critic Pete Wells. Underpinning this is the very relevant and important subject of reducing food waste in the hospitality business and Blue Hill aims to redefine what is waste and what is not (clue: everything is and could be on the table). In an amusing addendum to the fragile chef ego, there’s a piece about Wylie Dufresne’s reaction to a comment he overheard in his restaurant which referred to chefs as pussies. and we revisit Leah Chase, queen of NOLA’s creole cuisine. Chase survived Katrina and rebuilt her restaurant in Treme (as in the popular TV series) and her place is top of my list when I visit New Orleans next Spring. She is the quietly confident antithesis of people like Dufresne, Ramsay and Batali.

We zoom in closer to the cultural effects of the hospitality business too with a very important essay by Todd Kliman on the informal colour bar which still operates in DC restaurants despite the beliefs of restaurateurs that they have addressed this. Seemingly it is not enough to paint a mural of black cultural heroes on your establishment’s wall unless you like reminding patrons of motivational decor pasted up on their high school halls. Consideration is given as to why sushi bars and other specialised cuisines might not immediately attract black customers historically (lack of familiarity, their own family dining history- in the all too recent past they simply weren’t able to eat in ‘genre’ restaurants because of Jim Crow), something that is a thorny subject and hasn’t been properly addressed before.

It’s not just about the high minded and highly intended either. There’s the down home reminder that home cooking can be an exhausting merry go round of WTF shall we cook ( Molly Watson and Tamar Haspel) and other writers take us on a gastro-reminder about why Taco Bell rules (John DeVore) and long standing foodie figures Jane & Michael Stern extoll the virtues of Nashville’s hot chicken. Seemingly this latter subject has not yet been done to death as they manage to squeeze further juicy copy from this topical bird. DeVore hits us with a startling and frankly ludicrous assertion: he declares that Taco Bell has the best Mexican food? After I had finished spluttering in horror, I carried on reading only to find a fairly convincing argument (albeit tongue in cheek). In a few pages we move from dude to a heartwarming conclusion. I’m not convinced though. We had less dude from Bourdain too as he writes about food traditions with an ode to the clams of his childhood which he is now handing down to his own young daughter. I like this Bourdain, who appears less preoccupied with getting into stupid dick swinging competitions with other chefs which can come across as bullying.

I can never read too much about coconut cream pie and thankfully Kim Severson cannot write enough about it either. A mothers cookbook shares more than just recipes and I imagine every American home has a coconut pie with a story attached. This is Kim’s.

Sarah Grey’s  essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta,” was first published in Serious Eats and utterly deserves its inclusion here with vivid and homely touches where the scene is set for a family meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by her daughter and a table set with fourth generation china. It celebrates red sauce, reminds us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Friday Night Meatballs transcend a lot of cultural barriers to communal eating, Grey discovered, and she offers up warmth in spades as she writes about her own solutions to all of these: “The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We’ll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”

Long may Holly Hughes reign over the world of food writing anthologies. These, alongside the Cornbread Nation series, are my absolute favourite. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes is published by Perseus Books Group, De Capo Press.