Suffolk’s bookish heritage

 

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An old  postcard, sent in 1914,of the Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill, where Arthur Ransome sailed and set two of his novels.

The countryside and small scale urban landscapes of Suffolk have long seduced those of a creative bent with artists and writers taking inspiration from this county, situated as it is on the edge of the English landmass, punctuated by towns and miles of rolling fields and quilted by waterways. We take a look at some well known and others, less so. 

Arthur Ransome has a long and renowned association with Suffolk, using it as both backdrop and inspiration for his children’s books. The Ransome family moved to Suffolk in 1936, and they lived at Broke Farm on the banks of the River Orwell where Pin Mill harbour could be seen from his window. Ransome moored his sailing boat, the Nancy Blackett here. Made famous in his novel, ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’, the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the Orwell and downriver from the mighty Orwell Bridge, overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily on a spit of land between the rivers Orwell (which inspired a pen name for George Orwell) and Stour. The waters infiltrate this strangely porous landscape with its fimbrels of mud-flats and saltings. The breeze carries a salty brackish-tang of mud that mingles with the honey scent of the gorse-covered headlands and their ridge-line stands of pine and oak. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.

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The Butt & Oyster Inn

The young adventurous protagonists of Ransome’s book were staying at Alma Cottage; located right by the Butt & Oyster pub and he had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard although his home was actually high up on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington.

Ransome’s first Suffolk based story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, tells of an unintended voyage across the sea. The Swallow children have promised their mother they will play in the safe confines of the harbour, but their boat, the Goblin, loses its anchor and drifts away in a fog. The children end up sailing across the North Sea to Holland. In tribute, an annual sailing race now takes place from the sailing club at Pin Mill. In the second book, Secret Water, the Swallow children are once again in a pickle, marooned on an island with a small boat and end up charting the area of islands and marshes which, in reality, are south of Pin Mill at Hamford Water.

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There are plenty of folks who live on the river at Pin Mill and quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red sailed Thames sailing barges are also a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here. Last summer (June 2014), Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brought it to Suffolk for the Felixstowe Book Festival and I had the great pleasure of seeing up close, the craft that bravely sails the pages of Ransome’s books. Keep an eye out for future visits next year, hopefully.

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The boatyards of Pin Mill

The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well-known (and signposted) trail that loops around Woolverstone Hall and the Park that surrounds it, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past those mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rising up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirting the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going. If the weather is inclement, sit by the window with your book and watch the wheeling gulls, sent upriver by rough seas as they set down, then take off again from the maram grass covered islands and shores of this beautiful part of Suffolk.

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Jane Taylor

The west and south of the county boast many fine examples of buildings and churches built by wealthy wool merchants of which Lavenham is probably the most famous of all, but how many of you also know that the village has a direct connection with the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and its composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824),  an English poet and novelist?  Jane and her family made their home at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street and Twinkle, Twinkle was originally published under the title The Star in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann. The poems were a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey and Twinkle’s simple verse belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: ‘I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, “There love, now you may go”’.

It is not known if the poem was actually written in Lavenham or indeed, inspired by its West Suffolk night skies and many scholars claim that the poem was written in Colchester, where the family moved to. Jane did have an interest in astronomy though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows which her brother noted:

“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,”  Isaac wrote in 1825.

The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds and their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the bucolic backdrop of their garden back in 1792. This portrait is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust and is hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.

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Shilling Grange : wikipedia commons

The Taylor sisters were fairly prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants but Jane died early aged forty of breast cancer on April 13, 1824 although her work continues to attract visitors to the village and particularly Japanese tourists who are especially entranced by this magical little poem and like to see the house its author lived in, now owned by the National Trust who have staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall. And one more star-related Lavenham fact for you: Molet House on Barn Street is a handsome black and white Tudor building and if you look closely, you’ll see that its doorway boasts an engraved star. This is the badge of the De Veres, the local lords of the manor, and is it known as a ‘molet’ or ‘mullet’ and is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem high in the skies, as witnessed by a member of the family called Aubrey the First during the Crusades. He  went on to victory.

Here, he tells of this event, speaking of himself in the most self-important of tones: “God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ……. on the Christian host, which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively.” It was subsequently claimed that an angel actually leaned down and threw the star onto De Vere’s standard himself, thus further legitimising Aubrey’s war efforts in his opinion.

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Face-helmet, unearthed at Sutton Hoo and now in the British Museum

Many places near to Ipswich are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment and their stories tell themselves -stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place, where, in 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold and burnished jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and completely intact feasting set, and most famously, the ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum, although the original now resides at the British Museum.

Intensive archaeological excavations gave us wonderful insights into the lives of these Anglo Saxons: tiny fragments showed that rich textiles, dyed using plant matter, once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen over-shirts to shaggy woollen cloaks woven to keep out the searing winds blown straight here from Siberia and caps luxuriantly trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the boggy acidic peat which was composed of soil enriched by centuries of decaying bracken, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king, ruling over the hardy souls that once carved out a living from this harsh and inhospitable land.

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The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship adhering to the highest of standards and benefiting from far-reaching international connections which spanned Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of glittery treasures, cavernous reception halls and strong, formidable warriors described in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s book, Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister tale of a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world who love the interactive displays and the chance to dress up. Take a copy of ‘Beowulf’ and recite it aloud to the kids: this dramatic piece of prose perfectly suits dark and stormy East Anglian winter days where you can declaim loudly into the wind in a kingly (or queenly) manner.

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Suffolk wealth from wool: Lavenham’s architecture.

Suffolk has always been a place for migration. We began as the indigenous ‘South Folk’ whose toughness and shy self-reliance became hard-wired through centuries of fighting off challenges by land-grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility. You can see why our county sea-borders are home to such a compelling mix of people and the county town of Ipswich, with its history as a busy working port and status as county seat, has always attracted economic migrant workers from all over the world. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via Ipswich whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.

Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of 22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here as she said in an interview with a regional newspaper:

“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.”  

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With a well-established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says;

“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

Ipswich docks are undergoing regeneration and now bustle with a different kind of economic activity from their earliest incarnation (they first took shape in Anglo Saxon times). In a place where merchants once traded and dock workers hefted cargo onto the rust encrusted decks of the great ships that sailed between Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, the docks are now populated by sailors working on sleek pleasure craft. There are some fishing fleets still, sturdy and stout hearted as they putter in and out of their berths but the biggest change is in the crowds of locals, here to eat and drink and to live in flats on the redeveloped warehouses and wharves. At night, lights blaze not from the returning fishing boats but from the bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that have migrated here. It is beautiful and has yet to reach its full potential, a very different one to its original purpose.

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Ipswich marina, partly renovated

With its long and noble maritime history, one of our choices for a great place to eat and drink here was always going to be afloat and Mariners Restaurant is situated on a beautiful craft berthed on the newly redeveloped Ipswich marina, surrounded by sympathetically restored brick built warehouses and some maritime related businesses. The Mariner was built and launched in 1899 as the gunboat SS Argus for the department of the Belgian State. Recommissioned in 1940 by the Belgian navy, it was sunk, raised and subsequently re-repaired by the Germans who returned it to the Antwerp based owners in 1945 and then rechristened as Flandria VII.

Sri Lanka, Dunwich, Orford and Ipswich all appear in Rona Tearne’s book, ‘The Swimmer,’ a tale of a relationship between a woman and a young male immigrant and, appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for a dreamy story of 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) who spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain and while he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair and when tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

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Bailey Bridge, over Stony Ditch at Orford Ness, crossing a tidal creek between the Ness itself and the River Ore estuary. Copyright Ian Taylor> attribution: share-alike 2.0 generic(CC by -SA 2.0)

The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around the region: a crepuscular and brooding backdrop. Shaped by conflict and affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum, least not in such a mutable part of the world, shaped by immigration, where the human landscape is so very much, more than a sum of its parts. The fictional story of Ben, swimming in the stream, feeds into the rivulets of migration that in real life forms the fascinating story of Ipswich. From the Frisian potters originally from the part of Europe we now call The Netherlands who settled the Quay area in the 7th century and established the first large scale potteries since the time of the Romans, to the people arriving here from the Caribbean in the 50’s, stepping off boats like the Windrush at Tilbury before setting off downstream to Ipswich, their contribution is woven into the very fabric of the town.

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In Something Might Happen, her murder-mystery novel from 2003, novelist Julie Myerson barely disguises the Enid Blyton-esque seaside town of Southwold, where she has a second home. Myerson’s storytelling again walks the line between humanity and the dark, jangling terror of what we are capable of, all set in the most domestic and cosy of surroundings,  a place of aspiration and longing for the land-locked suburbanite. Yes, this coastal landscape could be anywhere in Britain, which is important for a nation of people heavily invested still in the Victorian idyll of a seaside holiday, but I see it as unmistakably East Suffolk, where miles of marshland act as buffer between land and sea. Myerson’s most recent book, The Stopped Heart, is also set in an unidentified rural part of England but again, to a Suffolk dweller the sights and sounds say unmistakably ‘home’: there’s the ‘bright, raw smell’ of a freshly skinned rabbit and the ‘smashed’ sensation one of the characters feels upon seeing the sea. There’s a move to an isolated cottage in the country and ghosts and past crimes returning to haunt us as Myerson expertly weaves together the story of bereaved Mary, newly moved to the country and Eliza,  a 13-year-old farmer’s daughter, living in the same house a century earlier and addressing us directly from the grave.

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Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller to Suffolk and toured the county giving recitals of his work and was also invited to open the lecture hall for the Ipswich Mechanics Institute in 1851. Sources have claimed that the Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouses in nearby Barham may have inspired the workhouse setting and tale of Olive Twist. We know that Dickens visited and read the records of a ten year old apprentice who lived there; the sordid and inhuman conditions which triggered a riot in protest must surely have made an impression upon him?

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Charles Dickens in 1858 / wikipedia commons

In 1835 he stayed in Ipswich and subsequently set some of the scenes in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there- it is believed that an Ipswich woman, a Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Leo Hunter in the book, depicted as a woman with pretensions for the performing of charitable works and the writing of poetry. Opened in 1518, the Ipswich hotel he was a guest at was known then as The Tavern, later being renamed the Great White Horse Hotel with meandering stairs and corridors depicted in chapter XXII. The hotel is no longer in its original incarnation and is now home to a chain coffee shop and one other store. Dickens also stayed at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds (a short drive along the A14) and this ivy clad hotel, which fronts onto Angel Hill, still stands and you can stay in the very room in which Dickens slept and wrote. In Ipswich, there are plenty of good coffee shops in which to sit and read your copy of Pickwick Papers (which also mentions the Angel Hotel). Try Jacey’s Coffee House, Arlington Brasserie, Bakers & Barista or appropriately enough, Pickwicks Tearooms on Dial Lane. They all serve a decent cup of joe, plus food and other drinks.

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The Angel Hotel entrance, Bury St Edmunds

Children may be interested to hear that the well-known nursery rhymes ‘Little Boy Blue’ and‘Humpty Dumpty’ may be satirical references to the life and fate of Cardinal Wolsey who himself was born and schooled in the town and whose bronze statue can be found at the junctions of St Nicholas, St Peters and Silent Street. These rhymes (and many others like them) served as a useful way of criticising, teasing or satirising figures of power and influence at a time when these behaviours, conducted openly would likely earn you a deadly fate, or imprisonment at the very least. Children love gory and dramatic history, as evidenced by the success of Horrible Histories and the pretty gruesome events behind seemingly innocent rhymes make perfect examples of how people living under oppression will always find a way of expressing dissent.Tell your children how the arrogance of this powerful man (who would not listen to any voice other than his own) is referred to in the line ‘Come blow your horn’ whilst ‘where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?’ strongly implies that his ‘sheep like’ people are suffering at the hands of a self-serving and neglectful man. Humpty Dumpty references an interesting event in history, the loss by Wolsey, of his power, and by the time that this rhyme became popular, he had been charged with high treason, accused of delaying the annulment of Catharine of Aragon and Henry the Eight’s marriage. Humpty’s ‘great fall’ symbolises Wolsey’s own fall from grace. Indeed, Ipswich School lays claim to being the only school that warrants a real life mention in the works of William Shakespeare where, in ‘Henry VIII, Griffith has this to say about Cardinal Wolsey: “Those twins of learning that he raised in you, Ipswich and Oxford! One of which fell with him.” Further Wolsey related commemoration can also be found at 47 Nicholas Street where the Ipswich Society has mounted a blue plaque at Curson Lodge, to mark the birthplace of Wolsey on the opposite side of this street.

 

We meet.. Vanessa La Faye, author of Summertime

Interview with author Vanessa LaFaye: 'Summertime'

With its setting in the humid and isolated Florida Keys of the mid-thirties as the islands and their inhabitants stood defenceless against an oncoming hurricane, Summertime, the novel by Vanessa LaFaye shines a light on a historical event that passed virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world despite its horrific consequences. Based on a true event with fictionalised characters drawn from very real tales of human survival and deaths, Summertime is a beautifully evocative and deeply moving account of a period of history that retains strong parallels with our present: Katrina, race relations and the way we treat veterans.

Lafaye is from Florida but had not heard of the tragedy herself until she began some research for another project. The real event that sparked the main theme of Summertime centres upon a group of damaged and dispirited veterans who were despatched to work on the Overseas Highway then abandoned by their government to perish in the hurricane which struck, all too ironically, on Labour Day 1935. One of the worst storms to ever hit the United States it resulted in the deaths of several hundred veterans out of the approximately 700 working there and many locals who lived permanently in the Keys were killed too. A category 5 hurricane, it was so severe that people caught in the open had their clothes sandblasted off their bodies by 185 mph winds.

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(Memorial to the hurricane dead)

The veterans were living in three Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) camps in a work initiative designed to bring employment in the Depression Era to thousands of out of work veterans who had, earlier in the decade, marched on Washington DC in protest at their treatment. Denied adequate housing, cheated out of the bonus they had been promised and unable to find work after being feted upon their return as heroes, the men found themselves living in squalid conditions in a part of the world that was very different to the Florida the tourists of today visit. Their relegation to the bottom of the heap became apparent when the simple storm evacuation plan, where a train would be sent from Miami to evacuate the workers, went awry….

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[Overseas Highway, wooden bridge between Key Largo and Mainland, April 9, 1929:  Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)]

Against a backdrop of torpid heat, racial segregation and the dissonance that arises from living a life so closely intertwined with the African-American locals who raise your children and care for your home when you are a wealthier white resident of the Keys, the stories of the Heron Key families unfold. As the residents of a tiny community try to cope with their proximity to a camp full of disturbed and desperate men, they also have aspirations: to be respected as equals and thus develop their own authentic and independent identity. We see how the white residents hold all the power in defining what a relationship can be and the problems that arise when Henry, a returning African American veteran, will not allow himself to be defined. He will not be customary in his response to the situation he finds himself in when he becomes the main suspect after a white woman is attacked and left for dead. His is not the only life put at risk when the hurricane marries an attitude of ‘every man and woman for themselves’ with the social codes that are more rigidly enforced when both a storm and a violent crime threaten the status quo.

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We spoke to Summertime’s author Vanessa LaFaye who told us about her book and its background:

(1) I am a huge fan of fiction and memoir set in Florida and the lesser known parts of the American South and am also aware of how the southern narrative can get stuck in a groove. However it is important to reexamine the events of the past especially in the context of what is happening now. How would you say Summertime straddles the old Southern narrative and the emerging one, created by the new generation of writers of which you are one?

Florida is weird because it is geographically southern but only on the fringe of the Southern cultural tradition. Although it shares a lot of values with states like Georgia and Alabama, it is so different in terms of history. The Civil War defined those states in a way not shared by FL. For one thing, most of the population consists of transplanted northerners, which has a huge impact on the culture. So I hesitate to call myself a Southern writer. I plan to write more books set in FL, but there other places that I’d like to write about in the future. For now, I’m catching up with the history of my home state, 35 years after departing!

(2) We’re all saturated in images of Florida or, at least, the standard Disney-beaches- holidays one. Your story takes us to visit another aspect of the state. How would you describe Florida to newcomers and what are your favourite places to visit? What do you wish we knew?

It’s great that British people come for the big attractions, but there is so much more. St Augustine in the north is the oldest town in the US, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Everyone should swim with wild manatees in Crystal River once in their lives. I am completely besotted with these amazing creatures. And Fort Jefferson, a short ferry ride from Key West, is Florida’s Alcatraz. Built during the Civil War to defend the Union, it’s an immense brick fortress that rises out of the ocean. Amongst its unwilling guests was Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s injured ankle after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. And don’t get me started on the Everglades or the Native American history…see what I mean?

(3) Tell us about how you came to write Summertime and your growing awareness of the historical events that shape the novel- at what point did you grow a story in your mind?

I came to it through a series of accidents. I was discouraged by lack of success with other books (women’s fiction) and debilitated by my first experience of breast cancer when I stumbled on a newspaper story on a visit to my parents. This led me to the story of the hurricane and the veterans. I didn’t think that I would write another book, and certainly not one set in FL. But I felt compelled to dramatise the events because I thought that it was wrong that they had been forgotten. It’s just what happens sometimes. My life has taken several unexpected turns, and this one is especially welcome.

(4) Tell us a little about the progression of the novel and about how it might have changed from first draft to being ready for publication? What was your initial plan?

In deciding to depict the largest storm ever to strike America, I gave myself several challenges. The obvious one was creating the storm scenes in a way that would bring the power and terror of it to life, using only words. But first I needed a set of characters that the reader would relate to, before I put them in peril. Some of this was dictated by the facts, e.g. the rescue train crew. The rest came from my imagination and the survivor stories. I had lists of characters who lived and those who did not, and I assigned a fate to each of them. I drew heavily on the factual accounts for this. People really were found in the tops of key lime trees, and they were cut in half by flying debris. But none of the violence and destruction would make a gripping narrative without characters who we care about. So that was my top priority, along with honouring the memories of the people who went through it. The final draft mostly involved cutting. I had too many minor charaters who interrupted the flow. I probably deleted 7 of them before submitting the manuscript. It’s still a big cast, but it was unmanageable before.

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(5) There’s that old adage “write what you know”. How much do you subscribe to this? Would you say that the writing is the process of knowing?

I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. People often assume that the research for the book took years. I didn’t, because I drew on a huge store of childhood memories that I had never used in fiction before. Although I didn’t grow up in the 1930s, I was very familiar with the sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of FL. It would have been much harder for me to write about Wisconsin, for example, or North Dakota. Once I move away from writing about FL, I will need to allow a lot more research time. But there is also the credibility factor. It’s easier to get away with showing the reality of a place if you come from there.

(6) A giant and lethal hurricane is a pretty daunting plot device. How hard was it to control this and avoid the possibility of it overshadowing the more nuanced side of the story, the hopes and thwarted dreams of Hilda Kincaid and her troubled intrapersonal relationship with her own body or the pace at which Dwayne works through his feelings about his baby (or not his baby as the case is?).

I wanted to make the storm into a character in its own right. The way we track them and describe their behaviour is similar to how we talk about wild beasts. And they almost seem to have personalities. But the storm is also the agent of change, for good and bad. By the end of the story, all the main characters have lost and gained something important to them. Writing those passages was emotionally exhausting because I wanted the reader to feel things in real time, without ever forgetting the personal stories of the characters.

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(7) There’s the drama of Missy and Selma and the alligator which is one hell of an introduction and one which made me feel physically unwell with anxiety. Was this a difficult decision to open the novel with this? You control it beautifully by the way.

Thank you. I had actually written the opening before I decided to write this book. Likewise the scene where we first meet Hilda. When I stumbled on the hurricane story, I dug them out, and realised that they fitted into the landscape that I wanted to create. From this, I have learned never to throw away anything that I’ve written, because one never knows when it may be useful!

(8) I once heard Florida described as “always having a rich literary tradition- even if much of it has been tattooed across our felons necks” which was said in reply to the news that Hemingways ‘To Have and Have Not’ was the most famous novel set in Florida. What are your essential Florida reads?

I’m a big fan of Carl Hiassen. His books are funny and violent and full of great characters, but he also has a very important message: that the state is being ruined by uncontrolled development. Zora Neale Thurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (referenced at the end of ‘Summertime’) is a classic of FL literature, and includes an amazing description of a hurricane.

(9) The way the veterans were treated has parallels with Vietnam, the Falklands in the UK and the Gulf situation now. Have we learned anything? The relative lack of knowledge of what happened in the Keys is a major divergence from the war hero rhetoric of most Western governments isn’t it?

I don’t think that we have learned much, although there are more assistance programs than in 1935. In general, Western societies do not know how to cope with damaged soldiers. The situation is far worse when the conflict lacks public support, as it did in WWI and the others you mention. It’s mainly left to charities to give them real help. They remind us of the reality of war, which makes us uncomfortable, so we prefer to label them as heroes and then forget. We like to think of Western society as civilised, highly evolved beyond such messy, primitive things as war. But as Henry says, civilisation is just a veneer.

(10) Summertime is saturated in atmosphere. I could hear the bellows of alligators, the sizzling noises that bugs make as the sun goes down. I could smell the mangroves, the salt and the acid of the key limes. I also heard music as I read it. Along with the eponymous song, what would be your soundtrack should the book be made into a movie? Let’s imagine a musical score!

I love this question because music is a big part of my life. I conduct a local community choir and sing in an acapella sextet. I would love to have a soundtrack for a novel. Imagine playing it while you read! Someone should do this. I chose ‘Summertime’ for the title because I wanted the reference to ‘Porgy and Bess’, which was first performed in 1935 and was the first opera written for an all-black cast. It’s such an atmospheric yet complex song. The words sound happy but the tune in the minor key says different. There are archives of folk music recorded in FL in 1930s, which would be important to include – the real voices of the people who kept those songs alive. Plus you would need a good sample of gospel songs, because church was the centre of the community. This was a time when popular music was being written for the radio, and there are some great songs from the period, like ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Night and Day’, and of course, ‘Stormy Weather’.

(11) What’s next for you as an author?

I’m going to write about an epic love story and unsolved murder which took place in Key West in the 1920s. It’s another fascinating yet forgotten story from a place that a lot of people think they know.


All images (manatee, hurricane memorial, cemetery angel and author photo) courtesy of Vanessa LaFaye

Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida and her first visit to the UK was back in 1987. She now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her writers den on Facebook.

Summertime is published in the UK by Orion Books.

Mamushka by Olia Hercules

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 Earlier this year I published my review of Mamushka, a new book about Ukrainian food by Olia Hercules on the Spy books pages. Since then the book has garnered much praise and some nominations for food writing prizes, deservedly so, and I couldn’t bear to not celebrate such a wonderful piece of food writing on my site. So, here it is and if you haven’t already bought your copy, what are you waiting for? 

I don’t know about you but I get tired of endless *new* cookbooks which claim to be a fresh take on Italian/French/Spanish/Deep South food and by dint of a only few ingredient substitutions, are championed as culinary ground breakers. I am also tired of the self aggrandising proclamations by new kids on the block about their burgers/hotdogs/dim sum/bone broth/permutations of fried chicken and pulled meat when they have clearly carried out little research into the history and gastro-geography of their chosen foods.  Food as fashion is a pretty unpalatable concept when half the world seems to lack basic nourishment and some of the difficulties faced by the homeland of Olia Hercules throws this whole issue into even starker relief. Her book, Mamushka is refreshing because she writes about her food culture in an authentic, personal and respectful manner and as I read it, her stories remind me of memories from my own past.

When I was around twelve, my grandparents street in East Anglia gained a new Ukraine neighbour. He sometimes wept when he spoke of his homeland. He’d spend many hours in his gabled shed filled with swallow roosts where he dried the pungent tobacco that grew poorly in our unsuitable climate, eyes wet and fingers stained a deep russet from the leaves that hung in clusters from the rafters. These rustled each time the shed door slid open on its runners, adding to the cacaphony as swallows screeched in and out. My neighbour had escaped after being warned that he was being ‘watched’ (He never explained to me exactly what the implications were but I had an imagination) and he suffered great fear and hardship as he made his way towards the west. I think he knew he would never see his parents, grandparents and extended family again. He would have been so pleased to see the food of his youth so warmly commanded to the page, food he tried to cook for himself but having been well looked after by Ukrainian matriarchs, he struggled to replicate it and struggled even more in the retelling.

Olia Hercules is Ukrainian and was born in Kakhovka, just two hours drive from the Crimean border although her book celebrates the rich cultural diversity of her family with its Siberian, Moldovan, Jewish, Uzbekistani and Ossetian roots. There is ( in her words) a “messy geopolitical mosaic” which at times caused her family to have to negotiate food shortages and conflict but above all, her book and writing bears a richness that transcends those geopolitical boundaries. Mamushka celebrates foodstuffs and recipes that come from lands that may or may not have always been politically friendly with her mother country. This, to me, is emblematic of the generosity and welcome that infuses her cooking.

Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham
Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham

The south of the Ukraine is only two hours away from the Turkish border which totally trashes many peoples ideas of her homeland which, as she states, centre upon permutations of cold/bleak/vast/grey. We read of giant succulent tomatoes with pink, sugary juices, of picking great hanks of sorrel, the bosky ceps from Belarus, sour cream like silk and drinks made from the berries of buckthorn. There are endless days of sun where thirst is slaked by a syrup made from strawberries and rhubarb and their hunger appeased by jam made from watermelon skins. These watermelons are farmed in her home region, Kherson, and grow to humongous size, aided by the heat of the Ukrainian summer. Funnily enough, when I read Alison Uttley’s incredibly British accounts of her own childhood cuisine, forged as it was from the fields, woods and hedgerows of the Derbyshire countryside and from centuries of local farming lore, I am reminded of Olia because the cordials and syrups in Mamushka are very similar.

Some of Olia’s recipes reflect her countries proximity to Russia and the gastronomic exchange that exists between the two, even when other relationships are strained. There are familiar dishes, popular in Russia, such as borsch and a handful of salads which are also made from beetroot but they all have their own Ukrainian spin- they are definitely different from their Russian cousins. One version of beetroot soup brines the root vegetable first and the salad made from beets also includes prunes. There’s a more substantial wintery borsch with a depth charge from a stock made from oxtail or beef short rib and, to keep it truly authentic, one should also make it with salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic.

Armenian pickles.
Armenian pickles.

The Ukrainian cook really gets the importance of sour as a way of cutting the soft fattiness of meats and broths and a reminder that life contains moments that aren’t always sweet- a kind of riff on the ‘bitter tears’ of Jewish Passover although this may be my take and not theirs. There’s a sorrel broth that has melting rich duck at its heart, adds in beet leaves for earthiness and is finished with the sorrel left au natural, uncooked to keep its verdant brightness both in flavour and appearance. There’s fermented tomatoes, used green, and served fizzy (because this is another important and underused oral sensation), with winter casseroles. I have already made the chilli and garlic cucumbers which use those stubbly and prickly cucumbers as opposed to our slender, less tactile versions. Made with all the good things- sugar, cider vinegar, chile, garlic, salt- they are perfect on their own and I can’t get enough of them although I’d also serve them with Suffolk black bacon or a fatty coil of lamb breast. Finally, Olia includes a recipe for proper fermented sour gherkins which I’ve bookmarked to make when my new crop is ready on the allotment. They are perfumed with horseradish leaves and use sour cherry leaves to keep them crunchy and fresh. I also have a sour cherry tree which embraces my allotment shed with reddish brown striated branches, so I am ready to go.

The garlic bread is magnificent. Pillowy or like a ‘pampushka’ as the Ukrainians refer to a gorgeously plump and sumptuously fleshed woman, it uses 20g of wet or regular garlic to produce an almost brioche level of unctuousness. Slightly less lush in size but no slouch in the taste stakes. Moldovan breads are flavoured with cheese (feta) and sorrel to produce a summery bread with an edge. These have a fizzy, sour backbone from the kefir dough which has bicarb, white wine vinegar and sugar bolstering it.

Unlike Olia’s family I don’t have goats but I do have goats cheese and her potato cakes have this added (unusually). I also chucked in some grated courgette alongside her carrot and onion and they worked beautifully. Served with blackberry sauce, these are Ukrainian trad and now become Anglo-Irish-Spanish-Huguenot trad in our house.

Sensibly there are glut recipes: a plum, raisin and rum conserve; a gooseberry and strawberry jam; a cornel cherry jam and those jars of pickles. There are loads of meaty, ricey things to eat them with and Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb makes a virtue of the crispy underside of the rice. It is served on top of the meat. Their Caucasus chicken is served with walnuts and prunes and the liver of the chicken is added to buckwheat and crispy shallots to make a kasha based meal.

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There might have been a credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine during the early 80’s but Olia’s family didn’t stint on puddings and cakes either. Choose from crumbly Ukrainian biscotti dimpled with pecans or walnuts; a towering Napolean cake made from layers of crumbly pastry and creme patissiere; curly wasp nest buns which are a little like the American monkeybread and a pretty honey cake with a creme fraiche rim balanced with the sweetness of honey comb. There’s also an intriguing loaf shaped cheesecake.

To be honest, Mamushka’s melding of the sweet, the savoury and the sour means that the western convention of courses following each other as day is chased by the night seems very old fashioned. Olia is not prescriptive and this book is a tempting suggestion as to what you might eat and when, interspersed with lovely family stories and explanations of customs. I look forward to more.

Olia can also be found on twitter -@oliasgastronomy.

Christmas food between the pages

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“It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapour had frozen over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar, Everything was rigid, locked up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.” … Winter not only sets in hard for Laurie Lee, but inspires him to write one of the most evocative depictions of Christmas in literature, His words resonate deeply with those of us living in the northern hemisphere where a sudden drop in the temperature turns noses the colour of cooked quince, bursts the tender cells of dormant plants as it clads the landscape in a brittle tracery of frost.

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‘Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat’ goes the saying, as the earth moves its vast bulk to faces the shortest days of the year, square on. Daylight hours are misty and crepuscular meaning indoor lights remain lit but this unrelenting greyness is interrupted by the gaiety and colour of Christmas: scarlet holly berries and shiny gilt bells; a forest of trees and garlands looped from wall to wall; and the exotic poinsettia, the Christmas flower of Mexico now popular here. Sheeny sweet wrappers get balled up and left down the sides of sofas and outside, decorative festive lights are reflected in the wet cement of the town, making walks home at the end of the day less austere. The smells are different too: the smokiness of decaying autumn leaves and the hot sweet scent of chestnuts from street sellers; the spiced citrus rime from bowls of clementines and sweet baked fug of hot apples ‘hissing and bubbling with a rich look’ as Dicken’s Mr Pickwick enjoyed them.

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In the midst of this can be found the Christmas experiences of others, committed to the pages of novels and memoirs, a rich source of pleasure on dark evenings when a book, a blanket and warm chair are all one needs. Some of our most vivid memories are these written recollections and their remembering serves as a kind of collective seasonal synergy where Christmas plans become suffused with the idealised images of celebrations we’ve read about. Dylan Thomas understood this when he wrote A Child’s Christmas in Wales with its richly- stirred pot of the real, the imagined and the magical, His words are the sum total of a child’s magical thinking married with an adult need to recreate what was most enjoyed for our own children:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

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Take carolling- I’ve never been, but having read Laurie Lee’s childhood account of stumbling through the snowy village lanes and surrounding fields with friends and other villagers, I feel as if I was there alongside, cupping my mittened fingers and huffing into them to combat the freezing air:

“Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons. We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.

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Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:

‘As Joseph was walking
He heard an angel sing;
‘This night shall be the birth-time
Of Christ the Heavenly King.
He neither shall be bored
In Housen nor in hall
Not in a place of paradise
But in an ox’s stall.’

And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.”

Food at Christmas carries all the richness and exoticism of the gifts carried across far away lands by the Three Wise Men although frankincense, gold and myrrh are symbolised by sweetly-plump preserved and dried fruits from Israel and Egypt, Southern Spain, Italy and the Levant. We eat ‘foreign born’ sultanas and raisins in minced pies and cakes, in yeasted stollens from Germany and steamed puddings crowned with a sprig of holly and spiked with gold coins, representing the wealth of the kingly coffers. Our wines are fortified and sweetened and spirits are drunk in generous measures: three fingers or more of golden raisin-y liquids are released from their wooden casks after years of quiet and solitary maturation, swirled and appreciated as their vapours rise up to join the spirits of all Christmases past and present.

No matter how poor, the household does its best to proffer these sweetmeats to visitors and when it cannot, families improvise with their own music and seasonal cheer as did Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:

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“There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.”

Thompson reminds us that extravagant Christmas festivities in grand country houses will mean that other families must do without their loved ones, who work tirelessly as servants for the local landed gentry: “ There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.”

The day passed in an understated way, with some seasonal and religious markers:

“Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.”

We’re not deprived of descriptions of tempting food though:

“Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday.”

An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies
An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies

Margaret Powell was in service and in the first of her three memoirs, Below Stairs, she shines a little light on Christmas from the perspective of servants in grand houses where every task was strictly delineated and decorating the tree was delegated to the Nanny. Powell found having to line up in the servants hall to receive a gift from the family very humiliating, noting that the servants were not given anything deemed frivolous. Instead of perfumes, silk stockings or delectable chocolates they got lengths of uniform material, aprons and black lisle stockings. They had to suffer what she referred to as their employers’ ‘social welfare expressions’ with the children looking at them as if they were ‘beings from another world, which I suppose we were to them’ and then spend twelve hours slaving away producing a feast fit for kings. “If we were to have perfumes or silks we would go astray, they thought” she wrote. “So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

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Karl Larsson

The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons. During this period, there was the redefining of Christmas as a private family time although a previous obsession with Stuart style public, baronial feasting was reinterpreted as the family table groaning under the weight of home-produced meals. What was eaten during national festivals gained a totemic significance with certain foods depicted as British and imbued with nationalistic qualities, such as plum pudding. I’m  also interested in the contrast between religious prudence and more earthly pleasures and appetites in the farmhouse Christmases depicted in literature. It seemed to me that a Victorian Christmas had the potential to become a spiritual battleground in the minds of the devout, torn as they were between sparing the rod and spoiling their children with gifts, stories and the gift of un-boundaried time, versus the drudge of a farm and their own daily religious rituals – and the need to protect their livestock from any changes to the routines that keep them healthy and productive.

This was never more obvious than in Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’, a lightly fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood in which she appears as Susan, a ‘most fanciful child’, never happier than when she is head down in a book, and born a ‘snow baby’ in December. Her farmhouse home went all out for Christmas, described over the course of a whole chapter: cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor, similar in shape to those which hid the forty thieves. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. Susan and her mother went into a frenzy of decorating:

”Holly decked every picture and ornament. Sprays hung over the bacon and twisted round the hams and herb bunches. The clock carried a crown on his head, and every dish-cover had a little sprig. Susan kept an eye on the lonely forgotten humble things, the jelly moulds and colanders and nutmeg graters, and made them happy with glossy leaves. Everything seemed to speak, to ask for its morsel of greenery, and she tried to leave out nothing.”

Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley's The Country Child
Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley’s The Country Child

The farmhouse kitchen was the heart of the home and especially during festive times when visitors would be received, fed and sometimes kissed if they were family and “everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.” The successes of the Victorian age, their colonies, trading strength and central place in global politics were commemorated too in the choice of decorations:

“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”

The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.
The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.

Uttley told of Christmas Eve embroidered texts (‘God bless our home’), guising and folk tales: The Mistletoe Bough was read each year by Joshua, one of the elderly farm hands, as Susan sat unseen in the corner of the kitchen, frightened eyes dark of pupil, until her mother notices and sends her to bed with a candle. As she prepares for sleep, she muses upon another tale told her- that at midnight all the livestock goes down on bended knee in honour of the newly born Christ child. Similar to a tale my own grandfather told me, I lived in hope of catching the creatures outside doing the same, from the hedgehog that visited us nightly to the mistle thrushes that lived in the high trees surrounding my grandparents’ garden. Do hedgehogs have knees I’d ask and ever since,  in the minutes approaching midnight, I stand in my own garden wrapped in a blanket, looking at the stars and wondering…

Lately I discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote this: “Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock./ “Now they are all on their knees,”/ An elder said as we sat in a flock…” and published it on Christmas Eve 1915 in the London TimesThe Dorset superstition was that oxen used to kneel every Christmas Eve, honouring the holy birth so Hardy told readers that were he to be invited by a farmhand to witness this miracle: “I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”

Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the 'Perfect Christmas'
Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’

We are treated to a wonderful description of Susan’s Christmas Eve bedtime ritual, set in the darkness of the Little Chamber bedroom where the wood furniture lies staunch still and dour in the blue of the early morning light, reflected from the snow fields of the Peak District and the starry skies outside. We are privy to conversations between Susan and her mother as they ponder what stars are during an evening walk to church: “other worlds” according to a STEM-gifted Susan or, as her mother replies, “worlds or angels’ eyes or visions of heaven.” We discover her stocking contents alongside her as she explores by touch in the dark, pulls out a flat square object and sniffs its cardboard scent (it’s a new book!), finds an orange and crunches into a yellow apple from her favourite tree. Reaching deeper into her stocking, she shakes out a handful of knobbly walnuts from Bird in Bush farm, a tin of confits and a sweet sugar mouse. It is, what Rose Henniker Heaton, in her 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’, would approve of: “a tangerine wrapped in gold paper, in the toe…to help preserve the shape” and Susan’s inability to wait until it is morning proper is perfectly captured by poet John Mole:

Nuts and marbles in the toe,
An orange in the heel,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is wonderful to feel.

Shadowy, bulging length of leg
That crackles when you clutch,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is marvellous to touch.

Susan’s Christmas supper is resplendent, a table piled high with the hard earned fruits of her parents labours. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a union jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. “ The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set.

Almanzo Wilder was the future husband of Laura Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and like Susan, he too found the wait for the day to start proper, excruciating. He was born into a farming family with no access to any artificial light other than candles or kerosene and they had to conduct their early morning and evening animal husbandry in the dark. Such an exhausting regime in the deep cold of upstate New York rendered those hours of warm sleep doubly precious. Almanzo awoke his family very early indeed at 3:30 am with his childhood impatience- “ children, have you thought to look at the clock?” asks Father, in Ingalls Wilder’s account of his boyhood, ‘Farmer Boy’.

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Compared to Laura, Almanzo ate very well indeed as the son of prosperous horse farmers. Take this description which reads now as the longings of its adult author, deprived of good food by the Depression of the thirties, when she wrote it: “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham, he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook believes that “after a childhood filled with near-starvation experiences,” Farmer Boy became “‘her [Laura Ingalls Wilder] own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.’” As a young child Laura’s Christmas Days were full of love, family gatherings, song and religious observance but they were times of material deprivation too: she was fortunate to receive a corn cob doll, a twist of candy in a paper bag and a penny in her stocking whilst Almanzo received livestock, sleighs, clasp knives, toys, a plush store bought cap and ate oodles of doughnuts, cookies, bushels of fruit from a never empty cellar buried under a stream of thick golden cream and maple syrup from their own trees, oh and let’s not forget- popcorn and milk every night.

And yet the descriptions of Laura’s Christmas are just as compelling. Take this Christmas stocking scene from Little House in the Big Woods:

“They plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long, sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at that beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

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“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.”

Later on, when they were both approaching their teens the family moved away from the big woods and their wider family to a dug out in the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Here, times were harder and the family had to rely on the charity of the local church: Laura got the tawny gold little fur muff she coveted from the Christmas church barrel and her sister is given a delicate china dog. The first Christmas at Plum Creek came after a late Summer plague of locusts had decimated their crops and that of their neighbours and the next Christmas was riven with their fears for Pa’s life when he got lost in a blizzard on his way home to them. Yet all’s well that ends well and as readers we are heart warmed by our glimpse of the family through their lace curtain-edged dugout window as they listen to Pa play fiddle, sing, dance and they all luxuriate in the close presence of the people they love the most. At times I did wonder whether Pa was somewhat selfish in his unrelenting desire to go west which constantly uprooted the family and left Ma terribly isolated at times.

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That’s not the last time a barrel saves them from a Christmas famine either. In a later book, Laura recounts the travails of a long winter where the family slowly starves along with the rest of their small town. When the train finally gets through after months of blizzards in The Long Winter, it is not a moment too soon and it brings their long awaited Christmas barrel, filled with presents from eastern relatives and one solid-frozen turkey complete with cranberries. In a timely celebration filled with relief so tangible we can feel it, the Boast family arrive to celebrate a belated Christmas dinner and they all feast upon stewed cranberries with sugar, bread made from soft winter wheat, sugar-frosted cakes, fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The soft breeze and spring air comes through the open windows and Mrs Boasts’ smile is lovely despite her thin face, made anxious from worry and cold.  “The doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.”

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Pa sat out his first blizzard, curled up in his musquash fur coat as many other creatures do deep underground, awaiting the drip and unfurling of spring but for Katy and Clover Carr, sent away to school in eastern USA, blizzards and the severe winters there mean they must sit out Christmas Day in school and, quite possibly, without their Christmas boxes which have been snowed in. We’ve already shivered with them through pages of impossibly Arctic conditions where they wake daily to “toothbrushes stiff with ice in the morning”, “thick crusts of frost on the windowpane and every drop of water in wash bowl or pitcher turned to solid ice”. The windows have been covered in thick dark cloth to preserve heat and the Nunnery, which is what local boys refer to their school as, has become as parsimonious in nature as the most closeted of religious orders. Katy has been long disabused of her previously held idea of winter survival as ‘romantic’ and has struggled to find the part of her soul which might respond in a Christian way to Christmas deprivation when, (oh joy!), a kerfuffle in the dormitory corridor leads to the delivery of their boxes, the only ones in the school to get through.

The whole thing was declared a ‘marvel of packing’ and brimmed over with gifts, flowers and all manner of American home baked goods. Shared out with the other girls, they all sat in bed, wrapped in shawls and fingerless mittens to enjoy their Christmas food. Parcels were filled with ginger snaps and Debbie’s jumbles (circular sugar cookies in in the shape of entwined rings, originally called gemmels which is German for ‘twin’), the German crullers beloved of the Mittel European immigrants to the Midwest and a “splendid frosted plum-cake”. The second box was full of delicate flowers, slightly drooping in their bed of cotton wool which Katy set about reviving. Katy was sorry to have left this box until last although she didn’t identify with these delicate blossoms, finding the cold more bracing than depressing. “There was something in her blood which responded to the sharp tingle of frost.” Her sister Clover was not so fortunate though as ‘a chilly creature’, requiring hot bricks at her feet and many layers of blankets to stay warm and even the hated Miss Jane, a teacher at the school, was visited by Katy with gifts when she was ill in bed and ignored by all the other pupils who couldn’t forgive the cruel way she had behaved towards the Carr girls. The Christmas spirit indeed….

Thomas Mann, 1926
Thomas Mann, 1926

For snowbound wintry reading, little beats Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War. When Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps to spend time with his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, we’re not totally clear whether he develops a form of Stockholm Syndrome which sees him identify to the point of displaying symptoms of illness himself. He intended to stay a few weeks and ends up remaining there for years as he is diagnosed with TB and assumes his rightful place on the veranda, coughing up his lungs in the face of magnificent Alpine sunsets. Each night he would take to his room with a pile of books, and a glass of creamy evening milk with a shot of Cognac, living a dream-like life where absence from the everyday human trials and responsibilities is a given and they hear of them at a remove, via whispered confidences, letters from home and newspapers bought from ‘below’.

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In the sanatorium dining room there is much talk of snow, the start of the ski season and the onset of Christmas, the latter well before Advent, which startles Hans because he had not considered that this might form part of his conditions of treatment: his usual habit was to spend it with loved ones and tries to cheer himself up: “He said to himself, think of all the places and conditions in which Christmas had been celebrated before now!” Quite.

Hans had not yet developed the habit of seeing Christmas as a a kind of vaulting pole which he could use to leap over the intervening endless days of confinement in their visually arresting mountainous sanitorium. He could appreciate how the accelerated metabolic effects of TB might affect the way one viewed time itself and the landscape, freezing cold yet burning of breath and well upholstered with snow, is perfect metaphor for the febrile thinness of the consumptive. The “arch of the loggia, which framed a glorious panorama of snow powdered forest, softly filled passes and ravines, white sunlit valleys and radiant blue heavens above all”, the crystal and diamond world that lay near the black and white forest under the night skies embroidered with stars, all conspired to seduce patients into seeing Christmas as a state of grace and a short interlude from reality, full of frost and fire like their own fevered state. In What Katy Did at School, its author, Susan Coolidge, addresses us thus: “Do any of you know how incredibly long winter seems in climates where for weeks together the thermometer stands at zero?”…”There is something hopeless in such cold” and it is this I remember when reading Mann’s novel, a reminder to be tolerant and kind towards characters who sometimes become preoccupied with concepts I might consider self-indulgent.

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Back in the sanitorium, mail grew heavier as the festive season drew closer; marzipan, Christmas cakes, apples and spiced nuts, all “carefully packed remembrances from home” in the manner of those received by Katy Carr. Their dining room tree crackled in the firelight and spread its fragrance and these distressingly ill people wore their jewels, cravats and evening coats to dinner in a poignant facsimile of festive life back home in the grand cities and towns of Europe. They were “gay at the Russian table” where the first Champagne corks popped and Clavdia wore a Balkan style dress with tinkling ornaments on the bodice. Ending the choice meal with cheese straws, bon bons, coffee and liqueurs, it is significant that the food is represented by titbits, those little morsels that are more easily consumed by illness-affected appetites.

As the room dies down and the tree candles burn to stumps, there is an air of let-down as Christmas Day dawns misty and then was all over, leaving the holiday in the past. The sumptuous breakfasts served in the sanitorium,  “pots of marmalade and honey, basins of rice and oatmeal porridge, dishes of cold meat and scrambled eggs; a plenitude of butter, a Gruyere cheese dropping moisture under a glass bell. A bowl of fresh and dried fruits stood in the centre of the table” and a “thick, dark, and foaming brownly Kulmbacher beer” aren’t mentioned on the holiest day of all.

This same sense of anti climax permeated Dylan Thomas’s description of Christmas dinner and what came afterwards, a sated afternoon when relatives sleep off their engorgement and children attend to the gifts that were opened with giddy speed earlier on, then discarded in the haste to get to the next thing:

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.”

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In a literary sense, it can be challenging to move a story on from the giddy escalation that marks the month of December. Take Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, his largely autobiographical short story first published in 1956 and eclipsed by his brasher output until it was adapted for screen and stage productions. Truman writes fondly of Sook, his cousin who befriended him in Alabama and whose mischief is central to the tale:

“it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

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Together they haul a straw buggy down to the pecan grove to forage for the nuts which go into their esteemed fruitcakes which are sent to barely known acquaintances or people they have never met at all, including President Franklin Roosevelt. They finance this operation with money that they have accumulated through the year in their Fruitcake Fund and make and gift wrap home brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting” for relatives. They spend hours preparing the pecans they picked: “Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves.”

Then there’s more delectable descriptions of food as they settle down for the evening:

“We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” and the next day they procur the whisky that state law prohibits from a certain Mr Haha Jones who operates out of a ‘sinful’ fish fry and dancing cafe.

The prized whisky will flavour their cakes and, as a reward for his help, Mr Jones will get an extra cupful of raisins stirred into his. The actual labour of baking thirty one cakes sounds delectable:

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.”

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The pair share the leftover whisky with the inevitable mild inebriation, moving two other relatives to scold Buddy’s cousin for corrupting a child. The next morning sees Buddy and his cousin search deep into the woods for their Christmas decorations, gathering wreaths, chopping down a tree and laboriously dragging everything home in their old buggy. The description of the Alabama woods are breathtaking:  “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam.

Come Christmas Day, a good old southern breakfast hits the spot: “just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.”

But it is inevitably followed by anti climax as Buddy opens his gifts:

“Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

“This is our last Christmas together,” and for a few more years, ‘fruitcake weather’ continues until the November when she does not get out of her bed to bake…

Seasonal recipes

Alison Uttleys Christmas possets from Recipes From an Old Farmhouse:

“A starved child was a very cold child and I often came home from my long walk from school starved in the winter nights. A posset of hot milk and bread cut into small squares with a dash of rum and some brown sugar brought colour into my cheeks. Milk was curdled with ale to make a christmas posset. Spices were added, cloves and cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg and brown sugar. The posset was mulled on the hot stove, in a pewter tankard, and poured into smaller mugs of pewter when ready. The ale curdled the milk and made a froth like lambs wool, the old froth of roast apples once used in possets.

Black Cake:

I’ve written about my favourite boiled fruit cake here. It makes an excellent Christmas cake too and another recipe that I’ve made for years is Laurie Colwin’s Black Cake. Also mentioned by Nigella in How To be a Domestic Goddess, Colwin’s black cake came to her via her daughters Caribbean babysitter. Colwin  died in 1992 and whilst alive, gained a reputation as a novelist of short stories. Since her death, at the age of 48, her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have rightfully gained her a new following because of her warm and confiding manner. She encourages readers to try their hand at cooking and uses the tribulations of her own life to reassure them that failure is an amusing and life enhancing part of the process. Here is Colwin on that black cake:

“There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. … Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated too—dense and light at the same time.”

The Black Cake calls for burned sugar essence which is essentially melted and browned sugar made the way you would for a caramel, but thinned down with water at the end of the process. There are many recipes for it online but Nigella substitutes molasses. This produces a lovely cake but not THE black cake so if you want to make the real thing, hunt down the technique.

Pecan tassies, inspired by Truman Capote:

Pecan tassies - http://www.thingness.org
Pecan tassies – http://www.thingness.org

These gorgeous little mouthfuls are a classic Southern holiday favourite, also popular at church socials, weddings and the like and provide, as Wendell Brock once said, “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts- butter, pecans and brown sugar”. A tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup packed with pecan pie filling, using a nut (although technically it is a ‘drupe’) which grows abundantly across the South. In his book ‘My Mothers Southern Kitchen’, the eminent food writer James Villas includes a favourite recipe from his mother, Martha, who serves them at her guild meetings and I would be amazed if Truman and his cousin didn’t eat tassies regularly.

Villas knew Capote: in his own words, he “hobnobbed on royal banquettes with Capote, the King of Spain, Dali and a contingent of other gold plated swells.” and got “smashed after cocktails at the Plaza Hotel” with him and Don Erickson, the legendary executive editor of  Esquire. The beauty of Southerners is that no matter how rarefied the air they breathe in celebrity-soaked circles becomes, they retain a connection with the food they grew up eating and seem to countenance no snobbery towards it.

The recipe uses the US cup system but its not hard to convert.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine butter, cream cheese and flour and mix with hands until dough can be formed into a soft ball.

Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and press each piece firmly onto bottom and sides of two greased 12-cup muffin tins.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg with sugar and salt and stir in pecans and vanilla. Spoon filling into lined cups and bake till the pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. Let the tassies cool and carefully unmold on a large plate.

 

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.

Culinary words-

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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.

Creole Kitchen
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

Cook book reviews for Autumn 2015

Picking your way through the forest of new cooking titles that pop up like mushrooms isn’t easy so we’ve taken a look and chosen some of our favourite releases for you. There’s something for all here from modern baking by a Californian transpant to Hackney to a book that shows us how to channel the spirit of the Swedish Fika. We also welcome new books by some favourites from the restaurant world too. Enjoy and let us know about your favourites too.
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The Paw-Paw is largest edible fruit native to the United States and tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. Growing wild in twenty-six states, it has fed Native Americans and European explorers, presidents, and enslaved African Americans, inspiring folk songs, poetry, and scores of place names from Georgia to Illinois. Requiring no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, it is made for organic production methods and the fruit possesses compounds that are among the most potent anticancer agents yet discovered. There’s much to discover, clearly.  In Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, author Andrew Moore explores the past, present, and future of this unique fruit, traveling from the Ozarks to Monticello; canoeing the lower Mississippi in search of wild fruit; drinking pawpaw beer in Durham, North Carolina; tracking down lost cultivars in Appalachian hollers; and helping out during harvest season in a Maryland orchard. Along the way, he gathers pawpaw lore and knowledge not only from the plant breeders and horticulturists working to bring pawpaws into the mainstream (including Neal Peterson, known in pawpaw circles as the fruit’s own “Johnny Pawpawseed”), but also regular folks who remember eating them in the woods as kids, but haven’t had one in over fifty years. I’m a big fan of single-subject food writing and Moore has written a superb guide to this most unusual fruit which is also a reminder to all of us to engage deeper with our own foodways and eat those foods which perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

 

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Lynn Hill established the Clandestine Cake Club in 2010 partly as a response to the recent rise in popularity of secret supper clubs. There are now over 200 clubs around the UK and overseas and this is her second cake book, containing 100 ‘celebratory’ recipes contributed by club members and by Lynn herself. The cake club meets tend to have a theme which members bake to and The Clandestine Cake Club: a year in cake structures its recipes around this with each cake paying homage to noteworthy events and occasions throughout the year, including a sea salted caramel cake which honours Nigel Slaters birthday and the time he paid a visit to the CCC to film an episode of his own show.

Ingredients and cakes range from the traditional (Victoria sponges, roulades, vanilla, coffee) to the less so (tres leches cake, opera cake, rosehip, masala chai) and include unusual combinations ( bacon and maple syrup, sweet potato and vanilla). Traditional cakes such as bara brith are reinvigorated with new ingredients like Welsh honey and camomile and seasons are reflected too (summery lemon and mint cake). The golden pineapple cream cake and caramel pecan brittle swiss roll take this mix of innovation to another level. Sumptuous but clear photographs by Kris Kirkham help less experienced bakers gain understanding as to how the cakes should look and, as you’d expect, the recipes are well written and therefore they work.

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Another year of good eating for Mr Slater is prefixed by some cautionary words about the current epidemic of imbuing foodstuffs with moral and characterful qualities and, as he says, “the need to divide the content of our plates into heroes and villains.” Slater has been cooking for five decades now which affords him the moral authority to overview the constant relay of food and eating fads. He is right, he has ALWAYS been right to warn us about the consequences of allowing guilt and shame to drive our eating. Yes, the methods of production do have an intrinsic moral value and we are right to shun factory farming, companies that do not pay a fair wage and excessive, indulgent food miles but essentially food should be about pleasurable fuel for the body and his recipes reflect that.

His latest book, Kitchen Diaries III- a year of good eating is a collection of recipes collated into a diary form from a few years worth of eating. There is evidence of Slater using ingredients new to him and fashionable to others but he incorporates them into meals which are more than a ‘for sake of’ use of todays buzz food. His New Years Day crispbreads contain trendy rye and spelt but having read and cooked from Kitchen Diaries I and II, I can see the evolution, how Slater arrived here as opposed to a phagocytic takeover of a trend or movement which was created by other people.

What do I really want to cook? There’s a lovely Raclette tart which cuts an eggy, buttery and creme fraiche richness with the acidulated tang of cornichons and the mild burn of a good salami. Pork bone soup is inspired by a hole-in-the-wall meal and a dog-eared laminated menu and his loganberry summer cake is Tove Jansson on a china plate. The date of writing this has me turning to the corresponding recipe for a marmalade of onion and collapsed fig tart and later on in October, he suggests a smoked mackerel and celeriac remoulade to use up the nobbly root in my larder.

There’s a useful new idea too- four seasonal sections devoted to easy cook, easy eating and a development of his previus cookbook, Eat, which riffed off the twitter format with 140 character recipes. These are the heart of our everyday eating, an answer to those days when you haven’t got a ziplock bag of lamb chops marinading in the fridge or a complex gratin with layers beautifully melded together. He’s understated is Mr Slater and his recipes are not predicated upon a perfection of finish and state of the art technique- Slater does not want to leave his readers breathlessly impressed at his skill and wondering if they can pull it off.  His food is a clever distillation of a lifetime’s adventures in food and you, dear reader, get to live this vicariously and achievably through those recipes.
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Claire Ptak owns a jewel box of a cake shop and cafe in East London. The Violet Bakery Cookbook is her fourth book and what a book! Focusing on decent quality ingredients and making an effort to explore alternatives for those of you who cannot eat gluten, it goes to say that Violet is a progressive and modern book that still pays its dues to the rules of patisserie. And because of this, the recipes work. Along with running her bakery-café, Ptak is also a food writer, food and prop stylist, recipe developer and consultant which explains its exquisite design, underpinned by real substance. An old school jacket and cheery yellow bookcloth contains recipes that read as a day in the life of her kitchen, covering savoury and sweet foods eaten for breakfast, merenda or elevenses, dinner, parties and lunches. Ptak isn’t a finish fascist either, her icing and decoration show the eye of an artist but are engagingly freeform in appearance. The amateur will feel able to have a go and feel content with their efforts.

Favourite recipes? Banana buttermilk bread, butterscotch blondies, the very adult-sounding ginger molasses cake and the coconut-cream trifle cake.The savoury recipes are great but to be honest, the sweet stuff is what lured me in and kept me baking.

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An ingredient-led feel is what attracted us to Sugar and Spice by Samantha Seneviratne with over 80 recipes that reinvent classic sweets and introduce readers to the more unusual spices, used to infuse puddings. Veteran food editor and recipe developer Samantha Seneviratne invites readers to explore a bold new world of spice-centric desserts with chapter concentrating on a different spice–some familiar, like vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger; others less expected (especially in sweet preparations), such as peppercorns, chiles, and cardamom. There’s familiar recipes such as brownies except these are perfumed with salt and pepper. The cinnamon section (a spice massively popular in the USA and UK) has cinnamon, hazel and date buns, new love cake and ricotta cheesecake with bourbon raisin jam  whilst the nutmeg section has tales of the nutmeg trail and Dutch and British battles over this highly-prized spice.

These recipes are practical but by God, you get the romance too. Seneviratne is a storyteller, making the reader feel thoroughly at home in her life as the child of a first-generation Sri Lankan family, a history she interweaves with the history of the spices and herbs she cooks with and, interestingly, the consumption of sugar in the US and its attendant health issues. We read about her grandmother in Sri Lanka and her beloved brother, and meanr about Seneviratnes mother’s love of the ‘boxed mixes’ she grew up on. As the family adjusted to the USA, they developed a love for all things “American” which threatened to overshadow her grandmother’s love of Sri Lanka and eclipse the sensual wonders of the nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom that grew on her property amongst the coconut palms, teak trees and frangipani, avocado and bananas.

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The Appalachian region of the USA doesn’t spring to mind when one lists the great cuisines of the world but overlooking it altogether would mean we miss out on a fascinating story of geology, ecology, human migration and seasonality. Eating Appalachia by Darrin Nordahl kicks off with a lesson in how to pronounce the name of the region (think how ‘apple atcha’ sounds) which extends from the mountainous spine of Maine in the northernmost reaches of the contigious States right down to Georgia in the south.

From the intoxicatingly scented paw-paw and Appalachian spice bush, the foods of this region are explored, introducing us to the people responsible for the resurgence in popularity of them, competitions and festivals where they are celebrated and recipes developed by the many people the author encounters. We read of the problems foraging of plants such as the ramp and ginseng is causing too, a salutatory warning for the UK which is seeing an increase in this activity and restaurateurs start to take notice of what is on their door step. The recipes are lovely and easily achieved IF you can locate these ingredients, many of which are botanically specific to the region. However, improvisation is accommodated. There’s Pawpaw Panna Cotta, Pawpaw Whiskey Sour, Chianti-Braised Elk Stew, Pan-Fried Squirrel with Squirrel Gravy, Ramp Linguine, and Wild Ginger Poached Pears, among others.

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More food writing now with Simon Majumdar’s Fed, White and Blue: Finding America With My Fork who describes himself as not your typical idea of an immigrant. As he says, “I’m well rested, not particularly poor, and the only time I ever encounter ‘huddled masses’ is in line at Costco.” But immigrate he did, and thanks to a Homeland Security agent who asked if he planned to make it official, the journey chronicled in Fed, White, and Blue was born. In it, Simon sets off on a trek across the United States to find out what it really means to become an American, using what he knows best: food.

Stopping in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about what the pilgrims ate (and that playing Wampanoag football with large men is to be avoided); a Shabbat dinner in Kansas; Wisconsin to make cheese (and get sprayed with hot whey); and LA to cook at a Filipino restaurant in the hope of making his in-laws proud, Simon writes wholeheartedly about the food cultures that make up America. He brews beer and works in farming; spends time helping out at a food bank, and even finds himself at a tailgate. This is a warm and humorous book that explores what it means to be American through a prism of food.

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Relae: A Book of Ideas by Chef Christian F Puglisi looks, at first, to be terribly worthy and earnest; a series of interconnected “idea essays,” which reveal the ingredients, practical techniques, and philosophies that inform Puglisi’s cooking. Each essay is connected to one (or many) of the dishes he serves, and readers are invited to flip through the book in whatever sequence inspires them—from idea to dish and back to idea again. However, the result is a deeply personal and unusual reading experience: a rare glimpse into the mind of a top chef, and the opportunity to learn the language of one of the world’s most pioneering and acclaimed restaurants. It is an interesting departure from the standard format of a recipe book by a working chef, Christian F. Puglisi who opened restaurant Relæ in 2010 on a rough, run-down stretch of one of Copenhagen’s most crime-ridden streets.

His goal was simple: to serve impeccable, intelligent, sustainable, and plant-centric food of the highest quality—in a setting that was devoid of the pretention and frills of conventional high-end restaurant dining. Relæ was an immediate hit, and Puglisi’s “to the bone” ethos—which emphasized innovative, substantive cooking over crisp white tablecloths or legions of water-pouring, napkin-folding waiters—became a rallying cry for chefs around the world.

Today the Jægersborggade—where Relæ and its more casual sister restaurant, Manfreds, are located—is one of Copenhagen’s most vibrant and exciting streets. And Puglisi continues to excite and surprise diners with his genre-defying, wildly inventive cooking.

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More American food writing now from Writings in The Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways by David A Davis and Tara Powell and, more specifically, writings with their roots deeply in the fertile soil of the Deep South. Aiming to go past tired old cliches yet cognizant of the fact that ignoring those well known tropes won’t make them go away, Writings in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.This collection examines food writing in a range of literary expressions, including cookbooks, agricultural journals, novels, stories, and poems. Contributors interpret how authors use food to explore the changing South, considering the ways race, ethnicity, class, gender, and region affect how and what people eat. They describe foods from specific southern places such as New Orleans and Appalachia, engage both the historical and contemporary South, and study the food traditions of ethnicities as they manifest through the written word..

Scarlett O’Hara munched on a radish and vowed never to go hungry again. Vardaman Bundren ate bananas in Faulkner’s Jefferson, and the Invisible Man dined on a sweet potato in Harlem. Although food and stories may be two of the most prominent cultural products associated with the South, the connections between them have not been thoroughly explored until now.

Southern food has become the subject of increasingly self-conscious intellectual consideration. The Southern Foodways Alliance, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, food-themed issues of Oxford American and Southern Cultures, and a spate of new scholarly and popular books demonstrate this interest. Writing in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.

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April Bloomfield is one of the new British young turks whose chef skills have won them huge accolades in New York City and in A Girl and her Greens: Hearty Meals From the Garden, Bloomfield allows colourful, tasty vegetables to take centre stage. Previously focusing on the glories of the pig, here we see a chef at the height of her powers of imagination and creativity, proving that vegetables are not an also ran. There’s roasted onion with sage pesto (a great nod to British stuffing flavours), Swiss chard cannelloni, fennel salad with blood orange (delicious) and braised peas with little gem lettuce, the latter paying homage to classical French cuisine. The ingredient lists aren’t exhausting either. Crushed spring peas with mint has just seven items and none of them expensive or hard to find. The ingredients do need to be fresh, seasonal and good quality though although she is flexible. Take foccacia with three toppings: each topping offers an opton for different times of the year and acts as jumping off point for your own ideas too. Fashions are referenced too with the ubiquitous kimchi recipe included.

With gorgeous photos by David Loftus and cute illustrations by Sun Young Park (the cabbage kimchi squat is a favourite), the recipes are organised by season, by vegetable type or by ingredient/dish; the structure is not hidebound by the way. Her restaurant, The Spotted Pig and previous book, A Girl and Her Pig are referenced with chapters called Top to Tail where all the vegetable is used up (carrot top pesto is an example) which is an approach I haven’t encountered so explicitly before although it is a philosophy many households follow by necessity. Other chapters are titled ‘My pal, the potato’ and ‘with a Little help from meats’- it isn’t a vegetarian book which needs to be made clear although there is much for non meat eaters here. Bloomfield is no aloof perfectionist either; she shares her less than successful results and uses a personal tone throughout.

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To another perfectly designed book now with Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats Hardcover by Anna Brones; one of my favourite book releases of the last year because it distils everything we find swoonsome about Scandinavia- its literature, food, design and way of living- down into one book. Fika pays homage to Sweden and its status as one of the world’s top coffee consuming nations. The twice-daily social coffee break known as fika is a cherished custom and can be partaken of alone or with others. It is as much a state of mind as it is of being.In this adorable illustrated cookbook, Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall share nearly fifty classic recipes from cinnamon buns, Swedish cinnamon and cardamom bread and ginger snaps to rhubarb cordial and rye bread and include information and anecdotes about Swedish coffee culture (why it was once a boys club), and the roots and modern incarnations of the custom. Explanations of traditions such as name days are accompanied by recipes for celebratory cakes like advent pepparkakor alongside charming illustrations about how to flip and roll Swedish pancakes and the traditional shaping techniques for baking such as Swedish saffron buns and Semlor, the latter served before Lent.

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The exquisiteness continues with another beautufully designed cookbook by a trained chef of national reknown. I have frequently had the pleasure of eating Skye Gyngells food when she was at the helm of the Petersham Nurseries kitchen in West London and now, thank goodness, she is back with the eponymous new place to hang her toque up on and a book. Published to celebrate this, Spring presents a collection of mouthwatering original recipes from the new restaurant’s menu -there’s beautiful bread and pasta dishes, seafood and meat dishes, colourful salads and vegetables, enticing ice cream and desserts, original preserves and refreshing non-alcoholic drinks. there’s crab salad with chilli, pumpkin, curry leaves and lime, pappardalle with oxtail ragu, guinea fowl with faro and parsley, kimchi and warm chocolate and espresso puddings.

But Spring also provides a fascinating insight into the creation of the restaurant itself, from Skye’s first visit to the space at Somerset House, through the design and development of the site to the opening of the restaurant. She describes how the menu evolved, from the early days testing recipes in her kitchen at home to the opening in October 2014. She also reveals details about the other aspects that give the restaurant its unique character: the decor, art, staff uniforms, table settings etc. We really welcome a book which gives such insight into a chefs life and in doing so, properly credits their hard work, skill and creative input. This embarrassment of riches culminates with Andy Sewell’s evocative photographs, which capture the essence of Skye’s inspirational food as well as the dazzling atmosphere of the restaurant.

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Know what? I love Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher and Jane Grigson needs to take up her place up on the podium alongside them. Her confiding warmth makes her one of my absolute favourite writers and I cannot understand why she is not championed as much as David et al. Now, 25 years after her untimely death and having been out of print for over a decade, Grub Street is republishing the ultimate compendium of Jane Grigson’s recipes as The Best of Jane Grigson. Following the success of her first book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cooking, Grigson’s research and flair for cooking speak for themselves within this tome. With a delightful introduction by her friend, Elizabeth David, this book is a staple for every cook. The book is organised into regional cuisines from across the globe including: the Americas, the Mediterranean, the Europeans, India and the Far East and contains sections entitled ‘At Home in England’ and ‘At Home in France’; both places close to Jane’s heart. There is also, of course, a detailed chapter on charcuterie.The recipes are introduced in English, with brief descriptions by Grigson, but are also simultaneously designated in the native language of their origin. There are graphs and pictorials for the accurate cooking of meat joints by weight and detailed instructions for picking the best ingredients and making the most of them when they are in season. The book concludes with a chapter on the enjoyment of food which encapsulates Grigson’s approach to cooking along with the experience of reading this book. The recipes are diverse and diligent to detail. There are recipes for the simple weekday dinner to the elaborate celebratory feast. This collection of her best and most-loved recipes, with her introductions, anecdotes, quotations and poems, is a fitting tribute, not only to her culinary and literary skills, but also to the warmth, wit and intelligence that shines through all her books.

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. 

Book reviews: The River by Helen Humphreys (#landscapewriting)

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“We tend to look at landscape in relation to what it can do for us. Does it move us with its beauty? Can we make a living from it? But what if we examined a landscape on its own terms, freed from our expectations and assumptions?”

I’ve long been interested by psychogeography, described by Guy Debord as “ “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” and in The River, published by ECW Presscelebrated author Helen Humphreys approaches a landscape familiar to her on its own terms, doing her best to shake free from her own subjectivity.

For more than a decade Huphreys has owned a small waterside property on a section of the Napanee River in Ontario. In the watchful way of writers, she has studied her little piece of the river through the seasons and the years, cataloguing its ebb and flows, the plantsm and creatures that live in and round it, the signs of human usage at its banks and on its bottom.

The River is a wonderful melange of art, history, geography, botany and much much more, by the modern version of the ‘flaneur’. Humphrey notices where she is and she notices what her location has to offer without EXPECTING anything from it. We are all connected though, us humans, the animals around us, the landscape and the air which surrounds it. Humphreys forensically details our human interactions with the world around us and their inevitable effects. She’s a fan of William Faulkner too and this shows beautifully in her own writing: Humphreys has a kinship with this writer whose own observations of the world around him retain a perennial freshness because his language moves with ‘the times’ in the widest sense.

Faulkner knows how to write about rivers and so does Humphreys and here, she observes a botanist collects flowers along the edges of an end of summer stream:

“The red flowers threaded along the stream are dying…The botanist crouches in the soft grass, inspecting the underside of the flower. It dies, the way darkness arrives- from the ground up. Soon only the topmast of the plant will be alive, lighting the waters edge like a torch…. Once inside the bag, the flames of the flower will be extinguished, and the botanist delays the moment of uprooting. He can feel in that moment something of his own ending; the flicker of his own pulse, darkening.”

We then learn that the botanist is accompanying James Cook on his cross ocean journeys, collecting flora and fauna. We read of Bligh and routines adhered to in order to mitigate the effects of Cook’s death, the bright capriciousness of a flower whose redness takes days to fade and we travel back and forth across time, cultures and place with Humphreys as she seeks to draw every last piece of inspiration from her own little place by a river.

Helen Humphreys is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, seven novels, and two works of creative non-fiction, including the bestselling The Frozen Thames. She has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.