Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Back to the Roots by Richard Mabey and Francesca Greenoak

 As thoughts turn eagerly to the possibility of spring and the promise of something green in the garden, here's another bit of recycling from Cat Musings while I I try to meet deadlines elsewhere!

Back to the Roots is a little book which has been rather overtaken in this age of the worldwide web. Written to accompany a Channel Four series in 1983, it is divided into chapters on herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruit and trees. Each chapter is followed by a directory with bibliography, list of suppliers and other information such as places to see plants, courses etc. Much of the directory information is, of course, hopelessly out of date (even telephone numbers have changed in the interim) but, with the advent of search engines, anyone with a little application will be able to discover what listings are still valid and will quickly find contact details for nurseries, gardens and suppliers.

The rest of the book is selective but interesting. My personal favourite is a section entitled The sloth's vegetable garden, which offers suggestions for creating a perennial vegetable patch. I shall be turning to this over the coming weeks while I plan this year's crops. The emphasis throughout is on traditional and forgotten varieties, and it would provide an excellent starting place for establishing a historically-themed garden. Brief cultivation details are given for each type of plant, and even pruning instructions for fruit are included. The back-and-white illustrations are clear and come from an entertaining variety of sources.

Long out of print, it is nonetheless readily, and cheaply, available from the various second-hand book sites (including for 1p on Amazon). Primarily intended to encourage a growing interest in cultivated plants which are threatened by new regulations, this is a book which still meets its purpose and would make a good introduction for any new gardener who would rather spend their money on seeds than on glossy coffee-table books.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Opening lines....

"The carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other's arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.

"Maria gazed at her boots, pushing them out from under the carriage-rug for that purpose. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles, jolted from her aquiline nose by the jolting of the carriage, to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint in her mouth and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

"Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people - those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people."

The opening lines of Elizabeth's Goudge's The Little White Horse, my favourite book. It's one of the small collection of books that always lives next to my bed. I love the illustrations by C. Walter Hodges - I have just acquired a new, hardback edition  (not the Folio one, though seeing that was what inspired me to find a new copy), but I'll always keep my battered old Puffin edition with its bad but loving handcolouring as well.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

I wrote this 5 years ago and posted it on the other blog I was writing at the time. Since I no longer post there, I thought I might recycle the occasional review that might still be of interest. This was for Agnes Jekyll's superb Kitchen Essays, in the beautiful edition published by Persephone.

A syren’s tea-party of two
Clarify 1 lb. butter. When cold beat to a cream, add 12 oz. sugar, 1 lb. potato flour (sieved), 4 whole eggs and the yolks of two, the zest of 1 lemon. Beat the whole mass for 1 hour, when it should form bubbles. Bake in a buttered and finely bread-crumbed mould in a moderate oven. Halve these quantities for a small cake.
[M]ight be served with honey-dew and the milk of Paradise when procurable.

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

Lady Jekyll’s charming and amusing book of essays offers all sorts of culinary advice, from preparing shooting lunches to managing without your cook (goodness, unthinkable – but it is she who would beat the Venus Torte for an hour, not the lady of the house). First published in 1922 (and reprinted by the redoubtable Persephone Books), the essays combine humour with practical information, thereby ensuring our lady housewife’s dining table will be a pleasure to all comers, young and old. Should you need to provide a light supper for artists and performers, Lady Jekyll will be your guide:
Mrs Gladstone’s practice of sending her husband into battle on an egg-flip, cleverly produced at the psychological moment, can be imitated with this Frothed Wine Soup, good for a prima donna or pianist soon going into action, and can be made simply by anybody who can whisk an egg.
I have informed OH that, should I be ill, a better recovery will be aided by regular small and tempting meals. For lunch, Lady Jekyll advises a “nicely cut and fried bread canapé, on which may be placed partridge breasts resting on softly-mashed potato and “some mushrooms buttered, grilled and added piping hot”. OH reassured me that he will do his best, and added that he hoped for my sake I would be stricken soon.

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

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A Crowded Coffin by Nicola Slade

When I open a book by Nicola Slade I am instantly enchanted, because she includes a Dramatis Personae with, in the proper manner, a few well-chosen words of description for each person. At the foot there's a list of minor characters; here, assorted cats, dogs, art historians, ghosts and villagers. You know you're in good hands with a book that starts thus, don't you!

A Crowded Coffin is a sequel to Murder Fortissimo which I reviewed enthusiastically here a year ago. I note that then I approved of Harriet Quigley, retired headmistress, for her cautious approach to investigation; hmm, perhaps that was her convalescent status in the first book, because here she's a good deal more gung-ho. Okay, she always convinces herself there's a good reason not to wait but, like her cousin Sam, I keep wanting to tell her to be more careful! And that a young artist who's recovering from a long period of privation ought to be tucked up in bed at night, and not recruited to go hunting criminals in the dark with women who ought to know better! Maybe Sam is right and Harriet is just a bit too keen on becoming the Miss Marple of Locksley.

Events here are very much focused on Harriet and her family. Sam is moving in next door, something they both anticipate with pleasure. Meanwhile another cousin, Walter Attlin, has had a accident in which he was knocked down by a car. His grand-daughter Edith comes rushing home from the States where she's been working for several years, full of concern and determined to stay and look after her grandparents. She finds Walter's making a good recovery, except for insisting that someone did it on purpose. There are new people sharing her family home now, too: Karen the housekeeper and her Polish husband, and Rory Attlin, an artist who seems to be a hitherto unheard-of relation.

Edith and Harriet are both very concerned about the apparent attack on Walter, although he now refuses to say any more about it. Harriet is also curious about a young archivist who disappeared after visiting the local pub, and then there are the figures spotted moving around after dark near the Attlins' farm. There are newcomers to the village too -- could one of them be responsible for Walter's "accident"? There do seem to be a number of suspiciously dented cars around...

Not listed in the Dramatis Personae is the Attlin family's farmhouse, although you feel it should be there; once known as the Angel House, Locksley Farm Place dates back centuries, perhaps to a Roman villa on the same site. The author conveys the sense of the house's age and antiquity seamlessly, as Rory learns its history and explores its nooks and crannies, and the reader is left with an impression of great solidity and warmth which permeates the whole book, transforming it from just another murder-mystery into an intimate experience. Harriet Quigley is rapidly joining Sheila Malory as an old-friend-of-the-family who just happens to get involved in mysteries, and I look forward to hearing about her further exploits!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Lucia on Holiday by Guy Fraser-Sampson

As a long time aficionado of E.F. Benson I was absolutely delighted to be offered the opportunity by the nice people at Lovereading to read and review a new addition to the delicious Mapp and Lucia books, Lucia on Holiday.

The first thing to be said is that I am no expert on Lucia, much as I love her. Nonetheless, it seems very clear to me that Guy Fraser-Sampson has caught both the tone and the spirit of Tilling and its denizens (I find myself much inclined to think outside my usual vocabulary and possibly even to essay un po italiano) – I was already laughing while still on the Introduction. The story begins with Lucia, having made some money on the stockmarket, deciding that Georgie should choose the holiday of his desires (and then, perhaps, he will appreciate her properly). What she doesn’t intend is that Georgie should consult his old friend from their Riseholme days, Olga Bracely, and come up with a plan which will avoid days spent trailing in Lucia’s wake around museums and other cultural delights: they will go to the Italian resort of Bellagio, where there is nothing very much except a hotel, although one beautifully situated on the shores of Lake Como. She doesn’t intend, too, that not only Olga, but horror of horrors! the Mapp-Flints should also head for Bellagio, although the reader, of course, knows that this is inevitable the moment the tickets are booked. If Lucia had realised that the Mapp-Flints were going to encroach on her holiday, she would no doubt have changed her plans at the last minute, but Elizabeth, knowing this, makes sure that Lucia’s arrival at the hotel will be accompanied by the “joy unconfined” of finding Elizabeth and Major Benjy already in residence. A battle for supremacy immediately ensues and any weapon -- foreign royalty, enormous Bugattis, famous Italians, sundry countesses -- is fair game.

Lucia, who said elsewhere, and no doubt believed as she uttered it, “Nobody shall be able to say of me that I caused splits and dissensions. ‘One and all,’ as you know, is my favourite motto” sails through the pages with all her usual aplomb, always emerging unscathed from Elizabeth’s attempts at sabotage.  She is more vulnerable, though she chooses to look on it simply with mild disapproval, to Georgie’s friendship with Olga  -- they share a sense of humour, something which is singularly lacking in the divine Lucia. Indeed, she sails close to disaster, prepared to gamble both wealth and marriage on her conviction that she is always in the right. But the Wall Street Crash looms and she may, this time, have pushed Georgie too far. Will she survive?

The major departure from E.F. Benson is that Guy Fraser-Sampson allows the real world to intervene -- it's hard to imagine that Benson, who managed never to mention the war that had torn Europe apart, would have tackled the impending financial crisis head on, or introduced the notorious Gabriele D'Annunzio as a character (to great effect). As with Benson, though, lightness of touch is all.

This lovely bit of froth is a worthy addition to the Mapp and Lucia canon, just what you need on a winter weekend to transport you to the shores of Lake Como where you can sit and sip a prosecco (or a Negroni) on the terrace. Delicious!