Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm with a Percy Special

Properly speaking the Percy Special appears to be associated with the English/Scottish Borders so Yorkshire (Sergeant Cluff's home) would be at the southern most edge of its reach, but people need to be warned, and the thing is in the spirit of the books setting.

Written in the late 1950's/early 1960's the two Cluff books I've read are best described as Yorkshire noir (original write up Here). They're bleak, brutal, and very British in the 'Get Carter' mold. From memory Cluff mostly drinks beer, or brandy, but as the brother of a well enough to do farmer in a county where there's both hunting and shooting a Percy Special is a distinct possibility. It's the kind of no nonsense, strong, drink that you could expect any farmhouse kitchen to be able to rustle up.

It's a concoction attributed to the 10th Duke of Northumberland (1914 -1988), and quite possibly invented with malice aforethought, the Percy Special is simply equal parts cherry brandy and whisky. I first encountered it one new year in the Scottish Borders, it came in a fairly large, full, tumbler, and despite protests was followed by another. It pretty much did for me.

It's very much associated with hunting and shooting both of which tend to start with strong spirits, and it's a good hip flask option for cold days on the side of a hill. Or inside after a day out in the cold. It'll certainly warm you up. It is not sensible to drink it by the tumblerfull, and beware old lady's who tell you otherwise. Nevertheless it has become something of a New Years tradition to drink this at least once, and in moderation I like it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Poisened Chocolates Case with a Café Kirsch

Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox) was the founder of the Detection Club, and to quote Agatha Christie "All his stories are amusing, intriguing, and he is the master of the final twist"and 'The Poisened Chocolates Case' is one of the classics of golden age detective fiction. It's sort of an expansion on one of his short stories "The Avenging Chance", where a box of chocolates is sent to a gentleman, at his club, who decides he doesn't want them. Just as he's about to bin them a fellow member takes them off his hands. After sharing them with his wife, he's very ill, she, who ate rather more, dies. So who was the intended victim, and who was the murderer?

In "The Poisened Chocolate Case' the police at something of a dead end put the problem before Berkeley's detective, Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle - 6 amateur sleuths. Each come up with a different solution, each one more convincing than it's predecessor - before that final twist. In this edition there's also an alternative ending from Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, and a new soloution from Martin Edwards (I dream of being something like half as productive as Martin Edwards).

The old Cocktails and drinks I'd turned up that specifically mention chocolate didn't sound very appealing (egg yolks, cocoa powder, and spirits I neither have, or want to have) and then 'The Cocktail Book' arrived. This was first printed in 1900, and is the first book devoted purely to the cocktail (earlier books, like Jerry Thomas, are more general). This edition from the British Library will be officially published in October, so I'm very grateful for my early copy.

There is a Café Kirsch in the Savoy Coctail book, but it's a little bit more complicated than this one, and what I principally like about this version is it's simplicity. It asks for half a cup of hot strong black coffee, and a pony of Kirsch. Fill a glass half full of fine ice, add the Kirsch and coffee, shake (I assume in a shaker, not stirred in the glass, but instructions are vague) strain into a Cocktail glass and drink. It's cold, light, not to alcoholic (I may have used the equivalent of a Shetland pony) and quite refreshing.

However, I made this on the night of the Perseid meteor shower, and when I went to the only place I could look for them from (the rubbish shoot on the next floor up from my flat is outside, it wasn't a great view, and a spectacularly unromantic setting, but I saw a few shooting stars and they made it magical), I used the last of the coffee to make a still warm version - which was even better. Warm enough to keep the slight chill of an August in England night and the slight bitterness of the cold coffee at bay, it also bought out the cherry flavour of the Kirsch a little more.

The cherry and coffee combination is just enough to hint at a superior (un-poisoned) liqueur chocolate without being in any way sweet or cloying, it's not so strong as to interrupt concentration, and altogether has the feeling of a slightly illicit treat to accompany a book with.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Murder in Piccadilly with a Clover Club

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston has all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama - boy with expectations meets a dancer in a nightclub, he fancies her, she fancies his expectations, but the wealthy uncle refuses to stump up any cash (the boy doesn't seem inclined to make his own money). Then there are some shady clubland characters who have an agenda of their own regarding the money, so who wielded the knife that kills the wealthy uncle in the middle of a Piccadilly crowd?

I wonder if careful parents or guardians still worry about their sons coming home with a girl from the chorus line (I feel sure there are villages in the Home Counties where they very likely do)? And whilst this may be the gin talking, just thinking about this book leaves me torn between pulling it off the shelf for a good read, or hunting out my collection of Fred Astaire films - they're both much the same vintage, the book having been published in 1936.

I'd been eyeing up the clover club for a few days, on the one hand it sounded good, on the other it involves raw egg white - which puts me off. In the past whenever a cocktail involves egg white I've simply omitted it, it's there for texture rather than taste so the flavour isn't compromised if you do that. However, I really felt I should make the effort and keep the egg this time - turns out it's not revolting (please don't let me get salmonella on the back of this). The egg white emulsifiers into a frothy head, which is actually quite pretty, and combined with the bright pink colour, and the sherbety hit that the combination of lime and grenadine brings, along with the kick of gin - well it could have been a coctail designed for Lorelei in Anita Loos 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes'.

It's history predates prohibition, apparently it comes from Philadelphia's Clover Club, and it seems to have been around since the very early part of the twentieth century. I made the Savoy cocktail book version partly because it's about the same vintage as the book, so I can assume that anyone in the West end asking for a 'Clover Club' in the 1930's would have had something like this, and also because I prefer the way the recipes are broken down into simple proportions. In this case you take juice of half a lemon or 1 lime, the white of one egg, 1/3 of grenadine, and 2/3rds of gin. Shake well over ice and strain into a glass.

I've seen it suggested that you dry shake (without ice) for up to a minute to get the egg to foam then add ice and shake until cold. I didn't find this neccesary, but I did use a fresh egg (the whites are less runny). In this case the Grenadine adds the sweet element, but I've seen recipes which use raspberry syrup, or in the case of This version from the Martin Millers website, fresh raspberries and sugar syrup (though halving egg whites sounds like a pain). Add a sprig of mint to the glass and you have a Clover Leaf.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Quick Curtain with a French 75

Had 'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' (the collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by the indefatigable Martin Edwards) come up on my Amazon recommends list I probably wouldn't have payed it much attention. Luckily I heard about it at the Bodies from the Library event at the British Library early this summer where it was selling like hot cakes. It turned out to be an absolute treasure trove of a book. It's 3 years worth of Sayers reviews for the Sunday Times, and they're delightful.

I mention it because Sayers reviewed Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain' on the 2nd of December 1934. She didn't approve of it in the least because Melville basically drives a horse and coaches through the whole thing, absolutely refusing to take the genre in the least bit seriously. She also says "His satire tends to be shrill and obvious, and includes several thinly veiled personal attacks" (intriguing). I loved it for all the reasons she did not (original post Here).

Alan Melville knew the world of theatre and television, it was his day job, and that really comes across here. I have no idea who he was digging his pen into, but age has mellowed any bite that might have had and this book is tremendous fun.

The French 75 is a classic coctail that seems to have been first recorded in thevSavoy Cocktail book. It's allegedly named for the 75ml Howitzers the French used in the First World War - known for their speed and accuracy, the drink is meant to be similarly effective. I tried this out in my mother at the weekend, we both felt that there's probably a lot of truth in that. They're lethal, but also really good.

There are various recipes around for this one that give very specific measurements for each component but I'm going to stick with the Savoy version that simply calls for 2/3rds Gin, 1/3rd lemon juice and 1 spoonful of powdered sugar (or use sugar syrup - about half as much as the lemon juice). Shake the sugar, lemon and gin over ice, strain into a flute and top up with well chilled champagne.

It tastes like lemonade, but it really isn't. It seems just the thing for Melville's glamorous leading lady, and is a great way to spend a Saturday night with my mother (my sister says we're not allowed to do this again, and are old enough to know better. We don't agree). It doesn't have to be Champagne, although if it isn't I'd choose sparkling wines that use the same grapes and method rather than cava or prosecco. It just seems more in the spirit if the thing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Death of an Airman with an 'Atta Boy'

I notice when I first wrote about death of an airman it was around the time of the last (not great) Tommy and Tuppence adaptation. At the moment there's talk of another tv version of Pride and Prejudice - and much as I love both Agatha Christie and Jane Austen there are so many other great books which would be fun, and fresh, to watch. 'Death of an Airman' is just such an article.

The action mostly takes place around Baston airfield. An Australian Bishop has turned up for flying lessons (a huge diocese makes flying between parishes a sensible option) where he's unlucky enough to witness the tragic death of George Furness, one of the instructors and a talented pilot. The question is, was it an accident, suicide, or murder... It's the bishop, who has a bit of medical experience, who notices the discrepancy over the rigor mortis times and quietly alerts the police.

Soon Scotland Yard are involved and a much wider criminal undertaking uncovered but who's running it, and just how many people are involved? It's a clever scheme, a good story, and has a satisfactory ending. Sprigg allows himself some funny lines and situations by way of light relief but never distracts from the seriousness of the crime. Setting the murder in a community of aviators adds a certain romance and heroism as well. There is the feeling that all these people treat life and death as a slight matter - as a generation that survived the First World War might, they're not callous, it's just that they've already seen such a lot.

I loved the flying Bishop, he's a wonderful character, I also liked the bar scenes in the flying club where I feel the drink really ought to have been an Aviation, it sounds like exactly the sort of cocktail I like (i.e heavy on gin and lemon juice) but to make it properly you need Crème de Violette - which isn't impossible to find, but it's a niche product that I don't really need.

The Gin Foundry gives a recipe based on the first published version (Hugo R. Ensslin's from 1916) and calls for 50ml of gin (they suggest Bombay or Aviation) 10ml of Créme de Violette (which gives it a very pretty colour) 15ml of Maraschino (I'm beginning to think I do need a bottle of this, but am holding out against temptation) and 15ml of fresh lemon juice. Shake over ice, strain and pour. Garnish with a candied Violet.

Harry Craddock corrupts that slightly in the Savoy cocktail book, his recipe is 1/3 rd lemon juice, 2/3rds gin and 2 dashes of maraschino shaken and strained into a glass. If I was drinking this I'd want the Violette and the violets, and I'd want it in a nice bar.

The Atta Boy also comes from the Savoy cocktail book, and is another member of the martini family. It's a simple 2/3rds Gin, 1/3rd French vermouth, and 4 dashes of grenadine. I assume a dash is similar to a drop, so added the grenadine sparingly - just enough to provide a very delicate pink tinge to the drink and a hint of fruit. The vermouth was dry and the gin packs a punch so that pale pink belies the kick this drink has, but I'm sipping it as I write this with increasing approval. It might not be as sophisticated as the Aviation, but then Baston aero club didn't sound so very smart either, somon the end I think the Atta Boy catches the spirit of the book rather better.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Murder of a Lady with White Wine Cup

'Murder of a Lady' by Anthony Wynne is set deep in the Scottish highlands (well on the shores of Loch Fyne, which is Highland enough for me) and is a tremendous locked for mystery. Mary Gregor is found dead in her room, the only clue a fish scale. At first there's shock, she's the lairds sister and a considerable personality in local circles, but as we slowly learn more about her the idea that someone wanted her dead becomes easier to understand. Meanwhile the body count keeps tiding, with the same Gish scale clues - the natives start muttering about a mythical sea beast - the actual explanation is almost as far fetched, and also wonderful.

I have a soft spot for books like this. There's a tongue in cheek feel about the whole thing, almost as if Wynne is daring the reader to pull him up on his plotting, but I want to see what he can get away with almost as much as I think he does.

Being a Scottish mystery this might have been an opportunity to look for something whisky based, but I think Duchlan Castle is the sort of late Victorian monstrosity that would have prided itself on its hospitality, and ruled as it was by Mary Gregor, I feel sure there would have been some sort of Wine Cup which would have made an appearance at any large gathering.

Apart from Pimm's and cheap Pimm's knock offs alcoholic cups seem to have rather fallen from favour (they have found here anyway). Sipsmiths do a very good 'London Cup' which I really struggle to sell, and there are one or two others on the market, mostly gin based, but they're not something customers talk about or I come across nearly enough. Which is a shame.

For parties of any sort a Wine Cup is an excellent idea scaled up or down according to need - basically if you'd make a jug of Pimm's you could make this instead, and any left over will keep perfectly well for the next day. There are dozens of variations on the theme, and plenty of room for improvisation at home, but I really like the sound of this one from Arabella Boxer's 'Book of English Food', she found it in Rosemary Hume's 'Party Food and Drink'.

2 Bottles of dry white wine, 450ml soda water, 1 smallish glassful of brandy, 1 smallish wine glassful of elderflower syrup or cordial, a sliced lemon, strawberries, cucumber rind, borage (if you grow it) and ice. Mix all together a couple of hours before serving.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

the Secret of High Eldersham with a 'Bloodhound'

'The Secret of High Eldersham' is a terrifically melodramatic book full of murder, mayhem. Devil worship, kidnap, and smuggling. There's also a glamorous heroine to get in and out of trouble. It's a little bit silly, overblown, and tremendous fun, but even so Miles Burton (one of Cecil Street's pseudonyms) manages to get a genuine sense of menace into proceedings when he wants to.

In crime fiction terms you can't really go wrong with a bit of devil worship as a dramatic device. It gives you ample opportunity for flaming torches, shadowy figures, sharp knives, and unspeakable practices (all the better for being left at least partly to the imagination). There's also the underlying suspicion that something sinister is almost always going on in the countryside. When Burton was writing this between the wars (The Secret of High Eldersham was published in 1930) remote villages could still be genuinely isolated and relatively primitive places. Plenty of houses would have been without phones, electricity, running water, or cars - who knows what old beliefs and superstitious practices could linger on in places like that where almost everyone would be related to each other, and strangers a rare occurrence...

I felt I had to make a Bloodhound for this series as soon as I saw it (in the Savoy cocktail book) because with a name like that how could I not? The suggestion of blood in its red colouring, and name, as well as it essentially being a riff on a martini made it a good match both for the devil worshipping denizens of High Eldersham and for Mavis Owerton, the heroine from the big house with a love of fast cars and speed boats.

It did however raise the vexed question of vermouth. Vermouth is a handy thing to have about a kitchen, it's useful for plenty of recipes, and neccesary for a good martini, but it doesn't keep well. A Bloodhound calls for 1 part French vermouth, 1 part Italian, 2 parts Gin, and 2 or 3 crushed strawberries (shaken with ice, and strained into a cocktail glass). I don't want 2 bottles of vermouth open at the same time if I can help it, and Italian vermouth is a bit vague. The Italians make lots of things that could answer that description in a whole range of colours and levels of relative sweet to dryness.

A bit of research suggested that something sweeter and red was probably intended, so with slight reluctance I opened a bottle of Spanish vermouth (made by the sherry people, Lustau) that I had. I really didn't want to buy another bottle despite the number of cocktail options that it would open up, because I'm not that serious about making cocktails as a regular thing. I can't answer for how authentic the result was but it certainly tasted like something I imagine Bertie Wooster would have drunk with enthusiasm.

Crushing the strawberries was a slightly messy exercise, and whilst I quite liked this one, I didn't love it. I'd make it again, but only if I particularly wanted a 1920's/30's theme for an occasion

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Female Detective with a Black Velvet

Andrew Forrester's 'The Female Detective' is possibly the original Lady Detective. She appeared in print in 1864, as did William Hayward Smith's 'Lady Detective'. The British Library editions have 'The Female Detective' as the first, but in 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime' the editor, Michael Simms, has them the other way around, either way it took more than twenty years for more female detectives to join them.

The Penguin book is an excellent introduction to a number of female detectives, invented at a time when the very idea must have been faintly outrageous. That the Lady Detective making her revelations on my copy (an early British Library reprint with what I assume is the original cover reproduced in it) has a young woman on the cover who is not only lifting her skirts to reveal a good bit of ankle under her crinoline, but she's smoking, there's also what looks a lot like a pint glass with some straws in it next to her.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that having met, and liked, both of these resourceful ladies in the Penguin collection, I bought the British Library books and still haven't read them. It's an awful oversight, and one which I'll put right as soon as I can.

The Black Velvet is roughly contemporary with both of these books, there is a story I very much want to believe that says it was invented at Brook's Club after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, so that even the Champagne had the appearance of wearing a black armband. It's made in a pilsner glass or champagne flute, is half and half champagne and stout (Guinness is the obvious choice for this one because it's everywhere, but if I can find it I'd use something like Samuel Smith's Imperial stout because that's how much I want the Prince Albert story to be true). Put the champagne in the glass first, and gently pour the stout in, over a spoon if it helps, so that it floats on top of the fizz.

What I find so attractive about this story is the way it slyly subverts notions of Victorian mourning rituals, in much the same way that 'The Female Detective' and her sister subvert the cliches of Victorian womanhood. They may have been aberrations, far ahead of their time, but there was also clearly a market for them. As for the Black Velvet - there's something affectionately tongue in cheek about drinking it as a tribute to the departed.

Even if it wasn't invented at Brook's (Difford's guide, and I'm indebted to a man on Twitter for this information, suggests another origin - the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin says they did it first, and date it to the 1870's - it may be so) it's still a drink with a venerable history, and the mix of aristocratic champagne and workmanlike stout is surprisingly appealing. If you haven't tried this before it's better than it sounds, as well as a chance to drink like a Victorian (lady Detective).

Friday, August 11, 2017

Verdict of Twelve with a 'Rose'

The British Library's Crime Classics series has unearthed all sorts of books. Some whose appeal is based on nostalgia, atmosphere, location, and period mannerisms as much as plotting or quality of writing, and some where it's genuinely baffling to try and work out why they ever went out of print.

Raymond Postgate's 'Verdict of Twelve' is one of the latter sort, inreally do most understand why it languished so long in obscurity, and honestly, unless you actively dislike vintage crime this is a book worth going to some effort to seek out. It's split into roughly three parts, the first explores the back stories of some of a jury about to hear a case. These histories are not quite what anyone might expect, but all are deeply compelling, they also explain the conclusions the jurors will later reach.

The second part of the book describes the events which lead up to the trial, including a possibly vital clue to the frame of mind of the deceased in the form of a short story by Saki. Finally we have the trial where a middle aged woman is accused of murdering her ward, a sort of nephew by marriage. The question of did she, or didn't she, remains very much open until a sort of afterword clears it up. What makes this book so very good though, is not finding out what happened, but in following the principle players as it all unfolds. It really is a tremendous book.

The woman in the dock is Rosalie Van Beer, a shop girl who married a soldier 'above her station' in the heady days of the First World War when there wasn't time to think, or waste. Her husband was killed at the front, her husbands family pension her off and pretty much wash their hands of her. Rosalie is sinking into good natured alcoholism and low company when the deaths of her first husbands brother, and father, leave her in a position to move into the family home and take up guardianship of young Philip. In doing so she becomes socially isolated- to grand for her old friends, unacceptably vulgar to the county set her father in law would have belonged to. The drinking becomes less good natured.

She's not an attractive character, but she's fascinating, and I wanted a drink that reflected her history. After a bit of digging through the Savoy cocktail book I found a Rose Cocktail (French style No. 2). It sounded like a good fit, but I wasn't sure how it would taste, the answer to that was surprisingly good. It calls for 1 part cherry brandy, 1 part Kirsch, 2 parts Gin, stirred well with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. The colour was an attractive dusty pink, and the flavour deceptively benign for something that packs quite a punch. The cherry brandy provides sufficient sweetness to take the edge off the gin and kirsch.

There's the echo with Rosalie's name, and the possibility that this is the sort of romantically named drink a young officer might have bought his girl on a night out somewhere smart before going to the front. It's also got more than enough alcohol in it to satisfy a fairly hard drinker.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mystery in White with Hot Spiced Rum

I've just been reading my original review for Mystery in White, written in October 2014, just before it became a surprise Christmas best seller that year. My hope that it would be successful enough to bring more of Farjeon's work back into print has been more than met.

I really loved this one, not least for the way it almost turned into a ghost story, but also because there's something delicious about the set up; a group of strangers find themselves stranded in a country house with no way out and the deepening suspicion that one of them is a murderer. It's a well used device but it's always going to work when it's handled well (as it is here).

I've never been snowed in anywhere with a murderer, but I have been snowed into houses in the country a couple of times and am familiar with the lurking sense of claustrophobia and worry about supplies (one new year in Shetland we were down to left over sprout soup, it's fair to say we were desperate to get out by then, a well stocked cellar really helped us get through it though.)

There are other times when the weather is a welcome excuse to stay in - the torrential rain that we had earlier this week looked much better from an armchair than it did the pavement, and it was certainly cold enough to give me the push to finally try hot buttered rum. In August.

This is a drink that has a venerable history, and that has always sounded good until I started to think about the butter element - when visions of greasy fat floating in my drink have put me off. Seeing hot rum recipes in Jerry Thomas made me overcome my reservations and give it a go however, and it was much better than I hoped.

He says use a small bar glass, one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of mixed spice, one wineglass of Jamaica rum, one piece of butter as large as half a chestnut. Fill the tumbler with hot water. An alternative, which I'll try the moment I'm cold enough again, is to swap the mixed spice for a grate of nutmeg.

I take the specification for Jamaica rum to mean anything that's not white rum would be fine, and opted for a small measure, and a correspondingly smaller amount of sugar, spice, and butter. All stirred up the butter gave the drink a slightly silky mouthfeel without being greasy and the whole thing was warm, fragrantly spiced, and pleasantly sweet. Exactly what you would want if you'd come in from the snow, or out of the rain, or to sit with late in a garden watching stars (and any other excuse that comes to mind). I particularly like this version for it's simplicity, making it was as little effort as making a cup of tea.