Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kingdom Come at the RSC

R and I haven't been to Stratford as often as we generally do this year (though we're making up for it with two visits in 5 days here), that's mostly because the theme has been Rome which hasn't captured our joint imaginations as much as some other seasons have. But then her parents turned up with glowing reports of how good 'Kingdom Come' was so we compared diaries, realised we were both free 2 days later, booked tickets and went.

It's the first time I've been in 'The Other Place' since it was reopened last year - and very nice it is too. The foyer is one big Café and feels particularly welcoming. The ticket price was also welcoming, £10, for which I'm more than happy to take a chance on something that says it's immersive and features nudity. 


The year is 1640, parliament is rebellious, and King Charles 1 is playing a god in a court masque. We know how this ends. One of the things I really liked about The Other Place is the way it feels like a box, the chairs we sat in were divided from the stage space by a row of lights on the floor about 2 feet in front of us - it makes it very easy to pull the audience into the play, or push them out, with a few props or bits of scenery. 

The Masque ends with Charles on trial, and then the audience is urged to follow the cast through the building (into the scene dock) to witness his execution. I imagine the mood of the audience makes a considerable difference here, our audience was muted, which contributed to a specific mood, change the audience and I guess you change the mood with it (I'd happily go back to test that theory). Anyway, huddled in a dark room, surrounded by scaffold, jostling for a view, whilst also trying to hang back a bit (just in case), and movement around the room that you could hear rather than see was very effectively immersive. 

The third act deals with the reality of puritan rule, mostly through the eyes of a troop of actors, and has the most obvious parallels to contemporary issues  (such as religious tolerance, and intolerance, attitudes towards gender, personal freedom, PTSD), although all things considered it's done with a light touch. There are also a series of beautifully lit (chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have been proud of) tableaux that recall seventeenth century genre paintings. It really made me wish that I could have taken pictures - it was mesmerising (I'd also have liked to see if I could match some of those tableaux to actual paintings). The effect echoed both the carefully created images of a world seen through Instagram, but also to suggest a nostalgic longing for good old days. 

The FT described this as an honours failure, the Guardian gave itva more enthusiastic 4 stars. I'm with the Gaurdian. It was thought provoking, visually and orally delightful, unexpectedly exciting to be able to move around the building, and altogether invigorating. We both came out feeling deeply enthusiastic, and ready to take a chance on pretty much anything the Other Place decides to put on. 

Kingdom Come is on until the 30th of September and is absolutely worth taking a chance on if you're  in or near Stratford between now and then. 


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Vineyard Cake from Sweet

The promise of this cake was what sold me on 'Sweet', Vineyard cake, also called Cleopatra cake, is filled with grapes, and uses most of a bottle of Muscat - that's an attractive combination for a wine merchant.

Closer inspection of the recipe shows that it wants an inconvenient amount of Muscat - 450ml, we sell bottles of the suggested Muscat Beaumes de Venise in 375ml bottles, and I knew I had an elderly half bottle of Californian Muscat at home needed using (if it was still okay). Because of the size of the original recipe it also needs to be made in a chiffon or angel food cake tin, which I don't have either. A bundt tin won't do because there's a sugar crust and grapes on top of it, which is where you want them to stay.

Happily it was an easy recipe to half, so I made it as a loaf cake instead, and it's cooked through beautifully. The old bottle of Muscat I had (2009 vintage) was past it's best but still basically sound. There's no point in cooking with wine that's corked (cork taint smells and tastes like musty cardboard,  it's caused by a bacteria in the cork, and nothing will fix it), oxidised, or otherwise faulty. Wine that is older than it should be to be at its best is slightly different. As it ages it loses its fruit flavours, which is what was happening to my Muscat, but it still had enough of its distinctive sweet grapey character to be drinkable, and as cooking it would have much the same effect on it as aging had, I was happy to use it. For future baking I'll be looking for 500ml bottles of moscatel (basically the same grape, but Spanish rather than French) though I'm also curious to see how it might work with a pale cream sherry.

Meanwhile, grease and flour a 2 pound loaf tin, wash and slice lengthways 50g of seedless grapes (which turned out to be far fewer than I expected) and finely grate the zest of a lemon and half an orange. Preheat the oven to 210°C/190°c fan oven/gas 6.

Take 170g of caster sugar, 90g of butter at room temp, 40 ml of olive oil, and the scraped seeds of half a vanilla pod and mix for a couple of minutes until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating well each time, and then take 250g of plain flour, a good pinch of salt, 1 tsp of baking powder, and 1/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda and add about a third of it to the mix followed by half the (225ml's total) of wine, blend and then add half the remaining flour and the rest of the wine, followed by the rest of the flour.

Pour the batter in the tin, scatter the grapes evenly across the top, and put in the oven. Now take 35g of caster sugar and 35g of butter and mix in a small bowl until it's a thick paste. Wash and half another 50g of grapes (no longer surprised at how few that is) and when the cake has been in the oven 15-20 minutes carefully remove it and spread the sugar crust evenly over the top, breaking it into small pieces as you go, scatter the grapes on top of it and stick it back in the oven, wearing the temperature to 180°c/160° fan/ Gas 4 and continue to bake for another half hour or so until a skewer comes out of the cake clean. Allow to cool for half an hour in the tin before removing.

It's a gloriously light cake, with an attractive grapey, almost incense smokey note from the Muscat (you can smell the wine, it's great). It's very good with a cup of coffee but I'm going to get that chiffon tin because I think this would be a brilliant dinner party cake (possibly with some whipped cream laced with the remaining Muscat on the side). Apparently it keeps well - I'll report back on that.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sweet - Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh

Today has been a bank holiday lieu day, much needed after a couple of very hectic weeks at work have left me feeling thoroughly washed out. Initial plans to spend the morning walking a friends dog around the really beautiful Bradgate Park were rained off (we're not keen on the rain, her dog really hates it), and the doctors appointment that I had for today didn't turn out quite as I hoped it would either. 

Last year middle age inflicted a fallen arch on me, this turns out to be a really painful nuisance, and over the last couple of months has got far more so. Normally the really lovely doctor who deals with this kind of thing at my surgery sends me away with a simple exercise and advice regarding insoles or wrist straps (moving wine all day is liable to give you tennis and golfers elbows and some carpel tunnel issues). This time he's booked me in for an ultra sound - so no quick fix and a further reminder that I'm not as young as I used to be.

To cheer myself up and get the day back on track inwent and had a good look around Waterstones. Truthfully I would have done better to have gone straight home and actually read one of the Mountain of books that are waiting for me, but it's September and the pre Christmas releases are starting to appear. This is always an exciting time for cookbooks and I was tempted by a few; Sabrina Ghayour's 'Feasts' looks good, and although it's been out a couple of months so isn't precisely a new book, I really, really, want Tiko Tuskadze's 'Supra' on Georgian cooking. Every time I look at this book it tempts me more. I already bought Olia Hercules' 'Kaukasis' which touches on the same part of the world, and need to have a proper look at it before I buy another book on the same kind of food. Still, 'Supra' looks excellent, and every time I flick through a copy something else catches my eye and looks irresistible. 

Meanwhile I did get 'Sweet'. I had been on the fence about this before I saw it, previous Ottolenghi books have been full of things I'd like to eat, but not so much the sort of food I want to cook. This one  is different. Everything sounds special, the flavour combinations really appeal to me - apart from Baileys and Guinness cake, nothing can reconcile me to Baileys. The Vineyard cake, full of grapes and using really quite a lot of Muscat Beames de Venise sounds amazing though, or pineapple and star anise chiffon cake, or chocolate tart with hazelnut, Rosemary, and orange, or gingerbread with brandy apples and crème fraîche, or cinnamon pavlova, praline cream nod fresh figs, or prune cake with Armagnac and walnuts... the list goes on. 

It's not even necessarily about cooking these things, I should be avoiding sugar (but dear god, rum and raisin cake with rum caramel icing) they just sound so damn good that it's a book to live vicariously through. Though I will cook from it, and with enthusiasm, I just need to make sure I share, but I think I'll also be using it a lot as a jumping off point. It's making me think about flavour combinations new to me - this seems to be the moment when I finally 'get' Ottolenghi. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wightwick Manor

Given that it's only just over an hour away from me I don't know why it took me so long to find out about Wightwick Manor (there's a list of National Trust places like this that make me think they could be doing a better job of letting people know what's out there), but now I have I'm here to spread the word.

I read about Wightwick in an article someone had posted somewhere (details are hazy) about Pre Raphaelite houses. Wightwick is on the outskirts of Wolverhampton and sounded intriguing, the reviews for the cafe were also excellent (I can personally recommend the coconut and pineapple cake). We went today, which also turned out to be a heritage open day so entry was free which was a bonus that went some way towards mitigating the cost of (William Morris themed) umbrellas. It was sunny and dry when we set out, but that didn't last.

Wightwick Manor was to be the family home of the Manders, reasonably wealthy, and rising, industrialists from Wolverhampton, with keen social consciences. The project was started in 1887, and then the size of the house was doubled between 1892-3. The Manders taste ran to the arts and crafts so the went to Morris & Co for their wallpaper and various bits of furniture.

Geoffrey Mander, who inherited the house from his parents, seems to have shared both their taste and their socialism. In 1937 he gave the house, its contents, and an endowment to the National Trust. At that time it was still technically a modern house, but it was also a well preserved piece of late Victorian taste, and it's gone on to be something more. The Manders continued to live in the house and in partnership with the Trust further built the arts and crafts and Pre Raphaelite collection - this is an ongoing process.

There are some remarkable things here; an extensive collection of Rossetti's work, pieces by Elizabeth Siddel, Burne Jones, ceramics by William de Morgan, paintings by Evelyn de Morgan (there's also an extensive exhibition of both their work in the Malt House gallery which is quite stunning). There's also a wonderful Cecil Aldin freeze around the nursery wall. There is wonderful Pre Raphaelite stained glass - and essentially I would happily move in tomorrow.

If I had a criticism, it's that it isn't always clear what your looking at, the pictures aren't labelled and though some of the rooms had lists and guides that helped answer questions, not all did. Altogether though it's a brilliant opportunity to see the art against its intended background, and see the wallpapers and textiles together. The house itself is a delightfully romantic confection full of alcoves, hidden corners, and treasures. It is well worth visiting.







Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A New Piece of Art

Collecting art is one of the things that makes my heart sing, it's also something I spend a lot of time thinking, plotting, and planning over. Both budget and space are limited so decisions have to be made carefully - which is part of the fun of it. Will whatever I'm looking at work in my flat, will it work with everything else in my flat, is it light sensitive which limits where it can be hung, how will it be framed, do I really love it, and so on.

I have pictures on the wall that I've spent years considering before actually buying them and if they're still available after 2-3 years careful consideration it's clearly meant to be, and regrets, or buyers remorse, are unlikely (I've never regretted any of these purchases).

What I don't generally do is buy things online, not anything really (with the excelption of books where you basically know what you're getting anyway) but especially not pictures. The risk is that unless you're already quite familiar with the artists work, the small image on screen can look very different, and quite disappointing compared to expectation, in actual life. That's nobody's fault, it's just how it is.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I bought something online that I'd not had a chance to have a proper look at first and I'm beyond delighted with it. The piece in question is by Debbie George, I've admired pictures of her work for a while, but never managed to see anything first hand. (The only time I was anywhere near a gallery she exhibits in, it was closed). Then early this year I found The Edition Shop online, they sell original works under £200 with everything clearly priced.

The pricing thing is important. Look at works for sale on a lot of gallery websites and you won't find prices anywhere, a lot of artists websites miss them off as well and it's deeply frustrating, especially when you eventually do find a price and its way out of range of your budget.

Anyway, after watching a number of pictures I really liked get sold before I could make my mind up, infinally saw something I couldn't resist and bought it. Pictures from The Edition come unframed which is both a much cheaper way of buying things, and means that you get the frame you want (one that works with both the thing that's going in it, and the other framed things you already have). Their packing was excellent so my picture arrived both swiftly and in perfect condition, and again, I'm just so happy with this - which is why I'm telling you all about it!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heirloom Knitting - Sharon Miller

One of the great joys of blogging (and life generally, I cannot over sell how exciting this is) is that occasionally a highly coveted book will fall through your letterbox completely unexpectedly. Sharon Miller’s updated and enlarged new edition of ‘Heirloom Knitting A Shetland Lace and Pattern Workbook’ delivered that moment in spades.

It was even more exciting because I didn't even know it was being reprinted, and had become resigned to never seeing this seminal work. I first heard about it watching back the 'Authenticity in Culturally-Based Knitting' conference held at the Shetland Museum early last year (and if that sounds dry, it really wasn't - if it's still available to watch it's time well spent). It was the tremendously talented jeweller, Helen Robertson  saying what a game changer this book was that got my interest, but at the time it was out of print, and second hand copies were prohibitively expensive.

My interest in Knitting, especially Shetland knitting, is partly driven by its links to women's history and creativity (though it was by no means an exclusively female occupation, there are documented cases of men who were unable to earn money in any other way also turning to knitting to contribute to household finances). In many ways it's an undertold story, but the more I read and discover the more interesting it becomes.

Long story short, the best, most accomplished, Shetland lace is stunning stuff, and as a knitter I find there's something addictive about the process of creating even the most basic openwork pieces. And the reason I can create these basic pieces at all is largely thanks to the work that Sharon Miller did. Before Miller if traditional lace patterns were recorded at all it would have been in a string of barely comprehensible abbreviations (which may have been particular to individual knitters, and would have assumed a fairly advanced degree of proficiency). Women taught to knit by mothers and grandmothers from their earliest years rarely needed to write this stuff down.

What Miller did was come along, study the archive collection in Shetland, and then chart it. The basic techniques of increases via yarn overs, and decreases by knitting stitches together are not difficult (the refinements on the basics are another matter), and in chart form they're relatively easy to follow. It meant that knitters everywhere could have a go at this, including a generation of Shetland knitters who hadn't been taught how as a matter of course. More than that the documenting of fragile garments, or even recreating them from photographs is just generally a valuable exercise in preserving a record of the creativity of the original knitters.

That on its own would be more than enough, but this book does more than that. It records where the designs came from, who they're associated with, covers every aspect of how to knit them, how to dress them, how to preserve them, how to put motifs together, how to adapt and refine patterns . There's a collection of projects for every skill level and so much more.

Finally, one detail I really like is that all the illustrations of the individual stitch patterns are black and white, and look like they've been knitted in single ply Shetland cobweb yarn -

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Death in the Tunnel with a 'Maiden's Prayer'

This is the last of this series of books and booze posts, and probably the last cocktail I'll drink in a while (or maybe not, I've started to get into the habit now, and those bottles of vermouth need using). It's been a real pleasure doing the research for these drinks, after an enthusiastic attempt to master the art of cocktail making about 20 years ago I thought it was something I was really not very good at. It turns out that all I needed were good quality ingredients (vital) and to find drinks I actually like and that are simple to make at home. It's been just as much of a pleasure to take a good look at the British Library crime classics as a series rather than as individual books.

I've always been a fan of vintage fiction - for all sorts of reasons, so these books are absolutely my thing. It's fair to say that as novels some are considerably better than others, but even when I've not been totally convinced by one element of a book I've found other things of interest in it, and I've enjoyed every one of them I've read. The short story collections are, without exception, excellent, and just generally I'm looking forward to seeing whatever they turn up next.

Meanwhile 'Death in the Tunnel' (by Cecil Street writing as Miles Burton) is a good example of a bit of plotting that I didn't love, but a book that I still really enjoyed. Sir Wilfred Saxonby is traveling alone in a locked compartment on the 5 o'clock from Cannon Street. The train stops in a tunnel, and when it emerges again a few minutes later Sir Wilfred is dead, shot through the heart by a single bullet. The obvious conclusion is suicide, but something doesn't quite add up about that...

The Maiden's Prayer is fr Sir Wilfred's niece, Olivia Saxonby. Around 40, unmarried, and dependant on her uncle she acts as something between a companion and a housekeeper for him. Burton gives her circumstances (she is after all a possible suspect) quite a bit of consideration and in the process we get a sidelight on the options available for the interwar generation of surplus women. Living with her uncle, subject to his whims and strictures, doesn't sound like a lot of fun for Olivia, but her job options would have been limited anyway by both education and opportunity so giving into family pressure and filling this particular role makes sense.

Given the outlook for middle aged maidens it's not surprising that the Maiden's Prayer is essentially a stronger version of a white lady. 3/8ths Gin, 3/8ths Cointreau, 1/8th lemon juice, 1/8th orange juice all well shaken over ice and strained into a coctail glass (from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks'). The relative sweetness of the orange juice initially disguises the alcoholic heft of this drink (though now I've finished it, I have no doubt at all about it's kick) but this Prayer is heartfelt, and means business.

And that's the end of this books and booze series.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Notting Hill Mystery with a 'Brandy Smash'

'The Notting Hill Mystery' is one of the very early detective novels (1862-3, originally published, anonymously in serial form). It's told in the form of a report from an insurance agent, investigating after the wife of a mysterious Baron dies. If he hadn't taken out five sizeable life insurance policies on her, one after the other, mere weeks before she met her end it might not have looked quite as suspicious. The mystery here isn't who or why, but how, and how to prove it.

This was also one of the earlier books in the Crime Classics series, and whilst I'd bought the first couple (which specifically featured female detectives) I'd passed this one over. Reading about it a couple of weeks ago though, I saw that one of the characters has the same surname as me - which was enough of a push to send me out in search of a copy, and I started reading it yesterday. So far so good...

It also presented the perfect opportunity to go back to Jerry Thomas to look for a suitably contemporary drink. I found the Brandy Smash. Smashes, he tells us, are simply juleps on a small plan, instructions for making them with gin or whisky, as well as brandy, follow.

To make one take a teaspoon of white sugar, two tablespoons of water, 3 or 4 sprigs of mint, and a generous measure of brandy. Press the mint in the sugar and water to extract the flavour, add the brandy, and fill the glass 2/3rds full of shaved ice (ice in my case). Stir thoroughly and ornament with  a few sprigs of fresh mint, and  half a slice of orange. Beautify with berries in season.

I really like this combination of brandy, mint, with a bit of sweetness (I'll admit I didn't beautify with berries, but the possibility is intriguing). It's not a particularly strong drink, especially as the ice begins to melt, and if you've gone easy on the brandy, but it's extremely good late into a hot afternoon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Lake District Murder with a 'Sidecar'

John Bude's 'The Lake Distruct Murder' was the second of the British Library's Crime Classics I read, it was back in early 2014, I was careful not to give spoilers when I Wrote  about it, and I left my copy with my father (because I thought he'd enjoy it as much as I had) in the Borders. Which means the details are now hazy, and I can't check back to the book.

Never mind. I do remember enjoying it both for the descriptions of a bit of the country I've never managed to be in when it wasn't raining (so I'm taking those descriptions on trust) and for a plot that involved illicit booze along with the murder in the title.

I'm not sure that Inspector Meredith is really a cocktail man (though he seemed to enjoy a good cognac in 'Death on the Riviera', but his police bike has a sidecar, and I feel he might enjoy one of these if it came his way.

I had assumed that the Sidecar might have been a prohibition era cocktail (using lemon to disguise rough brandy), but it seems to have originated in Paris just after the First World War and was indeed named after the Sidecar on a motorbike. I've made the version from the Savoy Cocktail Book which is a simple 1 part lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts brandy, shaken over ice and strained. It seems the original Sidecar had more ingredients but they've been refined away with time. The French take on a Sidecar has equal amounts lemon, Brandy, and Cointreau which would make it slightly sweeter and a little weaker (some also put sugar round the rim of the glass).

In the Harry Craddock version the lemon and brandy both vie for dominance, the result is mouth-wateringly sharp, and for once tastes every bit as strong as it is. There's something quite uncompromising about it, which I like. It also feels like a distinctly masculine cocktail from the name down to the suggestion of expensive cologne that I associate with brandy (you can find the same notes on the nose from both, and I notice an increasing number of scents that describe themselves as having a brandy smell about them).

Inspector Meredith might not have drunk these, but some of the bars he was watching must have served them...


Monday, August 28, 2017

The 12.30 From Croydon with a 'Blue Train'

Freeman Wills Crofts seems to have been at the forefront of an increasing interest in phsycology as part of the make up of a crime, and as in 'Antidote to Venom' we know who the murderer is in this novel. What we don't know is how the police will get their man, who has an apparently sound alibi.

Every time I've tried to write on from there I've found myself giving far to many spoilers, so I'll just say this is a gripping story of (I'm quoting from the back blurb, but it's not wrong) intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification, and self delusion.

Although our murder victim is flying to Paris, the Blue Train that took the wealthy from Calais to the French Riviera (and is the setting for an Agatha Christie, amongst over literary appearances) seems quite in keeping with the spirit of the thing, not least because Freeman Wills Crofts was a railway engineer before he was a novelist.

One thing I've learnt from doing this series of posts is that a lot of Cocktails have duel identities, or are minute variations upon a theme. In the case of this particular 'Blue Train' (both recipes from The Savoy Cocktail Book) we have a 'White Lady' in disguise. The base for each is 1/4 lemon juice, 1/4 Cointreau, 1/2 dry gin shaken well with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. To make it a Blue Train you add a dash of blue food colouring.

The basic mix of lemon, Gin, and Cointreau occurs a few times, it's a good one - I've seen White Lady recipes that call for egg white as well, though I now recognise that as being a Fizz, and have always omitted them anyway. It's also a very potent cocktail which you truly realise about 5 minutes to late. I've made it using lavender infused gin (Lavander ladies...) which is delicious, and Rhubarb Gin (not bad, but not as good as I'd hoped, the Rhubarb flavour gets a little lost) and with Marmalade vodka when I had no Cointreau (like rocket fuel, but we had a good time anyway). I had never thought to add food colouring, which sounds a bit like a con on the bar tenders part in this case, but a charming one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Resorting to Murder with a 'Southside'

Holiday mysteries with what is essentially a gin mojito (or as I find no mention of mojitos in the Savoy Cocktail Book, perhaps it's more accurate to say that a mojito is a rum southside...) on a bank holiday weekend. It's a combination that could only be bettered if I didn't have to work tomorrow.

Golf courses, the English seaside, Paris, the Swiss mountains - there are all sorts of holiday possibilities here, though the number of unfortunate events (probably not covered by insurance either) that befall the holiday makers make me feel a little more sanguine about working rather than being away.

The Southside seems to have a number of incarnations, I went with the recipe I found on the Gin Foundry site - 8 leaves of mint, 4 part so gin, 2 parts fresh lime juice, 1 part sugar syrup - and it was good. Put everything in a shaker with plenty of ice, shake well, strain into a coctail glass and garnish with a mint leaf. Harry Craddock (Savoy Cocktail book) uses lemon, but I preferred the idea of lime, partly because I wanted the delicate green colouring.

Craddock also adds a dash of soda which according to the Gin Foundry would be a Southside fizz, add champagne and it would be a Royale. I like the sound of the soda version. I made also told this is really good with basil instead of mint, which I might try later tonight (I love basil, so expectations are high). However you make it, it's a gloriously fresh and late summery sort of a drink.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Crimson Snow with a 'Honeysuckle'

'Crimson Snow' is a collection of winter set mysteries, particularly good because in amongst the cheerfully over the top tales set against snowbound country houses there are a couple of much darker stories - ones with accidental victims or which murders committed in the pursuit of petty thefts. It gives the book a slightly different balance to the rest of the short story anthologies in the and suggests there's a lot more material and variety for these collections to cover yet.

I found the 'Honeysuckle' in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' and assumed it was simply a rum version of a hot toddy (although all of these books devote whole sections to the toddy so 'simply' maybe isn't the right word).

The instructions are to dissolve two teaspoonfuls of honey in a tumbler with boiling water, Add a slice of lemon, rum to your taste or discretion, fill up with hot water and stir well before sampling.

The result is hot, sweet, and satisfying. Much sweeter than the whisky toddys I normally make, and not quite what I expected. It's the honey that took centre stage in this, helped by the fact that I'm using a strongly flavoured, dark, Greek honey. My rum is Goslings Black Seal (a dark Bermuda rum) with a muscavado sugar note to it that blended in with the honey in a way that complimented and underlined it's character. The lemon stops it from being too sweet, but only just. Different honeys and rums would change the character of this one quite a lot (which sounds like hours of fun to me).

For obvious reasons I've always associated hot alcoholic drinks with winter, and this one is comforting and fragrant enough to brighten and warm the coldest of days (it's also making me wonder why we get so hung up on mulled wine when there are so many other very easy options out there) but turns out it's not just for Christmas.

It's not quite 9 o'clock and dark outside, and whilst it's not quite autumn, it is the end of August, and no matter how warm the days are there's a definite cooling off after sunset. Turns out this is a great drink to sit with whilst watching bats in the gathering dusk.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Miraculous Mysteries with a Gin and It

'Miraculous Mysteries' (edited by Martin Edwards) is a collection of locked door and other equally impossible crimes. I tend to think of these sort of puzzles as the ultimate expression of golden age detective fiction - the puzzle is all that matters, and though sometimes the solution and/or culprit are easy enough to guess it in no way diminishes the fun of finding out how the author will decide to resolve the problem they have set. That fun for both the reader and the author is a key part of these stories is evident from the way that in a couple of the examples Edwards chose for this collection the mystery is a hypothetical puzzle set by the detective (I found this unexpectedly satisfying). Reading them is rather like (successfully) doing a crossword.

I wondered about finding a drink that in some way did something unexpected, but decided instead to consider the Gin and It. The first time I saw this mentioned in a book I didn't really know what it was, eventually I realised the It stood for Italian. The drink is simplicity itself - it's 3 parts Gin to 1 part Italian vermouth, stirred over ice, and strained into a martini glass.

There's something about the combination of gin and vermouth that really makes me feel like I'm tasting those inter war years- probably because I've mostly discovered them reading vintage crime and thrillers. There's something about the smell as well that recalls certain equally vintage scents.

Traditionally French vermouth signified dry, and Italian sweet (I'm currently sipping a gin and Spanish because that's where my sweet vermouth is currently from, and it's the most glorious coppery gold colour depending on how the light catches it). Non of the recipes I've looked at specify what colour the vermouth should be, but I like the idea of going with something like Martini Rosso even if just for the colour.

There's a lot of macho nonsense talked about having Martinis so dry that the vermouth is merely waved at the gin. If you want to drink neat gin that's fine with me (do choose your Gin wisely if that's the route you're taking) but I find it quite hard work. Experiance suggests that most people actually prefer a 'wetter' martini, and if you're new to them the slightly sweeter Gin and It is a great place to start.

I'm not normally very fussy about shaking or stirring, I just want my drink cold (ice is essentially the key to a good cocktail) but Martinis should be stirred, the shaken thing is allegedly down to a joke between Ian Fleming and a bar tender who refused to shake them. The reason being that when you shake things the ice breaks and melts relatively quickly, shake it and your drink will be diluted, stir with a lot of ice and it will be much less so. Some people talk about the gin being bruised when you shake, but I doubt there's any actual science behind that.

For me the point in stirring here is that every drink deserves to be made with a certain amount of care, and the ritual of stirring is quietly satisfying.

The beauty of the 'Gin and It' or martinis generally is in their simplicity, and in using a good quality gin (doesn't have to be some £40 odd extra special bottle, just something well made and smooth, Martin Millers would be my first choice) and vermouth that hasn't lurked at the back of a cupboard for months on end quietly oxidising all the while.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Santa Klaus Murder with a Sloe Gin Ricky

In Mavis Dorial Hay's 'The Santa Klaus Murder' a family has gathered for Christmas, the patriarch turns out to be an unpleasant kind of man with a family full of characters who wouldn't be at all sorry to see him six feet under, or to be able to get rather closer to his money. Then he's done to death by someone in a Santa suit. This happens quite a lot in golden age crime fiction and it puts me in mind of the Austrian legend of Krampus, it also makes me think I was right to be terrified of men dressed up as Santa when I was a child (though that had more to do with an overpowering smell of whisky and sheep - from the sheeps wool beards they wore - than any idea that they might be homicidal maniacs).

Told mostly from the point of view of the chief constable who considers the family all to willing to lie, and gives us a less than flattering view of them, this is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery that also reminded me of why I don't like large family gatherings (normally it's a very drunk uncle rather than someone getting done in that ruins the occasion* but still)

The Gin Ricky has been my drink of the summer, but I hadn't really thought about using flavoured gin in it until I saw this in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks'. There's no right or wrong season for Sloe Gin, but I do tend to think of it as a wintery sort of liqueur - though as the sloes are coming ripe now it's a timely reminder to think about making some.

A Ricky is generally defined by its dryness, using Sloe Gin makes it a little sweeter so possibly more of a crowd pleaser too. It's simply a measure of Sloe Gin, the juice of half a lime, and plenty of ice in a tumbler topped up with sparkling water. A classic Ricky demands the shell of the lime too, but that makes it quite an astringent drink; you don't feel it's loss here. Good anytime, but definitely an excellent winter alternative to a gin and tonic.

*the last family Christmas thing involving too much of my family ended with one of my uncles roaming the corridors stark naked and very drunk before midnight. He's a short fat man well into his 60's who definitely looks better clothed. That was not the most annoying/disturbing thing he did that day.



Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Murder at the Manor with a 'Silver Bullet'

The 'Silver Bullet' was the cocktail I bought the 'Kümmel' for - or at least it was the one I'd heard of that uses it. Apparently a favourite of Prince Philip's (which is the sort of trivia I like) it's 2 parts Gin, 1 part Kümmel, 1 part lemon juice, all shaken over ice and strained into a coctail glass. (From the Savoy cocktail book). The citrus sharpness of the lemon juice along with the sweetness of the kümmel effectively disguise how potent this drink is, whilst the caraway/anise flavours from the kümmel make it taste distinctively individual. The gin provides backbone and structure.

I like caraway enough to really like this, and I love the name - it's almost as appropriate as The Bloodhound was (and will be the obvious drink to pair with the British Library's upcoming 'Silver Bullets' collection of werewolf stories - which I am keenly anticipating). It also feels like the genuine article as far as country house coctails go - that Prince Philip connection surely gives it impeccably aristocratic credentials, and as I mentioned before it does tend to be the tweedy sorts who ask for kümmel. It just seems right.

'Murder at the Manor' may well be my favourite Crime Classics anthology (edited by Martin Edwards), simply because I love a country house set mystery. It's the combination of the closed community within the house, the complex relationships between upstairs and downstairs, the possibility of secret passages and the like allowing scope for things to get both distinctly ghostly and gothic at times, and all the wonderful cliches that go with it. I find it all very satisfying.

I cannot adequately express how excited I am by this book, or how confident I am that it will meet my expectations. Last years 'Lost in a Pyramid' and 'The Haunted Library' were so very good that I can hardly wait to see how the werewolf stories in this collection develop.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Capital Crimes with a Dog's Nose

'Capital Crimes' is a collection of London based Mysteries, I wrote about it at slightly more length Here, so will content myself with saying that there are some real classics amongst the 17 stories here, and that I distinctly remember at least one of them making a dark walk home from the bus stop really creepy. It's probably also worth saying that the classic crime anthologies are all uniformly excellent. There are absolute gems here from some occasionally unexpected writers, and that some of the titles have become chapter headings in Martin Edwards 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' (he's edited all of these collections) gives a sense of the scope they cover. They're a brilliant way of exploring a theme in Crime writing over a good fifty year period - and I love them.

Meanwhile I've really made the effort on this one, sacrificing a bottle of stout (Brewdog's Jet Black Heart oatmeal milk stout - it's good, less bitter than Guinness, very dark and rich) that was ear marked for making Christmas puddings with. I've also made something hing I thought sounded revolting, in not one, but three versions, just to be thorough. Good news is it turned out not to be revolting.

I've sort of wanted to try Purl and it's close relative, the Dog's Nose ever since I first read about them a couple of years ago - but mostly out of curiosity, because the combination of gin and beer is not immediately appealing. (Also, apologies, this series wasn't meant to be 20+ things you can do with gin, with a few other things thrown in as an afterthought, but that's the way it's going.) warm beer and gin even less so. 

I have a few recipes for Purl - nothing says working London more to me than a combination of London dry gin and Porter (or stout), but the simpler Dog's Nose (because it's wet and black) sounded better. I can't for the life of me remember where I saw this written down, and can't find it anywhere obvious, but a search online threw up a couple of versions. It also tells me that Dickens mentioned it In The Pickwick Papers.

The most simple is a tot of gin topped up with porter/stout (if you were Wondering) in a ratio of about 12 to 1 and it's surprisingly good. The gin works well with the bitterness of the hops, and lifts the general heaviness of the beer. The second version was warm with a little bit of dark muscavado sugar and a grating of nutmeg across the top. On the whole this was the least appealing of the three on an August evening - I might feel differently about it on a cold, foggy, night - it bought out the bitterness in the beer which overwhelmed the other flavours. 

Finally I tried it at room temperature, stirring the sugar into the gin, then adding the stout, and grating the nutmeg over it - and really liked it. Again the gin lifts the beer, the juniper flavours working well with the citrusy elements of the hops, as does the nutmeg, and the sugar gives a richness to the whole lot. I'm raising that last glass to keeping an open mind. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Death of Anton with a 'Quelle Vie'

My criteria for choosing Cocktails for this series was to find things which I could make with what I already had in my kitchen, are simple to throw together, don't need to be set on fire, and don't require any special equipment (my cocktail shaker is at work, so I've been using a large jam jar, I've also been using a tablespoon for measuring because it's as good a way as any to control alcoholic intake, and a tea strainer - it's not the last word in sophistication but it all works). I've bought ice, quite a lot of lemons, a small bottle of grenadine (all of which left me with change from a fiver) and one other thing. They also have to suggest a book to me.

Ever since I got into the wine trade back in 1999 I've been intrigued by Kümmel (especially it's role in a Silver Bullet, more about which later) but I never got round to trying it. Now seemed like a good time, so I set about finding a bottle (1 likely shop had closed, 2nd likely shop didn't know what I was talking about, 3rd likely shop and upmarket bar told me nobody called Kümmel worked there - though they did later concede it sounded good)eventually I ordered it from Amazon, only to realise that I would have to be at home to take delivery - 10 days later I got my bottle.

Kümmel - if like half of Leicester you don't know, is a colourless, sweet, caraway and aniseed flavoured liqueur. The Whisky Exchange recommend drinking it chilled to within an inch of its life - which isn't generally a good sign. If you quite like Caraway you're on safe ground though. These days it's natural habitat, in the U.K. at least, is golf clubs (allegedly, I've never been in one so am taking that on trust) and amongst the shooting fraternity (I know that's true, because men with red faces sporting a nice line in tweed, keep asking for it for pre shoot drinks - I hope they found it easier to source than I did in the end). All of which gives it very specific connotations in my mind with old fashioned and rural pursuits.

I found the 'Quelle Vie' (what a life?) in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks', it felt right for a Monday night. It's a simple mix of 2/3rds brandy and 1/3 kümmel which I shook well with ice and strained into a glass (Heath seems to assume you'll know what to do with it). The Kümmel is more than sweet enough to disguise how strong this is, the caraway flavour blends surprisingly harmoniously with the brandy, just overlaying it in a way I'm finding very convincing. It has the general air of something to be taken as a restorative...

I was thinking of it as a country house sort of a drink, but then the name suggested Alan Melville's  Death of Anton. What a life indeed where an off duty policeman finds himself investigating the death of a tiger tamer, apparently mauled by his own tigers until it turns out he was shot. There's a tension about this book entirely missing from 'Quick Curtain', even if it shares the same showbizzy sort of background. The faintly exotic note of the Kümmel seems right for a circus too!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Antidote to Venom with a Gimlet

I wrote about Freeman Wills Crofts 'Antidote to Venom' Here as part of a 1938 book club (what I particularly like about Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs are the way they make me consider what's happening in the years the books are being written in and looking at them with that particular focus).

It's an interesting one both because it tells the story from the point of view of the murderer and because of the strong moral, and christian, message it concludes with. The protagonist is an outwardly successful man with a slightly weak character. He's unhappily married to a woman who came from a more affluent background and can't, or won't, understand that she needs to alter her expectations. A series of bad decisions culminate in murder, and whilst in this case the details of the crime are exaggeratedly elaborate George's downward spiral rings true.

Slowly but surely he digs himself into a hole that he doesn't have the strength of character to get out of, his moral compass increasingly compromised with every step. one of the things I found really interesting about this one was the light it threw on social expectations. If George divorced he would lose his job, and the hose that goes with it, as a married woman his wife would be barred from a number of jobs even if she wanted to work, as it is the assumption that her husband will provide piles the pressure onto George, and when he fails, gives her a genuine sense of grievance. Obviously non of this excuses murder in the least, but the way Crofts tells it is provocative and masterly.

I associate Gimlets with navel officers (rum for the men, gin for the officers, and lime with both to keep scurvy away) they're also referred to in Angela Thirkell's 'Marling Hall' (there's a lack of lime for the gin, when it does become available the difficult landlady swipes it, using a whole bottle in an evening so I'm assuming Gimlets are the drink being made) which suggests this was a common way to drink gin. The colour and kick of the Gimlet certainly recalls venom.

The Gimlet is half and half lime cordial and gin stirred, it can be iced if desired.  (Rose's lime for preference, Plymouth gin if you want the Navy connection) The Savoy Coctail book also has a Gimblet which is 1/4 lime juice to 3/4 gin well shaken in a medium sized glass and topped up with soda water - which I like rather more, but are altogether less venomous, and less likely to encourage you to make bad decisions.

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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thirteen Guests with a Champagne Cocktail

I prefer to drink good Champagne as it comes, and definitely prefer not to drink poor quality Champagne, or sparkling wine, at all but the Champagne cocktail is a classic and it's my fathers birthday today (he seems to quite like them, though he's not such a fan of Champagne as I am) so it's a suitably celebratory drink to have in mind.

To make it you place a sugar lump in a champagne flute, add a drop or 2 of Angastoura bitters, cover the sugar cube with Brandy, and then top up with fizz*. Marischino cherry optional. It's definitely worth using a reasonable brandy for this (Courvoisier V.S or Martell V.S  would both be great). The less ingredients a coctail uses, the more you'll taste the individual components, and the more you'll know if you've skimped on them. This is not the place for the cooking brandy.

J. Jefferson Farjeon's 'Thirteen Guests' is set against the backdrop of a house party that been gathered together for a stag hunt. The guests include an actress, a journalist, an artist, a mystery novelist, a cricketer, a politician, a beautiful widow, and an industrialist. They also include the hapless John Foss who has ended up there quite by chance after an accident at the train station makes another guest take pity on him. Not quite part of the party, and stuck to a sofa, he gets to observe all sorts of things.

It's a brilliantly atmospheric book, with just the sort of setting, and guest list, where I feel the Cocktails would call for the discreetly decadent edge the Champagne gives this one.


*If you don't want to use Champagne I would suggest a good quality sparkling wine, either something from Australia or New Zealand (using the permitted Champagne grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot Meunier and using Champagne method) or a cremant de Bourgogne. All should be a bit cheaper, or at least no more expensive, than a mediocre Champagne on some sort of special offer, and will be excellent. Prosecco and Cava use different grapes, they would make a perfectly good cocktail, but for this I feel it should be something that is at least all but identical to Champagne.