Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books: December Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening whenever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do" 
Alan Bennett
16. Ken Follett, Edge of Eternity. 3/5
I started this book in September. No, really. It's a stonking 864 pages, so it was always going to be a long haul but I was expecting to race through it. I'm a fan of Follet, I find his books are very readable, so I was really disappointed that Edge of Eternity, the third in a trilogy, didn't follow suit
Set mainly in the 1960s and 70s, it focuses on the social and political changes in the USA - the civil rights movement and the Kennedy legacy, with short dips in and out of Russia and Germany. I think this is the main reason I didn't enjoy it so much. Unlike the previous two in the trilogy, this book was less about the social changes and more about the politics, which made it harder to relate to and a bit more of a slog. Saying that - it brought me to angry tears at several points, and the weaving of real characters into the plot as fictional likenesses (e.g Alexander Solzenitsyn) was clever.
Enjoyable because it was part of the trilogy and I learnt a lot about 20th century history in a relaxed way - but not on the same level as the phenomenal first two. 

17. Jane Harris, Gillespie and I. 3/5
Another long one - about 20 hours as an audiobook. I'd heard great things about it but it didn't capture my attention until I was half way through. 
Our narrator, Harriet, befriends the Gillespie family quite suddenly and becomes a firm fixture in their lives. I could't quite work out how she could worm her way in so quickly, and I found her a bit of an unusual character. Desperately lonely, and living in a new city with no friends, it's not surprising that she clings on to every friendship possible, even when it's not completely sure if she's welcome. There was something unnerving about her though... 
It's hard to review this without giving away a massive spoiler - but - if you're a fan of a false narrator (think Gone Girl, only less irritating and more Victorian) and a gothic undertones it's worth a read. I'd suggest the book though rather than audio, as I suspect I missed quite a few "clues" by not completely concentrating.

18. Antony Horowitz, Moriarty. 4/5.
Ooh, how I love a Sherlock Holmes spin off. Although I didn't actually "love" the last Antony Horowitz one, if I'm honest. It just felt a bit... forced and overdramatic. I much preferred Moriarty, probably because neither Holmes or Watson feature in it.
In the aftermath of the Reichenbach Falls, we are introduced to Frederick Chase, an American private investigator who befriends Scotland Yard man Althelney Jones. Together, they begin an investigation into the seedy London underworld - which has rapidly begun to be infiltrated by New York gangsters after the demise of Moriarty. It's a cracking adventure, fast paced and fun with an element of the unusual - and with a cracking couple of plot twists. I really enjoyed it. 

19. Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist. 5/5.
I started reading this a few days before it was crowned "book of the year" after waiting for it a the library for several months. Ohh it was worth the wait. 
When Nella marries and moves to Amsterdam she is excited about her new life. Her husband presents her with a wedding gift of a miniature house, much to the disapproval of her new sister-in-law - a beautiful replica of her new home. As Nella begins to populate the miniature, dark and unnerving things start to happen, and secrets emerge. 
I loved this book. I couldn't wait for my lunch break to devour a bit more. It was creepy and dark without being overbearing, and the slow steady characterisation helped to unravel the story. I was so disappointed when it was over - the praise wasn't for nothing. 

20. Helen Fielding, Mad About The Boy. 3/5.
The third in the Bridget Jones series, it picks up over ten years after the second book left off. Having missed the newspaper column in the 2000s, I was a bit worried I wouldn't have a clue what was going on, but the column seemed to go completely unreferenced and the book plunged in to life for Bridget in 2014.
There were things I didn't like about it. Bridget has aged at the same rate as the books (rather than the films which came ten years later) so we meet her at age 51, with two young children in tow. I don't know why, but this just didn't work for me. It didn't seem quite right having her attend 60th birthday parties. There was no Shazzer. There was no Bridget's dad. Or Mark. 
But - it was a really warm tale about life after bereavement. It was funny and relatable (even if you're 20 years younger with no kids), and an enjoyable bedtime read. One of the best "female" books I've read in a while. 

21. Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary. 2/5.
I had such high hopes - an Agatha Christie I've not read! Turns out there's a reason for that. The first Tommy and Tuppence adventure was less of a murder mystery and more of an attempt at an interwar spy novel, but without the charm of more famous tales from the period. Set after the First World War, it starts with Tommy and Tuppence bumping into each other, having first made friends in a military hospital. Unemployed and bored, they decide to get involved in "adventures and mysteries" - and are rapidly embroiled in complicated mysteries involving a ship, some Americans and a judge who may or may not be a wrong 'un. 
I listened to this as an audiobook and was really quickly bored by it, finding myself drifting out of concentration as it got more far fetched. It passed a day cleaning the house in anticipation of the holidays, but I won't be rushing to find any more of the series. Poirots and Marples for me!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Recipe: Speculoos (and Santa)

I had my first mulled wine of the season last week, catching up with a friend who has a four year old daughter. Talk turned to Christmas, and how her daughter had loudly announced on the way home from playgroup that Santa couldn't be real because there'd been so many books written about him. Yes, at such early age, she'd clearly started to twig that something wasn't quite right about the thought of a chap dropping down the chimney. ("But surely the dog would bark and wake us up Mummy?")

My friend had, as most parents would, looked aghast, tried not to panic, desperately changed the subject, and decided to bring it up at another point. But how do you broach the subject with a precocious four year old who runs the risk of upsetting every other child in her class?

St Nicholas. That's what we came up with.

I first heard of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, when I came to Edinburgh and moved in with a Dutch friend. A 4th century Christian bishop, he was canonised for being an all round good egg and champion of the impoverished. He is remembered for leaving sweets in the shoes of poor children - and for his most famous exploit, when he threw three gold coin pouches down the chimney of a pauper, who could not afford the dowries for his daughters. One version of the tale tells that the girls had been washing their stockings, and left them to dry by the fire and that the money dropped inside...
A facial reconstruction of St Nicholas - source
His saint day - 6th December - is celebrated across many continental European countries. In the Netherlands, it's bigger than Christmas for a lot of young children, and is celebrated the night before. On the evening of the 5th December, families eat a traditional pea and bacon soup, play games and swap gifts with little rhymes for each recipient. Shoes are placed in front of fireplaces and windows in the hope that sweets will appear inside. On the morning the 6th, St Nicholas heads off back to Spain (where he, slightly randomly given his Greek heritage, apparently spends most of his time).

He's become a controversial character in the last few years - mostly because of his attendants, Swarte Piets. Black-faced children accompany Nicholas on his arrival into town. The Spanish connection and the curly black hair implies that his servants are Moors - which makes it slightly dodgy... but politics aside, it still strikes me as fascinating how a saint who died 1600 years ago became our modern day Santa. It's believed that he travelled over to America with the Dutch West India Company. Combined there with the English tradition of Father Christmas, a friendly Yule-tide visitor who celebrates with friends (St Nicholas never quite made it over the Channel), the modern day Santa Claus was established.

Anyway. Back to Sinterklaas.

Ever since I've known my Dutch friend, we've had a Sinterklaas celebration together. It's normally a couple of days late, as she travels home to see her family - but it's become the start of my festive season. I volunteered to do some baking for our gathering, and was handed her family recipe for Speculaas, or Speculoos, cookies. Similar to gingerbread, but with less of the ginger, and with more cloves and cardamom, they are a really delicious and slightly savoury soft biscuit. I used my friend's spice mix - but if you don't have all of those ingredients, I reckon they'd be just as delicious with mixed spice as it's really similar, only without the cardamom.
Makes around 20.

120g butter
100g dark brown sugar 
200g self raising flour
1 tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp spice mix 

Cream together the sugar, butter, salt and spices.
Add the egg, slowly sift in the flour and mix into a sticky dough. 
Bring into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 
Preheat the oven to 170C. 
Roll out the dough on a clean, floured surface, handling as little as possible to keep it cold. Ideally you want it about 7mm thick (I know, I know). Cut into festive shapes, or triangles. 
Bake for approx 20 minutes on a non-stick or lined tray. When you take them out, they will seem very soft and possibly undercooked but they'll firm up a treat as they cool.

Best eaten warm while they're still soft in the middle. Perfect with mulled wine or hot chocolate. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Books: November Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"Why can't people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?" 
David Baldacci, The Camel Club.

A slightly paltry selection this month, somewhat hampered by my having started reading a 850+ page tome (can I count that as 3 books?), and a 19+ hour audiobook after finishing these four. Unsurprisingly, I've not finished them yet. Roll on December, month of candles, blankets, port, cheese - and more books.

12. Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. 4/5 
Graham Greene has popped up a few times as a suggestion in my Goodreads list, as I have quite a few classics on there. I wasn't completely sure what to expect, having (if I'm completely honest) not really heard much about his books before, but I really enjoyed it. The tale of how an English vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba accidentally becomes a spy somehow managed to be funny, despite a definite dark undertone. Even though it's a fairly short character based tale, the atmosphere of 1950s Cuba, pre-missile crisis, is very evocative and although being deliberately farcical, Greene's own experiences of working for MI5 make it strangely believable. I really enjoyed it, although I did crave daiquiris for several days afterwards. 

13. M. C. Beaton, Death of a Nag. 2/5
Aside from Our Man in Havana, most of the books this month have been decidedly un-taxing and comforting. However, after a couple of duds in a row, I think it might be time to extract myself form the Hamish Macbeth series, and move onto something else as my fluffy bedtime reading. Our lead character was still pining over a broken heart - and tragedy comes in threes, as another loss knocks him for six, and someone staying in his holiday B&B is murdered. 
As with some of the others I've read where the setting is Macbeth's hometown, the characters just felt flat and one dimensional. I was surprised at the murderer, but to be honest I wasn't overly bothered, having got bored of the unpleasant stereotypes about handsome men and spinster women along the way. Disappointing. 

14. Carola Dunn, Fall of a Philanderer. 4/5.
Ah, this is more like it. I do like the Daisy Dalrymple series - it's as cheesy and fluffy as Hamish Macbeth, but with a cracking female lead (think a young Miss Marple) and a brilliant supporting cast. The characters have grown with the series, so reading them in order has been a good choice, but they'd be fun as standalones as well.
This one - set while Daisy is on holiday - was an entertaining romp, with characters that veered on the right side of believable for a very camp novel. The prejudices and realities of life in 1920s Britain were nicely explored - the poverty of farming families, the emotional impact that war had - without being forced. It's also one of very few "crime" novels I've read where I didn't guess the twist, which is always quite satisfying.

15. Hester Browne, The Vintage Girl. 3/5.
I started off quite liking this one. Evie is a massive antiques geek - obsessed with buying "treasures" that noone else wants. She has a bit of a thing about country houses, and so she is in her element when she finds herself invited to value the contents of a castle in the Scottish Borders. So far, so predictable, I thought. Except - unlike the Katie Fforde I hated last month, it wasn't. There wasn't a massive neon plot device sign, things were a bit more complicated than that, which is always a good thing. 
However... It still irritated me. Clearly written for the American market, the details of Scottish dancing and stereotypes that accompanied it were excruciating. The leading lady began to grate after a while, and the ending all felt rather rushed and sudden. Not bad for a bedtime read when you can't concentrate on anything else - but not exactly good either.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

25th December, 1914.

It feels like October, the clock changes and Halloween were ages ago. The pumpkins, ghouls and wizards disappeared quite literally overnight, and shiny plastic tinsel and chocolate oranges took their places. We're now well into November, and for most of us there's only one payday left until Christmas.

It's the time of year when advent and advert are easily confused. 

I've seen a lot of bloggers singing the praises of the John Lewis advert this year. Some of their posts are probably sponsored, some not. JL adverts have become the "thing" now - the sign that the year's biggest shopping occasion is nearly upon us, and that we must frantically buy stuff to show our loved ones how much we care about them (my Scrooge-esque opinions are nothing new, I've mentioned my disdain for Christmas gifts before. It's another entry on the Why I'm Not A Lifestyle Blogger list). 

To say I was surprised by the Sainsbury's advert this year would be an understatement. No emphasis on bankrupting ourselves on a single meal - instead a simple, and incredibly poignant message. 
No one knows for certain how or why the Christmas Ceasefire happened. It seems to have been spontaneous, perhaps triggered by Germans decorating trees with candles (after all, the habit is German in origin) or singing hymns on Christmas Eve. Silent Night is the most likely to have bonded the troops, as it's one of only a small number of carols commonly sung in English, French and German. Hundreds of small breaks in the war spontaneously erupted.

Maybe it happened because the lads had a moment of realisation that really, regardless of who they were or why they were there, they were all missing their families and trying to make the best of a pretty dire situation. Maybe it's because they were all volunteers, who had signed up early under the impression it wouldn't last long. They were not yet made bitter by the brutality and propaganda that was yet to come. Both sides had thought that it would all be over by Christmas. 
'Over The Top' 1st Artist's Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1918, John Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
Christmas Day probably started in most places in a way typical to a ceasefire. In traditional battlefield combat (after all - World War I is often regarded as the turning point in warfare, when hand to hand fighting was overtaken by technology), ceasefires were often called to allow each side to safely collect their dead. 25th December 1914 started in the same way in many places. Anecdotal evidence tells of men from both British and German armies burying their men alongside each other just outside Lille. 
Burying those killed in the attack of 18th December. Imperial War Museum: Q50720
Most of the men wouldn't have spoken each other's language. Inevitably, exchange of rations and trinkets would have happened in lieu of conversation. Treats from home - jam, boiled sweets and chocolate from the British ration packs, vegetables from the Germans. The British packs were considered the "best", but undoubtedly after some folk had spent six months without a vegetable, a fresh carrot would have been worth swapping a bar of Cadbury's for. 
Men from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers with German soldiers, Boxing Day 1914. Imperial War Museum: HU 35801
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported singsongs around campfires, which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!" 

Makeshift football games cropped up - mostly as a kick-about between battalions on the same side, but again there's anecdotal evidence that Britain vs Germany matches took place. Sadly not the first example though, as many jokes claim. The rivalry had been alive and well since the first England vs Germany game in 1899. 

As darkness descended, flares went up, a signal that the fighting was to restart. 
Wire, Paul Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
The Christmas 1914 ceasefire was the only long break in fighting. A British press embargo was immediately arranged to stop any news getting back home, but it was broken after a week by the New York Times. The stories would have slowly got home in letters anyway. When public opinion began to turn against the war, and fears of refusals to fight increased, arrangements were made to prevent troops from fraternising with the enemy and to increase propaganda in the trenches themselves. But still - the sentiment remained on a small scale. Historian Tony Ashworth has described how the "live and let live" ethos developed in some areas, with an unofficial avoidance of attack during meal times. I find this incredibly poignant. A small act of rebellion, a small act of recognising that despite the fighting, they were all human.

"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck." - Bruce Bairnsfather

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Exploring: Lisbon

I've just spent 4 days in Lisbon. I didn't really know what to expect - if I'm honest, it wasn't really on my radar as a place to visit before the chance popped up. I think that made exploring enjoyable though. No preconceptions or assumptions about what I would see or where I would go, just a couple of days of wandering and exploring. 

There were things I was expecting - plazas with fountains and pavement cafes. Narrow streets and old buildings. North African and Indian influences. Seafood. Pastries. All the pastries. There were also things I was surprised by - how varied the architecture is, going from faded grandeur to brutalist to modern in a single street. The warm temperature. The beggars and homeless, mostly men, almost all disabled. A city of contrasts.

It's a photogenic place, if unusual buildings and small details are your cup of tea. I may have got a bit overexcited with my camera. In the mean time - a few pictures from my phone.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Books: October Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them" 
Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

Two months in, and I'm really enjoying the 52 books challenge. It's definitely encouraging me to find an hour or two each day (usually running away from the office at lunch time towards a local coffee shop) to just sit down, read and relax.

5. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. 3/5.
This was my selection for Alex's Blogging Good Read series. I'd heard really good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but couldn't get my head around how it could be that good when my other Karen Joy Fowler experience was The Jane Austen Book Club.
If I'm honest - I'm still not completely sure about it. It didn't grip me in the way I had hoped, and I found the lead character quite irritating. The time-hopping narrative style didn't really draw me in, even though it was actually quite a clever way of telling the story, and unusually done - the story was told more in themes than a linear way. 
Because I knew next to nothing about the book, I didn't "see" the twist coming (I won't reveal it just in case you're also completely in the dark) and was genuinely shocked by it, but after it was out in the open it felt more like a campaign manifesto in parts than a novel about a dysfunctional family. There were really quite traumatic details that I wasn't expecting - animal based, nothing in a Dave Peltzer zone - and that instantly turned me off. Maybe I'm just too much of a softie to read a painful book. Saying that though I did think it was well researched and written (I loved how the philosophy was weaved in) and a great read for anyone interested in family dynamics - just not my cup of tea.

6. Katie Coyle, Vivian Versus The Apocalypse. 4/5
Another of the Blogging Good Read choices - I'd not heard of this one and it really wasn't the type of book I'd normally pick (I usually stay away from anything remotely sci-fi, and tend to steer in the opposite direction to teen fiction). I will quite happily say thought that my initial prejudices were wrong, and I really enjoyed it. I found the characters surprisingly realistic the more we got to know them, their reactions to difficult situations (booze, normally) and the bickering was all reminiscent of actually being eighteen. Coyle managed to toe the line between irritating characters, and realistic flaws pretty well. 

The story itself - about a new religion which appears to correctly identify the date of the apocalypse - I thought was really well executed. For a tale which span almost a year it was fast paced, and I enjoyed getting to know more about what may have actually happened as the characters did. I find that sometimes in "unusual situation" books the characters keep things from the audience, or the narrator lets the secret slip but because so much of this book is based on conversation, it unravelled quite naturally. 
My only criticism is that the ending - which was nicely handled, I wasn't sure where it was going to go - was a bit fast for my likes. I might have to re-read the last couple of chapters in a week or two if I've not remembered it all. 

7. Agatha Christie, 4.50 From Paddington. 3/5.
The third - and final - Blogging Good Read choice. I'd not read this one before, despite being quite a big Agatha Christie fan. I listened to it on audiobook, read by Joan Hickson, who was perfect. She just is Miss Marple. However - Miss Marple isn't really in this one much, and I think that's why I didn't enjoy it as much as others. The charm and powers of her reasoning (Miss Marple is a wonder for matching murderous situations to small time scandal in her home town) were lost, and that's what makes Agatha Christie's stories so enjoyable normally.
Even though it wasn't quite as riveting as I'd hoped, I still enjoyed the story and the mysterious romp, and I found it strangely comforting.

8. Katie Fforde, The Perfect Match. 2/5.
I picked this one up from the library as an audiobook. To say that it isn't my usual choice would be an understatement. Bella is going out with an estate agent, which we all know is synonymous with being an arse. Except she is one too - the rare type that actually cares about her clients and wants to help her 80 year old friend stay in her mansion. She's just too nice, frankly. She's got a thing about a former colleague, a lawyer, which we also know is synonymous with being an arse, and therefore chaos in her love-life should ensue. Except it doesn't and we know how it ends from the beginning because there are massive plot hinting klaxons. I found myself more interested in the sub plot involving her godmother (because living with a godmother is more socially acceptable than your actual mother), and a stranger on a train. That one should have ended in some sort of 1940s mystery. Except it didn't. We know how that one ends from the beginning too. Unoriginal, uninspiring, but surprisingly good to have on in the background while you're deep cleaning the kitchen.

9. M. C. Beaton, Death of A Charming Man. 2/5.
I do normally really enjoy my silly murder mysteries, and have been working my way through this series, but this one (number 10) didn't quite do it for me. It's premise - a handsome man turns up and everyone goes gaga for him - is quite similar to one of the others in the series but somehow missing the usual charm. Hamish, our protagonist, is miserable, his love interest is being unpleasant, the additional characters (none of the local neighbours in this one) were all unlikeable and it was all just a bit... much. I just wanted it to be over so I could move on to the next one in the hope that's back to the usual funny and relaxing cheese. Fingers crossed.

10. Edward Marston, The Painted Lady. 3/5.
Another audio book. I picked this one because it was a historical mystery (there's been a theme in the type of book I choose at the moment) and to begin with, I wasn't sure whether I could keep track of the characters. But I carried on, and enjoyed it. The parallels between 18th Century London's prejudices and modern day Daily Mail scandals amused me - he must have been the murderer, he was a Foreigner And A Catholic! Not particularly taxing, not an especially historically accurate read, but quite entertaining.

11. Marian Keyes, Rachel Goes On Holiday. 4/5. 
I really wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. It was another fluffy audiobook to have on in the background. Fluff is doing Marian Keyes a miss-service. Yes, there is a romance tangled up in the story - but there's also tales of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, chronic loneliness, and how close people get to really, really messing up. The story of Rachel, and her rapidly declining mental health, is told slowly. It's a weighty tome. But I think that's why it works. Keyes has been open about her own drug and alcohol addictions in the past, and I did find myself wondering whether there were autobiographical elements here.
There are parts of this which are surprisingly bleak for a "chic lit". Rachel's spell in rehab, the main part of the story, manages to discuss addiction with a sympathetic but brutal reality and I found myself really warming to the characters, all of whom had their own stories which unravelled alongside Rachel's.
Not at all what I thought it would be - I really enjoyed it.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Recipe: Earl Grey Gin Sours

I love gin and I love a good cocktail. When I was a student, I worked in a number of pubs and bars, but it wasn't until I started working for a boutique hotel with an award winning cocktail bar that I really began to understand what a "good" drink was.

The best bit about that job was the beautiful food and good drinks, all at a discount. We were actively encouraged to go to training and tasting sessions (even those of us not behind the bar) so that we knew what we were selling - and that's when my love of gin began.

Having never really been a fan of sugary drinks (well done mum and dad), it's not a surprise that I'm a fan of a gin cocktail. I love a good 'classic' - a Prohibition era cocktail where good quality spirits are the star, rather than fruity flavour combinations.

I don't know why, but until I made a batch of Earl Grey Gin, I'd never had a gin sour. Sours don't tend to be on menus (other than the occasional Whiskey sour) but I was a big fan for a while - and still am - of an Amaretto sour. I am now hooked.
Earl Grey Gin Sours

25ml sugar syrup
25ml lemon juice
Lemon or orange peel twists to serve

Half fill a cocktail shaker (or jam jar, or coffee flask) with ice cubes, add in the ingredients.
Fill a small tumbler with ice.
Shake your shaker for 20 seconds. The key to shaking cocktails is to get the ingredients to hit each end of your shaker, traveling through the ice on the way there to chill them quickly, so you're aiming for an up and down, or forwards and backwards motion. 
Strain the liquid (ie, pour out the cocktail, leaving the ice cubes behind) into your serving glass.
Enjoy, with a twist of orange or lemon to garnish.
Flamingo glass optional...

Recipe: Earl Grey Gin

I drink a lot of tea. It's good for you - rehydrating, relaxing and comforting. I also drink a lot of gin. That's good for you too - especially if you drink it with tonic to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

My love for Earl Grey Tea continues, and seeing as I have been particularly embracing the gin this year, I thought I'd finally get round to trying an Earl Grey gin infusion. This is inspired by a cocktail class I went to a few years ago at Eteaket.
Earl Grey Gin.

250ml Gin
10g Earl Grey Tea leaves

Place the gin and the tea leaves in a jam jar or similar airtight container, and leave to infuse for about ten hours (or overnight). Upend the jar occasionally, to mix the flavours around.
Strain to remove the leaves, and pour into a clean presentation bottle for storage.

You can use tea bags, but loose tea tends to be a slightly higher quality. Don't worry about using your fancy stuff for this - common garden gin will do the trick.

Booze not your bag? What about an Earl Grey Tea loaf cake instead...

Recipe: Sugar Syrup

I've started experimenting with making cocktails at home, after a fair few years hiatus from making them behind a bar. Generally I like a simple classic cocktail, which makes recreating them easy - as long as you can get the ingredients.

One of the ingredients a lot of cocktails use is a sugar syrup. You can buy it - it's usually called Gomme - but to be honest, making it at home is a lot easier when you're having an impromptu play around, and it's so much cheaper.

100ml water
200ml caster sugar

Place the sugar and water into a large saucepan, and warm on a medium heat. Stir gently until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid begins to simmer.
Remove from the heat, and pour into a sterilised jam jar or glass bottle.
Allow to cool before use.

You can experiment with the sugars - dark sugar works really well with a rum cocktail for example, but will change the colour of your cocktail if it's a paler liquid.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Edinburgh: St Bernard's Well

There's a quote somewhere about a weekend well spent means a week of content. I agree with that one - I am a rather big fan of getting out, seeing some greenery, or feeling like I've achieved something (even if that achievement is the entire box set of Broadchurch in one weekend. Ahem).

Doors Open Day is the last weekend of September in Edinburgh. It's such a good opportunity to have a nosey around some of the most stunning buildings in the city - most of which are not usually open to the public. I decided on the Sunday morning that I'd drag myself out the house before the rain started, and potter over to Stockbridge to see the newly renovated St Bernard's Well.

St Bernard's Well lies between Stockbridge and Dean Village - two affluent city centre suburbs joined by the Water of Leith walkway. It's such a lovely short stroll, dipping down a side street, under the bridge, and onto the path that runs between the two. The Well was discovered by two boys fishing in the 1750s back when the area was part of the land belonging to the St Bernard's Estate, far outside of the city limits. The current well house, built in 1789, tapped in to the reputation of the well as a healing source and encouraged wealthy tourists to come, sit, drink the waters and rest for a while. The Well, combined with the beautiful statue of Hygieia, was part of Edinburgh's Twelve Monuments project. It was so lovely to sneak in and see it restored and working.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Books: September Fifty Two in Fifty Two

Here begins a monthly roundup of how I'm getting on with my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge...

"So many books, so little time" 
Frank Zappa

1. M. C. Beaton, Death of a Travelling Man. 3/5.
Some folk relax with a trashy romance, others prefer a Young Adult novel. I choose cheesy murder mysteries. The Hamish Macbeth series is reminiscent of Midsomer Murders - his home village of Lochdubh undoubtedly has the highest per capita murder rate in the UK, and would probably rank in the world top ten - but the familiar characters, romantic landscape and affable hero make for a rather pleasant and inoffensive escape from the real world. Death of a Travelling man is no. 9 in the series (yes, I'm reading them in order), and finally we see some romance for our lead character. The murder is more of a vessel to update us on the lives of the locals, most of whom have a motive, the writing isn't fantastic and the "whodunnit" solicited an eye roll, but it was comfortable and cosy, just right for an easy bedtime read.
2. Philippe Claudel (trans. Euan Cameron), Monsieur Lihn and his Child. 5/5.
Rarely does a book make me cry - even more rarely do I find myself haunted by a book for days, as the plot fragments slowly fall into place. When he steps off the boat clutching his baby granddaughter, a refugee in a foreign land, Monsieur Linh is in mourning. The story of his life and the reality of war is beautifully interwoven with the story of a friend he makes despite their lack of shared language. As a classic novella consisting of few characters strongly explored, I should have been expecting a twist - after all, the blurb on the back did warn me, but I certainly wasn't ready for it. I was too absorbed in the beautiful writing which completely described the feeling of grief - as well as the slow dawning of hope. Wonderful.

3. Charles Elton, Mr Toppit. 2/5.
It's an odd one, this. I listened to it as an unabridged audiobook which probably didn't help, but I found it dragged. If it had been a paperback I would have whizzed through, skim reading, purely to get it finished. The premise is interesting - an unsuccessful children's author dies in a traffic accident, with an American tourist as a witness. The lives of the American and the family become increasingly intertwined and the author's work becomes hugely famous, with catastrophic effects on his family. However, what could be a sharp and funny tale is poorly structured - we know half of the ending at the beginning - and the characterisation is surprisingly two dimensional. The American is overweight and unhappy, the teenage daughter is neurotic, the mother is an alcoholic... Considering the author was the literary agent for AA Milne, whose son Christopher Robin hated the stories which made him famous, I found this book surprisingly dull.

4. Catherine Czerkawska, The Physic Garden. 4/5.
I stumbled across The Physic Garden by accident - it came up as a "one you might enjoy" suggestion while I was getting the hang of my local library's e-book service. Whoever wrote that algorithm was spot on. I enjoyed it. Set in 18th century Glasgow, it is essentially a romance - the tale of a friendship between the University gardener, and a young lecturer, that goes tragically wrong. We know that it doesn't end well from the start, I began to suspect how quite early on too, but that wasn't detrimental. The incredible historical detail (medicine, the dawn of industrialisation, the role of women) was well written without being thrown in for good measure, and the characters were particularly believable. Easy reading, enjoyable, and an impressive first novel.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Somerset: The Start of Autumn

I'm pretty lucky in that I have family dotted around some of the most beautiful parts of the UK. My brother chose Bath for University, and never left. Every time I visit, it strikes me how similar it is to Edinburgh, while being so different at the same time. The views are grander, the crescents are on a larger scale and the houses are the colour of pale honey rather than grey - but it still has that wonderful sense of history and the buzz of excited visitors.

A couple of years ago, he moved to a village on the outskirts, having lived in the midst of the hubbub for a long time. It is completely the best of both worlds. Beautiful city – beautiful Somerset countryside.

I went down to visit for my niece’s first birthday. It was the first weekend of September, one of those transitional weekends where you can see the season changing while you watch. We spent a couple of hours walking along country lanes, catching up and swapping stories, before heading to a pub for a roast dinner. Such a lovely way of spending the last Sunday of summer.