All I’m saying, Shakey.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel Malik.

This will be brief as I am working at working less while the kids are on holidays. So far, my approach has been a complete failure. There was a pause last week, like when the TV goes snowy, while I waited for a half dozen or more promised books to land on my doorstep. It was lovely. I sank mindlessly into Book 6 of the Poldark series (bliss), I made stock and took 74 million bee photographs. Then, my loyal and chipper postman rolled up four days in a row to deliver the avalanche.

I’m digging my way out:

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel Malik.

This is an unusual but satisfying book. It seems very mild and gentle but turns out to be quite powerful. It strikes me as being very British. Read the full review here.

GRAPE OLIVE PIG by Matt Goulding.

GRAPE OLIVE PIG. Matt Goulding.

I’ve long been a cookbook addict but never much interested in recipe-less food-writing. That may be about to change. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, loved it actually, and would happily armchair-travel again with Mr. Goulding. Read the full review here.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker.

City of Light, City of Poison. Holly Tucker.

Ninety percent of my book diet is fiction but, every now and then, I enjoy some historical narrative. What tempts me, always, is a touch of royalty. I’m a sucker for a tiara; when I’m sick or miserable I resort to Hello magazine for the ultimate escapism. If I want to indulge the same fantasy under the cloak of literary merit, I’ll turn to Antonia Fraser.

This book turned out to be more of a gruesome thriller than a royal romance but it kept me turning the pages into the small wee hours. Read the full review here.

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl but I can’t decide what I want to write about it yet. I think it might be growing into a blog post rather than a review. While mulling that over I spent a lovely afternoon with the girls watching 10 Things I Hate About You. Debate is raging in our household as to whether this or Ferris Bueller is the greatest teen movie of all time. Personally, I was rooting for Michael J. Fox’s Teenwolf. Thoughts?

Teenage Son is studying Hamlet so last night we watched the BBC/RSC version with David Tennant. I thought it was excellent.

Following that, to lighten the mood, we indulged in a little Shakespearean themed Rowan Atkinson. I love this. We have resolved to end every day with a Rowan Atkinson sketch.

‘It’s five hours, Bill, on wooden seats and no toilets this side of the Thames.’

Now, I’ve promised to go play bananagrams with the Small Girl. Anyone want to see the 74 million bee photos?

PS. The title makes no sense at all unless you watch the sketch, and even then very little.

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Relish, Reindeer and Melomakaronas.

Christmas Preparations.

Hah! Say that with your mouth full of cookies.

The sky is hanging about 12 feet above the ground. It’s not raining, exactly, but the finest mist is dangling there in the most exasperating fashion. It feels like a slight weight, a downwards pressure on the shoulders and the spirits.

I am feeling tired, perhaps under-caffeinated (more on that anon) and in dire need of cake.

If you fancy a delicious morsel pop over for a look at my melomakarona recipe and review of The Little Christmas Kitchen. I worked hard to make this a good recipe and it really is.

melomakaronasMelomakaronas are delicious Greek cookies, soaked in a spiced honey syrup and traditionally eaten at Christmas. We devoured (I say we because I don’t want to admit that I ate so very many) dozens of them as I was testing this recipe. The book, The Little Christmas Kitchen by Jenny Oliver was also a real treat. I didn’t expect it to have much bite but it caught me by surprise and really hit a nerve. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for holiday reading.

I went all out, hell for leather, on the Christmas preparations last week. The only problem is that there is almost no light at all so I have very little photographic evidence of my efforts. Here is one candle-lit photo which pretty much encapsulates my week:

Christmas Preparations.

Rudolf was the high-light. Isn’t he adorable? He is my very first crocheted toy and I am more than a little enamoured.If you are tempted, you can find the pattern here. He may get stuck with the name Rudolf Gilmore as I made him while watching The Gilmore Girls with my daughters. Anyone else watch it? It was terrible. Less said the better.

I realised in panic, as I opened my last jar of rhubarb chutney, that I was in imminent danger of having NO CHUTNEY FOR CHRISTMAS! Action stations were assumed, my most humongous pot was excavated from the dreaded corner cupboard and filled to the brim with the stuff of toasted cheese sandwich fantasies. We call it fakeymaloe relish, it’s not so far off the real McCoy and you can find my not-so-secret recipe here.

Chutney crisis averted, I moved on to emergency mitten replacement for the Small Girl. If these look like exactly the same mittens I made last year it’s because they are, but one size bigger. I used the same ball of cheap yarn that refuses to come to an end regardless of how many Barbie dresses and babydoll blankets I make from it. The Small Girl is content because they match every other pink thing in her life and I won’t be heartbroken when she inevitably loses one of them (never both). Just looking back at last year’s mittens I was reminded of this post which I must try to bear in mind as I strive to resist strangling my Teenage Son in the run up to his Christmas exams.

So, we were going well (errant teenagers aside) with the reindeer and the mittens and the twelve jars of chutney and then…disaster struck…my beloved Burleigh mug took a nose dive off the arm of my chair, bounced a couple of times and skidded out the door to the hall where it spun around dramatically before striking a tragic handle-less pose.

It has been carrying a chip on its rear end for months now but that didn’t bother me. This mug is a champion, a hero amongst mugs. It can hold thirty percent more than the average mug which is just exactly how much more coffee you feel you need when you reach the bottom of an average mug. This ergonomically-shaped mug also keeps coffee hot for a good forty minutes which is exactly how long you need to drink a thirty percent longer cup of coffee. Also, it’s very pretty. And my favourite colour. Sob.

I was quite prepared to live with a handle-less-chipped-but-otherwise-perfect mug but when Husband attempted to fill it he discovered a fatal injury. Scroll back up to the photo and see if you can spot it.

‘Yes, you can still use your mug,’ he assured me, ‘but only if you are willing to approach it sideways on and never have more than an inch of coffee at a time.’

The family have little pity. They are all greatly relieved that I, as opposed to anyone else, broke my own mug.

Since then, I have achieved nothing. Zilch. Nada.

I have sliced the top off my left index finger bringing a halt to all yarny activity.

I have thrice stepped in dog poo and some incontinent, foul fowl has taken a shine to the windscreen and bonnet of my car.

The laundry basket has complained to the laundry basket union about over-time and over-crowding.

I ordered pizza for Sunday dinner.

There is every chance that my Husband is writing to Santa as we speak requesting a proper, functional housewife as his old one appears to have broken down.

Here…the man said it:

 

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Is the movie ever better than the book?

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

I’m quite certain there must be some mediocre book that was made into a great film but I can’t for the life of me think of one. Anyone? Can someone put me out of my misery here?

The reverse, obviously, is a commonplace occurrence. Most recently, Teenager Daughter and I were disappointed by the movie Me Before You based on the satisfying weepie by Jojo Moyes. The Martian by Andy Weir seemed like the most cinematic of books but the movie was, to be frank, shite. Gillian Anderson in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was abysmal. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (by Louis de Bernières) particularly broke my heart.

I wonder whether some people are avid readers mostly because they happen to be very good at imagining the characters, the dialogue and the action inside their head.Then, like playing the piano or piping royal icing, the more you do it the better you get. Is that what it means to be a good reader?

That might explain why it’s so important to start while you are young and willing to accept fairytales as reality. I remain tragically gullible. I take everything literally and believe every word that anyone says to me. I’m an easy target but I am a good reader.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the BBC make brilliant dramatisations. That is probably because they are just brilliant but also because they make six or eight or even twelve part series and they put everything in. If a dramatisation takes as long to watch as it took to read the book you are off to a good start.

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I had detected recently a bit of buzz about a book called The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (great name, eh? Go on, say it in your head and roll that last R). The interesting thing was that every review I came across compared it to a movie –Amélie – rather than any other book.

It’s a book about books, about book writers and book lovers and good readers but it’s not like any other book. The movie that plays in your head as you read it feels like a sweet, French film.

It’s also very short, short enough (I think) to squeeze the whole lot of it into a film. I’m really hoping it will be made, made in France and made in French. I think there is a good chance that this good book could be a great film.

Click to read full book review…

 

Graham Norton’s Holding.

Holding by Graham Norton

My early teenage years were rotten. They were sufficiently miserable, I think, to warrant a doleful memoir but the writing of it would likely kill me. Never mind that, for one month (July) out of every twelve I was shipped off to summer school in a Ghaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area of West Cork. There, on an island three miles long by one mile wide, I discovered that there is something very reassuring about isolation. The mind, mine at least, relaxes in wide open spaces with long views and no visible threat on the horizon.

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I hated leaving, every single time, I would cry inconsolably on the ferry ride back to the mainland. I might, if circumstances had allowed, have taken myself to live out there. I could have spent all my days reading books and listening to the ocean.

But you have to venture forth, don’t you? You have to gather all your courage and put your game face on. Becoming an adult is about being brave enough to jump in and say, ‘hey, I want to play too.’

What has any of this to do with Graham Norton?

Click here to read more.

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If You Want To View Paradise…

Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.

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Ballymaloe was pure joy. I suppose that place, for me, holds something of the wonder of Wonka’s factory. I didn’t spy any Oompa Loompas but the chocolate tart was extraordinary and I suspect we may, Augustus Gloop style, have cost them a fortune in fudge.

Ballymaloe ignores foodie trends and steadfastly sticks to serving the best of Irish farmhouse cooking. It’s difficult to explain why you should pay a premium rate for bacon and cabbage unless you believe my Teenage Son when he tells you it was the best bacon and cabbage he has ever eaten. The roast lamb and floury potatoes in their skins tasted exactly like they did when my Granny made Sunday lunch.

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Granny worked as a waitress during the 50s and 60s. She was intelligent and well-spoken enough to find employment in the best hotels.  The highlight of her modest career was being trusted not to spill the soup on Princess Grace of Monaco during her 1961 stay at Dublin’s Gresham Hotel. She told us the manager had a photo in his office of Grace with Granny behind her. I’ve scoured the internet, to no avail, for a hint of that photograph.

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In later years she worked for a company who specialised in Outdoor Catering. As a child, I thought she meant they made picnics  but in fact she was beavering behind the scenes at big shindigs held at the Mansion House and Aras an Uachtarain (residences of the Lord mayor and President respectively). The top brass of Dublin knew her as Mary. We were never allowed to utter a bad word concerning Charlie Haughey as it was his generous tips which allowed Granny to buy out her ordinary terraced house from the council. Yes, he tipped that much. Do you doubt me?! She was one of the little people but she saw how the other half lived.

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I’m certain Granny’s own mother was an able cook who trained her well but I suspect Granny gleaned tips from the chefs she worked with. I remember her tiny scullery being transformed into a test kitchen as she experimented with Salmon Mornay. She believed in St. Anthony and Good Food.‘You are what you eat’ was her maxim.

Ten years ago, I brought Granny to lunch at Ballymaloe House. She approved. What more can I tell you?

On another trip to Ballymaloe Cookery School, Granny and I posed for a photo with Darina Allen. The nice person who used my camera somehow managed  to NOT take the photograph and, once again, Granny escaped the celebrity photo opportunity.

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Our waitress on Sunday was very much of Granny’s ilk. She didn’t ask whether we wanted seconds, rather she told us in no uncertain terms that we would have them. I noticed that the second big dish of spuds (I choose that term because it is, in this case, the right one) and extra bowl of buttered cabbage were parked directly in front of Teenage Son. When the dessert trolley ran short of raspberry jelly, our woman made sure we all got an extra large serving from the next bowl. After the whole room had been offered a piece of homemade fudge with their coffee, she came back and stealthily deposited the serving plate beside Middle Girl. To be honest, she sort of made my day.

I don’t often imagine that Granny is at my shoulder but…maybe.

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Listen, I’m going to put a link in here to a song I love. Almost no-one ever clicks the links but this one is special. This one tells you how much my generation loves Willy Wonka. There is no video. Just close your eyes and let Glen Hansard carry you away….

 

Adieu Gene Wilder, and thanks. You were Willy Wonka.

 

 

 

The Improbability Of Love On First Dates.

Poached pear. First dates Ireland. The Improbability Of Love. Waterstones. Hannah Rothschild.

Teenage Me desperately wanted to be ordinary. From my flamboyantly dysfunctional forebears I inherited an ample bosom and impressive nose…things that stick out, literally.

I hid my nose in a book, sought camouflage in baggy jumpers and never even contemplated going on a date. Irish people didn’t date anyway. Dating was an American contrivance, as foreign and unlikely to come my way as Dr. Pepper or Cool Whip.

Irish people of my generation snogged randomly during slow sets at the disco and had a maximum of eight minutes and forty-one seconds (Purple Rain) to decide if they had met their match.

First dates. The Improbability Of Love. Poached Pear recipe.

Last night Husband and I watched First Dates Ireland in the company of our teenage Son and Daughter. Half of us, as such, are just embarking on the whole mate-finding malarkey and the other half have stumbled out the other side.

I have to tell you, we laughed, we flinched, we cringed and very nearly cried. It beggars belief that people are willing to take part in this show but it does seem that the producers are quite genius in the match-making department.

Poached pears. First dates. The Improbability Of Love.

Most heart-wrenching of all is that the biggest risk seems to be admitting you like someone. Rejection is a far more terrifying prospect than disappointment or even ridicule.

If you’d enjoy more than one hour of frivolous TV contemplating The Improbability Of Love, you might enjoy the book, by Hannah Rothschild, which I’m reading.

I was seduced by this book in Waterstones where it was displayed as April’s Book Of The Month.

The Improbability Of Love. Hannah Rothschild. Poached Pear. First dates.

At the centre of the story is a fictional, lost painting by Watteau. We flit back and forth (much like the cameras on First Dates) between stories, ranging from  18th century France, to Germany during the war and onwards to present day London, all the time piecing together the history of this one picture.

The heroine of the piece is Annie McDee, a lonely chef, who happens across the masterpiece in Bernoff’s dusty junk shop. So far, so predictable. Except that it’s not at all. I don’t want to give away the many twists  but I’ll give you just one teaser. The picture talks. The picture has the most wonderful French accent I have ever seen on paper.

‘Let me guess what you are thinking. Girl finds picture; picture turns out to be worth a fortune. Girl (finally) finds boy with a heart. Girl sells picture, makes millions, marries boy, all live happily ever after.
Piss off. Yes, you heard, piss off, as the cake tin at Bernoff’s used to say (it was decorated with Renoir’s Parapluies, which explains quite a lot).
Life is not that simple.

Ooooh la laaah, even the Maitre D’ at First Dates wouldn’t hold a candle to Monsieur le Tableau. He also gets all the best lines.

‘The Lady of Delights gave peerless advice: forget coquetry, be direct and be passionate yet correct. Men need reassurance; they need to know that you love them.’

and at his most profound;

‘My composition is about the fleeting, transformative respite over aloneness that love offers despite the cold certainty that this reprieve is only transitory.’

The Improbability Of Love is a cracking good read. The plot is dense and satisfying. This is a book about art, avarice and plain old hunger.

‘In a tattered old book, she found the perfect pudding – thin slices of quince and pear poached in honey and rosewater…and tiny green leaves of scented rose geranium as decoration.’

Hannah Rothschild. The Improbability Of Love. Poached Pear Recipe.

I’ve been reminded that people come in all sorts and sizes, that their sticky-out bits fit together in improbable ways and that love is never ordinary.

If you can’t afford to buy an old master to prove your love you could always poach a pear.

Poached Pears.

Choose a saucepan that will hold six conference pears quite snugly. Make a syrup of 400mls water, 3 tablespoons of honey and one of brown sugar, the juice and thinly sliced rind of one lemon, 4 smashed cardamom pods, half a  split vanilla pod, 2 cloves, 3 small rose geranium leaves and one teaspoon of rosewater. 

Peel and core the pears. Poach them for 20-30 minutes in the simmering liquid. Remove the pears and reduce the syrup by half or more until what remains is a sticky, viscous liquor.

Allow the pears to lie in this liquor until the time is ripe and then share with the one you love.

Poached pear. The Improbability Of Love. Hannah Rothschild. First dates.

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This Blog Will Save Your Life.

On April 11th last year, my birthday, Teenage Son set up a WordPress blog for me. That was his gift. It took a full six weeks to summon the courage to write My First Post but, from the instant I  hit that Publish button, I was completely hooked.

This song will save your life. Leila Sales. Young adult fiction. Book review.
This Song Will Save Your Life. Leila Sales.

My birthday and bloggy-versary was perfect. I walked the dog through the murky rising mist and then came home and threw the photos I took  up on the blog. I had promised myself a day off but I could think of nothing I wanted to do more than show you how green my morning was.

The sun appeared so the Small Girl and I had lunch in the garden at her miniature picnic table and then snuggled together in a deck chair to read a chapter of Little House In The Prairie.

After that, we sat quietly a while and listened to the bees arriving.

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Middle Girl insisted that we squeeze an episode of The Gilmore Girls into our afternoon and I didn’t object.

I made pizza, our official food of birthdays.

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Teenage Daughter made my birthday cake. The recipe for Rachel Allen’s blueberry baked cheesecake is here. At my request, the blueberries were replaced with brandy-soaked sultanas and some homemade mixed peel which the kids detest. It turned out just like the cassata cheesecake I remember from Italy. Scrumptious. The kids still didn’t like the peel so…more for me!

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There was a lovely bundle of perfect presents.

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And then, we danced. Well, Small Girl and I danced while Husband made the tea.

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D’you know what? Cyndi Lauper should be on prescription.

Another chapter of Little House (she loves it!).

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Then bedtime for Smallest.

Later,  we watched Alan Bennett’s The Old Lady And The Van. I read the book years ago and would have killed to have seen the play. Teenage Son was adamantly against my movie choice but I reminded him of how often I’ve endured Star Wars and he settled down. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to watch it soon. There is a nice review here with the story behind the film.

The combination of Alan Bennett’s exquisite writing with Maggie Smith’s extraordinary talent is heart-melting. The very last scene might be my favourite closing scene ever.

There’s a voiceover, towards the end where Alan Bennett says,

‘You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.’

That’s it, really. That’s what this blog has done, and continues to do, for me. I’ve typed up a card, to remind myself.

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I have found joy and solace here. I have laughed and cried at this desk. I have discovered a portal to a world populated by decent, kind people.  I have found inspiration, encouragement and friendship. Thank YOU, from the bottom of my heart, for finding me.

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