Thursday, 27 August 2009

Of gardens and frog's bones and gingerbread cake...

Thanks to Cornflower, I've got some new bedside reading, 'The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie'; and can therefore understand why Henry James and others were so enthusiastic about their hospitable hosts in Scotland. Lady Clark's recipes were published as a book in 1909, after her death, providing a comprehensive range that cater from the most conservative tastes (Balmoral Dessert Biscuits, often served at Tillypronie, from a recipe supplied by H.M. the Queen's Baker, at nearby Bamoral Castle), to the more arcane ('Ritualistic Haddock', 'Wet Devil', 'Boiled Angels', and 'Frog's Bones', which turn out to be crisp vanilla biscuits).
I don't think Frog's Bones will be served with the teas on Sunday afternoon at the Tillypronie garden opening, but there will be cake, so here is one of Lady Clark's three recipes for Gingerbread Cake.

1lb. treacle, 12 ozs. butter; put these into the oven to melt, and add to 1 lb. flour, 1/2 lb. moist sugar. Mix altogether with a little ginger and lemon peel; spread it then upon the tin to bake, and loosen it from the tin whilst still warm, or it will stick.

Cornflower may elucidate further on quantities, as I know she is very good at baking, but I think that for 'moist sugar', one might substitute soft dark brown sugar, and I like zesty gingery cakes, so I'd add more than a little ginger.

The other recipe that caught my eye -- well, actually, there were lots that did, but here is one of many -- is for Oeufs a la Bechamel, and it is labelled as Mesdames Langel's and Justine's Recipe, 1879. According to Lady Clark's husband, Sir John Clark, in a letter written from Tillypronie in 1901 to the future editor of his wife's book, she gathered a considerable knowledge of French and Italian cookery while he was serving in the Diplomatic Service in Paris, Brussels and Turin: 'she never failed, when any dish interested her, to cross-examine the artist the next day, who, perceiving the intelligent appreciation she evinced in his art, rarely failed to give her the best of his knowledge and experience.'

Presumably this explains the wealth of detail in the following recipe for Oeufs a la Bechamel:

Boil 6 eggs hard in boiling water, but not so hard as when cooked for canarybirds' food. To simmer only 10 minutes. When cold, peel off the shells, cut the eggs in two, lengthways, leave the yolks in and place the half-eggs, with the yolks uppermost, in an enamel dish capable of going into the oven, and put a tiny bit of fresh butter on the centre of the yolk of each half-egg. Pour the following sauce over all, and just colour in the oven, but not long enough to harden the whites.
For the Sauce: Rub 2 ozs. of fresh butter with flour and put into a saucepan. Stir well till it is smooth, taking care it does not burn. Add cream, or even milk, and stir on on till it is the proper thickness. Add salt, pepper, and a grate of nutmeg. Cook this thoroughly before pouring it over the eggs, then give them a minute in the oven, and brown with a salamander to a gold colour.

Yum yum.
And now back to Chanel, who I doubt ate much in the way of cake, even when she was in Scotland.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Henry James in Scotland

So here I am in Scotland, in search of the tweeds that inspired Coco Chanel (don't want to give the game away, but she was a frequent visitor north of the border). Anyway, it turns out that Henry James was a guest at Tillypronie, the house where I am staying, and as an ardent fan of his, I feel tremendously excited about this. There's something beguiling in the unlikeliness of the coincidence; of James being on top of a mountain in Scotland, and me being here at all. Of course, his description of Tillypronie is far better than mine would ever be, as you'll see in the relevant extract from the letter he wrote to his sister on September 15th 1878:

"Behold me in Scotland and very well pleased to be here. It is a beautiful part of the country - the so-called Deeside - the mountains of Aberdeenshire - the region of Balmoral and Braemar. This supremely comfortable house - lying deep among the brown and purple moors - has the honor, I believe, of being the highest placed laird’s house in Scotland. I wish that you might contemplate the glorious view of sweeping hills and gleaming lochs that lies forever before the windows. I have been here for four or five days and I feel that I have done a very good thing in coming to Scotland. Once you get the hang of it, and apprehend the type, it is a most beautiful and admirable little country - fit to make up a trio with Italy and Greece.

But don’t envy me too much; for the British country-house has at moments, for a cosmopolitanized American, an insuperable flatness. On the other hand, to do it justice, there is no doubt of its being one of the ripest fruits of time - and here in Scotland, where you get the conveniences of Mayfair dove-tailed into the last romanticism of nature - of the highest results of civilization."

Unlike James, I have not come across any insuperable flatness -- indeed, the hills are so high that I find myself admiring the view on a regular basis (and no flatness inside the house, either, but a lot of very good chocolate cake and scones). If anyone is in the area, and wants to see the beautiful gardens, they are open for charity this Sunday afternoon. Apparently there will be homemade cake and teas, too.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're seeing red

If ever a novel demanded re-reading, it is ‘Jane Eyre’, given how often it has been misread as romance; for whatever else it is (passionate, gothic, religious, contrary), it is also an angry book, spilling over with full-blooded rage. We tend to remember the famously quiet first line (‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’) and misremember the last line (‘Reader, I married him’); forgetting that this is the opening sentence of the final chapter. The actual ending isn’t about domestic bliss, nor is it uttered by Jane Eyre, but by preachy, priggish St John Rivers: ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’

In between these two seemingly well-behaved lines – written by the Charlotte Bronte made famous in Mrs Gaskell’s biography; the devout, quietly spoken clergyman’s daughter, an angel in the parsonage – emerges a far more furious voice. And despite Bronte’s own apparent obedience to a conventional idea of Victorian female propriety – a dutiful teacher at Sunday school; a late marriage to a curate – ‘Jane Eyre’ suggests something more subversive; that rage might be healthier than its inward-looking alternative, depression.

Jane Eyre has good reason to be both angry and depressed from the start: an unloved and unhappy orphan, she must live with her heartless aunt, Mrs Reed, and her bullying cousins. After one of them throws a book at Jane, her head is left bleeding; but when she retaliates, in a different rush of blood to her head, her aunt orders that she be locked in a bedroom as punishment (evidence that female solidarity isn’t necessarily what it should be). The walls of this room are red, yet it is a cold and dark place, where Jane’s uncle died nine years previously.

Alone in the red room, Jane screams out, terrified that her uncle’s ghost will return there; but on hearing the child’s cries, her aunt orders that the punishment be lengthened: ‘and it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you’. Jane collapses into unconsciousness; when she wakes, she sees ‘a terrible red glare’. Defiant, she feels ‘the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph… as if an invisible bond had burst’; and thereafter it is rage that propels her forward, proving that silent goodness isn’t always the best way out.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Coco Avant Chanel

While we're on the subject of Chanel, I thought I'd post the link for the interview I did with Audrey Tautou in the Sunday Telegraph. By the way, there is no 'e' on the end of Chanel in my book title, despite appearances to the contrary on the Telegraph website. And Chanel buffs will have already noticed the anachronisms and inaccuracies in the Tautou movie -- though I enjoyed it, anyway, and Audrey T. looks remarkably like the young Chanel. Glorious costumes, too.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Shoes and bluestockings...

Did anyone else listen to the Radio 4 series this week on the Bluestockings? I dipped in and out of it (during morning tea breaks; too many cups of tea this week), and it was v. interesting. Made me think of Rosamond Lehmann's first novel, 'Dusty Answer', where 1920s heroine (Judith) goes off to study at Cambridge, at Girton, and has passionate friendship with Jennifer, before being supplanted by scary Geraldine Manners, and all the male undergraduates wear grey flannel. I first read the book when it was out of print -- before it had been rescued by Virago -- in the summer before I started at Cambridge, and was seduced by its romance and intensity. Like this...

'Above the quiet, secretly-stirring town, roofs, towers and spires floated in a pale gold wash of light. What was the mystery of Cambridge in the evening? Footfalls struck with a pang on the heart, faces startled with pale beauty, and every far appearing or disappearing form seemed significant.

And when they got back to College, even that solid red-brick barrack was touched with mystery. The corridors were long patterns of unreal light and shadow. Girls' voices sounded remote as in a dream, with a murmuring rise and fall and light laughter behind closed doors. The thrilling smell of cowslips and wall-flowers was everywhere, like a cloud of enchantment.'

I can still read it now, and feel nostalgic, but because I have shoes on my mind (Coco Chanel's shoes, in the late 20s, as it happens), I started thinking about what Cambridge bluestockings might have worn on their feet, and then -- in the way that these things happen, after midnight -- I started searching for a contemporary equivalent, and found these excellent shoes by Rupert Sanderson.
I think bluestockings would have liked them, and even Mademoiselle Chanel might have approved -- I'm tempted to use the words 'lesbian chic', but that isn't quite right (actually, it's wrong, wrong, wrong). Anyway, you can imagine the footfalls, echoing in Twenties' corridors... Oh, and I can imagine the second Mrs de Winter in the brogues, and Rebecca in the cream high heels, tip-tapping down the staircase at Manderley.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Summer in the city

There's something about August in London that can be quite restful -- less traffic, more time, and space to admire the roses in the inner circle of Regent's Park -- but not this week. The city is heaving with people -- not just tourists, but Londoners -- so perhaps more of us than usual are staying at home, or working through the summer. In one way, it feels quite comradely, but still, it's a surprise to see the traffic jams snaking through Hampstead, and down Regent's Street, and around Hanover Square.
Anyway... I went into Vogue today, where I used to work; saw some old friends, and felt nostalgic about my time there. Different clothes on the rails, ready for shoots, but similar sense of anticipation about the forthcoming autumn issues; and even though everything changes in glossy magazines, and in fashion, sometimes it goes full circle, and reminds you of how we were and still are...
Still, there are shifts in the landscape, one of which is the new Vogue blog.
Oh, and I think now is the right moment to wear an old tweed jacket, rather than a new one. And feathers, in some shape or form. Speaking of which, here is my column from the Sunday Telegraph (hopefully better late than never, and just in time for tomorrow). Oh, damn, have just noticed that the online version isn't opening (so much for new technology, or maybe it's my technological illiteracy). So here it is again (thus proving that today is cyclical, like everyday)...

It might seem surprising that the determinedly urban fashion industry should turn to the British countryside for inspiration, were it not for the fact that this happens on a regular basis. Indeed, it is a tradition almost as firmly established as the start of the grouse-shooting season on August 12th; for barely a year goes by without country classics being cited as a starting point for a slick designer collection. Tweeds, head-scarves, twin-sets; they all get trotted out on a regular basis. Not that I’m complaining, because I like the look of them, particularly the ancient faded variety worn by my grandmother, who proved an exception to Nancy Mitford’s rule in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ that tweed skirts ‘always bag, except on very smart little thin women’. (My grandmother’s tweeds were as redoubtable as she, and would never have had the temerity to go baggy on her.)

Anyway, this year there are new variations on a theme. Prada’s autumn collection includes some startling thigh high leather wading boots and teeny-weeny tweed shorts, which may or may not prove to be popular amongst grouse-shooters. ‘I didn’t want to do anything about the city,’ said Miuccia Prada, in explanation, ‘more something about sport and the outdoors in general – freedom and nature… It was serious, in a way. It was about a need for feminine empowerment.’ So, now you know: the thigh-high boots and hot-pants are liberating, rather than fetishist constrictions.

There are also oodles of grey tweed at Luella, Gucci, and Burberry, and houndstooth at Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. It all looks quite lovely; but personally, I’m even more preoccupied by the pheasant feather pieces at Graeme Black, the Scottish designer who set up his own label after leaving Armani. He’s had a flurry of private orders for these covetable garments – an iridescent feathered skirt, along with a feathery bolero the colour of dusk, and a feather-trimmed silk coat – from a number of clients who plan to wear them to shooting parties in August. I have no idea whether the pheasant feathers will prove to be a camouflage or a distraction for other game birds; nor whether the shy grouse will be startled by the sight of crystal buttons on the moors and mountains.

Nevertheless, there is something irresistible about feathers, which may be why we pursue them in glorious and inglorious ways; and although I know nothing about the merits of woodcock over snipe (nor will I ever do), I always feel a tug at the heart whenever I see a feather floating from the sky.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you don’t want to go for a walk

I am writing this in the certain knowledge that I must go for a walk; my dog is looking at me quizzically, and we both know that it will be good for us to stretch our legs, despite the fact that it is a drizzly Sunday, and the park will be filled with disconsolate walkers who would rather be somewhere else instead. It is at times such as these that I am tempted to stay at home and read; in particular, Max Beerbohm’s ‘Going Out for a Walk’ (from ‘And Even Now’, a collection of his essays published in 1920).

‘It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk,’ observes Beerbohm at the outset. ‘I have been taken out for walks; but that is another matter. Even while I trotted prattling by my nurse’s side I regretted the good old days when I had, and wasn’t, a perambulator.’ His reputation as an aesthete and a dandy at Oxford, and a member of Oscar Wilde’s literary circle thereafter, did not protect him from the exhortations of heartier acquaintances to accompany them on walks. These outings were uncomfortable for all concerned, the conversation diminishing with every step. Here, for example, is his account of an enforced Sunday morning walk with a fellow-guest at a country house weekend: ‘We pass an inn. He reads vapidly aloud to me: “The King’s Arms. Licensed to sell Ales and Spirits.” I forsee that during the rest of the walk he will read aloud any inscription that occurs… I see far ahead, on the other side of the hedge bordering the high road, a small notice-board. He sees it too. He keeps his eye on it. And in due course “Trepassers,” he says, “Will Be Prosecuted.” Poor man! – mentally a wreck.’

Lauded by his peers – Virginia Woolf described him as ‘the prince of his profession’; Evelyn Waugh as ‘a genius of the purest kind’ – Beerbohm’s fame has faded, but his prose still glitters with wit. You may not have time today to read his sweetly satiric novel, ‘Zuleika Dobson’ – though it’s well worth it – but do find a few moments for his essay, before you go quietly for that walk…

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Howling at the moon

I felt quite lunatic last night, in the light of a full moon, and remembered what a friend of mine (a doctor) said to me recently: when she worked in the Accident and Emergency department of a big hospital, they always saw a surge in numbers on the night of a full moon. (More moonlore is to be found in Rick Stroud's book of the moon; all that you ever wanted to know, as well as things you didn't even know that you wanted to know, until you read them -- which is just what one needs in a book that can be returned to, over and over again.)
My first child was born at a full moon, and I realised I was pregnant with him when I drove over the Westway into London, and saw a full moon rising in the winter nightsky. So the moon seems significant to me; a visible sign of the passing of time, and yet also of circularity, of changelessness.
It's one of those everyday (every month) reminders of the magic and madness of everyday life, and also of otherworldiness; of how we return to where we began, and why it might seem that the world revolves around us, yet it does not, and can never do; and even though we often place ourselves at the centre of our own narratives, the story follows its own course, waxing and waning, like the moon.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

What to read in the rain?

I can't help it, I feel gloomy in August when the clouds descend over north London. I don't mind the British countryside in the rain -- in previous summers, I've enjoyed August walks along rainlashed Cornish clifftops. But here in London, on a drizzly morning, with a book to finish, I'm longing for the clouds to clear, or as my grandmother used to say, 'enough blue in the sky to make a sailor's suit'; or a Turner sky, like the one above -- now, that would be magical... (though there is magic in all skies, I know, if you look at them in the right way, like he did).
I suppose there's something to be said for the grey sky: it's not going to lure me away from my computer. But actually, I think it is easier to write with a feeling of optimism, rather than foreboding. And the sky today looks threatening, with not a hint of rose-tinted pink above it...
Is anyone out there?