Sunday, 31 October 2010

All Hallows

Well, what I wanted to write about was All This and Heaven Too.  But when I went to pull it down from the shelves, it wasn't there.  This of course gives the illusion that I have well ordered shelves, possibly alphabetised. but I don't.  Far from it.  I have loose sections - like, Travel, Food and Famous Old Dyke's, or Witty Queens in the 30's or Comfort re-reads or People I Know Who Have Written A Book and Might Come Round So It Has To Stay On The Shelf.... Anyway, I felt murderous rage when I couldn't find said book as it has a simply wonderful paragraph on roasting apples in a bonfire on the All Hallows Eve in the country home in France and I thought it would be topical.... but it's not to be. 
But I did come across what was the Family Bible in my childhood kitchen.  Sheila Hutchins Daily Express Cook Book.  Wonderful.  Really wonderful and fun.  With the sweetest illustrations. The pages are falling out, everything is stained, and I cannot find a publishing date, but it must be late sixties.  Poached eggs in red wine served with fried onions. (Don't knock it till you've tried it - along with some crusty bread and a glass of Burgundy.  Sheila was big on Burgundy.  "It slips down the gullet as easily as a little Jesus in velvet breeches" she says quoting a wine expert in Dijon)  She has great chapter headings: You Must Love A Man to Cook Bubble & Squeak in the Mornings, Ice Cold Venus from the Naughty Nineties, or Lyons: Where The City Map is Made of Lentils.  It was a real delight and I have so many happy memories of tootling around in the kitchen with my mother making something garlicky and with wine and that smelt delicious thanks to Sheila. 
She knew her food.  Some of it now is quaintly old fashioned, but all of it is something that I would happily eat.  Mussel soup, Normandy Omelette (stuffed with apple puree and drenched in calvados) Tea ice cream, Parkin, Brown Cucumber Sauce and many more that will fill you with the desire just to try them out.
To Poach Eggs in Burgundy
First brown a minced onion in butter.  Add three cloves of minced garlic, then add 3/4 pint (everything is in Imperial measurements - what a relief!)  Add a glass of water, salt pepper, thyme and a bay leaf.  Boil for five minutes.  Strain.  Poach eight eggs.  Remove eggs and keep warm, reduce liquid by boiling hard.  Thicken with a bit of butter and flour.  Place eggs on toasted bread and pour sauce over.
Really rather yummy and rather suitable for many reasons (symbolic eggs, colour of sauce) for this time of year.
I leave you as I am on all things foody with a picture of a cake I commissioned by Jessica Haggerty here of Rose, Blackberry and Almond.  Now that was bloomin' gorgeous.

Sunday, 17 October 2010


It's a horrid word.  Glut.  With overtures of glutton. And all that's associated with 'letting oneself go'.  That second helping of risotto, the extra slice of cake, the 'dividend' at the bottom of the cocktail shaker.   But - I have had such a glut of good books that I am at loss which to write about.  I have been re-reading the inestimable Ms Bedford, as well as Ms Keane - oh, and I am starting for the first time Stendhal.  Oh dear.  I am glutted out.  So is the vegetable world.  Tomatoes, courgettes, apples, quinces - they are making me itch to start bottling and pickling and chutneying and - oh you get the picture.  It's the perfect time of the year to stand in the kitchen stirring something over the Aga, apple peel on the flagstones, low autumn sun streaming through the sparkling clean windows whilst something jazzy is heard through the open door leading to the music room.  Ha, is all I can say.  In my kitchen it's mismatched saucepans that really have seen better days but are kept on through sentimental reasons, scarred and burnt wooden spoons, a puppy begging for attention at my feet whilst I stare sullenly at the fridge pondering what I can make out of half a wheel of Camembert, a bag of wilting watercress and a jar of cornichons. But I do like eating seasonally so when I had lunch with at the Modern Pantry with the Sandeep Mahal from the very hard working and wonderful Reading Agency a few weeks ago, we both plumped for the courgette platter. And bloomin' gorgeous it was too, complete with stuffed and deep fried courgette flower oozing with mozzarella, and a wonderful courgette souffle.  Oh yes, and vodka spiked tomato relish.  Now, they used up their seasonal glut very wisely indeed.
If eating seasonally has it's reasons, so does reading, I think.  Autumn is perhaps the time for comfort re-reads.... nothing too taxing, something you can slip into with a hint of relief, like putting on a pair of slippers after tottering all day in stillies. A hint of melancholy doesn't go amiss, as long as we're not talking shudder making sobbing, so nothing that has cruelty to animals in it, nothing too obvious, and nothing that makes us want to jump up and 'do' something.  Oh no.  The only amount of jumping up that we're going to do is to the kitchen for another bowl of home made soup, or a tray of tea with a tempting fruit scone spread with cold salty butter.  Then we can curl back up on our favourite reading place, bed, sofa, or cushion  and relax as we turn the well worn pages and let ourselves wallow in a bit of autumn sunshine, shivering a little with delight and awe at the onset of the inevitability of winter.
Perhaps the perfet autumn book for me would be Brideshead.  But then, it's pretty perfect all year round.

Sunday, 10 October 2010


"He'll never marry her"
"How can you be so sure?"
"She pronounces the 't' in "often""
So speak some of the characters in The Two Mrs Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne about Ann Arden (real name Urse Mertens of Kansas) before she stared her heady climb into the uber-rich socialite world of old money in New York in the '40's.  A tale of  love, murder, social climbing and class peopled by semi-fictional characters and the real celebrities of the time.
But, like Downton Park, it's plot is somewhat incidental - the real hook of the book is manners - or lack of them. Manners are a strange and terrible thing, aren't they?  We inherit so much from our parents and then have to re-learn them when we fall in with the peers that we feel at home with. As a child I could swap quite happily from home where I had to say "what?" if I hadn't heard something to the mealy mouthed "pardon?" at primary school.  The same with "loo" and the pronunciation of "Hoorah"  It was just something - along with other incomprehensible things that didn't confuse me as a child.  I put it down to the sheer perverseness of adults. 
The formidable matriarch of the family Grenville that the ambitious Ann tries so hard with is the Emily Post of her day.  Alice Grenville has it all.  Money, breeding, houses, horses, jewels and manners.  She knows that Ann has designs on her only son - Billy, and resigns herself when is a quick wedding takes place. Her daughters cordially loathe her.  Ann may be beautiful, but after all she was a showgirl.... and she wears scarlet lipstick, eye-shadow in the afternoon, over dresses and - horror - cuts her bread roll with a knife at the table.
But, Ann is a quick learner.
"Don't say 'Mansion' say 'House'"
"Don't over-scent.  You're not in the Copacabana now."
"And for goodness sake, just pass your hand over the top of your wineglass before the butler pours if you don't want any more wine, don't turn your glass upside down."
Poor Ann, she used the wrong brocade in her new house, and curtsied to Wallis Simpson (''tacky') and generally got it wrong.  But not for long.  Soon, she looked and sounded like all the rest.  Except of course she wasn't.  Her past catches up with her and she shoots her husband dead one night after a drunken row.
Alice Grenville is caught in a position of horror.  Should she reject her daughter-in-law who killed her beloved son, and risk having the dirty family laundry aired in public - even worse - in the papers?  (She is of the opinion that women of her position should have their names thrice only in the press, birth, marriage and death) Or, should she close, rank, pull in a few favours from the rich and powerful friends and have Ann on her hands for the rest of her life?
From Biarritz to Paris, from Long Island to Kentucky the two Mrs Grenvilles have to tolerate one another in this tale of wealth, glamour and ultimately - terrible sadness.  Maybe money really doesn't buy happiness?
"What does NOCD mean?" Ann asks, knowin that two women were talking about her.
"Not Our Class Darling." is the harsh answer.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

good golly miss molly

Well, it was 75p in 1978.  I found it lurking on my bedroom shelves, which was quite a miracle in itself as it meant that it had survived numerous moves, re-decorations and book culls.  Perhaps a certain sentimentality? (It was certainly the first really RUDE book that I read) Or a premonition?  Who knows.
All I do know is that I met Molly Parkin about 16 years ago when I was producing a long running afternoon TV show (Watercolour Challenge if you must know) and we had her on as the critic when we were filming in Wales. She terrified the director and swept across the Welsh hills in her home made turbans and cloaks.  I remember her being larger than life and good fun, but distracted and a little distant, Then she faded from the public eye.... that is till last week.
She has a new book out - her autobiography - Welcome to Mollywood, and I had the pleasure of re-connecting with her at The Shoreditch Literary Salon.
It was a filthy night out in London  (quite suitable for our Molly) - howling wind and torrential rain, and we thought that not many people would arrive.  How wrong we were.  We were full to bursting.  Positively heaving. Rammed. (See? I can't stop it.  Molly has this effect) and she hasn't changed at all.  Except.... she's got a whole lot more approachable, funnier, wittier and braver.  She still has the face of a 45 year old and still has the fabulous turbans (home made), the sweeping black velvet cloak lined with blue satin and stitched by herself.
If not fearless.
She told me that she had wanted to call her book 'The Paedophiles Daughter' but that she thought that no-one would want to buy it.
It's funny and and inspiring and truthful and very, very fearless.  Her father sexually abused her for years.  And it makes for harrowing and tearful reading.  She also told me in her light clear voice that she loved him and had forgiven him. 
Her love affair with James Robertson Justice, her life as a painter, writer, mother and author and more recently now as National Treasure.
She read the first chapter of her book which involves rodents making off with her toffee encrusted teeth - which she then whipped out and brandished about, much to the horrified delight of over 250 people who roared at her honesty and bravery.
She has designed the book cover jacket herself, and she wanted it to look like a slice of sunshine, and it does. (Not like the oh so seventies book above)
She then had a all too short half hours chat with Damian Barr.  We all loved her.  She is a star. As well as being a National Treasure.