Foodie ramblings: gardening? anyone for beetroot?

Following Joanna’s wonderful blog on pheasants the other week, another food-related post. About gardening. Sort of.Well, more a ramble, really, but there is some (vaguely) writerly stuff at the end. Promise.

Confession time

Gardening? I am “NotAGardener”. There,  I have said it.

NotAGardeners” will know how inadequate they feel when they see a well tended veg patch, straight lines of leeks standing to attention, beans and peas running riot over a network of canes. Lettuces, cabbages, potatoes – to say nothing of herbaceous borders bursting with colour, flowers waiting to be picked to adorn the dining table. It would be (naturally ) groaning under the weight of food I have grown, harvested and prepared with my own fair hands.

Gardening? Nah

Oscar Keys oscartothekeys, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I would love to do it, I really would.

Some nights I lie awake and imagine my garden looking like Monty Don’s Longmeadow, full of greenhouses and raised beds bursting with flowers or eminently edible produce. Alas, although the spirit is willing the flesh, as they say, is weak.

After one session of gardening I feel like this…

And to be honest, I would much rather be doing this…

Pauline Borghese as Venus VIctrix

It is my own fault

I do not apply myself to the task as I should, cutting corners, rushing jobs. I know final results would be well worth the effort but alas, I fall by the wayside. Let’s be honest here, I’ve been trying for almost half a century. Ever since I saw Felicity Kendall being self-sufficient in Surbiton. I think I am now beyond hope as far as gardening goes.

When I sighed for a greenhouse, my family built one for me.

It is a thing of beauty and I use it for growing herbs, and for sheltering my bay tree in the winter.

But I feel I should be filling it with exotic fruits and flowers.

There have been a few successes…

Srl, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last year I managed to get outside at the right time and sow tomato and courgette seeds and – joy of joys – they grew. It worked. But that was one season.

One. Season.

And nothing like the abundance shown here!

Come this spring, the weather wasn’t good and I stayed indoors. True, my perennial herbs are growing in their pots, my bay tree is still cowering in the greenhouse out of the wind, but there are no vegetables. Nothing I can make a meal from. Sigh.

My excuse?

Woman businesswoman working, files, clockI have commitments. People to see. Books to write. Deadlines to meet. 

I don’t enjoy gardening that much.

So I have to come up with some other way to get my veggies.

Solution

Easy: I will let someone else grow the veg.  So I now have an Organic Veg Box delivered once a fortnight.

My local veg box

I know I am in a very fortunate position to be able to afford an OVB. (But let me tell you it is nothing – NOTHING – to what I have spent over the years on seeds, plugs, young plants, seed-trays and compost, etc. etc.)

However, it is more than a 100-mile round trip  to the nearest big shops/supermarkets. AND my OVB comes from from a nearby farm, so I am supporting my local economy. What’s more, the root vegetables are gloriously muddy, so I am getting my hands  dirty.

Back to the Veg Box

I like it, I really do, but this is the Highlands of Scotland. Not for us an abundance of soft fruits & salads (although the raspberries, when in season, are delicious).

The season for fennel, lettuce and French beans is quite short, so there are lots of root vegetables and greens. This means the challenge of finding things to do with the carrots, potatoes and kale. To say nothing of the beetroot and red or white cabbage. You would be surprised how many meals you can get out of a red cabbage. When there are only two of you. Okay, I relish the challenge, and my culinary repertoire has grown enormously.

A brownie point for that, at least.

The Writerly Bit

Writing energy

Buying locally-grown produce in season does make me think about 18th century living. Wealthy families might have hot houses or walled gardens capable of growing more exotic foods, but most existed on what was grown in their immediate area.

Live cattle and geese could be driven for miles to market, but without refrigerated vans, fresh food didn’t travel that well. When I am writing a Regency, I spend quite some time trying to work out what my characters would be eating in a particular season.

Which meant a bit more research for my latest wip…

It’s  a Christmas story and includes pomegranates. (Don’t ask – too complicated. You will have to wait to read it). I  have it on good authority that pomegranates were being grown in England in the 13th century: Alexander Neckham, Augustinian Abbot of Cirencester, mentions them in his De Naturis Rerum (an early encyclopaedia, to you & me).

Pomegranates were established in English gardens by Tudor times and grown in glasshouses in the 17th century. So, it is perfectly feasible for my Regency character to have them growing in his hothouse.

But enough about my book…

What about other authors?

Food is often used as the way to a character’s heart. Quite rightly, too, in my opinion. I am sure you can name numerous authors, but here’s a couple that spring to mind.

Katie Fforde is a self confessed foodie. She often writes about food in her books – Thyme Out (my personal favourite) and Recipe for Love, to name but two.

                                          

And my latest find is Veronica Henry’s The Impulse Purchase, a delicious story of a mother, daughter and granddaughter who work together to restore a country pub to its former glory. They are all excellent cooks so, of course, the pub food has to be top-notch, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t disappoint. It is full of foodie descriptions that make one’s mouth water.

And talking of Impulse purchases…

Friend and fellow author Louise Allen  bought a “small scruffy disbound book” which turned out to be a treasure trove of recipes and household remedies. She published it under the title Mock Oyster Sauce & A Cure For Corns. As well as a lot of receipts there is a remedy for Gout, two for Cholera Morbus. Clearly a book that should be on every cook’s bookshelf. And I am sure some of these recipes have appeared in Louise’s own novels.

Finally, my ultimate favourites…

I couldn’t let this subject pass without reference to Georgette Heyer. Who can forget the Marquesa de Villacañas in The Grand Sophy, showing her practical side when it comes to dinner:

There is a way of preparing fresh-killed chickens, so Vincent shall at once kill me two chickens, for chickens this woman tells me there are in abundance, and I shall contrive.”


And Frederica, worrying herself silly about poor Felix while the Marquis of Alverstoke summons up the courage to “put his fate to the touch.”

Only Frederica isn’t attending. She is trying to remember the name of an excellent jelly the vicar’s wife recommended when the boys were recovering from the measles. What could have been a tender love scene turned into a laugh-out-loud moment when she remembers it is Dr Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly.

There is a recipe for Dr Ratcliffe’s jelly, too…

You will find it in “A New System of Domestic Cookery: formed upon Principles of Economy: and adapted to the Use of Private Families.” Catchy title, what? It is written by “A Lady”, later identified at M E K Rundell.

The book is available online, if you want to try it for yourself, and it also has such nourishing concoctions as Beef Tea, Tench Broth and Rice Caudle, all under a section headed (ahem) “sick cookery”. Good luck with that.

They say confession is good for the soul

So I should be feeling better, yes? Able to get back to my day job (the writing) with a clear conscience. But the sun is shining today. There are green shoots appearing in the garden…

I should know better, I really should.

Where’s that seed catalogue…?

Happy gardening (if that’s your thing)

SARAH

Novelists, Reviews and a Competition

Announcing PG Wodehouse essay Prize 2022

This week I have been thinking about how I read and write reviews and, in particular, a very special competition. The latter invites you to try something similar but a bit more substantial for my dear P G  Wodehouse. See below for details.

Now, there are many ways of appreciating a novel.

You can study it, dream about it, carry on the characters in your own story (or several) and talk about it until your friends beg you to stop.

writing tipsTo share your enthusiasm with the whole world, all you have to do is write a review and post it on a bookseller’s website. Writers, desperate to let readers know that their work exists, are pathetically grateful for these reviews. I know. I am one of them.

In the torrent of electronic messages that surge over you every morning, received wisdom is that you need to see the name of something at least seven times before it sticks.

So numbers of reviewers matter. Seven appearances before your snapping synapses are supposed to make you curious enough to go and look at the title on a website. And then you can actually read what readers thought about it.

What is An Amazon Review?

The most frequented of these websites is, of course, Amazon. The General Purveyor of Online Books, Gadgets and Comestibles has started to invite me to write reviews all the time.  Only a couple of days ago I received an email headed “Ever wonder if your reviews are getting noticed?”

This particular message  lists the last three novels I have bought. (Well, actually, it calls them “products”. ) And invites me to choose how many stars out of five I would give each book and suggest I review them. It adds, rather to my surprise, “videos are especially helpful.”

magic momentVideo review of a book? Really? I haven’t seen one of those yet. But no doubt someone with the technical expertise, maybe a home studio or two, and an ego the size of a house, will actually video themselves talking about their reading matter of choice and why they did or didn’t like the result. Not sure I’d watch it, though.

Fortunately, a number of gentle readers will review books on Amazon out of the  goodness of their hearts. The best of them give a tantalizing glimpse of what it is that particularly struck the reader as memorable. Then I can make up my mind if the iconic character or scene under reference takes my fancy.

(Just a hint here, for anyone who wants me to read a particular book: “psychological thriller” is my instant turn off. I’ve read several and they all gave me nightmares.)

When a Review Becomes a Complaint

The reader review can be a seriously odd animal. Readers can take against a book for the strangest reasons, some of which have nothing to do with its content.

I have seen a novel splatted by a grumpy review for a) ugly cover b) late delivery c) not being set in North America.

Or, in another case, a disappointed reader complained that a murder mystery wasn’t funny enough. I found that a recommendation, to be honest.

Mind you, bookseller friend of mine told me that a woman brought back a copy of The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. One of his colleagues had recommend it. It had won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction that year. It sounds a gripping story, about a woman who goes into the Vietnam War as a photo journalist. While there, apart from her experience of the country, the people and the war, she has significant relationships with a married alcoholic who mentors her, and his Vietnamese sidekick with a tragic past.

The customer’s complaint? The book didn’t have any recipes. The title was misleading.

Reader Reviews, Author Appreciation Days And More

Some of the best reviews on Amazon, Waterstones, Kobi and elsewhere originate with dedicated book bloggers like Being Anne  and her peers, who read lots and are genuine enthusiasts. Reader reviewers often specialise in one or two favourite genres, and offer insights based on knowledge and experience.

And then sometimes you find inspired comments from someone who has just fallen in love with a book and longs to share it. For instance, “Honestly I have no idea if this review is even going to be coherent, because if I could give this book all the stars in the sky I would.”

This is actually for one of my own much loved discoveries, The Goblin Emperor by Kathleen Addison. I’m pretty sure that’s the review that convinced me to try it. So many thanks to Jess Gofton whoever they may be.

I’ve written a fair few in my time, too but only for books I’ve really loved. I find them much too difficult to write for anything less than totally passionate absorption. No matter how hard Amazon begs.

Most reviews on bookseller’s websites are only a couple of paragraphs of personal response. But some, like the one I’ve just quoted are much fuller. And then there are the really meaty reviews of books on bookish websites. A new favourite is this review at a gallimaufry website of Katherine Langrish’s book on the C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  

Lewis is one of those beloved writers like Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier and P G Wodehouse who attract devotees and scholars to days and even whole weekends of study.

A couple of years ago I went to one on Diana Wynne Jones, whose work I have loved for more than 30 years. It was a revelation – and not just to be with kindred spirits. There were at least three papers which sent me back to re-reading my favourites. And one that made me look again at a book of hers that had never grabbed me before. Fabulous stuff.

That Competition

Which brings me finally to that competition. The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) has just launched a new international essay competition. International. Mark that. The originator of the fabulous Russian author Vladimir Brusilloff thoroughly deserves an International Essay if anyone does.

Brusilloff appears in a collection called The Clicking of Cuthbert in which most of the stories are about golf. In the course of a somewhat stilted conversation with Cuthbert, the author delivers himself of what might well be called the ultimate self-penned review:

“No novelists any good except me. Sovietski — yah! Nastikoff — bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P G Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.”

So this competition invites you to write an essay about why Wodehouse is so extremely not good, but not bad. There are two prizes for an essay on his work; nothing biographical need apply. The under19s are asked for a essay of not more than 1,500 words to compete for £250. Those of maturer years have a minimum and maximum wordage to contend with (4,000-5,000) but their prize is £1,000.

Full details and how to apply are on the Society’s website.  The closing date is 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1st September. So you’ve just about got time to re-read your real favourites and jump to it!

Pip, pip.

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

Conveniences: Shampoo, Toothpaste, Electric Light?

If you found yourself translated back to a previous era, what modern conveniences would you miss? It’s a question I often think about when I turn on a light, for example, or when I read a book or watch a TV documentary about how things were, way back then.1900 House book cover, a story with few conveniences

I am reminded of the Channel 4 documentary, The 1900 House, the first of several such re-enactments. The whole family had signed up for the project, but they met problems and lack of conveniences that none of them had expected.

Shampoo?

One of the most contentious problems was the lack of shampoo which hadn’t then been invented. Continue reading

Romantic Novelists in Wodehouse and Christie

resolution by letterA couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about romantic novelists in fiction and how they compared with the real thing. To be more precise, it was PG Wodehouse’s romantic novelists. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have blogged about them before. (I am a huge fan of Rosie M Banks, before you ask.)

Two interesting things emerged from my researches. First, while PGW exaggerated some aspects for comic effect, in general he was pretty respectful of their work ethic – and success!

The second was – those exaggerations. I assumed they had sprung, new-minted, from the Master’s imagination. But just a bit of digging found that PGW had sources on which he might well have modelled even the most egregious. Glug. Continue reading

Pheasants are for more than game casserole

cock pheasantPheasants can be fun for stories. So… once upon a time, there was a cock pheasant. And “once upon a time” is not in the past. He’s still around.

He lives in my garden. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes, he goes on a foray next door, in hopes of convincing the neighbours that no one feeds him — no one ever! —  and he is a poor, starved creature. It works, too, according to the neighbours.

He is a handsome bird with shimmering gold and rust-brown feathers, a very long elegant tail and a wide white ruff round his neck. (Louise Allen, friend of Libertà, tells us that the bigger the white neck-ruff, the more testosterone in the, ahem, cock.)

cock pheasant close-upThis cock pheasant certainly fancies himself. He thinks he owns all he surveys. King of the World, in fact. And he tries to see off any other cock pheasant who dares to set foot on his patch. He barks — a sound like a strangulated cock crow — and rouses his feathers to show his importance and warn off rivals. He is a large chap with a small head and an even smaller, pea-sized brain. If he were human, I’d say he was “all mouth and (no) trousers”.

I’ve named him Boris. Continue reading

Mousetrap, Superman and Posterity

This blog contains two main stories – what The Mousetrap did to Hamlet and how Superman distorted an Edwardian hero. For me, anyway.

For some weeks now I’ve been engaged in editing a book that I have re-visited over several years. It has made me think about references which may shift with time.

Something that seemed set in stone in 2008 may have become seriously misleading in 2021. Even downright counter-productive. As, I hope, my two stories will show.

Hamlet’s Dilemma

I love Shakespeare. I saw my first Hamlet when I was fourteen and I have seen it countless times since. There’s usually something new to discover and always special moments of power that stop me dead in my tracks. These depend on the production, of course. But generally one of them is the play within a play in Act 3 Scene 2.

Murdoch's Tower at Caerlaverock Castle ScotlandHamlet is obsessing about his mother’s remarriage. His father, the King, died only four months ago and Hamlet suspects his uncle of murdering him. Not only has the Queen married him, Uncle is now King. Hamlet started with a vague suspicion, but then he encounters his father’s ghost walking the battlements. He confirms it. Continue reading

The Garden in Fiction…

The secret garden…

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

I imagine, for most of us, our first encounter with a garden in fiction will be Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful book, The Secret Garden. The garden, locked away by a grieving man, is where Mary Lennox, with the help of a friendly robin, and two new friends, discovers a hidden world full of magic and life that transforms all their lives.

“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. The few books she had read and liked had been fairy-story books, and she had read of secret gardens in some of the stories. Sometimes people went to sleep in them for a hundred years, which she had thought must be rather stupid. She had no intention of going to sleep, and, in fact, she was becoming wider awake every day which passed at Misselthwaite.”

Much has been made during the last couple of years of the healing power of nature. That is what Mary’s secret garden does, for her, for her sickly cousin and for her grieving uncle.

The garden as paradise

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Regency food and characters

fabulous hotel foodRegency food is really interesting and characters’ preferences tell us a lot about them. Their preferences for drink do too, as I tried to show in my earlier blog about what characters (Regency and modern) drank.

But this week, I’m blogging about food in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sometimes, food in glamorous surroundings, too…

Where Regency food came from…? Meat, fish, game

Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet at the danceThere isn’t much detail of food and drink in Pride and Prejudice, but Mrs Bennet does mention preparations being made for dinners to fête Mr Bingley’s return to Netherfield.

“Mrs Nicholls…was going to the butcher’s, she told me, on purpose to order in some meat on Wednesday, and she had got three couple of ducks, just fit to be killed.”

That shows that meat wasn’t instantly available from a butcher’s as it is now. And a hostess knew and accepted that providing meat entailed killing animals. Continue reading

How Long is a Novel?

Image by Hassan Nawaz from Pixabay

How long is a novel? I am at that stage in my current ms where I am starting to worry about novel length. A lot.

This is a story that has deepened and matured over time. The first draft umpty-um years ago was just over 100K words. Which I knew was too long for what it delivered. But is that still true?

I think it’s grown in complexity. But is it really delivering more, or is that just vainglorious fantasy because I’ve been working on it so long? AAARGH.

So I’ve been digging a bit to see what I can discover about novel length across time and genres.

Novel Length – in the Beginning

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Red Boots and Bow Tie (or RNA Awards Ceremony)

Hello again. I’m back about the RNA Awards…

Recently I was here with Louise Allen, chatting about how it felt like to be shortlisted for the RNA Awards. Now the Awards are over, and I’m back to tell you all about it.

RNA Awards invitation

Romanceland has been buzzing about the RNA Awards

Continue reading