Category Archives: Literary

EAT YOUR WORDS

Brilliant outing yesterday to the newly -extended Carnegie Library and Galleries, Description: Hard Drive:Users:marthabryce:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 10.15.03.pngDunfermline. Award-winning architecture, opening up huge new vistas over the Abbey and Abbot’s House to the west, and the Forth bridges to the south. And a hugely engaging collection of artefacts representing many of the trades and townspeople of past and present. The actual library section is mercifully preserved pretty much as was. When Captain Wunderkind was a baby I used to push the pram up St Margaret’s Street and get lost in the aisles of books, shoogling the pram with one hand and balancing the books with the other, trying to devour a whole chapter before the WK woke up and wailed.

2017-05-23 11.36.10.jpgIn those days there was no tea or coffee to be had in the library – the very idea! Now however there’s a spanking new café with an outside terrace and leafy views through the treetops. The café contract was awarded to a (relatively) local food business, ‘Heaven Scent’ of Milnathort – a nice change from the corporate Costas that seem to take over. Not that I have anything against Costa – except for the global creep which makes it so hard for the local food story to survive. We arrived at lunchtime and I had a creamy, soothing pitcher of lentil soup with a nice crunchy salad with roasted vegetables, and a pair of seeded mini-rolls. The menu was a notch above predictable, with lots of familiar lunch-type options, livened up with little quirks. Pity that, at 12.30 in the day, they’d already run out of  cream of mushroom – but since they only opened last Thursday, I guess it takes a while to bed in. The queue never went down throughout our visit so clearly it’s going down well.

I’ve always been a big library fan, and fortunate always to have access to some good ones. Right now, I’m in the AK Bell library in Perth – on the spacious and silent upper floor, tapping away. Great study space, good book collection in my field (food and drink, mainly), friendly and helpful staff, and a nice, but slightly pricy, café.

My first library was in what had once been someone’s front room at the top end of the Main Street in Ochiltree – a few doors beyond the House with the Green Shutters. I finished the single shelf of children’s books in a matter of months, so my mother and the librarian conspired to find things from the adult shelves that they considered ‘suitable’. Of course they occasionally got it wrong! And thank goodness for that, as my sex education was badly in need of augmentation.

I won’t go on at length about all my libraries but have decided to do a scoresheet, with points out of 5 on the above features, for all you other booknerds out there:

Name and location of library, and the dates I used it Book collection

score 0-5

Study space

score 0-5

Staff helpfulness

score 0-5

Refreshments

score 0-5

Ochiltree, 1964-68 2 0 2 0
Carnegie library, Ayr, 1974 3.5 3 3 0
Glasgow University Library, 1974-77 5 (but all so BORING!) 3 1 0
Langside Library, Glasgow, 1977-86 3.5 1 2 0
Public library, Stonetown, Zanzibar, 2010 3 – but eccentric! 3 2 0
Carnegie Library, Dunfermline – opened 1883, closed for renovations 2015 4 4 4 0
Duloch Community Library, Dunfermline 4 2 4 2
Laing Library, Newburgh, Fife 4 but specialist – local and family history 1 4 0
AK Bell Library, Perth 4 4 4 3
 Carnegie Library and Galleries, Dunfermline – reopened 18th May 2017 4 4 4 4

So the top scorer is …. drum roll … Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries! Go as soon as you can, it’s a brilliant visit and does the townspeople proud.

Mellow at Hogmanay

Greetings to you all. My damson gin is all finished, in the happy pursuit of sampling and gifting. It was delicious. Must make a bigger batch next year.2016-12-31 18.24.42.jpg

Also, as I have been nursing a heavy cold, I am well fortified with Benylin, Lemsip, Strepsils, and hot toddies. So I’m coasting gently towards the Bells, and depending on whether or not it rains tonight, I might foray out and take part in the Oddfellows’ Parade – a surreal and well-named event that happens here each year. I think it has masonic connections, so it wouldn’t normally attract my attention. The Oddfellows, dating from four or five centuries ago, I think (pardon the mellow approach to historical accuracy), were the unskilled labourers who weren’t eligible  to join the craft guilds. Their march involves someone riding backwards on a Clydesdale horse, up the high street, with a band following; and revellers dressed up in pretty scary costumes dashing around terrifying the populace and collecting money for charitable causes. Follow the link to get a 5 year old account of the event by another Newburgh blogger, with good photos. This photo isn’t the Oddfellows! it’s from Bourdain’s book.

2016-12-31 18.22.11.jpgQuickly before the parade sets off, I’m going to talk about two good food books I’ve read recently. The first was a gift from a fellow blogger – thank you so much, FoodinBooks! This is ‘Appetites’ by Anthony Bourdain. I’d read his ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and ‘Cooks’ Tour’, both of which had me laughing and gasping with horror/delight – all about his coke-fuelled path to chef stardom. This latest book is about so-called family cooking – with his appreciative comments about the unconventionality of his own family. The book, like his others, is completely irreverent yet dedicated to good eating. Very meaty, with graphic photos not much enjoyed by the Troubadour. Great fun though. Inspired by some of his recipes, and the donor of the book who, I discover, hails from New Mexico, I cooked up a bit of a Mexican storm a few weeks ago – huevas rancheros and patatas bravas, quesadillas, and stuffed peppers, sweetcorn fritters and so on. I suppose it wasn’t anything like authentic Mexican cooking so I apologise for what is probably a highly clichéd menu. As if haggis, neeps and tatties were the only thing Scots eat. But it was hugely enjoyed. An old song came to mind, plucked out for me by the Troubadour – El Paso by Marty Robbins. Again, probably clichéd (Donald, whaur’s yer troosers?) but I love it.

(A slight digression – here’s a video of the Troubadour using the tune of this song for a wee ode to Scottish artist and sculptor Tony Morrow. This is a picture of his pie and bridie, cast in bronze).2016-12-31 20.50.37.jpg

Bourdain has a French parent; and the author of my second book has been living in Paris. 2016-12-31 18.25.01.jpgAnd both are chefs. That’s the similarities dealt with. David Lebowitz’ ‘The Sweet Life in Paris’ is a book I’d  been aware of because I follow his blog – in his blogsphere I am the flea that sits on the hide of the elephant – he has thousands of followers. Anyway his book is very entertaining – I saw it in the library in Perth when I was studying for my recent exam (yes thank you I passed) and have loved reading his full-length work. He describes how the Parisians hate Americans, and his efforts to kind of blend in. Like, eating with your hands, in the streets? Very no-no to Parisians apparently. He describes how a Parisian eats a banana – with knife and fork and napkin … Hilarious, even though I suppose it’s exaggerated and maybe Parisians don’t recognise this view of themselves. His eventual acceptance was very much aided by his prowess as a patissier and chocolatier.

Incidentally, do you like the background surface under the books? Still in New Mexico mode. Happy new year to all my friends around the globe, I will be drinking to your health this evening; here’s to a brilliant 2017.

Hands across the water …

OK I am responding to an invitation to link my blog with another Hallowe’en one, entitled ‘Pumpkins and Togetherness’, by an American blogging lady who calls her blog ‘Recipe in a Bottle’. She has a great way of embracing the season and its little people, I might try it sometime. I hope the link works … sometimes I’m a bit witless about how to make this thing work at its best.

It’s been nice reading about other people’s Hallowe’ens but now it’s more or less over so I’ll leave you with a picture of yet another batch of apples which came my way on Monday; I’ve spent part of this morning turning them into chutney. Won’t know for a month whether it’s any good, but hey, what’s not to like? Apples, dates, sultanas, onions, root ginger, mustard seeds, cider vinegar, sugar … boil and simmer … I’m sure it’ll be just fine.

For those of you across the pond who might not know, the photo on the left features the Troubadour and his companion Maw Broon, famous matriarch of the Sunday Post. I’d really quite like to cook like Nigella Lawson (only, obviously, without the pouting) but sad to say, I think I probably cook more like Maw Broon …

Just Food

Last night our short-story-to-film group met to watch ‘Sweet Land‘, inspired by Will Weaver’s short story, ‘A Gravestone Made of Wheat‘.  I had loved the short story – small and perfectly formed in that unique way of the best short stories, with a tight little plot and a beautiful, small cast of characters amazingly well-drawn in such a few (13) short pages. The film was okay too and if that sounds a bit grudging, I’d have to add that in my view, it was a bit blowsy and in places not-very-believable compared with the book. But don’t let that put you off. There were some good performances and gorgeous midwest prairie camera work, and an entirely surprising support role played by Alan Cumming, the Scottish actor.

One of the main features of the story is that Inge, a German woman who has been living in Norway, travels to the prairie for an arranged marriage with Olaf. The action takes place in 1920 and she is met with intense anti-German hostility by the wider community, including the legal systems responsible for her immigration papers, and the church. Happily however she and Olaf hit it off swimmingly and she learns some useful prairie skills including scything and threshing the wheat, and cooking. Olaf can’t get enough of her and at one point, mouth filled with pie, asks, ‘Is this German food?’ She shakes her head and replies, ‘just food.’stuffed-dumplings-coltuna%C5%9Fi[1]

It seems that when her nationality had been used to ostracise and vilify her, she didn’t want her nascent domestic skills to be pigeon-holed, but instead appealed to the universal need to eat, for survival as much as for pleasure. We all need the same things, really. And as this scene also played out in the context of Inge and Olaf’s mutual desire and attraction, the ‘just food’ message acquires the warm sauce of seduction. Yum yum.

 

‘Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about’

My title comes from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘And Bob Dylan Too‘.  We read it in our discussion group after the service yesterday, and like all her poems it shouts out ‘Inclusive! Connected!’ I love Bob Dylan too but I don’t recognise the quote, will have to go seeking. One of the lines in the poem is about the sheep ‘honouring the grass by eating it’, and we had a good wee blether about nose-to-tail eating and not wasting food and being lucky to be so well-fed.

I told them about my previous day’s outing to Loch Leven’s Larder with Hilary. We’d been for a (short and windy) walk along the lochside and then needed sustenance while we caught up with all the news. After said sustenance (egg mayo sandwich, very good indeed) we were strolling back to the car when we spotted a new hut with a big sign outside, ‘Smokery! Welcome!’ (or words to that effect’. In we went for a nosey, and met Andrew Miller who has just started up his business with four shiny new smoking towers and a pile of fabulous fresh Scottish produce. The towers look a bit like gym lockers; I half expected a pile of smelly trainers to fall out when he opened the door to show me – but instead there rested a side of coral pink salmon, quietly absorbing some gentle fumes. I like to think it’s a nice place for such a proud beast to end its days.

I bought some smoked cheese, hailing from Aberdeenshire and nearby Anstruther – Andrew has Scotland cornered – and enquired about the three gleaming salmon he had been pin-boning as we arrived. Well, to be more specific, I asked what he was planning to do with the heads. With a certain embarrassment he said he was just going to throw them out, as he doesn’t have time to deal with all the extras at present. So I offered to take them off his hands, and very generously he filled a bag for me. And here is their portrait.
2015-05-16 17.23.39 I poached them up with some fresh and dried fennel, bayleaves and peppercorns, and came up with a good plateful of salmon-endy-bits which for the present I have frozen and will in due course concoct into some kind of a mousse.

The cheese also was a delight so well done Andrew on having the courage and vision to set up a new business in the tail end of a recession. Your produce is great and I wish you well. So long and thanks for all the fish …

Wee Moosie

Recently I went on a Food Hygiene course and the instructor showed us this … not nice, is it? I asked if it was a computer mock-up but apparently not. Some poor soul actually bought this loaf of bread, with hidden extras.

Free-gift-with-every-loaf-!And then it’s been Burns’ day recently and I’ve just come back from a weekend away with a group of friends, celebrating the bard’s anniversary in a small-scale but vigorously authentic (sangs an clatter) event. One of Burns’ most famous poems is of course ‘To a Mouse’ – it seems that he was out in the field ploughing one day, and inadvertently turned up a mouse’s nest. ‘Thy wee bit hoosie, noo in ruin / Its silly wa’s the winds are strewin / An naething noo tae bigg a new ane …’ etc. It’s probably the best known poem in Scotland because we were all made to learn it at primary school! In fact I think I won a prize in Primary 5 for reciting it at the annual Burns Federation competition.

I recently found a poem written in reply, by Liz Lochhead, entitled ‘From a Mouse’. She explains that she comes home one day to her ‘slattern’s kitchen’ and finds a cheeky wee mouse sitting up in her wok, washing its whiskers and boasting about its fame:

Plockton to Peebles, Dumfries to Dundee,

If a wean kens ony poem aff by hert, it’s Me!

Will greet ower ma plough-torn nest, no see

The bit o’ a gap

Atween the fause Warld o’ Poetry

An baited trap.

Lochhead is right. Sentimentality about mice? No thank you, Rabbie.

A Recipe for Whisky

This being Hogmanay, I had to bring you either whisky or coal. Whisky won. I have a great fondness for the stuff, and its infinite variety. The first novel I tried to write was set in the whisky industry and I set about the research very assiduously. The research was fun, the novel bit the dust. I don’t actually drink very much these days, but tonight, for the bells, I will certainly raise a glass. My taste is for Talisker, the Isle of Skye malt – partly for its peaty-seaspray tang, and partly in nostalgia for the cycling holiday my friend Grace and I undertook when we were but slips o’ lasses. Well, not literally, but we were 18 and full of life so you get the picture. We got the train to Mallaig with the bikes; ferry to Broadford; P1010734cycled up through Skye to Uig; ferry to Lochmaddy in North Uist; cycled down through North and South Uist to Lochboisdale; got storm-bound for an extra night; met a couple of local lads so the time passed quickly enough; got the ferry back to Oban the next day, and then the train home, all the way to Ayr. What an adventure. Don’t do it! ie don’t try and cycle through Skye unless you’re a whole lot fitter than we were. We spent a lot of time pushing the bikes uphill, through the wind and rain … ah, Scottish weather, you’ve got to love it. (Uist on the other hand was perfect for cycling softies – flat and smooth, and the weather was ‘chust sublime’ as Para Handy would say).

Recently I was invited to an event in the Scottish Parliament, launching the campaign ‘To Absent Friends’. The aim of the campaign is to make Scotland a place where we’re all better able to talk about death, remember our loved ones who have passed on, and be kind to ourselves and each other when we’re grieving. The poet Ron Butlin read out his poem, ‘A Recipe for Whisky’, which draws a peaty parallel between the rich and varied adventures of a standard life, and the mysterious layering of the flavours of the whisky as it matures in the cask. I don’t want to infringe copyright law so I’m just going to give a few lines, but I urge you to follow the link to his piece on the Scottish Poetry Library website, and read the whole 15 lines. And let me wish you comfort and joy for 2015.

Let's taste, let's savour and enjoy.
Let's share once more.
Another glass for absent friends. Pour
until the bottle's done.

Here's life! Here's courage to go on!

Strictly Snowball

Scottish readers will be all too aware of Scotland’s new drinking laws, which came into force a couple of weeks ago. Basically, the amount of alcohol present in your blood stream must be below 50mg per 100 mls of blood. In baking bread, I’ve recently discovered that mgs and mls weigh the same – I don’t need to change the setting on my scales between weighing the flour and salt, and then the tepid water. So it souP1010769nds as if I’m allowed to have half the weight of the blood coursing through my veins as pure alcohol. In the rest of the UK, it’s 80% –  outright scary. But I’m not a scientist and I’m easily confused by numbers. And clearly my conclusion is false because the public awareness campaign in advance of the new law advocated drinking no alcohol at all if planning to drive, as even the sherry in your granny’s trifle could put you over the new legal limit.

I grew up in a largely alcohol-free household. If there was ever any drink in the house, it was because somebody brought back a bottle of something syrupy and possibly dubious from their holidays – Spain was all the rage, back then, for those who could afford it. My mother didn’t have to worry about drink-driving limits, partly because she didn’t drink much anyway, and partly because she didn’t own a car. An evening’s entertainment involved walking up the hill to the church hall, having a meeting of some kind followed by a cup of tea and a bit of home-made shortie, then walking back home again. Last year I read Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant autobiography, ‘Why be Happy when you could be Normal?’ Not that my childhood was like this but I could recognise some parallels, like the way that church life provided a community and family to belong to. At one point, talking about the activities (prayer meetings; soup kitchens; choir practice; bible study etc) provided by church involvement, Winterson comments on the joy of having something to do every night of the week, in a town where there was nothing to do.

Anyway, I digress. One of the odd bottles which found its way into our house was tP1010820hick, yellow and viscous. You mixed it up with lemonade (lots of fizzing) to make a Snowball; and one Christmas season I remember my mother fixing herself a little Snowball on a regular basis to accompany Coronation Street and the filling in of her football coupon. To my astonishment, I found a bottle of said yellow gunk in Aldi the other week, and at £4.99 per 70cl, had to have it. Reader, I confess, it’s nearly finished. I might even go out and buy another bottle. There’s something nostalgically frivolous about it. It’s called Advocaat and hails from Holland. It has 14 degrees of alcohol by volume so mixed with lemonade, it’s not going to make a big impact on your ability to drive. That said, I’m not taking even that tiny risk. I’m very attached to my driver’s license. The Snowball is my strictly bedtime drink. Cheers everyone! Drive safely!

Babette’s Feast

Last night our little short-story-to-film group met, having read Izak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast‘, and viewed the film together. The story was tightly written, spare in style, and leaving a lot to the imagination of the reader – quite modern in fact, although it was written in 1958. It told a tale of  ‘a French cook working in a puritanical Norwegian community. She treats her employers to the decadent feast of a lifetime’ (DVD blurb). The story’s message is about God’s love being shown in plenty as well as in famine; that, in fact, you can go too far with abstemiouness! A great message. I commend the book to you; the film was good too but I liked the book better – we didn’t all agree on that but we all liked the story very much.

P1010635It reminded me of a feast I held a few months ago to thank some brilliant friends for seeing me through a long tough time. Let me make it clear – I am not the talented Babette in this story! It was all a bit chaotic, seven people crammed around my kitchen table and every time I needed to reach into the fridge, three people had to move their chairs … but it was a great night. I’d bought a fabulous piece of Puddledub roast rib of beef from Craigie Farm Shop and my jaw nearly hit the deck when I found out how much it was to cost. But it was excellent, and then everyone was so generous, bringing wine fit for a much grander occasion, and party poppers a-plenty …P1010643

The final picture is self-explanatory. We left the table in this state and went out to the garden to set off fireworks, then to the living room to play silly games. A great night. Captain Wunderkind reported his inner thoughts: ‘Here I am, 24 years of age with a good job and a position of responsibility, good friends and a great life … and I’m sitting in my mother’s living room on a Friday night playing hymn tune charades???!’

A Homage to Noggin

My publisher (I know!  Exciting! More news soon) has created a visual for his new imprint, Caldron, which I loved as soon as I saw it and couldn’t figure out why. Now I have – it’s because it reminds me of Noggin the Nog. When Captain Wunderkind was but a child of four or so, he and I used to watch the Noggin videos endlessly. They had such a wonder to them and I’ve often regretted the loss of those videos which probably got chucked out along with the apparatus on which we played them.

Now however to my joy I’ve just discovered them on you-tube! at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bKAYH3Sl8s  This particular episode shows Graculus the bird flying over the mountaintops looking for a rabbit, and finding instead Ronf the miniature Scotsman, from the Hot Water Valley (that’ll be Silicon Glen I expect). Graculus takes Ronf back to see King Noggin, who listens to his sad tale of the unscrupulous Ice Dragon (nominations?) who is terrorising their valley and its peace-loving citizens. Noggin (hurrah!) immediately orders an expedition to take on the baddies and they’re off on their dog-drawn sled.  Graculus gets sad though as they journey – he is having an egg-memory of his distant past, when he was taken from his nest and given to Princess Nouka to raise. He doesn’t know anything about the nest he was laid in. What a n opener for a story! Oliver Postgate, you are my hero! I will definitely be going back on you-tube to look for the following episodes. And soon, news of my own new book…