Sunday, 17 April 2011

Return to Cold Comfort Farm. . .

I'm really quite excited that Vintage U.K. is bringing back into print some of Stella Gibbons' other novels this fall. Cold Comfort Farm is one of those books I never get tired of re-reading. I actually perused Conference at Cold Comfort Farm many years ago but remember not thinking much of it at the time. I had discovered it among the stacks of an academic library while waiting for a friend who was doing some research. I think I only had an hour to speed read my way through it, so I may have not have done it justice. According to the book's description, the farm is hosting a conference of the "International Thinkers Group" that includes Mr. Mybug, so that promises to be fun; I'm willing to give it another go. I know I've never read Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, a collection of short stories that includes scenes of a typical Starkadder Christmas complete with "unsuitable presents and unpleasant insertions into the pudding." While I'm sure neither of these will match up to the original, I'm definitely game to revisit the farm and its eccentric characters.

Vintage is also republishing two other novels by Gibbons that I'm also looking forward to reading. Starlight is about two poor sisters who get a new landlord with a wife who seems to be possessed by spirits, and Westwood looks particularly like my cup of tea - the story of a bookish girl and her more beautiful friend, vying for the attentions of an egotistic playwright who doesn't seem to deserve either of them. I'm hoping it contains some good doses of literary satire. Cold Comfort Farm was Gibbons' first novel. Were the others so slight or badly written that they merited languishing in obscurity all this time? I can't quite believe it.

Jazz and Jealousy. . .

I do love a movie with a good jazz score. I think of Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows with that great score by Miles Davis, Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder with music composed and played by Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and Elmer Berstein's score for Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm.

So I was looking forward this afternoon to watching Basil Dearden's 1962 movie All Night Long. My DVD is part of Criterion's Eclipse Series #25: Basil Deardon's London Underground, a set of four movies by this British director. It's a retelling of Othello set among jazz musicians as a party is held for the first year anniversary of married couple Delia and Rex. He's the leader of a successful jazz band; she's a former singer who gave up her career for marriage. Johnny Cousin is the Iago in this film; a jealous drummer who wants a band of his own with Delia as its star, and who tries to break the couple up by feeding Rex's jealousy. You know the story; the ending won't quite be the same. It was all a bit melodramatic (thunderclaps at portentous moments) and the acting isn't terribly good. The party seems quite devoid of guests except for the main characters (no budget for extras, I suppose) and there's an awful lot of going in and out of rooms whenever Deardon needs some quiet for two characters to talk. Still, the music is terrific and the musicians include Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Tubby Hayes with enough camera time on them to let them rip. Their scenes are definitely the best bits of the movie.

I haven't given up on this set or Deardon though. I quite enjoyed Victim, a 1961 film about homophobia in England starring Dirk Bogarde, and next up will be 1960's The League of Gentlemen, a heist movie starring Richard Attenborough and Roger Livesey which looks like fun. 1959's Sapphire, about a murder that stirs up racial unrest, rounds out the set.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

A Spaetzle Saturday. . .

Some days it's all about the quest for that perfect meal.
Yesterday morning, I was reading one of my favourite food blogs - Smitten Kitchen - and there was this post about how to make spaetzle, a type of German noodles that I'd never heard of or tasted before. As someone who has long wanted to try making homemade pasta but who lacks the required counter space, equipment and patience, this seemed a perfect and easy alternative. However, as the blogger rightly pointed out, it helps to have a Spaetzle Maker.

I was shortly due to meet a friend for a long walk, en route to a farmer's market (where a basket of organic onions would come in handy later). Enthusing about my sudden obsessive need to make spaetzle that night (which she completely understood; she's known me too long), I enlisted her help in checking out several local kitchen gadget stores in search for this elusive tool. Either the spring weather has created spaetzle fever, or Smitten Kitchen has a lot of Toronto readers, but I heard from more than one retailer that they'd either just sold out, or didn't carry them, but had recently had inquires. I'd nearly given up, but thankfully I remembered The Pepper Mill and yes, they had them (see above) and yes, they still have more in stock.

Okay, so why did this recipe torment me all day, apart from the fact that it's really fun to say?

1. Easy ingredients. Flour, eggs (a lot of them - I used Omega 3 ones) and milk. Combine.

2. They are so much fun to make! Once the batter has cooled in the fridge for an hour, you just bring a large pot of salted water to boil, put the spaetzle maker over the top and pour the batter into the little box. Then you slide the box back and forth and the batter falls through the holes into the hot water, creating little squiggles of noodles.

3. They cook incredibly fast. You'll know when they're done when they rise to the top like this. It only takes a minute or two. I did them in several batches, or else it gets too crowded.

4. They are so versatile. Drain them in a colander and then you can use them in any recipe calling for pasta. I fried up some onions and pancetta in some melted butter and then added the spaetzle, some ground pepper and thyme and there was the dinner I'd been happily anticipating all day.

5. As hoped, it was absolutely delicious!

A couple of things to note. The recipe which I followed from the Smitten Kitchen post above, makes a LOT of spaetzle. It could easily serve four if used as the main dish, and six-eight if you were serving is just as a side dish. I'm going to use the leftovers to bake a large Spaetzle n' Cheese dish for dinner tonight. I may never buy macaroni again. Also, when moving the spaetzle maker back and forth, be careful so that the batter doesn't go down the side of the pot where it'll hit your stove element and start to burn. It did get a bit messy at times and you have to work fast, but it was completely worth it.

UPDATED: I used the leftover spaetzle in place of macaroni and it was fantastic. The spaetzle doesn't dry up overnight and takes the sauce really well. It just adds an extra creaminess to the whole dish. This is definitely replacing my old Mac n' Cheese standard.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Holiday in the Lakes. . .

Life and work has been a bit hectic lately, but I just got back from a lovely holiday in England. I had great spring weather and it was so relaxing to gaze on green grass and daffodils, which were blooming everywhere. I went on a couple of wonderful walks in the Lake District, using Ambleside as a base - just fresh air, good company, breathtakingly beautiful scenery, friendly, inquisitive sheep, Jaffa Cakes at the breaks, and no electronic devices for miles. Utter bliss. First off, a walk in true Wordsworth country up to this point overlooking Grasmere.

The next day I dipped my feet in this very cold water at Angle Tarn where we stopped for lunch.

This is the gorgeous view from the top of Wansfell Pike, overlooking the town of Ambleside. It's so hard to really capture the effect, but from here all you can see are peaks everywhere and Lake Windermere to the left.

On this trip I was also visiting a friend in Liverpool who took me out to Crosby Beach at the north part of the city, which contains a really interesting art installation by artist Antony Gormley. Called Another Place, he created one hundred life-size figures of himself and placed them at various points along several kilometres of the beach. They are all staring out at the water and the effect is quiet and reflective but not intrusive. Very peaceful, though I think it might look completely different, and possibly more fearful, when the tide comes in.

My reading on this trip has been True North: In Praise of England's Better Half by Martin Wainwright - a book debunking the negative stereotypes of Northern England. It's a terrific read - I'm constantly writing down a list of places I need to visit, historical buildings to see, art galleries to go to, and even bands to check out, like The Doves. Technically, I'm a Northern girl myself having been born in Yorkshire, but I came to Canada when I was just nine months old and have lived here ever since, so even though I visit England often, there's so much about the history and culture of my birth country that I'm ignorant of. I never get tired of exploring it though.