Spring bits and bobs
I've got a few things I want to talk about, so here's an odds and ends post today.
3. American Gods
Spring is finally here! I've turned off the heating at home and have changed my morning commute so I can walk part of the way through the sunshine and spend less time on the train.
Ok, so it's not all sunny, hot fun-times constantly; today, for example, it's cold and wet. But it's not cold cold. Not snow and woolly hats cold, just I'll throw on a light scarf and turn on the heating a notch cold. After all that time when I thought winter wouldn't leave us, this is still wonderful.
Last weekend, being a bank holiday weekend, I went to visit my parents. We took advantage of the nice weather by going on a walk through the countryside.
The attempt was to go find some bluebells but we were about a week too early. There are bluebells in this picture, but not enough to give the ground that purple haze that makes bluebells so nice.
The trees were gorgeous though. It was a beech wood so the trees were all tall and straight and the leaves were so fresh and new that they were a vivid green. All in all it was rather majestic.
Oh, and we found this cool old gate too. We figured that it was probably part of a much nicer, grander door at some point in the past, but then it got broken and so was relegated outside for gate duty.
I have been watching so much TV recently! Let me run down the main ones.
This show is my guilty pleasure. It's so over-the-top that it's very funny to watch. I like the crazy dance music used to heighten the tension; I like looking at all that food; I like cheering on my favourite contestants; but most of all I love to watch Gregg Wallace pull a million faces.
BBC's glossy drama about the life in one village during the First World War. It was beautiful to watch; well-acted with writing that was often subtle and clever in the best way. But. Jesus! It was so depressing! I know it was dealing with a tough period of history, but I think I can count only two happy things that happened over the whole 6-hour course of the series! If you want to feel miserable, then watch this show.
Game of Thrones
If I ever watch all of this, it's going to take a long time, because I only watch it at my parents house. I've only seen the first three episodes of the first season so far but I have been enjoying it! Very well made. My favourite part though, might just be the opening sequence; that theme tune is epic.
I've got nothing to say about this one. The show continues to be as silly as ever, as rickety as ever, and as great for light-hearted, escapist fun as ever. p.s. The ghost episode gave me the chills.
Kevin Eldon's sketch show was disappointing. It had some funny moments in it, like this sketch, this sketch and this sketch. But it wasn't as funny as I had hoped it would be, given all the talent that was in it. A part of it may have been down to the style of the show, which I think was meant to be corny in a tongue-in-cheek way, but actually just came across as corny in a corny way.
The surprise winner though, is Plebs. Here's a clip. I am still shocked that ITV3 has managed to make a sitcom that's worth watching. Apparently, it's a bit like The Inbetweeners, but having not really watched much of that show, I can't say. What I can say about Plebs is that it's set in ancient Rome, is not ground-breaking as far as comedy shows go, but has enough good jokes in it to make it worth watching. Oh, and the ska music ties everything together really well. If you get the chance, give it a try!
3. American Gods
I just finished this book, which I'd borrowed from my Mum, and I need to tell you about it. It's a thick old thing and thoroughly enjoyable to read, down to every last page. It's very good! I spent most of the book trying to work out exactly what made it so compelling. Neil Gaiman, it turns out, writes very well. The world-building is great, in that things are only hinted at and half-spelled out, giving the sense of this mysterious other world that could easily be studied if you could just grasp hold of it. Meanwhile, the plot has this kind of momentum that's not obvious but is still there in the background, driving the story forwards.
That's too wordy. tl;dr what I'm trying to say is: this is a great book and I really liked it a lot and if you read it I think you would like it too.
After that, I moved onto Dickens, which is very different but no less enjoyable. Maybe more on that later.
Have I told you how much I'm loving my new kitchen? Because I'm loving my new kitchen.
This came out a bit more bland than I was expecting, but it was nice enough. The one thing of note is that the recipe says it feeds four but, God, I reckon it could feed eight! That's one hell of a lot of egg and ham in there.
Tomato pasta salad
And another bland one; I'm sure it's not because I substituted the Red Leicester for Cheddar or used a different shape of pasta either. There's nothing offensive about it but it's a bit of a chore to eat if you're not a massive fan of peas. I'm not a massive fan of peas.
Asian salmon with stir-fried noodles
This was pleasant, if not quite as sticky-sweet as my own recipe for Asian-style salmon. Using the marinade in the stir fry was a great idea though; tasty noodles ahoy!
Blueberry lime friands (recipe from Mother's Little Book of Home-Baked Treats)
Everything I've cooked from this book so far has come out great. I'm impressed! Friands are new to me and they were terrifying to make because I was certain that I'd knocked all the air out of them and that they weren't going to rise at all. Happily, I was proved wrong. I had to chop the hazelnuts by hand, which added a crunchy texture, but I don't think that detracted from anything. In fact, the hazelnuts gave a nice undertone to the sweetness of the lime and the blueberry. And they are sweet; you will feel a bit ill if you try to eat two in one sitting.
Indian lamb burgers
I used a red chilli instead of green and they didn't come out hot at all (luckily for me, that's just the way I like it). These burgers promised to be more tasty though. They're fine enough, yes, but I always find that burgers without onion in are a little lacking. That said, I cooked these under the grill and they came out super juicy, which is rather satisfying.
Visiting Mariya in New York
Hi! Things have been exciting around here.
Last weekend I went to visit Mariya who lives in New York. Mariya and her parents kindly let me stay in their apartment and a good time was had by all (at least, a good time was had by me; I can't vouch for anyone else).
It's been about three years since Mariya and I last met up so it was great to see her again. Chatting by email is fine but it doesn't beat seeing each other face to face :D
Be warned: this is going to be a very long, very image-heavy post. Not only is Mariya an enabler when it comes to indulging my penchant for taking photos, she is also very good at organising time and knowing good places to go. Despite only being in New York for four nights, we still did tonnes of stuff.
So, to make things a bit more clear, let's have a table of contents:
1. Itinerary and general touristing
2. Metropolitan Museum of Art
3. High Line
4. Bronx Botanical Gardens
5. Bronx Zoo
1. Itinerary and general touristing
Here's the story of my trip:
I arrived late on Thursday evening after my flight had been delayed for four hours and after an excruciating amount of time spent going through immigration (we'll not talk about me missing the bus as well). Thankfully, Mariya was at Grand Central Station to meet me and she brought pastries too! Mariya, I am so sorry I made you wait for so long!
On Friday I woke shockingly late considering my jetlag. After a big breakfast (a staple of every day, it turns out) we went into the City for a massive day of museums and culture. We made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and Shake Shack for fast food burgers (and great shakes). Then we failed in our plan to go to an extra museum. Instead, we took an impromptu decision to go to a show on Broadway.
This show though. It wasn't a big production. It was, in fact, in a tiny theatre many stories up in what appeared to be an unassuming office block. The show? Shakespeare with burlesque. (Yes, that's right: people reciting Shakespeare and taking their clothes off at the same time.) It was funny in parts and ramshackle and strange in others. I can honestly say that I'd never seen Henry V give his (or rather, her) St Crispin's Day speech while naked before but, oddly enough, it worked (I imagine I'd have enjoyed the BBC version last year a lot more if they'd gone down the same route).
Finally, there was just time to go to Whole Foods (as part of my supermarket tour of America) before heading home.
The next day we went and walked along the High Line, which is a disused elevated railway track that has now been planted with plants and made into a walkway. The weather was rather pleasant and the walk seemed to fly by, especially as we stopped at Chelsea Market along the way. We then walked further south and down into the West Village in search of a café that turned out to be closed when we got there. Dizzy from hunger, we stumbled east (passing through a shop selling macarons as we went) and finally found ourselves in Blue Smoke for BBQ.
Once sated, we headed up to the Lincoln Centre to watch the new Studio Ghibli film, Up on Poppy Hill. It's a very sedate film full of nostalgia and rather odd plot twists, but it was pleasant enough to watch. When we were done and thinking of going home, we happened to see loads of people wandering into the Metropolitan Opera. Completely on a whim, we went in to see what was showing and ended up with two tickets to Rigoletto (set in Las Vegas, would you believe). For my first trip to the opera ever, I really enjoyed it! I never realised quite how much the music would compliment the action. Very good, especially the third act, even if my jetlag was making me fall asleep a little during that part.
Another late night so the next day we set off at around noon. Mariya's parents drove us to the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which are very pretty. Unofrtunately, spring in New York seems to be as late as spring in the UK, so there were very few trees in blossom about. Oh, and we spent ages going around the orchid exhibit, which was stiflingly busy but worth it.
On the way back, we persuaded Mariya's Dad to drive us to Trader Joe's for another stop on my supermarket tour of America. (Here, I discovered that an English accent works well in the US, because I was given a free chocolate bar from the guy at the checkout. Score!) Dinner was a quiet family affair, followed by the very pretty photos of Mariya's recent trip to India.
And then it was my final day. We had time to wander around the Bronx Zoo in the morning and early afternoon. It's a good zoo, but with maybe more ducks than is strictly necessary (seriously, I can see ducks anywhere. Give me a lion instead!) After that there was only time left for a quick dinner, some quick goodbyes, and then I was off to the airport to catch my flight home!
Speaking of flights. Life of Pi was meh, considering how much I'd enjoyed the book; Rise of the Guardians was far more fun and far prettier to watch than I'd expected; Skyfall was apparently easy to fall asleep to at 1am in the morning; and The Hobbit was comforting for a very tired me considering the tube journey home from Heathrow (Bag End is my ultimate comfort food).
So, as you can see, we did a lot of stuff but not much specific sight-seeing. Any sights we saw along the way were rather incidental (and I forgot to take photos for a lot of them). The ones I did remember to catch on camera are below:
Empire State Building
2. Metropolitan Museum of Art
I love this museum so much. It's like the British Museum and the V&A all rolled into one with even more stuff. And the exhibition of late-19th century dresses was particularly lovely.
If you're hoping that I can remember what exhibits I took photos of, you're out of luck.
3. High Line
Very busy, but a jolly nice walk all the same.
4. Bronx Botanical Gardens
This place is great for taking photos. You might not believe me, but I've been very restrained with the amount of photos of tree blossoms I've put up here. And then, when you're tired of taking photos, the tram tour of the gardens is a great ride to fall asleep on.
5. Bronx Zoo
Zoos are great for feeling 10-years old again. The animals are always asleep, hiding, or moving too fast (See also: the red panda. Adorable adorable creature but it would not stay still for one second) so I'm shocked I got as many photos as I did.
I did some very good eating on this trip. American food is so full of fat, sugar and salt that it's super-tasty by default.
The highlight is right below.
American BBQ! Oh, I have never had proper Southern-style BBQ before (well, it's up to those of you who know better to decide if this was proper or not). I didn't even know it was a thing! But those ribs. Those ribs! There must be a place in London where I can get this kind of food, right? Right?
(I'm going to sound like a heathen and say I'm not sold on the cornbread though. It's so sweet! It's like eating cake with your dinner!)
Oh, but we had actual proper cake afterwards too.
Would you believe that this is the first time I've eaten macarons? They're far more tasty than I thought they were going to be. These came from a shop called Sugar and Plumm.
(Handy hint: It doesn't go down well if you mention that they look a bit like vulvas. Just saying.)
In terms of cute food that doesn't look like ladies' bits, Mariya and I tried to make cute lunches for our trip to the botanical gardens.
The plates we used were cute.
As for the sandwiches, they started cute, but after travelling in a lunchbox:
OH GOD WHAT IS IT
This was meant to be a lion but it lost an ear, and our plan of holding everything together with cocktail sticks produced a result that was both creepy and highly unsuccessful. If anyone out there is experienced in the world of bentos, please let me know how to stick stuff onto bread. There must be a way!
The radish birds and apple bunnies made by Mariya were cute though.
And then there's the food I didn't take photos of. Like the pastries! Or Mariya's Mum's super-tasty green borscht. Or the Shake Shack burgers. Or even the cereal I used to love the most, back when I lived in NYC for a bit (hint: it's Honey Bunches of Oats).
All in all, the eating was very good, and has left me reminiscing very fondly about my trip.
Finally, it's impossible not to come back from holiday without at least some stuff. Here's what I arrived home with.
Mariya was so kind to get me these lovely gifts from her trip to India. There's a pen pot (which is something I'd actually needed for ages but hadn't gotten around to buying), a notebook, and a scarf that I've worn almost every day since I received it.
Then I bought some things for myself too. I told myself that I couldn't afford to buy any new clothes. Apparently, though, in my head, buying kitchen stuff that I will probably never use is just fine, hence the cookie cutters, piping bags and pastry brush. The moustache necklace cost me three whole dollars and so doesn't count. The body butter? Well, the staff in Sabon were so nice and it was so fun to try out their stuff in store that I couldn't help myself from getting something. This one smells of lemon.
And that's it. All in all, it was a great trip. Thanks again to Mariya and her parents for being wonderful hosts!
I've finally found time to make another food post! This one spans a couple of recipes in my old kitchen, then a long hiatus until I had the time to start cooking in my new kitchen.
And what a joy it is to cook in my new kitchen! the hobs aren't great but I love having so much space to myself. The one thing I haven't mastered yet though is the lighting in my new flat; it's all a bit dim, so apologies if some of these photos are a bit more murky than normal.
Exploding berry crumble muffins (recipe from Mother's Little Book of Home-Baked Treats)
I took these to work and they went down very well. They're raspberry muffins with a crumble topping and are really quite nice with the tartness of the raspberries matching the richness of the topping (and they turned out to be massive too). The one downside is that the crumble topping goes all over the oven when you're making them!
Fish stew with lemon and parsley
I used normal paprika for this instead of smoked, large potatoes cut small instead of new potatoes, and I couldn't find fennel seeds for the life of me. That's as maybe. This was still a nice stew; there was something about the fresh lemon and the parsley on the fish that took me right back to the seaside.
Oh, man, this is perfect winter food. It's claggy, stodgy and warming. Not to mention super tasty for what is essentially mashed potato.
The recipe is for a beef and Guinness pie, but I'm not keen on Guinness so I left it out. As a result, the pie was alright, but I think the Guinness would have given it a depth that mine was lacking.
Jam tarts (cobbled together from a number of recipes)
I'd bought some pre-made shortcrust pastry for the beef pie and it needed using up, so I did what any self-respecting 5-year old would do and made jam tarts. Without a recipe to hand, I cobbled together a few recipes that I found online. Overall, seeing as I've never made these as an adult, they came out well (of course, that's all down to the fact that I didn't make the pastry myself). Some of the pastry needed to be rolled a little more thinly and I didn't have a cookie cutter so improvised with a mug but, bah, I don't mind. They were sticky and sugary and just what I needed to keep up my energy levels during a cold week (there was no sugar in the pastry, so I went crazy and sprinkled icing sugar over the top too).
Egg-shaped cookies with melted chocolate
I made these for my parents for Easter. As biscuits go, they seemed to be a kind of chocolate-coated shortbread. They were also really really nice. I didn't have an egg-shaped cutter, so I made a template out of paper and cut round it, which seemed to work.
Marcello Tully's grilled sausage pasta
This one was ok but, God, it needed far longer in the oven once it was assembled; on eating, I found it had only been warm rather than hot when I had taken in out of the oven and the peppers weren't cooked. As far as taste goes, it was ok, nice with the cheese but nothing to write home about, and I'm still not sure how I feel about anchovies.
Adam Gray's salmon and smoked haddock fishcakes
These are a bit of an effort to make, especially if, like me, you don't have a food processor so you decide to chop up the breadcrumbs by hand. Tasty though; they're a little greasy but that's countered nicely with the tomato mayonnaise. But! Word of warning: they're really filling. If you make them as large as I did, don't eat four in one sitting otherwise you'll end up uncomfortably full all evening.
As promised, here are photos of my new place. It's not large, as you can see, but I like to think that makes it cozy.
Bed/living room. I <3 my new sofa.
Bed/living room. I told you it wasn't big.
The kitchen is a pretty decent size though. I've been having lots of fun in it already. (Pictures coming later.)
And if you were wondering why the light looks so watery and pathetic in these photos. Well. I took the photos a couple of weeks ago and the garden looked like this at the time.
Not that it's gotten much warmer since! Spring, where are you? ;_;
Wedding of the year
I'm back! Hi, internet!
Finally, I'm all unpacked and settled into my new flat, which I'm enjoying immensely. Photographs of the new digs will come soon, but first I want to share with you one of the things I've been doing in all this time.
At the beginning of March, Steve and Heather got married! We all went down to the west country for the wedding.
It's embarrassing that this is the best photo I have of the happy couple. Sorry, guys!
Here's the rest of the gang outside the reception venue. Left to right: Keith, Tom, Linda, James, Nick, Eppa, Natalie. Crouching in front: Tim.
Eppa and Natalie were bridesmaids. Their dresses were handmade (as was Heather's) by one of Heather's friends. Very impressive and very pretty. I loved the colours too. The whole wedding had a very vintage feel, which was lovely.
This is also a good point to say how lucky Steve and Heather were with the weather! It was sunny all day and I was never cold in any of the venues. It was a minor 'nice-weather' blip amongst all the cold and snow we've been having. Spring? Where are you???
Instead of a big wedding cake, there were lots of little cupcakes, all made by one of Steve's very-talented sisters.
The table settings were gorgeous. I mentioned the vintage theme, right?
But, even more excitingly, the place names were attached to tiny jars of jam! Apple and blackberry and home-made by Heather's Dad, I can attest to how tasty it is because I had some on my English muffin for breakfast this morning.
They fed us well during the day, including a very nice cheese and biscuit buffet in the evening, but a special mention goes to dessert. It was a chocolate-orange bread and butter pudding and it was super nice.
All in all a lovely day.
I've been pretty quiet here because I've been preparing to move house!
My flatmate has been acting like a bit of a dick so I decided it was best to move elsewhere (and to somewhere without flatmates).
Normal service will resume once I'm all settled and acutally have stuff like, you know, furniture or an internet connection.
p.s. Don't talk to me about how crazy expensive it is to rent a place in London. Ok? Ok.
First food post of the year. Woo!
Salted caramels (recipe taken from my parents' Christmas TV guide)
Well, shape-wise, these were supposed to be balls. What I got instead was mini cow-pats. The context: immediately before making these I had just completely burned another set of sweets I was trying to make, so I was rather terrified when starting out. This means that I don't think I heated my caramel high enough, making it gloopy and not good for rolling into ball shapes. Also, I say caramels, but there was so much chocolate in the middle of them that they pretty much came out like chocolate truffles. The taste wasn't bad but, God, I put salt granules on top instead of salt flakes and they ended up being very salty. Almost sickeningly so. Merry Christmas.
Chinese beef stir fry with rice
This was ok, but to be honest, the normal beef stir fry I make without following a recipe is nicer than this. The amount of Chinese five spice made it very dry and it could have done with some more soy sauce and a few onions too. I didn't use wild rice though; maybe that would have made it all better. Maybe.
Parmesan fish fingers
This was fun. I have never breaded anything before; I feel like I've learned a new skill. I couldn't find white fish, so I used salmon instead, and I couldn't find pre-made dried breadcrumbs either, so I made some of my own using the only bread I had to hand, which was granary. Taste-wise, they were slightly rich and the Parmesan was hardly noticeable; this may be down to the salmon. But in terms of texture, they were so crunchy and nice! I had been worried that my breadcrumbs wouldn't work, so I was very chuffed when they did.
Lemon chicken bake
My chicken took about 30 minutes longer to cook in the oven than the recipe said it would. When the recipe says 'baking dish' I think it means 'roasting tray' because I had my stuff in a dish but everything was so piled on top of each other that they took longer to cook. I used slightly larger potatoes than Charlotte potatoes so I tried to cut them small, and I couldn't find bay leaves or fennel seeds at all so I had to do without. All in all, this is a very disappointing dish. It may be due to the lack of herbs but maybe not. I found it far too tart and lemony. Not disgusting, but nothing to write home about either.
The Hobbit: a review (kinda)
I also watched The Hobbit over Christmas (in 2D, if that makes any difference).
And I feel like I'd be doing this blog and myself an injustice if I didn't talk about it here so...
Click the cut for some rather unstructured rambling, complete with possible spoilers.
Happy New Year!
I hope you're all having a fantastic 2013. For me, Christmas was a time spent running around visiting friends and family and trying not to give my Christmas cold to everyone I met.
There's been so much running around, in fact, that it's only now that I've had a chance to sit down and go through my photographs.
Christmas day I spent with my parents. We were all in varying stages of illness, so we spent the time filling our bellies and watching Kung Fu Panda. It went well, all told.
Here's the Christmas tree, complete with presents underneath.
Present-wise, I got lots of nice small things, including:
Shit-loads of books! Before Christmas I made sure to complain loudly about the fact that I was running out of books to read. This was the result :D I am particularly excited to read Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe because they are so old-school.
Thud! is one I've already started reading. I haven't read any Terry Pratchett for a couple of years and it's great to get back into his stuff. This book is clever, funny, and has a plot that just sweeps you along. I am loving it.
Sherlock: The Casebook was a book that I requested specifically. I loved the Sherlock tie-in websites and the glimpses they give you into the characters' lives, and I thought that this book might provide more of the same. There are a few post-its in The Casebook, with John and Sherlock snarking at each other, that are interesting, but the rest, unfortunately, is dull. My problem is that they give us the same old interviews we've heard before and then summaries of the episodes that we've seen already. There is practically no new content. If you were wondering whether or not to buy this book, I would say: don't waste your money. It's not worth it.
And among my non-book presents, I got these:
Tiger tights from Mariya! You can just about tell that they've got a tiger's face with sparkley eyes on the left shin. I decided to wear them for New Year's Eve and I went out and bought a new dress, just to go with them. (Thanks to Nick for letting me steal his photo btw.)
New Year's Eve itself was spent with James, Eppa, Steve, Heather, Nick, Linda and Tom and various other friends and acquaintances. We went to a ballroom that dates back to the 1950s and still has its original décor. It was very pretty.
The fact that the ballroom was a family-friendly place and that there were a lot of young kids running around made it a little weird. I can't say I've ever rung in the new year by dancing to the hokey cokey with adults and children alike before, but it was lots of fun. Besides, a place that plays Gangnam Style twice in one night can't be bad, right?
At James and Eppa's house, as always, we were treated to some very nice food. In most cases, I was too busy stuffing my face to take photos of it, but here we have:
Exhibit A: Smoked salmon.
Exhibit B: A great cheeseboard with some home-made chutney. And, seriously, you should have tasted that cheddar in purple wax at the back there. It was good stuff. I was still thinking about it for days afterwards.
And if that's one of the first things you eat in the new year, you know it's going to be a good year to come.
Well, I threatened fanart, didn't I.
There's something about the Gormenghast trilogy that makes you want to try to visualise it, so I sketched out some ideas. (I've just started re-watching the BBC adaptation, and I'm sure my illustrations have been coloured by it somewhat, but I tried as much as I could to go with what was in my head when I was reading the books.)
Lordy, I haven't drawn in months and months and months! Getting back on the wagon is hard. If only I had time to practice along with everything else. Maybe I'll try some more Gormenghast fanart at some point. I'd love to try my hand at the Countess, Titus and Muzzlehatch.
Oh, and p.s. have a nice Christmas and New Year if I don't see you before, won't you?
*collapses* Why is December always so tiring? Here, have some food photos to make up for it.
Double cheese, potato and ham bake
This is another of those recipes that's never going to look good on a plate. It's nice to eat though. Tastes exactly like you'd expect it to: cheesy, potato-y, ham-y, onion-y, spinach-y. (I couldn't find chives for the top so I used thinly sliced spring onions instead.)
Classic panzanella salad
This was nice enough. I had to use dried basil because I couldn't find fresh but I think I scraped by with that one. And the croutons soaked in the dressing were tasty.
Cheesy vegetarian sausage rolls
I used cheddar and double Gloucester cheese for these. Shockingly, even with all that cheese, they were less greasy than your normal sausage-meat filled sausage rolls. The rosemary meant that they tasted quite like a non-vegetarian sausage roll too. All in all, these were very nice.
Easy Thai fishcakes
I couldn't find Thai red curry paste so I used Thai green curry paste instead; I worried that this would mean that they would turn out horrible, but I was wrong. Seriously, guys, this is the nicest way to eat salmon that I've ever discovered. They are super tasty and super nice. Yum yum yum yum yum. (They're even nicer if you have some sweet chilli sauce to hand too.)
Avocado and tomato dip with cheese straws
I normally find cheese straws too greasy for my own tastes but these weren't bad at all. I put it all down to eating them with the dip, which was really nice.
I meant to write this post yesterday but I spent the day battling the crowds on Oxford Street and then sleeping off the horror of it all. So that means I'm writing it today instead.
Last week, guys. Last week, I finished reading the Gormenghast trilogy. My thoughts; let me give you them.
The trilogy had been on my 'to-read' pile (at times literally in the physical pile) ever since it had been adapted for TV by the BBC in 2000. Yes, that's right. I'd been meaning to read the books for 12 years!
By the time I came to read them, I couldn't even remember why they had been put in the 'to read' pile to begin with. All I could remember about the TV series was that it was fantasy, must have been good to make me want to read the books, and that it contained Zoë Wanamaker.
So, earlier this year, without really knowing why, I set out to read the trilogy. Coming, as I was, straight from Gone With the Wind and civil war Atlanta, diving into Gormenghast was a bit of a shock. But don't get me wrong, it was a good shock, because I found myself captivated by the books almost from the get go.
Now, here's where I add a disclaimer: a lot of people I know and respect have told me that they did not get on with the books at all. They found them to be slow, dull and excruciating. Clearly, they are not books to everyone's tastes; but, apparently, they are to mine.
I do get where these people are coming from. The books are slow. Things take a long time to happen, the characters are all two-dimensional at best, and the plot can seem rather confused. But! None of that is actually what you find yourself reading the books for. What you find yourself reading the books for is the atmosphere and Mervyn Peake, the author, is astoundingly good at conveying it.
From page one you find yourself sucked into this other world that is so well thought out and described that you can almost feel it. Putting the book down felt like waking out of a trance. Because that is what the Gormenghast trilogy is about; it's not about the characters and the plot and the action; it's about the world of Gormenghast itself, the castle, which is laid out, page after page, in loving, visual detail.
Here, have a snippet:
Summer was on the roofs of Gormenghast. It lay inert, like a sick thing. Its limbs spread. It took the shape of what it smothered. The masonry sweated and was horribly silent. The chestnuts whitened with dust and hung their myriads of great hands with every wrist broken.
What was left of the water in the moat was like soup. A rat floundered across it, part swimming, part walking. Thick sepia patches of water were left in the unhealthy scum where its legs had broken through the green surface.
What you get a feel for here is not just the description but something of the tone of the trilogy. Because Gormenghast is dark. It's dark dark dark. In a way, I found myself reminded of Alice in Wonderland because there's a terrifying kind of insanity hanging behind everything that happens. This is not a fantasy story that contains magic; it's a fantasy story where everything, from the people to the animals to the buildings, is just a little bit wrong somehow.
It's no surprise when you find out that Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in the trilogy, were written during and just after the Second World War. This is an author who has seen the horrors of war and knows what it is like when the whole world seems to lose its sanity around you. For some authors, the tumultuous first-half of the 20th Century led to fantasy stories that were based on faith, with epic good-vs-evil battles where good wins out in the end. Not so with Mervyn Peake. If there is any faith in these books, it's misplaced. If there are any battles between good and evil, there are no clear winners.
It's a complex and captivating read.
So, what am I trying to say? Gormenghast might not be to everyone's tastes but I would heartily recommend it. For those months that I was reading the trilogy, I was actually there and I have to say, I feel like a slightly different person coming out of the other side of it.
Read it. Read it. Go on. If the first half of Titus Groan catches your interest, you'll like the rest of it.
Oh, but I seem to have reached my conclusions when I've still got things to say! Like:
- Can I admit to having a really confusing crush on Steerpike? (A quick Google search suggests I'm not the only one.) I remember feeling the same way (i.e. confused) when I watched the TV adaptation. I had put it down to me being 16 and hormonal at the time, but 12 years later and it's still the same! Oh Steerpike, you are a right, proper bastard. You're horrible. If only you'd stop having nice cheekbones and taking off all your clothes every five chapters, then it would be much easier to hate you.
- Other characters I came to enjoy (in less confusing ways) were Doctor Prunesquallor, the Countess and Fuchsia (she's such an embodiment of teenage awkwardness. It's great.)
- I kind of get the feeling that the books are maybe meant to be allegorical but I'm not sure about what. Anybody have any ideas?
- The third book, Titus Alone, was really confusing. It almost didn't feel like part of the trilogy at all. Where were the characters and the setting that I was used to? Gone! Why was the plot even more confused than before? Thank God one of the new characters (Muzzlehatch!) was good enough to keep me reading.
- Muzzlehatch! Muzzlehatch Muzzlehatch! My crush on Muzzlehatch is not confusing at all. He is possibly the most BAMF-y character that ever BAMF-ed. I mean, for crying out loud, one of the first scenes we see him in, he's riding a stag while entirely naked save for a fireman's helmet. What's not to love? I ask you.
- Where is the fanart? I need fanart. Don't make me draw some myself, good God.
- Despite not covering
Muzzlehatch the third book at all, I think I need to rewatch the BBC version again. Like right now.
Peppers stuffed with cod
These tasted nice enough (I left the chilli out of mine because I'm not a huge fan, and I used dried basil because I couldn't find fresh). The peppers could have done with longer in the over though because they were very firm.
Black olive and pumpkin bread loaf
I don't know why the recipe suggests making these two loaves together, because, as far as I can tell, they have nothing to do with each other. The pumpkin bread (which, to my uninitiated eyes, seems to be more of a pumpkin cake) is really yummy and great eaten slightly warm on a cold day. The olive bread was a little bland but every now and again you got a hit of olive, which was fairly nice, and it goes well eaten with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Also, the olive bread was quite dense, which I'd like to blame on the rye flour but was probably entirely my fault for not adding enough water and so finding it difficult to knead (throughout cooking I couldn't help a mild panic at the thought of what Paul and Mary might say if they were watching - a sign that I've been watching too much of The Great British Bake Off if ever there was one).
Minced meat and prune pies
These pies were hard to form because the warm mince left the puff pastry too floppy and my parcels didn't want to stay wrapped; I'm actually surprised they came out of the oven looking mostly ok! Taste-wise, I thought I wouldn't like the prunes as I'm not a fan of sweet in my savoury, but it turns out they're the best bit. The combination of the mince and the pastry is really really greasy, so you need a lot of prune in there for some sharpness. It's not a horrible taste though; it actually reminded me of Christmas.
Sausage, salami and pepper stew
Once again, my photo-taking skills are foiled by stew, which always looks like a mess in the bowl. I didn't add the wine to this and I substituted yellow peppers for green ones. The taste was nice though; it tasted almost exactly like you'd imagine it to taste - tomato-y, olive-y and sausage-y but in a good way. Dipping fresh bread into the sauce was rather lovely. The crunchy bits of salami were also an unexpected bonus.
Autumn into winter
Suddenly the weather has turned cold! The combination of Halloween, Bonfire Night and the clocks going back an hour can only mean that winter is almost here. I can't say I'm looking forward to the dark, the cold or the frantic Christmas shopping, but I do now get to see some amazing sunsets from my desk at work, so there is that.
Most of what I've been doing post-Cornwall has involved wrapping myself in a blanket, foraging out some hot drinks, and listening to some Billie Holiday songs that I managed to download with a free voucher from Amazon.
When I've not been doing that, I've been mourning the loss of The Great British Bake Off (which was a wonderful mix of baking, summer and funny moments), having nightmares after watching Downton Abbey (no, really), and reading Gormenghast (when I get to the end of the trilogy, I am deffo going to write a review about it here, guys).
But when I've not been doing any of those either, what I did was these two things:
1. Visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford
This is a great museum. We were going to sightsee around Oxford too, but there was no time left after giving the museum a good run for its money all afternoon.
Here are some photos of random exhibits. And I can't remember what any of them are (aren't you lucky).
With tomorrow being the fifth of November, it's time to celebrate that time when Parliament didn't get blown up 400 years ago, while conveniently ignoring the bits about ceremonial catholic burning.
Yesterday, Susan, Emma and I went down to Blackheath to see their free fireworks display.
It was a massive display and very enjoyable because it clearly had a lot of money go into it. The place was really busy though, and it was quite fun to see how excited all the kids were getting (probably less fun for their parents).
Then we queued for ages to buy some warm doughnuts (which were really nice on a cold evening). And then I spent an extortionate amount of money to win a bear at a fairground stall (but I'm quite chuffed with him anyway).
After that, we went back to Susan's place and spent the rest of the evening stuffing our faces with crisps, chocolate and edam. I'd call that a success.