Monday, 29 December 2008

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me by Denis Cotter

A Christmas present (thank you darling!) of a lovely book full of gorgeous vegetable recipes. Denis Cotter is the chef at Cafe Paradiso, where I was once lucky enough to eat; the food and the ambience are both delicious. In this book he writes thoughtfully about the types of vegetables he likes to cook, and about the relationship between grower and chef; there is a comfortable blend of personal reminiscence and hard facts, rather like Nigel Slater crossed with Elizabeth David. The recipes are very tempting; I've already tried the swede and leek curry, and was astonished that swede could be made to taste so very good. As a regular receiver of a vegetable box, I think this book will be immensely useful when it is beetroot again for the ninth week in succession. The beautiful photos of West Cork are also very tempting, especially as a trip would have to include a meal at Denis's restaurant. Perhaps when the Euro isn't quite so strong against the pound.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves

This Persephone reprint of a 1912 Fabian Society tract was a Christmas present; like A Christmas Carol it served as a salutary contrast to the feasts and presents. Reeves reports on the outcome of an experiment in Edwardian Lambeth, in which the Fabian Women's Group recorded in meticulous detail the income and expenditure of poor families. Reeves emphasises firmly that these are the hardworking poor; the men do not drink, some hardly smoke, the women do not spend their few shillings at the pictures or on a new hat. Instead, the family's income is usually spent on rent for unhealthy, often vermin-ridden rooms, which work out dearer per cubic foot than a house in a middle-class area; burial insurance to avoid the shame of a pauper's funeral at the almost inevitable death of a child; and the bread, margarine and tea which forms the greater part of the family's diet - a diet less nutritious than that provided in contemporary workhouses. When rent, or the price of coal, or the breadwinner's travelling expenses, go up, the amount remaining for food goes down: the women and children will always eat less if that means paying the rent. Unhealthy accommodation and poor diet make for sickly and undersized children, although they are not without spirit: my favourite was Joey, who, when asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, replied "You get a bigger bit of meat on your plate than ever you seen before ... and when 'E dies, you get a bun". Reeves' tone is generally mild and neutral; the simple reporting of the Women's Group discoveries is shocking enough without emphasis, and the point is clearly made: you cannot raise a healthy family on round about a pound a week. In her final chapter Reeves calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, and for the State - which has already taken some responsibility for children by prohibiting child labour - needs to meet the other half of this bargain by ensuring they are properly housed and nourished, through grants to parents. The book gives great insight into women's lives at this time, of both the Lambeth mothers and the rather ghostly "visitors" who helped them track their budgets and expenditures, and who are often kind, sometimes patronising, but usually generous in their view of what makes a good parent and a good housekeeper. I wish it had not reminded me so forcibly of David Widgery's Some Lives, published in 1992 and showing families struggling with the same problems: little money, poor food and poor housing, and consequent illness and death.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Smoke in the Valley by David Kynaston

Everything I said about A World to Build holds true for Kynaston's next chapter, which takes us from 1948 to 1951 through a lucid and fascinating account drawing on diaries, contemporary histories and subsequent analysis. He often finds contemporary writing about the issues he covers that challenge the accepted historical view; I was particularly taken with his analysis of Godfrey Winn's account of suburban life as a happy and satisfied one, greatly contrary to contemporary and subsequent commentary. I look forward to the next volume of the Tales of the New Jerusalem - if they all turn out as marvellous as the first two, they will be a huge joy.