Monday, 29 November 2010

Jane's Christmas Gift Guide for the Terminally Difficult

I miss doing Christmas gift guides. I used to love moseying round shops, scrolling through websites, trying to find really lovely, unusual things for tricky people. It was a great way of getting all one's presents sorted out really early too.  However, sadly, this year nobody has asked. *whistles quietly and  mournfully*.  So, I figured I’d do a small one here....just a few rather nice or plain weird things for the awkward squad in the house. 
FOR MOODY STUDENTS: The Dead Beat by Cody James (Eight Cuts, £6).
Indie-literature at its best...from one of the coolest writers going. If this doesn’t gain you instant brownie-points and your tricky angsty relative immediate street cred, I despair. I mean, look at the cover for starters.  None of your sell-out mainstream publishers here, no sirree.  Even if they don't read it, it'll look great slung on a beer crate coffee table or poking out of a rucksack. 
Yes, there’s drinking, and drugs and swearing and sex - not forgetting comets. Well, of COURSE there is. Doh!

FOR FINICKETY FOODIES: Argan oil (from £8.50). Oh ye gods, I LOVE LOVE LOVE this stuff. Amazingly it still hasn’t hit the mainstream but it’s only a matter of time. Drizzle it on salads or pasta or simply pop some in a bowl and use it for dunking good bread. Tastes nutty and gorgeous AND it’s good for you!
Actually, have a browse right around the site because you don't have to just splosh it on your food; you can whack it on your face too.  I swear by their facial oils - scented with sandalwood, neroli, rose...they really work and at a fraction of the price of the big cosmetics houses' creams and serums.

FOR GORGEOUS GIRLIES: Mili B Bottom Chic.  Seriously nice knickers for girls of all ages (from teeny tots through trendy teenagers to, um, the more matronly). These are designed by a pal of mine for maximum comfort and total gorgeousness (a rare combination). From £8. Oh, and there are bras and camisoles and other frilly things. Men – take note – this is a win-win... ditch the slimy red satin tat and go for the real deal.
Check out the baby pants too - soooo cute.  Only problem is picking the colourways - I'm partial to the pale blue and brown myself. ;)

FOR BASICALLY MOST MEN: 1001 Beers you Must Try Before you Die. Edited by my dear husband, Adrian Tierney-Jones. This is beer porn, pure and simple. Luscious pictures of uber-beers from all around the world. There is a Facebook group devoted to trying every one of these – I kid you not. Seriously, it sorts out most blokes. Also available in the US from (with the slightly different title of 1001 Beers you Must Taste Before you Die). But if not....

FOR UNCLE KEVIN AND OTHER AWKWARD SODS: Beer Cans of Birmingham (£9.79) by Elizabeth Tipping. I’ve mentioned this before because it just tickles me pink. A calendar featuring abandoned beer (and cider) cans in their found settings around scenic Birmingham. Actually, it’s not just a silly joke calendar – the photography is really very lovely. Okay, so one daft sod pointed out that there is a bottle included.  Oh, get a life! 
FOR WOMEN YOU DON’T KNOW TOO WELL: Comfort Candle. Yes, it may be a bit of a cliché but I don’t know many women who don’t like good scented candles (note the emphasis on good). Okay so I can think of one notable exception but generally it holds true.  They don’t come much better than Aromatherapy Associates’ (you know I adore their stuff). The old Relax candle is still my all-time favourite but the new Comfort Candle (£24) is a cracker. It’s scented with rose and ginger (an unusual combo that actually works brilliantly) which are uplifting and warming. Aaah.

FOR MYSTIC MEGS: The Mind Body Spirit Miscellany by, ahem, Jane Alexander (£8.40). A cute little hardback book with a ton of information on how to build crop circles, find leylines and identify various Norse ghosts. Essential stuff really. Also available in the US from

FOR FUNKY BABIES: Red-knit romper. I really miss buying James a special Christmas outfit. For his first Christmas he had the softest fleecy babygro with a hood and the most tasteful little reindeer on the front.  So many festive offerings are deeply naff but this ticks all the style boxes – berry red with a cosy hood; there's a bit of fairisle going on and different coloured buttons. Sigh. Almost makes me wish I had a baby. Yes, it's a bit pricey at £14 but hey, it's Christmas.

Actually, I am also pretty smitten by some absolutely gorgeous bootees too (Elf, Santa, Reindeer or just plain heavenly fake mink!) Scroll down to see the pics...(I am not too good at arranging stuff properly on the blog....)

deeply cute for carol singing or Christmas parties...

just HOW flipping gorgeous are these?
Bootees available from 

On the first day of Christmas - tra la la!

I am becoming a total miserable old bag.  A right Scrooge.

‘I need new clothes,’ said James. What? I’d just bought the little blighter six new pairs of socks – what more could he possibly want?
‘It’s for the Gut.’
The what? The Gut, it transpires, is a pre-Christmas, end of term feast at school. Formal wear is required.
‘You what?’ He’s twelve years old and he needs a DJ?
‘No, of course I don’t need a DJ. I can wear my school trousers but I do need a decent shirt and tie.’
‘Can’t he wear my Guild of British Beer Writers’ tie?’ chimed in Adrian.
‘Oh don’t be silly.’

So I’ve been trawling websites looking for suitable apparel. I rather liked this (left) from Next - but I'm not sure the boy is suitably impressed.  Inevitably we will leave it to the very last minute and then he'll be sorry he didn't snap off my hand at the chance, as we shoehorn him into last year's too small smart shirt and team it with the way too big tie his father wore at our wedding.

I won’t be bothering to find party apparel for me. I have decided that I shall become a recluse. That way it won’t matter if I become the size of a large bungalow. I shall become the batty old lady who lives at the top of the hill and small children will cross their fingers as they go past the house. I shall lurk at home and buy essentials via the Internet.

Actually I am in total denial about Christmas. I’m sort of hoping that if I shut my eyes it might not know I’m here and go away.  I have this image of Christmas which goes something like this...(though, frankly, her legs look cold)...and no way would that dog keep a string of baubles on its back (well ours wouldn't).

Whereas, in my heart of hearts, it's more likely to end up like this....possibly with party hats... and hopefully clothes.

But, really this won’t do. So I’m going to try to get myself into the spirit here on the jolly old blog (do you think it's working yet?).

Funnily enough, having been talking about Next, they got in touch asking if I'd like to spread some festive cheer on my blog.  I replied that I was in the middle of blogging about precisely that and they gave me a jolly little icon to help me on my way.  In fact, they gave me twelve so maybe I'll try to spit out twelve little gobbets of festive frolic.  What you reckon?  Can I make it?  Or will I collapse by the time we get to five gold rings?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Cold hands and chanting Buddhists

I am so cold that I am using my anti-SAD LitePod as a handwarmer. Seriously, it’s the only way to keep my hands warm enough to type. Dogs might be good foot-warmers but you can’t drape them around your hands. At least, not unless you turn them into gloves....

Tempting thought actually. The other day I discovered the SP putting the finishing touches to a large circular hole he had neatly chewed in my boot. Not just any boot. Not one of my many pairs of crappy, ancient falling to bits boots. No. He had carefully paw-picked the ONE decent pair; the one (relatively) expensive pair (four years old; still in their box; lovingly cherished). I wailed.

At the risk of sounding like (a minor league) Liz Jones, I want to be warm; I want nice things; I’m fed up of scrabbling. I want someone to say ‘yes’ for once. As in: ‘Yes, Jane. We LOVE your book and we want to give you a big fat advance (delivered in a Prada handbag) for it.’ Instead I get another rejection. A very ‘nice’ rejection as my lovely agent puts it, but a rejection nonetheless. I feel like Nicolo Festa. Who? EXACTLY.

Mind you, while the editors are shaking their heads, Samael is building up more and more of an unofficial fan club. Authonomy has brought in a new (hopefully more merit-based) system and the book has suddenly had a second wind and is marching purposefully up the chart, thanks to a new wave of fans. I now have two lovely Buddhists chanting for the book to get a deal. One of them is also an astrologer and he did my chart, saying firmly: “If Samael is not picked up, I’ll eat one of my many hats. You can quote me on that. And the waiting IS for a reason.’
Maybe it is. Maybe the right editor, the right publishing house, hasn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile another author on Authonomy urged me to get in touch with her editor at a major publishing house in New York. So, it’s not over yet.

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom either. We had friends to stay with their dog Captain (a dead ringer for Hairy MacLary). The SP was in seventh heaven and spent three days humping the poor creature. When Asbo joined in, the breakfast room looked like the set for a gay dog porn movie. Who’d have thought three dogs could be quite so inventive. Forget Soul Puppy – he’s now officially been renamed Shag Puppy (and his balls are SO coming off next week).


• Superdrug. Who knew they did such fabulous nail polish? Regular readers will know about my little addiction. I am currently sporting deep dark and fabulous Midnight Blue by GOSH. And soooo cheap.

Midori. Okay, so I laughed at first. I tilted my nose and sniffed in a disapproving way. But, seriously, I’m hooked on the melon stuff.

Edward Gorey. Have been re-reading/viewing his books and they are just SO wonderful. Might need an entire blog on this genius, actually.

• Leonard Cohen. My first ever musical love and the most enduring. Just can’t get Stranger Song out of my head these days. 

* Soul Savers.  My new musical love.  So gloomy, so maudlin, so perfect. Best track? You will miss me when I burn.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Can't cook? Won't cook

I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t but rather that Adrian loves the whole malarkey so much that really, it would be cruel to butt in. I’ll knock up the odd batch of scones but, apart from that, my repertoire runs to toast. Even before I met Adrian I was a bit of a faddy cook. I don’t like preparing meat; I positively baulk at handling fish – so, by default, I was pretty much vegetarian. So the second part of our River Cottage experience set a few alarm bells ringing. We were going to learn how to prepare and cook pheasants. We? As in me?

Now we live in full-on pheasant country and eat a heck of a lot of the birds. And, before people wave their hands and shout ‘cruelty’ I would just say that I’d eat game any day over factory-farmed meat. If you’re a full-on vegetarian, then fair enough – but if you tuck into chicken, sorry, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

Anyhow... We were met in the kitchen classroom by several brace of pheasants. Hmm, brace. In other words, two. One each. I got as far as spreading the legs on mine and rearranging a few tail feathers and then thought, sod this. Let Adrian be the caveman; I’ll be in charge of seasoning. He was in seventh heaven – normally he just carves the breasts off pheasants (far too lazy for all that plucking) but now he was learning all kinds of clever new techniques.

I’ve never been on any kind of cookery course (at least, not since school – at which thought memories of Christmas log appear unbidden with a Proustian taste of nasty chocolate icing in the mouth). The River Cottage approach is delightfully ad hoc. After we (note the royal we) had extracted the meat from our pheasants, our teacher Steve waved a hand at the large table behind him and said we could gather whatever other ingredients we fancied for a game stew. Adrian eyed up the wild mallard breasts longingly but was steered in the direction of legs (moister apparently and hence better for long cooking). We decided on a pretty traditional version (see recipe at end) and Adrian set to sautéing the meat while I chopped vegetables.

I liked the attitude of the teaching staff. If you were happy being left to your own devices, that was cool. If you needed help, they were there in an instant, offering suggestions. It’s not remotely precious, not remotely patronising.

While our stews merrily bubbled, we whipped up a fruit cake each (yup, just like that). Then we were dispatched to the yurt (total heaven, with a huge woodburner in the centre) to sip elderflower champagne while the kitchen was transformed into a dining room for lunch.

What can I say? A second day of gargantuan feasting. But it was huge good fun and I’m coming round to the idea of cooking...providing, that is, I have kitchen elves to provide me with ready-prepared meat and to whisk away the dirty pots and pans. Oh and a brace of madly cute River Cottage chefs wafting around to tell me that my efforts are ‘perfect, darling, just perfect.’

Now then, this is NOT turning into a food blog... However, for those that are interested, the recipes follow....

Badger Ales Game Stew
Serves 6

2 tablespoons rapeseed or sunflower oil, or dripping
250g home-cured bacon belly, or bought pancetta, cut into chunky cubes
1.5kg mixed game, cut into large chunks
2 onions, finely sliced
2–3 large carrots, cut into big chunks
2 celery stalks, sliced
6–10 juniper berries, bashed slightly
2 bay leaves
A large sprig of thyme
At least 300ml beef, venison, chicken or game stock
300ml Hall & Woodhouse beer, of your choice (we used Poacher’s Choice)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil or dripping in a large, heavy-based frying pan, add the bacon and fry until it is lightly browned and the fat runs.
Transfer to a casserole dish. Now brown the meat in the same pan, in batches, transferring it to the casserole as soon as it’s well coloured. Add the remaining oil or dripping to the frying pan, then add the onions and sweat until soft but not coloured. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Transfer to the casserole and add the juniper berries, bay leaves and thyme.
Pour a little of the stock into the frying pan and stir well for a few minutes to deglaze the pan, then add this to the casserole too. Pour over the remaining stock and the beer, adding a little water too, if you need it – the liquid should cover the meat by a good couple of centimetres. Season with pepper, but no salt, as the bacon will be quite salty.
Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, at a very low, tremulous simmer for 2–3 hours, until the meat is completely tender, skimming any scum off the top as you go along. You can also cook it in a low oven, about 120°C/Gas Mark ½, with a lid on.

presentation not our strong point!

When the meat is cooked, taste the stew and season. The juice will be thin but well flavoured; if you prefer a thicker sauce, you can strain the liquid off the meat and boil to reduce and thicken it, then return it to the pan. Serve the stew with a dollop of good buttery mash and some steamed cabbage, sprout tops, kale or other greens.

Badger Ales Fruit Cake
Serves 12 (ahem....not in this house it didn't!)

225g light wholemeal cake flour or spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of sea salt
1 rounded teaspoon ground mixed spice
150g dried figs
150g stoned prunes
150g dried apricots
85g orange marmalade
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
300ml Hall & Woodhouse beer, of your choice (we used their Applewood cider)
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g light muscovado sugar
4 medium eggs

Lightly grease a 20cm spring form cake tin and line with baking parchment. Put the flour, baking powder, salt and spice into a bowl and whisk lightly to aerate and combine.
Use kitchen scissors to cut the dried fruit into chunky pieces – cut each fig into about 6, removing the hard stalk, and each prune and apricot into 2 or 3. Combine them in a bowl. Warm the beer or cider and pour over the chopped fruit in the bowl.
Beat the marmalade with a fork to loosen it, then stir in the lemon and orange zest. Combine the marmalade with the dried fruit. Allow to steep and cool.

Put the butter and sugar into a large bowl and beat well until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour/spice mix with each. Fold in the remaining flour with a large metal spoon, then fold in the marmalade and dried fruit as lightly as you can. Try not to overmix it; everything should be just combined.

Spoon into the prepared tin and place in an oven preheated to 160°C/Gas Mark 3. Bake for 1½ hours, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool completely in the tin.

In which I eat too much at River Cottage

When in doubt, eat. It’s an adage that I always fall back on when times are tough. My NaNoWriMo effort is crumbling to dust (my muse has obviously taken a gap year) and I’ve been feeling more than a little fed up.

‘Hmm, wanna come to River Cottage?’ said Adrian.

‘What, Hugh do-dah wotsit’s place?’

‘That’s the badger,’ said Adrian. This is a phrase James picked up from someone at school, signifying ‘that’s the one’. It’s now common usage in the Bonkers House and, in this particular case, was more than apposite as it transpired that we’d been invited to River Cottage by Badger Ales.

I was puzzled (I don’t usually get invited on Adrian’s beery shindigs) but hey, I wasn't going to argue. A couple of days away from the Bonkers House?  Bring it on.  The Great Damp Proofing Scheme has patently not worked; my desk is fast becoming an instrument of torture and, above all, my book is acting like a toddler with attitude.

Inevitably the SP was the main attraction. As we signed in at The Alexandra in Lyme Regis, the girl on the front desk looked alarmed. ‘Where’s the puppy?’ she said, peering anxiously behind us. We reassured her that we wouldn't dare just bring our own boring selves and fetched him in from the car.  Universal adoration followed as we went through to the bar and I could have sat quite happily drinking G&Ts and nibbling olives all night.  But River Cottage awaited.

Dinner was a table-groaning feast. Trust me, there’s not a whiff of nouvelle cuisine here – it’s belt-straining trencherman stuff (but cooked with a light hand). The idea was that we’d be matching beer with the food. Now I don’t mind the odd glass of beer/ale/whatever but I’ve never gone an entire meal eschewing wine. I have to confess I was a little sceptical.

We started with River Cottage Stinger (a nettle beer produced in partnership with River Cottage), sipping it alongside the canapés. Hellfire, they were a meal in themselves (hot smoked goose breast; ham rarebit; sea bass with chilli and garlic; carrot hummus on homemade pitta bread). I liked the beer (enough that I had two glasses) and, having it in a nice glass made a lot of difference (okay, I know that is a seriously girly thing to say but it’s true – a pint can be a bit offputting).

Next up, smoked Pollack from Lyme Bay on a bed of potato cake with sorrel topped with a poached egg and parsley sauce. Accompanied by Golden Champion (a light refreshing ale with fruity/floral notes). It was perfect: hmm, I was starting to see how this could work.

My belt was straining but next up was venison (fallow) two ways (the shoulder slow-cooked in red wine overnight; the saddle with a bacon, onion, garlic and parsley stuffing, wrapped in caul fat). It was served with sliced of roasted pumpkin and briefly blanched cabbage and topped with a bordelaise sauce (with a tablespoon of Pickled Partridge). I found the venison saddle just a smidge tough but the shoulder was melting.

We tried two beers with this – Pickled Partridge and Poacher’s Choice. Which did I like best, asked head brewer Toby, sitting to my right. He was talking about liquorice and damson notes; I think I caught the phrase ‘chutney in a bottle’ but, to be honest, I’d gone past the picky stage; I liked both of them (and had empty glasses to prove it).

‘That’s it, I’m done. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite,’ I said firmly. Then the Sticky Toffee Pudding arrived. Ah heck. It would have been rude not to, wouldn’t it? Particularly as Toby was pouring a glass of Blandford Fly. ‘Ginger beer for grown-ups,’ he said firmly, reassuring me that the ginger would cut through the sweetness of the pudding. It did – it really did – so much that somehow, against all known laws of physics I managed to eat a couple of cider brandy truffles.

So, food and beer? Much as I loathe to admit it (Adrian has been banging on about this for years) I have to say it really worked. Not just worked but, to my tastebuds, worked even better than wine.

Do you still get a hangover? Um, yes. But actually, not quite the stonker you acquire mixing champagne, white wine, red wine, port.

Did I go for the full English breakfast? No.

Did the SP get a long walk along the beach at Lyme? Oh, don’t be silly. I had to be wheeled out.

PS - will report on the cooking day when I've recovered...
PPS - above, the view from our hotel window.... *sigh*
PPPS - the diet?  Just don't, okay?
PPPPS - have I got a clue what I'm talking about with beer?  Nope.  If you want proper commentary, try Adrian's blog -  

Monday, 8 November 2010

If you find my muse, send him home please

Alas, my poor blog. I’ve neglected it of late. Blame that wretched NaNoWriMo. I thought that it might kickstart me into writing another novel (I know, I know, I'm a sucker for punishment). But so far it’s just making me miserable. I’m not entirely sure I’m a ‘crank it out in a month’ type of writer – no, not even a first rough draft.  But, hey, I've got a cover, I've got a title and there are some seriously bizarre images and scenes ratcheting round my head. 

I’m still trying to track down my muse. He’s a cranky sod – gorgeous, beguiling and totally inspiring – but he doesn’t half play hard to get. I’ve got his favourite music playing; I’m burning the right kind of candles but he’s still acting coy. I caught a glimpse of him the other day and played it very cool; didn’t want to startle him into racing off in the opposite direction. And, like a beautiful wild horse, he’s starting to edge closer, every sinew quivering. But I’m not going to hurry it. If I write my word count, that’s great. If not, well, so be it.

In other news.

• I have a stinking cold and am feeling mightily sorry for myself.

• In hopes he doesn’t get it, I’m dosing up James with Fitvits Gummy Bears (multi-vit supplement that he would eat like sweets, given the chance).  I think these are great actually - particularly good if you have a picky eater, to ensure they get all the micronutrients they need. 

• I’m laughing my socks off at Beer Cans of Birmingham – the perfect present for that ‘difficult to please’ man in your life. Though, actually, the photographs are seriously lovely so I'd have it on my kitchen wall anyday. 

• I’ve been reading a lot of deeply indifferent books (aside from Room, which blew my mind).  I was hyperventilating as the little boy tried the escape plan.

• I’m pampering myself with Connock’s delicious bath oil. Massage it into the skin and then pop in the bath – even my rough old hide turned silky smooth. Hey, muse, d’you hear that?? Ah, what the heck.

• I’m wearing the deeply decadent Elle’s Spell on my fingernails.  And, when I'm not feeling in a red and frisky mood, I switch to Coalest Day of the Year, which is deliciously disturbingly dark and gothic.

• I’m loving Danger Mouse’s Dark Night of the Soul.  Look, what's not to like about an album that includes guest slots by David Lynch, Suzanne Vega and Iggy Pop? Favourite track so far is Angel's Harp (a right old growler).

• I’m looking forward to reading The Dead Beat by Cody James (my favourite deep dark indie author).

• I’m bemused (but can’t deny I’m chuffed) that Samael has suddenly shot up the charts on Authonomy.