Prunes that really schmeck

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I’m not one for marmalade making (all that fine chopping and boiling doesn’t seem worth it to me), but I do love a spicy prune, and this is the time of year I get down to making some. My appetite has been whet so to speak from my normal Christmas time indulgence of pruneaux d’agen fourrés (prunes stuffed with a sweet pruney filling). I first had these when I lived in France, but Fortnum and Mason sell a wonderful version that is just the right amount of indulgence with enough to share. And when I’m F&M prune gathering, I try to also buy one pound of a good variety of pitted prunes with some Lapsang Souchong to soak them in (make the tea – not too strong- let it cool- and then soak them with the tea to cover overnight). The next morning I’m ready to make Constance Spry’s simple recipe for Spiced Prunes.

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I cook the prunes in their tea and juices until soft (about 10 mins), reserving 300ml of the tea/pruney liquid when I drain them. Whilst they’re cooking, I boil 400ml of red wine vinegar together with 225 grams of granulated sugar with some mixed spice held in a  little muslin/cheesecloth bag I’ve secured to the saucepan handle tie. Once it has boiled enough for the sugar to dissolve I take it off the heat, discard the bag and add the 300 ml of tea juices. Divide the prunes up into your sterilized hot jars pour on the liquor plus one tablespoon of armagnac or cognac per jar poured in the top. Seal and leave for 24 hours (longer is of course good as well) then enjoy with any cold meats, mature cheeses etc. I’m especially fond of them with slices of the good smoked chicken and duck I can find in a local deli. With a crusty baguette spread with softened Brittany butter and some slightly bitter lettuce leaves, it all makes for winter food that really schmecks!

Cheerful weather, long before the wedding

NPG x13088; Julia Frances Strachey; Calcott Reily by Unknown photographer

Julia Strachey and friend, aged about 5 in January 1906 (it must have still been warm in India that time of year especially for the elaborate wigs).

Simon at Stuck in a book is kindly collecting reviews and thoughts on Julia Strachey’s satirical and witty novella Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Some love it, some don’t! I’m finding the different responses fascinating. It’s a short, sharp interesting read, but, for me, hard to like. In my opinion, Strachey slips between neither being serious enough (though their are similarities to Virginia Woolf’s style in many places) nor frothy enough (there are moments when I wish P. G. Wodehouse could just have taken over, but then how different it would have been). Strachey is a fascinating woman though, and I think her love of the theatrical and exotic might well stem from her first six years as a child in India. The sense of costume and dressing up and facade that is so prevalent in the novel is well captured in these pictures from her childhood all held by The National Portrait Gallery.

NPG x13086; Julia Frances Strachey by Fred Bremner

January 1906 again in similar (or same?) dress, but swapped wig for bows

Charles Mahoney’s Hampstead Backs

(c) Mrs Elizabeth Bulkeley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Image from here

I love being able to see the back terraces and gardens that aren’t normally open to view. Charles Mahoney, friend and one time lover of the talented war artist Evelyn Dunbar, did this gorgeous painting of a pie shaped back terrace in Hampstead. The trees show early spring, but it must be a chilly one as the young woman appears to be walking briskly with her coat tightly wrapped about her and turquoise woolly hat firmly in place.

I should have been a great proficient

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Image of the wonderful American character actress Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 1940 film version

I can’t quite believe Jane Austen’s sparkling Pride and Prejudice is two hundred years old this year.  I started reading Jane Austen as a twelve year old and don’t feel I’ve ever really stopped. Of course, as a teenager, I loved the Romance and the sparkling charm and wit of characters like Elizabeth Bennet. Now, much as I still love Austen’s heroines Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor, Catherine, Fanny and (especially) Anne, it’s the more minor characters in her novels that have me re-reading favourite chapters and scenes again and again. And what gems of parts those roles are for more mature actresses in the many film/tv adaptions. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, infuriating as she is, is one of my favourite characters to relish, and in the end of course all her bombast is frustated. Her assertion that she would have been a great proficient if she had only learnt to play is a family joke, and I’m sure not one limited to our family alone! Dame Judi Dench played her with brilliant hauteur and gusto in the 2005 film version.