Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Reading Nook: Some Kind Of Fairy Tale

I know, I know, I'm cutting it a bit fine with this month's Reading Nook but at least I'm getting it out before the month is officially over!  This month has felt incredibly long, I think it was the bank holiday weekend which always makes me feel as though I have had an entire week off - simply bliss.  I love the idea of constantly having three day weekends, but I'm not sure my bank balance could handle it...

This month's book felt suitably apt for spring time.  It's a familiar theme, and like most of my reading decisions, was influenced purely by the title (and the cover).  It's so pretty!  It also looks fairly spring time like, so when I felt the first hints of soft spring breezes and cherry blossom I picked this up off the shelf.  It's been there since Christmas when I was gifted it by my mother, so it's about time I read it.
I must admit I'm not familiar with the author, although I am keen now to sample more of his work.

Some Kind Of Fairy Tale is the story of a lost childhood, a found runaway and the damage caused when a broken family tries to heal itself.  In many ways it was very similar in style to one of my favourite books, The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Miller.  In both of these books fairies are not cute, not good (although possibly more misguided and drunk in New York than in Joyce's work), and you most certainly don't want your paths to cross with them.

In Joyce's world, the fairies are not little, don't have wings and can be mistaken for any ordinary person.  They also travel on horseback, crossing the borders between our world and theirs on specific nights of the year, live in 1970 style communes with no electricity or telephones, are constantly on heat and are fairly non-descript about who they satisfy that urge with and also bathe in a sentient lake that can can hear and understand you, and has the ability to orgasm.  There are living flowers that are disguised as bugs and living bugs that are disguised as flowers.   They fight to the death only to resurrect themselves a few days later and glory in the blood lust.  They appear wild and primitive to us but scorn humans for their abuse of nature and inability to live in harmony with the world around them.  They have no concept of the notion of time, apart from when it is possible to cross the border. 

It is this last fact that is so crucial to the story.

15 year old Tara Martin has an argument with her boyfriend, Richie, and storms away from him in the woods near her home somewhere in the heart of England in the 1980's.  She rests for a while in a patch of bluebells, and meets a stranger on a white horse.  Within moments she is hypnotised by this stranger and agrees almost instantly when he offers her a ride on his horse.  They talk and travel and he brings her to his home.  Once there she becomes uncomfortable and asks to go back as her parents will be worrying.  The stranger, Hiero (pronouced 'yarrow'), after being horrified when finding out how old she is, regretfully explains that this will be impossible for 6 months, until the border opens again.   Tara scorns this idea and spends the next few months attempting to find her way home, only to be foiled again and again.  She reluctantly serves her time, witnessing many strange things amongst the people she is staying with.  When Hiero finally returns her, six months later, she is shocked to discover that things have changed more than she expected when she comes back.

For everyone else she loves, 20 years have passed.

The story starts with Tara arriving on her parents doorstep on Christmas day, filthy, exhausted and seemingly not a day older than she left.  Her mother faints, her father calls her older brother, Peter, the town blacksmith, who now has a family of his own.  Tara's story about where she has been only incites anger and confusion in her family, who have mourned her murder for 20 years and blamed her then boyfriend and Peter's best friend for her death.   Tara's family is not the only one to have been affected.  Richie's life was effectively ruined by her disappearance as well, his music career failed and his friendship with Peter was destroyed.

Tara is sticking to her story, but finally agrees to see a psychiatrist.  We see her sessions with him through the psychiatrists eyes, including his notes on her behaviour and possible explanations for her amnesia and the world she has created.  By the end of her sessions we are no longer sure what is truth and what is fabrication as the psychiatrist maps out explanations for every story Tara tells.  The only thing that is harder to explain is Tara's unchanged appearance.  We are left questioning as to whether Tara is telling the truth, or whether her own subconscious is protecting her from a horrific trauma.
All we do know is that no family can just pick up where they left off 20 years ago.

There is a sub plot running through the book as well about Peter's son, the lady next door and a dead cat but in all honesty I found these sections much less engrossing than the main story line.

Prefacing each chapter were quotes from poetry, stories and folklore, including books I am familiar with from my degree such as Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (a wonderfully dark and macabre retelling of familiar stories) and Bruno Bettleheim's The Uses of Enchantment, a psychoanalysis of fairy tales (ever wonder why Little Red Riding Hood's cape is red, instead of blue or green?) and a transcript from an trial in the 1800's where a man murdered his wife, believing her to be a changeling.

This story is familiar territory.  Changelings and stolen children have hovered on our consciousness for ages untold and is still as terrifying today as it was then.  Only a few weeks ago I saw a new production by the children of the Can On A String Theatre Company exploring this exact same fear.   Joyce also treats his fairies with the same level of respect as they were afforded prior to Disneyfication.  Another author who does this well is Raymond E Feist in his book Faerie Tale.  They are dangerous and menacing, not through what they will do through hate or malice, but through the concept that to love someone means to own and posses them.  They are greedy, selfish and perilously alluring.  There is a reason our ancestors were told not to play in the woods, not to enter a fairy ring and always carry an adder stone.

Tara should have remembered her lessons.

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Monday, 28 April 2014

The George and the Dragon

The George and the Dragon is a large old pub in the centre of the smallest town in Britain.
I'm not sure how Fordwich is still classified as a town when in reality it is smaller than a lot of the villages around us, but apparently it is due to the fact that it still has a town council.  Either way, it has long been on my list of dream destinations to live in because it is just so pretty!
It is just up the road from Canterbury, a 5 minute drive if the traffic in Sturry is behaving itself and you don't catch the train crossing at the wrong moment, and right on the banks of the River Stour. It is filled with windy narrow streets and ancient stone cottages covered in purple flowering wisteria all lining the green banks of the river.  There is also a church, a town hall, and another pub.  Even a town this small has to have at least two pubs to its name, otherwise people gossiping about each other will be forced to share bar space.
Fordwich used to be a major port destination for Canterbury when it (and Canterbury) were still cut off from Thanet by the Wantsum channel which has long since silted up, but nowadays the most exciting thing you are likely to find on this stretch of the river is the annual Summer Duck Race.  Which by the way I have already booked into my diary and plan on entering.
The George and the Dragon is a popular destination for us.  We frequently drive out here, especially in the summer to soak up the sun in the garden or play board games by the fire in the winter.  I once got so drunk one Halloween after a meal with friends that I inadvertently cheated at Cluedo and ruined the game for everyone.  It was the first time I had ever played and I'm not convinced that I really understood the rules, at least I certainly didn't after 3 bottles of red wine.  We also got to name a Halloween cocktail that night; it's one of the last things I clearly remember.
The George has been in Fordwich since around the 1400's and as with any building that old, is apparently haunted.   'The Lady with the Green Hat' is thought to wander the pub and grounds and the story goes that the telephone downstairs, although having been disconnected many years ago, still rings at times.  To be honest I have never seen a ghost here, although I normally distracted by other things, such as my food.  And my wine glass.  And the dessert menu.
The menu at the George is extensive, changes seasonally and is normally good.  I say normally as the day that I visited with friends to celebrate Ellie's birthday, we had a less than steller meal and the service was quite slow but this is an anomaly for this place.  I've had dinner here 3 or 4 times and lunch at least 10 times and the food is normally much better, although it can be pricey.  Starters average around the £6, mains around £14 and bottles of wine around £20.
Previously I have eaten the goats cheese tart, the burger, the steak sandwich, the ribs and the fish and chips (not all in one sitting I hasten to add) and they have all been wonderful.  I have had business lunches here and staff development days and they have always been incredibly accommodating.   I had the King Prawn Indonesian Curry this time round and found it to be tasty, but too salty and the same went for my olives which hadn't been rinsed of their liquor and so were almost inedible towards the bottom of the ramiken they were served in.  Steve's burger was unfortunately chargrilled, and not in a good way and his cheesy garlic bread was topped with cheddar instead of mozzarella.  Our friends said that their fish pie, the gnocchi and the duck breast were both very good and the steak and the charcuterie board both looked magnificent as well so it is possible that Steve and I just ordered badly this time!
In the past the George has also done a Tuesday pudding club (great for people like me with an incredibly sweet tooth) but I can't find any information as to whether or not this is still going on.

I love coming here for the atmosphere though.  It is a higgledy-piggledy building filled with truly ancient beams (some of which are so pitted from long dead wood worm that you wonder how on earth they are still holding together), wooden floorboards and huge open fireplaces with worn leather chesterfield arm chairs in front.
Everything about this place is warm and comforting and it is always filled with a relaxed, chattering crowd from Fordwich and the surrounding areas.  The George is divided into three clear zones, the bar, the restaurant and the garden.  It doesn't really matter where you sit though as you can order the same food and drink in any area.
The River Stour is famous for its trout fishing, boasting a breed of salmon trout that is local to Fordwich and you can see signs of the river's influence all over the George (although surprisingly, not on the menu!)
I mentioned that garden, which is one of the main draws of the George in the summer months and can become completely packed with the Sunday luncher crowd, aided by the presence of a boules court.  You may wish to consider booking on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime in the heart of summer!
When I was little, my parents used to make an hour and a half drive out to the countryside (no idea where) just so we could go for Sunday lunch at a particular pub.  It was the quintessential English pub, utterly charming, relaxed and friendly.  The George has that same feeling for me, it feels like a true country establishment at the center of a community which is holding onto its traditions.  Even the name is about as traditional as you can get!  I think that this is why it feels more like a village than a town - you can imagine it still having a May Day Festival, complete with Maypole!
I love this pub, which is why I was so disappointed with our last visit.  You just hope that you got them on an off day and that they were short-staffed in the kitchen or some such excuse.  I would hate to see this pub lose its focus.

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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Willows Secret Kitchen

One beautiful, sun dappled day in Canterbury, I was meandering down the cobbled streets, in search of nothing in particular, just enjoying the fresh air and laughing at the tourists who, despite seeing the spires of the Cathedral soaring overhead, still can't quite work out how to get to it.

It was warm, it was peaceful, and I turned a corner and stumbled upon this place.
A tiny, quirky little coffee house tucked half way down Stour Street.  A lot of places claim to be 'Secret' when in reality they are the worst kept secret in the history of badly kept secrets, but this place really is a bit tricky to find.  I figured that now was a good time to stop and refresh myself so I popped my head in.
I'm glad I did.  Willows Secret Kitchen is small, very small with only four tables, but absolutely perfectly formed and probably the friendliest coffee shop I have ever been into, anywhere in the world and that includes the States.  It's always so nice to be greeted with a 'Hello mate' when you walk in somewhere, especially when that's followed with a 'How are you today?  Good to see you!  What can I get for you?'
There is a distinctly Australian vibe about the entire place which is hardly surprising seeing as the family who own and run Willows learnt their trade in Melbourne in 2011 and bought back those skills and knowledge to Canterbury.  It has an almost beachy atmosphere with the use of sea bleached unvarnished timbers and simple industrial lighting mixed with Victorian card catalogues and market packing crates.   It looks like it was designed with sandy feet in mind!  It really reminded me of my days as a backpacker and for a moment I felt like I was 20 again and wandering around Europe with Fiona, trying to work out Italian train schedules, staying in some very strange places (including a nunnery in Venice) and haggling over fresh bread in a bid to save money for beers later.
I was on the go so only had time for a takeaway cup of coffee but the Willows Vacuum Coffee, which you brew at your table in one of these slightly scary looking gadgets, is supposed to be simply excellent, as well as fairly theatrical!  I have never seen or heard of one before and looking at it again now, it looks like the type of equipment that would utterly flummox me.  I struggle enough with a cafetiere for heavens sake.
I had a simple latte, and it was delicious, rich, aromatic and creamy with no hint of burnt beans, and well it should be having been recognised by Coffee Culture and Excellence.  I just wished I had ordered a larger one!   Side note - your coffee sleeve also doubles up as your loyalty card!  From the look of the post outside, they must have some very loyal customers as well!  I'm also tempted to come back for the Affogato, an icecream coffee, how intriguing does that sound?!
The coffee isn't the only draw of this little slice of Australia though.  They specialise in light lunches, serving freshly made sandwiches and baguettes, fresh cakes and pastries and even a full English if you are feeling particularly peckish!  All their bread is delivered fresh on a daily basis from their local (secret) Village bakery, making sure that they are supporting local businesses. 
I cleaned them out of fruit and then noticed the jar of love hearts.  It took a lot of will power to stay away!  It took even more will power to resist the owners attempts to charm me with the promise of a bacon buttie on some of the best bread I will ever taste. 
Everything in this coffee shop is unique and has a purpose.  I fell in love with the tiny robot tea strainers (who look like they are being rugby tackled by Thor), and being such a small environment, the owners have filled every nook and cranny ingeniously and yet the place does not feel cramped or cluttered but instead light and airy, helped by the front door being let open to the beautiful spring morning outside.
There are also gorgeous antique coffee machines displayed proudly around the shop, some of which apparently still work! 
As if I wasn't already enamored enough with this place, they also have a real sense of community here, promoting local gigs, small businesses and attractions.   Also the music.  When I came in there was some electric, acoustic chill out mix on the sound system buried by the counter.  I did ask what was playing, I was told and I have completely forgotten.  Willows, if you can remember what was playing when I came in, please please let me know!  It was fabulous!
Some friends of mine may snort a bit at anyplace that has even a potential 'hipster' vibe, somewhere where the 'cool' kids may flock to and congregate and I must confess, this place does have the potential to become somewhere like that.  However, it is aware of it, and I was delighted to find this tongue in cheek self-puncturing book in their collection.   Humourous touches like this keeps Willow's down to earth, non-pretentious and quite simply one of the best coffee shops in Canterbury that serves, in my humble opinion, the best coffee in Canterbury.
Trouble is, the more people who realise that, the less chance this place has of being kept a 'Secret'.
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Friday, 18 April 2014

Sticky Orange Cake

Forget chocolate this Easter Sunday.  I know, I know it is traditional but hear me out.  Everyone will be eating it, everyone will (more than likely) be regretting the sheer quantities of that smooth, creamy, sweet decadent delight and will be after something that is a bit more refreshing, but just as delicious.

Let me present the Sticky Orange Cake.  It just screams of the spring time zing and bounce that those ridiculously cute spring lambs always seem to excude.  It's a great cake for teatime on Easter Sunday, a late afternoon snack that just tides you over into the evening as you lounge in front of the film, surrounded by the family and with a big steaming mug of tea.

It's also really quick and easy as well.  I first made it one night in a panic as I realised I had completely forgotten to get something for my work's bring and buy sale raising money for The National Autistic Society.  I had promised a cake to sell and I was damn well going to deliver.  I looked in my cupboards, saw the flour, eggs and oranges, scouted around online and saw this recipe and knew immediately what I could make. 

This cake is light, fresh, moist and the syrup really does make this a case of sticky fingers post munching's!  I've tweaked it slightly and added some spices, just a little to give it a bit of depth.  If you add more you take this cake out of the realms of spring and firmly into Christmas territory. 

You need:


For the cake

175 grams self-raising flour
175 grams caster sugar
175 grams butter
5 tablespoons milk
2 medium eggs
1 large orange (grated zest of, save the juice for the syrup) 
Teaspoon cinnamon
Teaspoon allspice 

For the syrup

75 grams caster sugar
1 large orange (juice of, use the zest in the cake)

For the icing

100g icing sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 large orange (grated zest of, you don't need the juice for the cake but it's good to eat anyway!)

Grease a medium loaf tin and preheat the oven to 180 degrees

Put the flour, sugar, butter, milk, eggs and orange zest into a large mixing bowl. Whisk until all the ingredients are incorporated (I use an electric whisk but you can do it with a manual one, it just takes some time and some sweat!)

Pour the mixture into the loaf tin (try and resist the urge to eat the leftover cake mix, it's hard as it tastes really good!) and bake for 40-45 mins, until risen and golden.  The top may crack slightly but don't worry!  When a skewer comes out clean from the centre of the cake it is done.
When the cake has just about 5-10 mins left in the oven, heat the syrup ingredients together in a small saucepan. Remove the cake from the oven and make some holes in the top with a skewer.  Pour over the syrup, making sure to cover the whole cake (while the cake is still in the tin) and leave until the cake is completely cold.

Ease the cake from the sides of the tin with a knife before trying to remove it from the tin and turn it out onto a tray.  Mix the icing ingredients together, adding more milk or more icing sugar if the consistency isn't to your liking.  I find it works best as a thick pouring consistency.

Ice the cake haphazardly and scatter with the orange zest.  It should keep for a day or so in an air tight container.

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