Nation Museum of Denmark

Andie Cusick

The parka is often thought to have its origins in the military uniform worn by American soldiers during the Korean War. In fact, the parka goes back much further. Invented by Caribou Inuits, parkas made of skins and sometimes fur were a necessary shield from the inclement weather in the Northwest Territories. The word ‘parka’ is derived from the Nenets language and means ‘animal skin’. Interestingly, it is the only Nenets word that has entered and remained in the English language. Originally made using caribou or seal skin, the hides gathered in summer would provide heavier, warmer coats (they were also used for tents, mittens and boots), while spring skins created a sleeker, thinner coat often worn in layers.

This seasonal approach to coats, with a lightweight or heavyweight option, was further developed by the US Army. Both the fishtail parka and the snorkel parka were designed for military use. The Snorkel N-3B with a full hood (that could be zipped tightly to produce a small, snorkel-like view) in sage green nylon with a blanket lining was worn by flight crews in extremely cold conditions. The fishtail, named for its elongated fln-shaped back, was primarily intended for combat armed forces to wear over layers of uniform. This looser style made of thin poplin offered ease of movement while being wind and rain-proof. It’s thanks to the garment’s practical features that the parka transitioned to post-war 60s attire—specifically, to bikers who found it essential in protecting their work clothes from oil and dirt.

It would therefore be impossible to delve into the history of the parka without mentioning the film Quadrophenia, the 1979 classic depicting mod subculture. Genuine army surplus fishtail parkas were worn by the film’s scooter boys – a look that garnered a loyal following through the 80s and into the 90s, with the Brit-pop set, led by Liam and Noel Gallagher, adopting the style as their own. Fashion followed suit and the army classic became grunge staple, often juxtaposed with items more luxe – think Kate Moss in a ‘God Save the Queen’ parka shot by Craig McDean for i-D in 2002, or on the cover of British Vogue in a fur-lined parka and crystal Versace dress. The parka was a pivotal item for the introduction of high-low dressing, becoming the go-to throw-on for any summer festival.

From indigenous groups in Arctic regions to the military and the mods, the parka, steeped in history, continues to be adapted with new versions each season. No longer restricted to sage green, choices range from varied fabrications, colours of black, navy and brown, fur-trimmed hoods, quilted linings, toggle, zipper or button fastenings. While styles vary, one thing is certain: the parka redux continues. No scooter or migrating caribou required.

Pictured: an Inuit woman wearing a reindeer skin parka, with thanks to the National Museum of Denmark

Click here for Toast’s range of parkas.


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by TOAST ( 13.10.14 )
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by TOAST ( 08.10.14 )

At last night’s Forward Prize 2014, poet Liz Berry won the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. We had expected the news. Her debut, Black Country – about place, childhood and flight – soars with promise. For Liz, though, who says she “wanted to tell a story about the Black Country, the place where I grew up and where my family lives,” the win was “a wonderful surprise”. Describing the collection as a love letter to the Black Country, Liz says, “I wanted to write poems which uncovered the magic beneath its grit and to reclaim its beautiful (though sadly often much maligned) dialect as the stuff of poetry”. In this, she excelled, as you can hear in her spellbinding reading of ‘Birmingham Roller’, above.

Our thanks to Sasha Hoare, Toni Busque and Chris Meade, who created this film for Arvon. Liz Berry is an alumnus of the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme.

Black Country is published by Chatto & Windus.

Black Country Cover680


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by TOAST ( 01.10.14 )

Brogues_Toast

Andie Cusick

As a child, I loved polishing shoes. Every week I would help my dad by buffing his left shoe while he shined the right. I remember prising open tins of Kiwi wax polish; the mustard yellow colour of the polishing cloths; and a couple of well-used wooden brushes that fitted in the palms of my hands. The task instilled in me not only a sense of care for good shoes but pride in them, too.

By the time I started secondary school, Sunday nights staged a shoe ritual and I was no longer polishing my father’s Church’s but my own brown leather brogues. With a strict uniform policy at school, my choices were limited: penny loafers or flat lace-ups. I chose the latter with great consideration. What won out for me was something my father’s shoes lacked: intricate detailing in the form of tiny, perforated holes.

Identified by distinctive patterns punched in the leather and serration to each visible edge, brogues (from the Gaelic word bròg, meaning shoe) were created in the early 20th century as a men’s walking shoe. Originally designed with larger, open holes to allow water to escape when striding through boggy terrain, they were not deemed appropriate for formal occasions, nor were they intended for women. But, aided by Hollywood stars including Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and many more in recent years, today the brogue is a unisex classic.

Northamptonshire’s shoe industry, which dates back to the 15th century, took note and women’s brogues are now widely available. As Clive Parnell of heritage shoemakers Joseph Cheaney & Sons notes, “The brogue has become finer and more elegant over the years”.

For many years I abandoned formal blazers and wingtip shoes in favour of a little sartorial rebellion — boy-jeans and old Converse or Birkenstocks. But recently, a less slouchy style increasingly appeals to me. I’ll always elect for flat comfort over extra height, but that too is part of a brogue’s charm — for the more you wear them the more comfortable they become. Marcus Jaye, style writer and author of The Chic Geek’s Fashion, Grooming & Style Guide For Men decrees shoes “need to be comfortable as well as look good. A good men’s shoe is something which is in proportion to the size of the foot and makes it look elegant… and will last, once you’ve broken them in.” Cheaney recommend breaking-in their shoes in dry conditions for the first few wears. “With leather soles this is important… it gets grit into the grain and hardens the sole giving longer life,” explains Parnell.

Handmade in England, each pair of Cheaney brogues takes nine weeks to make, from selecting the calf-skin leather to placing in the box. This level of quality has not gone unnoticed. “As traditional English style has come back into fashion, so too has the complementary footwear,” says Jaye. “English shoes, especially brogues, are usually Goodyear welted, which means they can be repaired over and over using the traditional construction. People have realised it’s worth investing in an English pair,” he adds.

Caring for handmade shoes is not only a necessity but also part of their charm — and, for me, a nostalgic reminder of a father-daughter ritual. As the warm days recede, I’ve put away my Birkenstocks for a pair of lace-up, perforated, leather shoes. And I know just how to keep them shiny.

Click here to browse Toast’s collection of shoes for women – including a selection of English brogues, monks and loafers. Click here to see our range for men.


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by TOAST ( 18.09.14 )


Penelope Fitzgerald, 1940 © Dooley Archive

This week, Professor Dame Hermione Lee was awarded the James Tait Black biography prize for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Here, she introduces an extract from the book

I’ve written a biography of the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald because I think she is a great writer, though she would never have described herself in such a resounding way. She was born in 1916 and died in 2000; she started publishing books in 1975, around the age of 60. She won the Booker prize, and, with her last novel, she became famous at 80: so hers is an encouraging story!

My biography explores, for the first time, the life and work of a very private person and a very remarkable writer. Working on her was a challenge and a privilege, and not always straightforward. Her books are short, and hard to pin down. She writes about her own life, but keeps herself carefully concealed. In her first novels she drew intensely on her own experiences – working for the BBC in wartime, living in Suffolk and working in a bookshop there in the late 1950s, teaching child-actors, and living in the 1960s on a leaky Thames barge, which sank. But she gave little away about herself. In her four last novels, published in the 1980s and 1990s, she changed direction. They moved from using the material of her own life to creating astonishingly vivid historical worlds. They are all set at a time when change seemed possible: Russia before the revolution in The Beginning of Spring; post-war Italy in Innocence; pre-First World War Cambridge science in The Gate of Angels; the first stirring of Romanticism in Europe in The Blue Flower. These novels involved vast amounts of historical research, which is buried deep below the surface. She liked economy, and believed that “less is more”. She didn’t like to tell her readers too much: she felt it insulted them to over-explain.

Still, though she resisted explanations, there is a strong morality in her writings. She is a comic writer with a tragic view of life. She was drawn to what she called “exterminatees”, decent, muddled characters who are bullied or exploited. She had strong religious beliefs, though she keeps them implicit in her fiction. She spoke for the underdog, for the vulnerable, for children, and against tyranny.

Fitzgerald’s life-story has strong English roots, though she’s not at all insular. She was interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Anglican church. She was passionate about painting, pottery, colours, gardens, flowers, and music. She had an old-fashioned style of dressing which made no concessions to fashion but was very alert to colours and fabrics. Her artistic heroes included Ruskin, William Blake, Burne-Jones and William Morris. She minded about the look of her books. She pays great attention to craftsmanship. There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. And it is often the women who do the jobs.

In this extract, we see her in full flight as a brilliant Oxford undergraduate – known as the Blonde Bombshell – editing and writing for the student magazine Cherwell in the 1930s. She seemed all set to be a writer. But then came the war, and everyone’s lives were thrown up in the air. And she didn’t start publishing for many decades. One of the mysteries my biography pursues is how much she was writing during the thirty or more years between her student days and the mid-1970s, when the brilliant young “Penelope Knox” finally became that extraordinary, original novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.

An extract from Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life – Chapter Three, ‘The Blonde Bombshell’

In ‘The Curse of a Literary Education’, a lover of literature has her visits to the countryside ruined because of all the quotations going round in her head, which she has to apply to everything she sees. ‘Look, Stranger’ is a parody on a sensitive, alienated soul who has quarrelled with Nature, the Brotherhood of Man, and finally with herself: ‘I cut myself dead. I was surrounded by strangers.’ The last of these Cherwell pieces, ‘Wicked Words’, published after she left Oxford, tells her history of being unable to swear, with a caricatured version of her school life, and one or two autobiographical clues: ‘When I fall in love, which happens twice a year, and wish to end a tempestuous quarrel, I usually say “Drat you”. When my heart is broken I say “Cripes”.’ At Somerville, they all knew how to cry, but not how to swear. ‘We should all have liked to do so, because we were young, and wanted to be thought vicious.’

She couldn’t swear, but she could spell. In January 1938 she was selected as one of two women on the eight-strong Oxford team for the first ‘Spelling Bee’ to be ‘conducted by wireless across the Atlantic’ (as The Times reported it under the title ‘Hard Spells on the Air’). The opponents were from Radcliffe and Harvard, and the spelling had to follow the rules of the Oxford Dictionary (for the Oxford team) and Webster’s (for the American team). They went to the BBC on a freezing cold Sunday train, hung about for ages while the engineers dealt with faulty headphones and microphones, were sent down to the cafeteria (‘Cup of tea and Virginia cigarette, 2d, Cup of tea and Turkish cigarette, 2 ½d’) and then did the forty-five-minute quiz, with thirty seconds allowed for each word, after which the other side had a go. The booby traps were ‘haemorrhage’, ‘pettifoggery’, ‘anonymity’, ‘truncheon’, ‘labyrinthine’, ‘trachea’ and ‘corollary’. The Oxford team lost by four points, but ‘Miss Knox, like her listeners, found her early temerity an attractive pose and retained it throughout the contest with great effect.’ Her spelling of ‘daguerreotype’ was ‘loudly applauded by both teams’. It was her first experience of the BBC, and she enjoyed herself. The Spelling Bee sealed her reputation, in her final year, as an Oxford star. ‘BLONDE BOMBSHELL BEATS THE LOT’, ran the Isis headline, and its annual Valentine competition (‘First Prize, One Hundred Oxford Memory Cigarettes and Two Seats at the Scala Cinema’) listed for its recipients ‘Greto Garbo, Miss Penelope Knox, A Female History Don, or Mistinguett’. The results of the competition largely consisted of verses written to the ‘evidently well-appreciated Penelope Knox’: ‘O Bombshell with the golden thatch’; ‘Penelope, my Busy Bee, I love your voice, you must love me’; ‘Venus, Minerva, Spelling Queen,/All three in thy small Frame are seen;/Fair Goddess, thou hast caught me well,/Wrapped in the magic of thy “Spell”.’

Copyright © Hermione Lee 2013. Extracted from PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A LIFE by Hermione Lee, published by Chatto & Windus at £25.00.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER A SIGNED HARDBACK COPY OF HERMIONE LEE’S PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A LIFE


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by TOAST ( 27.08.14 )



Orlando Gough

Last week I went to stay in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, which our friend Robin, with whom I was staying, describes as a Radio 4 gated community. With its bleak beach, quirky medieval town hall, Martello tower, Benjamin Britten obsession, and award-winning fish and chips, it embodies a certain kind of utopia, although the presence of Sizewell A and B (and soon C) up the road is a reminder of the real world. I was particularly delighted to be able to potter down to the shore where from several rather beautiful black wooden sheds it is possible to buy locally caught fish. I walked in on a discussion about how long to keep skate before they are ready to eat. Fish too fresh to eat! Whoa!

I was working on a piece, The World Encompassed, that I wrote a few years ago for the viol consort Fretwork. The regular members of this brilliant group are two redoubtable English men called Richard and two equally redoubtable Japanese women, not called Richard. The piece is about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. He sets out from Plymouth late in 1577 with a crew of 164 men, including four viol players, on five tiny ships. The intention is not in fact to circumnavigate the world but to wreak as much havoc as possible on the Spanish Main. This is partly a political move and partly a personal revenge for a setback at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios a few years before. He is fuelled by a fierce Protestant piety, obsessed with cleansing South America of the ‘poisonous infection of Popery’. It is said of him that ‘he steals by day and prays at night’. His attitude to the local people he encounters is much more benevolent, if patronising. ‘Neither is any thing more lamentable than that so goodly a people, and so lively creatures of God, should be ignorant of the true and living God’. The expedition returns almost three years after it sets out, with just 58 men and one ship, the Golden Hind, but with enough Spanish loot and East India spices to pay off Queen Elizabeth’s debts and have enough left over to start the Levant company, which becomes the East India Company. This is surely the start of the British Empire, with its familiar mixture of muscular Christianity, thuggery, benevolence, and entrepreneurship.

However much one might disapprove of the piracy, one has to admit that the bravery and stoicism are astonishing. Emerging from the Straights of Magellan into the Pacific, they are caught in a 52-day storm in which two of the ships are wrecked, and another disappears. Almost immediately they are chasing after, and being chased by, the Spaniards; and then they get horribly lost and find themselves stranded half way up the coast of North America. And it’s a constant battle to find food, and, more importantly, fresh water. A crucial stop-off in the Cape Verde Islands, where they find an abundance of figs, grapes, coconuts and plantains, allows them to make the 60-day journey across the Atlantic to Brazil. There are, of course, fish, including ‘one, as strange as any; to wit, the flying fish, a fish of the bigness and proportion of a reasonable or middle sort of pilchard. By the help of his fins, when he is chased by the bonito or great mackerel, he lifteth up himself above the water, and flieth a pretty height, sometimes lighting into our boat as we sail along’. In the Straights of Magellan, they moor up on an island where ‘we found great store of strange birds which could not fly at all, nor yet run so fast, as that they could escape us with their lives. Such was the infinite resort of these birds to these islands, that in the space of one day we killed no less than three thousand’. That’s a lot of penguin meat.

Having walked in on the skate seminar, I inevitably bought some, and the next day we cooked it au beurre noir. Lovely, if rather predictable. How else to cook it?

The Koreans eat fermented skate. I can see this could be useful on a circumnavigation of the world, but I’m too cowardly to try it. Alternatively, try this Japanese-inspired dish:

For two people, grate a knob of ginger, and slice a small red chilli finely. Put into a wok with 1/2 litre fish stock or dashi, and bring to the boil. Put in two skate wings (or, better, two halves of one large wing) and poach for about six minutes, depending on the thickness of the wings. After a couple of minutes, add some sugar snaps. When the fish is ready, drain off the stock. Mix a ladleful of stock with a dessertspoonful of white miso paste and add it back into the wok. Sprinkle over some chopped coriander leaves and the juice of half a lime.

PS. The Japanese use flying fish for making sushi.

Next week: 10 best penguin recipes.

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal. Click here to find out more.


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by TOAST ( 08.08.14 )

Michael Smith

As we drove over the water, above Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s rail bridge of 1859, straddling the epic sweep of water that is the border of Devon (or perhaps England) and Cornwall, I felt certain feelings well up, feelings it’s hard to sum up with a word or two.

We were on the way to Port Eliot, a place that means a great deal to me, and even though, if you wanted to be a pedantic killjoy about it, it all only boils down to a handful of weekends in a tent over the years, my memories of those weekends are so treasured and special that I’m always swept along with a feeling of returning, of reconnecting with this enchanted little nook of the world.

I’m not the hugest fan of festivals, but it was love at first sight with Port Eliot, the perfect cocktail of prettiness and naughtiness and cultured fun, where you can disco your way into the wee hours and then wake up to a Fortnum and Mason breakfast, spend the afternoon listening to a debate about Ovid in The Idler’s tent, or field recordings of birdsong in Caught By The River’s tent, nursing the night before with a Hendrick’s gin punch or a plate of delicious oysters, then spend golden hour swimming in a river that’s delightfully warm and muddy underfoot, before the joys of the nighttime roll round again.

I remember one evening, as I stood by the bushes and trees in those small hours, staring up at the starry skies, imagining giant elfin faces in the shapes of the branches and leaves, realising how obvious it must have seemed to our ancestors in those evenings of firelight and magic mushrooms that the land was alive with spirits and sacred energies.

Bobbing along in the river the next lazy afternoon, I hit a shallow bank; once I’d righted myself, I pulled my hands out of the water, which were covered in rich, dark, warm mud, and looking out onto beautiful rolling straw-coloured pastures and pearly English skies, listening to a story floating over the water from a nearby tent about mythical giants with names like Gog and Magog, giants who were somehow the embodiment of the ancient spirits of these lands. I thought of this island of ours, and all the places I love in it, from the soft, warm, rolling Cornish hills in front of me to the sharp, magnificent, enormous skies of Scotland, and its rivers as clear as ice, and I felt a sense of belonging to all of it, and then a thought struck me: more than likely I’ll die on this island that birthed me, and there was something lovely about thinking this.

Humans have a deep-seated need to belong, an instinct to love their land, and a sense of the profundity of this welled up so strongly in me it was almost overwhelming. But before it puffed me up with that foolish sense that we were somehow the best place, more special than the rest, I realised there was probably an overly romantic bloke in Germany or France who was floating around in some Alpine lake who was overwhelmed by exactly the same feelings for his land and its magic at exactly the same time as the thought struck me.

Pictured: Port Eliot Festival 2014, with thanks to Michael Bowles.


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by TOAST ( 01.08.14 )

Caroline Davidson

My copy of Anna Karenina looks a little as if it’s been hit by a train. Pages around the 500 mark are liberated entirely from the mangled spine, while others are torn at the point of turning. The title pages are yellowed and the cover is badly disfigured. Its edges bear the mark of Taylor’s Hot Lava Java. Thanks to a meeting with the Celtic sea, the book billows like a Russian concertina.

Anna Karenina took me an age. It was by my side, or stuffed into my bag, or balanced on my stomach for so long that we gave it a nickname. It’s not that I couldn’t get along with A.K., it’s that I’d regularly read pages over a few times before I turned them. Tolstoy’s observations made me giddy. They rang so true I could barely believe it.

My godmother, who actually is not my godmother but my mother’s, but whom I adopted because she is perfect, has read A.K. some 10 times. Bella is a 96-year-old Russian girl of Jewish descent who grew up in Paris and Palestine and married first an Irishman and then a cockney called Charles – a newspaper man she met in Egypt. Together, Charles and Bella lived in Kenya, where they met my young parents, before retiring, of course, to Tunbridge Wells.

I suspect that Bella, who answers few questions about herself, has read A.K. time and again because she is, a little bit, Anna Karenina. Happier and more straightforward than Anna, Bella nevertheless shares with Anna a confidence betrayed by the things she wears. It’s a quiet confidence inspired by not only physical beauty, but an accurate sense of her intrinsic exoticism.

The writer James Meek wrote a memorable article a couple of years ago in which he imagined Anna’s brother, the charming but shallow Stiva Oblonsky, “as a tanned guy called Steve in a pink open-necked shirt”. If I were to apply the same treatment to Anna, she’d come out in Bella’s uniform: a cashmere jumper. She’d read The Daily Telegraph cover to cover out of boredom and she’d talk about Facebook as if she knows what it is.

Of course, there is darkness to Anna, which is where Bella leaves the page. For all his empathy with the characters he draws, Tolstoy is suspicious of Anna’s sophistication – as if its misuse is an inevitable conclusion.

When early in the book Anna turns up at a ball in a black velvet dress, her riding roughshod over Kitty is a sure thing. Tolstoy makes much of Kitty’s prior entrance into the ballroom wearing a “complicated dress of white net over a pink slip”. With a rose-adorned high coiffure made of thick curls of fake hair, Kitty is a loo roll holder blushing in bows and laces. Anna’s simple dress, meanwhile, is set off with an unobtrusive hair-do decorated with a modest crop of pansies. The award for Belle of the Ball goes to Anna, who in seeming not to care less, totally smashes it.

Tolstoy refers regularly to Anna’s understated dress. Never overdressed, her frocks are often plain and muted, if top notch. As the sweet, guileless Kitty realises at the ball, Anna’s “charm lay precisely in the fact that her personality stood out from her dress”. Anna’s downfall lay precisely in knowing it. A woman intelligent to the point of danger, it was not her skirts but her complicated inner life that would ultimately trip her up. Or was it hubris?

Perhaps it was her choice of men. While Kitty came to her senses and married a thoughtful man in search of a simple life, Anna left her husband for a simple man in search of a thought. To vacuous Vronsky, Anna was but one of his prizewinning racehorses. If her clothes betray anything but self-assurance, it’s a desire to be taken seriously. ‘Trophy girl’ is not a role Anna set out to play. The day she sees “clearly in the piercing light” that Vronsky found in her “not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity” is the day she throws her red handbag to the wind before jumping in front of a train.

For all she brought down herself and those around her, Anna is a rich, knotty character that, like the book about her, can’t be read in a single sitting. Bella, for whom I think Anna is just the tragic, exaggerated self we all look for in books, once told me that ‘Tolstoy’ means ‘fat’. Photos suggest the man was of medium build, but his books are pleasingly rounded.

Pictured: Levin and Kitty in a copy of Anna Karenina, with thanks to A Beautiful Mess.


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by TOAST ( 18.07.14 )

Orlando Gough

The other day in the Grauniad, under the headline DON’T KNOCK FAST FOOD (I confess to having immediately thought: I shall knock fast food if I want), was an article by the journalist Kathryn Hughes. Fast food is an interesting subject, with its inevitable class war connotations – chavs eating junk food while the fragrant middle classes pickle their own herrings; but her argument was strange: the middle classes, for example Mrs Beaton, originally promoted slow cooking as a way of encouraging attributes – patience mainly – which would make them good entrepreneurs. And now people who eat fast food are similarly upholding the capitalist system, so they’re doing an equally useful job. Er… what? (And what a bizarre argument to find in the Grauniad of all newspapers.) According to Hughes, a large section of the population doesn’t even have the wherewithal to cook slow food (really?); they’re more likely to have a microwave oven than an Aga (well, yes).

For a time we lived in the village of Southwick, just outside Brighton. It had originally been next to the sea, but a large part had been bulldozed in the 50s to make way for a spanking new road which was never built. So it had a strange lopsided feeling, despite being arranged around a charming green where our dog Nell once won Best Bitch. We rented a beautiful Georgian rectory from local self-made man and Harley Davidson fanatic Dennis Clark, owner of several lucrative care homes.

The Old Rectory, tick, with an Aga, tick.

My relationship with this cast iron behemoth was – to borrow a phrase from Gandhi describing his relationship with the British government in India – not a happy one. Cooking on it was as easy as navigating using a sextant. It was good, as you might expect, for extremely slow cooking and extremely fast cooking, but anything between those extremes, i.e. almost everything, was fantastically difficult – unnecessarily difficult given the invention of that splendid gadget the cooker. Baking a cake or cooking a soufflé involved a complex process of oven swapping, inserting and removing plates which might or might not have been sprinkled with water etc. To an Aga afficionado this is all doubtless a piece of cake, but I never got the hang of it, partly due to the fact that it’s impossible to smell anything that’s cooking in an Aga oven, so it’s correspondingly easy to incinerate it. Consequently the hot oven was like an ancient blacksmith’s forge, caked in unidentifiable carbon-rich slurry.

In the winter the Aga admittedly warmed the house, lovely; in summer the kitchen was like the engine room of a ship. Before cooking one needed to throw the windows open and strip to the waist. But the main problem was that the damn thing kept breaking down. In principle the solution was to ring up a specialist company in Horsham or somewhere, but their call-out fee was about £10,000, so Dennis, who was both thrifty and a handyman, would come round and futz around for several hours with screwdrivers and thermostats. And the Aga would either work or not work. If it did work there was then a frustrating fallow period of several weeks (or maybe it was a few hours?) while it heated up again.

For Dennis these sessions were surprisingly fruitful – they gave him a chance to infiltrate his house and check that we were treating it properly. Actually we treated it much better than he did. He once tried to dig up the beautiful floor of the back passage because he needed some bricks, and we more or less had to lie down in the passage, like protesters on the site of a proposed motorway, to stop him desecrating his own house.

After the Aga had broken down for the nth time and Dennis had put in the mth new thermostat, unsuccessfully, he lent us a microwave oven as a substitute. This was surely a category error, like lending a hockey stick to someone whose cricket bat has broken, or a hamster to someone whose dog has died. We completely failed to come to terms with this mysterious machine. We obligingly went out and bought a Marks and Spencer take-away Chinese meal, but made a complete balls-up of heating it up. I think we were afraid of a mini-Hiroshima, so the food never made it to more than a couple of degrees above room temperature. It tasted absolutely dismal, and we were probably lucky it didn’t poison us. As enthusiastic cooks this was a staggering level of failure, on the scale of a research scientist not being able to change a plug. We didn’t use the microwave again, and gratefully returned to the warm embrace of the Aga when it was finally mended.

Since then I’ve discovered that there are many beautiful uses of a microwave oven:

- for heating milk
- for cooking vegetables without compromising their nutritional value
- for fusing together the broken crepe soles of shoes (have to be careful with the temperature here I’d imagine)
- for exploding eggs (I think our friend Boyd was trying to cook the egg)
- for storing cheese (my father-in-law, who like us never got the hang of his microwave, used it as a larder – odd, since a microwave has no ventilation, and, you could argue, is basically the opposite of a larder)
- as a percussion instrument – it works as a complete drum kit, and the bell is useful too.

Meanwhile we have moved house, and use a completely standard cooker. I’m extremely happy with it. And continue to knock fast food without compunction.

Pictured: Salt baked veg, cooked in an Aga

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal.


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Nat Lucas

Elderflower blooms herald the arrival of picnic season, granting them the welcome of a whistled refrain in a songless city. Picnics are thought to have their origins in the practice of groups of women meeting in taverns, each bringing some solid food to contribute to a feast. I prefer to leave the conjuring of quiches in more capable hands and instead focus on providing the drinks. An aunt and uncle return from a walk with a wicker basket full of elderflowers gathered in Nunhead Cemetery. A few days later I am presented with a bottle of pale pink cordial. Immediately I face a dilemma. Should I construct a picnic friendly elderflower Collins, or should I stay true to my personal preference of avoiding longer drinks, and instead provide an elderflower martini? Unable to decide I try both.

Premixed elderflower Collins drinks are now so readily available that I saw one on offer in a metal-look ‘shaker’ while I was strapped into what I trust was a slightly less synthetic metal tube, on a no frills hop over the channel. I base my recipe on Diffords ‘Elderflower Collins No. 2’ which is distinguished from the ‘No. 1’ version principally by the exchange of gin for vodka. The most appealing part of making this for me is the inclusion of the Luxardo maraschino liqueur as of course, once you have the jar open, it is vital to check that the cherries have not gone off. I manage to restrict myself to just two. For many people, the inclusion of the lemon juice, the sinew of the drink that binds the elderflower to the spine of the vodka, makes this perfect picnic refreshment. Made of softer stuff, I find that the lemon slices through the drink like a cymbal in a string quartet and so move on to the martini.

In these times of austerity* I decide to make use of what I have readily available and create my elderflower martini with Black Cow vodka. Described as a ‘milk vodka’ because it is made from whey, this Dorset distilled spirit has a gentle roundness to it which does not lessen its impact. Sipping it neat is like easing a finger into a suede glove stitched by retired elves. To this I add Carpano Antica Formula – the bittersweet Italian vermouth, instead of the more usual dry vermouth. The resulting drink, dressed with a single floating rose petal, tastes of summer – grassy and with a hint of peaches.

Elderflower Collins No. 2:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
3 teaspoons Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1 shot elderflower cordial
1 shot freshly squeezed lemon

Shake with ice and strain into an ice filled glass. Top up with soda water and garnish with a lemon slice.

Elderflower Martini:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
1 shot Carpano Antica Formula
2 shots elderflower cordial

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a rose petal.

*Austerity used here in the sense of ‘without luxury’ of space. My drinks cabinet is a just-slightly-larger-than-A4-sized gap on the work surface between the refrigerator and the draining board.

Pictured: Elderflower by Barbara Agnew


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