Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Gunpowder Gardens redux

I’m due to speak next month at the Isle of Wight literary festival, and looking forward to chipping in on a discussion about the future of books, chaired by Michael Grade.

The link to the weekend’s starry line up of events is here:

I’m almost four months into my experiment with Argonaut Books, publishing the e-book version of The Gunpowder Gardens on Kindle, iPad and the Nook, and while it hasn’t allowed me to chuck writing and go fishing, the results have been pretty interesting.

In the first book I wrote, I was inspired by the tea caddies of my colonial grandmothers to explore the relics of colonial trade on the South China coast, the tea auctions of Calcutta and the tea gardens of the Himalayas. Shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, The Gunpowder Gardens takes the reader on a journey through the tea lands of India and China, blending the history – and flavour – of tea with travel narrative.

With a cast of unexpected characters from Hong Kong’s Professor Tea to The Nose in Darjeeling, The Gunpowder Gardens is, in the words of The Sunday Times, ‘full of fascination’.

You can read some (genuine!) reviews on Amazon here:

The book sells a few more copies on Kindle every month, which is nice; and I did an impromptu giveaway last month, over a wet weekend, which led to almost 1500 Kindle users downloading it. That, I think, is like someone lending you a book they’ve enjoyed – why not?

The odd thing is that Kindle users seem enthusiastic – but it’s been pretty slow on the iPad, which is linked to the iTunes Store. I don’t know why that is.

Meanwhile, Artemis Cooper’s long-awaited biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor is out next month, and to coincide with that Argonaut Books will publish my second book, On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul.

Two of Paddy’s travel masterpieces, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water, detail his own walk to Istanbul (which he always called Constantinople) in the mid-1930s. It was a moment before huge changes in eastern Europe swept away a whole world of wild Hungarian aristocrats, German nightclubs, retired scholars and families whose 16 quarterings gave them a place in the Almanack de Gotha, and those books are a wonderful evocation of that lost world.

My attempt to follow in his giant footsteps produced, as I see now, a different record of another, vanishing world: the near-mediaeval world of Europe’s last peasantry. In 1990, as the walls of communism were collapsing, most of eastern Europe was still inhabited and fed by small farmers and their families, holding a few acres and a few cows, ploughing with horses, sowing by hand – generous, warm-hearted people who were always prepared to give house-room (or a cosy barn full of straw) to a couple of hikers, making for a faraway city.

It’s a faintly elegiac book, though I had no idea how fast the changes might come; but it’s also, I’m happy to say, the record of an eccentric six-month courtship, on the road.

Posts of random satisfaction…

Here’s tonight’s supper – and the reason I’m excited is not, actually, because it’s beef and saffron and borlotti beans but because I’m within a few aces of completing Yashim’s latest adventure in The Latin Reader.

It’s rather like standing near the finishing line, jumping up and down as your horse appears down the final straight… Clues to hook up, scenes to be set, with character twists that even surprise me – and terrible decisions still to be made. All that before I go back and read it all through from the begining, a luxury I will not indulge while I write. In the meantime I have to get up now and then and do something else, like this.

Those beans are particularly beautiful and, like the chard, they will be planted in double quantities next year.

The saffron was an afterthought – it was just silverside, beans, onions, garlic, courgettes, carrots and marjoram, with a bayleaf. But I have just been thinking about a recipe my father got from La Pistollera, a Spanish Civil War fighter, who came once to our kitchen and cooked her calamari with saffron.

If food is not your bag, you may derive a random satisfaction this picture of Osman Pasha, an Ottoman general, instead:

The best new sleuth since Maigret

Disasters are said to come in threes, so maybe the same holds true of good things, too.

Last week, in The Week, A N Wilson chose The Janissary Tree as one of his six favourite books (between Wallace Stevens and St. Augustine’s Confessions). Wilson – whose new novel, The Potter’s Hand, is out this week – writes:

‘I am addicted to Goodwin’s detective stories set in in Istanbul in the 1840s. Yashim…is the best new sleuth since Maigret. The books evoke that great city and the plots are ingenious.’ 

Simultaneously I received my copy of the London Library magazine, with the cover story one I wrote about Ottomania, searching out the subject in the stacks of my favourite library.

On Monday I delivered a review of Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, to the Spectator, which came out on Friday.

Finally, our house was featured rather gorgeously in Ben Pentreath’s English Decoration, which is out next month – a copy arrived last week, too.

That’s four good things, you say? No, that’s one for my wife – revealing, as Ben writes, ‘the brilliance with which Kate puts together her rooms.’


Chard hard, and chard easy

When I think of chard, I  think of the handsome town across the Somerset border with a reputation for toughness (in spite of its boast as ‘The Home of Powered Flight’, which I mean to investigate one day).

The children report a rhyme that does the rounds on the school bus:

We’re from Chard,

We’re well hard,

We just nicked your credit card.

Swiss, rather than Somerset, Chard is  a fashionable leafy vegetable much loved by the Ottomans. This year I’ve grown rows of it, and it has all the virtues: it’s beautiful to look at, with its thick, flat white (or red or yellow) stem and shiny green leaves; far more patient and forgiving than spinach, which tends to bolt; gives you two vegetables in one – the stems can be cooked like celery, the leaves like spinach; and tastes good, too.

Here’s how to do it as a dolma, Yashim style:

Blanch the chard for a second in boiling water, rinse in cold water, and strip the stalks from the leaves.

Make a stuffing by mixing up half a pound of minced lamb or beef, a grated onion, a generous handful of raw Basmati rice, and all the seasoning you want – parsley, thyme, mint, coriander, cumin, allspice in any combination or quantity you like, and of course salt and black pepper. A chopped tomato if you want.

Put a leaf face down on the board, stem end towards you, and lay a thumb-sized roll of stuffing on it. Fold the bottom over, fold over the two sides, and roll it up. Hold it tight until you’ve laid it in a saucepan, so it doesn’t unravel.

Make a dozen.

Pour boiling water or stock over the rolls, to almost cover, and lay a plate on top, to keep them squeezed. Cover the pan, simmer for half an hour until most of the water has evaporated and the rice is cooked, and eat them dressed with some yoghurt beaten with garlic and mint.

We just had it for lunch, and it was very good. It’s a doddle to make, with about five minutes childish industry and thirty minutes to wait, but for some reason everyone thinks it must have been difficult – which may be what you want from cooking, really.