Vittoria Cottage

A review of Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

Increasingly I am finding that in these times of uncertainty there is something extremely comforting about retreating into a world that is distinctly twee and cosy. It may explain why some authors, extremely popular in their day but then dismissed as old hat, are making a well-deserved comeback. One such is Scottish author, Dorothy Stevenson, who wrote forty novels over a career that spanned from 1923 to 1970 and sold over 7 million copies here and in the States.

Originally published in 1949 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, Vittoria Cottage is the first of three novels charting the fortunes of the Dering family. I always wonder about trilogies whether the author initially set out to write a three-part series or whether the trilogy just evolved. Rather like a television series that is desperate to be commissioned for a second series, Stevenson’s novel ends somewhat abruptly. I did not mind that as she had left enough clues for the reader to make their mind up as to what happened next. If I read Music In The Hills I might find out if my expectations have been fulfilled.

As with Cold Comfort Farm, there have always been Werings at Vittoria Cottage, or at least since the Regency period. The latest incumbent is Caroline, recently widowed, whose life is a struggle, juggling tight finances, keeping up appearances and trying to sort out the lives of her three children. She reminds me a little of Mrs Durrell.

Bobbie, the youngest of the brood, seems to cause no trouble, unlike Leda who is selfish and headstrong and makes an unsuitable engagement with the son of the local squire, Derek Ware. The ups and downs of the relationship do nothing to preserve the piece and calm of the household. Caroline’s son, James, is in Malaya but his return is a breath of fresh air, giving Caroline the stability and inner strength that she craves.

A handsome stranger (natch), Robert Shepperton, settles in the village and he and Caroline start to get emotionally attached. Then Caroline’s sister, the actress Harriet Fane, turns up after the run of her latest play was curtailed due to unfavourable reviews, and she makes eyes at Shepperton. Will she snatch Caroline’s just desserts from her or will she continue with her acting career and tour the States? The two sisters fall in love with the same man is a bit hackneyed, but Stevenson makes an entertaining enough and moving tale out of it.

What endeared me to Stevenson is her style. It is gentle, undemanding and easy to read but its sheer simplicity is deceiving. It is a difficult trick to pull off convincingly and just as you seem to be drifting off, she pulls you back sharply with a memorable turn of phrase or a cleverly worked joke. An example is a description of the family dog, Joss, which is described as an enigma, a breed unknown to the villagers.

Stevenson delineates her characters sufficiently enough for them to be believable, but I do not think you can claim to really know them, understand how they think. I enjoyed her portrayal of Comfort Podbury, the home help who, as her name suggests, is a little on the large side and whose ambition is to lose weight, ideally with as little effort as possible through a miracle drug.

While it not my normal fare, I enjoyed it as a form of escapism. You can understand why she was popular in her day, why she fell out of favour and why, in these desperate times, her time has come again.

Murder At Monk’s Barn

A review of Murder at Monk’s Barn by Cecil Waye

It is always a pleasure to come across a new author, although appearances can be deceptive. Cecil Waye was one of the noms de plume under which Cecil wrote, the other two being John Road and Miles Burton. Cecil Waye had four outings in a detective series featuring the Perrins, of which Murder at Monk’s Barn is the first, published originally in 1931 and now reissued by the indefatigable Dean Street Press.

This is a rather cosy, twee novel, but is an easy read, well-paced and with an ingenious method of committing a murder. Apparently, it was based on a ploy used by ANZAC troops in the trenches of the First World War. With relatively few obvious suspects it does not seem a terribly smart idea to have one of the sleuths falling head over heels in love with one of them and doing her utmost to prove their innocence.

In truth, the culprit is easy to spot, although, whilst Waye plays fair with the reader by liberally lacing his narrative with all the clues needed, the actual method by which Gilbert Wynter, shot through the head whilst shaving in his dressing room, met his end eluded me. The more I thought about the more incredible it seemed that someone in the height of emotional turmoil could have pulled it off in one go.

Waye certainly gives his readers value for money because we have not one murder but two. The second, an instance of a box of chocolates laced with poison, rather gave the game away in terms of whodunit, but he managed to obfuscate who the intended victim was with a simple but effective device.

Gilbert Wynter, a local businessman, is shot dead. The local bobby, PC Burden, hears the shot and rushes to the scene. A gun is found in the shrubbery at the spot where the fatal shot would have been discharged but the only external entrance to the garden was locked, and the victim was shot through thick curtains which were drawn at the time. Austin Wynter, fearing that the police are making a hash of the investigation, engages brother and sister detective duo, Christopher and Vivienne Perrins, to step in.

Unusually, the amateur sleuths work in tandem with the police, rather than against, and strike up a good rapport with the Inspector. Vivienne is the brains of the duo, an independent, headstrong woman, who solves the problem. Sadly, she falls in love and is destined to be married off. As it wouldn’t do for a married woman to continue working, I suspect that will be the end of her as far as the series is concerned. A shame as Christopher is a less rounded character, although he will have ample opportunity to develop. The police, though, are far more comfortable dealing with a man.

As the investigations proceed, we have the usual mix of marital infidelities, rivalry and a housemaid who has been seduced. Her plight is sympathetically handled and a garrulous postmistress and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Cunningham provide some welcome humour. The local policeman, PC Burdon, is not the stereotypical bumbling bobby and does an impressive job in garnering the evidence. The weight of evidence begins to tell against Austin Wynter.

Waye tells a good story, his style is engaging, and his characters are interesting, and, if three deaths and a nervous breakdown are discounted, with a happy ending of sorts. What more do you want?

Joseph Lee And The Bread Making Machine

Bread is one of our oldest and most popular of foodstuffs, with British households buying the equivalent of twelve million loaves a day, of which just over nine million are white. There is a bewildering array of choice with over 200 different kinds of bread produced in the UK, ranging from butter-rich brioche and crisp baguettes to farmhouse loaves and focaccia, soft ciabatta and crumpets to chapattis and flaky croissants, all made possible courtesy of the vast range and quality of British flour.

The market may have been sliced up between the large bakeries (around 80% of UK bread production) and in-store bakeries (17%), but a very distinctive lockdown trend has been the increase in the number of people making their own bread at home. In the twelve weeks up to June 14, 2020 The Grocer was reporting a surge in sales of ingredients required by the home baker, flour up by 113.2%, other baking ingredients by 72.6%, baking fruits by 72.3%, and sugar by 49.7%. Such was the unanticipated demand for flour in 1.5kg bags that UK millers had to work around the clock to replenish supermarket shelves.

But, whose idea was the bread maker?

Joseph Lee was born in 1849, the son of slaves in South Carolina. After working as a servant in Beaufort, he served for eleven years in the US Coast Survey as a steward, where he developed his culinary skills. He was fascinated by the process of making bread and quickly recognised that evenly and thoroughly kneaded dough was the prerequisite for the perfect loaf.      

Seeing that cooking offered him an opportunity to better himself, Lee took the bold step of opening a small local restaurant while still in his twenties. This did not satisfy his ambitions. In the 1880s he took over the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, near Boston, a move which proved a great success, the Boston Daily Advertiser listing him as one of “Newton’s rich men” in 1886.

An extension to provide bowling alleys and billiard and pool rooms was opened to the public on May 7, 1890, completing an establishment that was “a picturesque structure with gables and towers, dormer windows, high chimneys and wide shady verandas… surrounded by seven acres of well-kept grounds”. It numbered the great and the good of Boston society amongst its clientele.

With America entering a depression in 1893, Lee had to keep a close eye on costs, focusing on a subject he knew well, bread making. Making bread by hand was laborious, delivered variable results and produced a lot of wastage. His solution was to automate the kneading process. On May 7, 1894 Lee secured a patent (No 524,042) for a kneading machine, “which will thoroughly mix and knead the dough and bring it to the desired condition without resorting to the tedious process of mixing and kneading the same by hand”.

Powered by a motor, pestles pounded the dough and screw conveyors moved it around the tray so that it was assaulted from all angles. Lee’s patent application stated that “the simplicity of construction and operation of the machine is such that it can be supplied at a minimum cost” saving time, labour and producing a superior product.   

So effective was it that it did the work of six men, producing sixty pounds more bread from each barrel of flour than could be made by hand. As to quality, the Colored American magazine declared that “kneading done by it develops the gluten of the flour to an unprecedented degree, and the bread is made whiter, finer in texture, and improved in digestible qualities”.

Its efficiency meant that Lee had another problem on his hands – he was producing more bread than his guests could eat. His ingenuity knew no bounds and the following year he had devised and patented a device to mechanise the tearing, crumbling, and grinding of bread into crumbs. These were then used for everything from fried and battered fish to salad croutons and for one of America’s favourite breakfast meals before the advent of cereals, bread crumbs and milk.

Not content with the action of his kneading machine, he changed and patented the design in 1902 more closely to replicate the movement of the human hand. Eventually Lee assigned the rights to the kneading machine to The National Bread Co in return for shares and a slice of the royalties, while the bread-crumbing machine was sold to The Goodell Company of New Hampshire. He died in 1905.

By the mid-20th century automated ovens for bread making were widely used by commercial bakeries. A self-contained, all-in-one bread making machine for domestic use was a relatively recent concept, though, cooked up by the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, now Panasonic, following research into the optimal method of kneading dough by Ikuko Tanaka. Launched in 1986, within a decade it was a must-have accessory in many an Occidental kitchen. Lee’s legacy is that all modern bread makers retain a miniaturised version of his original kneading design.

The best thing since sliced bread, you might say.

Orchid Of The Week

Where’s the safest place to keep something away from prying eyes? A bank, obvs.

The small-flowered tongue orchid, Serapias parviflora to you and me, was thought to have been extinct in the UK after the previous colony at Rame Head in Cornwall was destroyed in 2009 as a result of land mismanagement. Normally a native of the Mediterranean basin and the Atlantic coast of France, Spain, and Portugal, it has been found in the roof garden above the 11th floor of the Nomura bank in London’s Angel Lane.

There are fifteen of them and they grow up to 30 centimetres in height and produce between three and 12 orange flowers. I hope they flourish.

Of course, the discovery raises the question: why did it take so long to find them? And is the roof garden just a piece of virtue signalling that no one takes any notice of?

Covid-19 Tales (21)

In a considerable step up from encouraging people to give health workers the clap, Nederlands Visbureau, the Dutch Fish Marketing Board, have given the first barrel of 2021 Hollandse Nieuwe, the season’s first herring, to the Municipal Health Services in recognition of their endeavours in the country’s attempts to vaccinate its populace.

Hollandse Nieuwe are young herring caught between mid-May and mid-June that have a body fat percentage of at least 16%. Gutted and salted, but with the pancreas intact, they are eaten raw, held by the tail and dropped into the mouth rather like a seal does its food. The Dutch consider it a delicacy, washing it down with a special liqueur.

I remember a Dutch broker colleague of mine inviting me to celebrate Flag Day in Scheveningen, outside of Rotterdam, a day dedicated to celebrating the arrival of the fishy delicacy. It turned out to be a weekend of nothing but herring. I have never had one since.

After the official handover, herring will also be presented to any vaccination staff and to people receiving their vaccinations at the time. Barrels will also be distributed to other vaccination centres around the country.

If that doesn’t drive up vaccine take up, I don’t know what will!