Thursday 29 March 2012

Dirk Bogarde, writing in the rain

It rains. God! How it rains…a flat grey light, a mist hanging down to the grass like Miss Haversham’s Wedding dress…ragged, tattered, drifting…still. Swallowing all before and behind it…dense. Miserable. […] Too wet to pick olives…or prune the vine or start tidying up the geraniums in the pots…too wet to haul a mower over the terraces…walls suddenly sag, and tumble into the sodden grass, spewing tones of earth and stones into sullen heaps…lying like giant marbles lost from a far-away Giant’s game…abandoned. Forgotten.
                                   from Ever, Dirk: The Bogarde Letters
                                   edited by John Coldstream

Waspish, brilliantly descriptive, searingly honest and affectionate to his friends, the film star Dirk Bogarde wrote thousands of letters from his home near Grasse in Provence. In this one to the writer Penelope Mortimer dated 11th February 1972, you can feel his fleeting despondency through the scene he recreates, a small drama with an artist’s touch.

For the millions of fans who knew him as a British box office idol of the 1950s, and later as a charismatic actor in darker movies by Joseph Losey and continental art films made by Visconti and Fassbinder, Dirk Bogarde was a revelation as a writer. He wrote, as he seemed to do everything in his career, with great charm and aplomb, and a self-deprecating edginess that couldn’t quite disguise the depth of his natural talent.

The letters contained in John Coldstream’s volume were the pressure release from his many volumes of entertaining and enlightening memoirs, and several novels. Once Bogarde started writing, the words flowed. “It is an astonishing thing to me to find that I am really not a bit happy unless I am writing. Even a letter will do,” Bogarde wrote to his editor Norah Smallwood, whose instincts on hearing him speak in a television interview in the 1980s led to his first book.

What I really like about his writing is encapsulated in this tiny extract about rain in Provence. The details are so vivid you feel you are looking out of his window with him, and the simile of Miss Haversham’s wedding dress is a gloriously gloomy, not to say gothic, touch of humour. ‘Of course I know I’m going over the top about this,’ it conveys, ‘but at this very moment I’m feeling depressed and doom-laden and I want you to know it!’

In his Introduction, Coldstream – who has also written the definitive biography of Dirk Bogarde – makes no bones about his subject’s cheerful disregard for spelling and literary convention. But actually, what Bogarde does completely naturally here is to use the convention of Pathetic Fallacy, where the weather and the natural world reflect a human situation and state of mind.

Perhaps he was feeling “abandoned” and “forgotten” in the sense that he had moved to his restored farmhouse on a hill only a couple of years before when film work had dried up in England. As it turned out, the days of fan frenzies might have been over - especially during the making of the lightweight but phenomenally successful Doctor in the House films – but he had been acclaimed for recent serious roles, notably Von Aschenbach in Visconti’s version of Death in Venice.

Le Haut Clermont, Bogarde's home

The thrill of reading these letters (and an extraordinary privilege it is to do so, when you think about it) is the uplifting stream of consciousness they contain. Many are to other famous people. Much of the detail is fascinating, fleshing out the back story to what has previously only been a public façade. There are private insights and confirmations that we can all share similar reactions to the world. In short, this is the kind of writing that reminds you what it’s all about: empathy and reaching out to communicate.  

Sir Dirk Bogarde (1921 – 1999)

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday brocante

We filled the main house with relics and prizes from the local brocantes, the second hand bric-a-brac markets. However badly rusted, flaking, dented it was, we were charmed by each item. Cast-offs, objects near the end of their life, their usefulness already given to other people in other settings, could play out their final years for us, until they crumbled finally into the dust which fell steadily from the ceilings and walls.
                                                                   From The Lantern

Throughout France there are brocante markets on Sunday. Some will be full of wonders, others tatty but incredibly expensive household artefacts. Some of these fairs will offer up just what you’ve been looking for at a bargain price, others will be full of old rubbish.

Each to his own, but whatever your taste you can usually find something to intrigue and tempt, like this little selection from Provence:  

This painting caught my eye:

And this carved wood panel on a sideboard:

Thursday 22 March 2012

Warm lavender almond cakes

Books, good food and exotic places – could there be anything more irresistible? Over at her Kahakai Kitchen blog, Deb Christensen writes: “Kahakai is a Hawaiian word for beach. Living in beautiful Hawaii, I like to spend time at the beach and in the kitchen. This blog is about cooking, eating and living (mostly healthy) in Paradise.”

Imagine how thrilled I was to find that she’d turned her attention to The Lantern…and some little Warm Lavender Almond Cakes! Here’s an extract from her blog with the recipe, with a shout-out to the excellent cookery writer Jerry Traunfeld.
 “We had some unusual weather for Hawaii several days last week. Heavy rains, multiple thunderstorms with lightening, hail... even a tornado not that far from where I live. It was perfect weather to tuck into a Gothic mystery novel like The Lantern…

“For a dish inspired by the novel, although there were plenty of wonderful sounding dishes, meals and ingredients throughout the book it was obvious from the cover alone that it had to be something involving lavender. Plus, lavender plays heavily in Bénédicte's story. I had a few recipes tagged to make, even a savory fish dish, but I decided to crack open The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking With Fragrance and Flavor by Jerry Traunfeld (a cookbook that I would also describe as lush and beautiful) and I was immediately drawn to the Warm Lavender Almond Cakes.
“Jerry Traunfeld says, "These cakes are miraculous. You whiz everything up in a food processor, pop the batter into the refrigerator overnight, and then scoop into ramekins or muffin tins to bake. You'll be amazed. The warm slightly chewy cakes have a light crisp crust and a dense, moist interior suffused with the deep flavors of nuts, lavender, and honey, almost like a cross between a cake and a macaroon. Serve them in summer with lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream and fresh berries, or end a winter meal with the same cream and a fruit compote. Or simply cut them in quarters and serve them with coffee, tea, or a glass of sherry in any season."

Warm Lavender Almond Cakes
Recipe from The Herbal Kitchen by Jerry Traunfeld
(Makes 6-10 small cakes--depending on size of pan)

1 cup raw sliced almonds
4 teaspoons lavender buds (fresh or dried)
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
3/4 cup egg whites (about 6 large)
1/4 cup honey
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted & cooled
2 tablespoons softened butter, for prepping the molds

Note: Begin preparation at least 1 day before serving.

Put the almonds and lavender buds in a food processor and pulse until they are finely chopped. Add the powdered sugar and continue to process for 30 seconds. Add the flour and salt and process briefly. Pour in the egg whites and honey and process until combined. Add the melted butter and process for an additional 15 seconds. Scrape the batter into a plastic storage container, cover, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, or as much as a week.

To Bake: Preheat oven to 350°F.

Generously butter 10 (4 or 6 oz.) ovenproof ramekins or custard cups and place them on a baking sheet, or use a standard muffin tin. Divide the batter evenly among the cups. Bake until the cakes are evenly puffed and the tops crack and turn a deep walnut brown color, 30-40 min., depending on the molds and the temperature of the batter. Cool slightly and tip the cups out of their molds. Serve them while still warm, whole or cut into quarters.

A note on the result from Deb: “ These are lovely little cakes. I always wonder if the lavender will be too strong in a recipes (I have had some lavender-infused dishes that were like eating potpourri--not a good thing), but in these cakes it comes across in a subtle way at first, getting a little stronger but not overpowering, towards the end. I used larger ramekins for these (about 6 oz.) and filled them 3/4 full, so I got six cakes from the batter. Instead of whipped cream, I used
this whipped cashew cream, using up the leftover thick cashew cream from Sunday's soup, and garnished with some fresh organic blueberries. (I adapted the linked Tal Ronnen cashew whipped cream recipe slightly, by using honey as the sweetener and adding almond extract to enhance the flavors in the little cakes.)”

You can read Deb’s blog, and her review of The Lantern by clicking on this link:
Kahakai Kitchen

Monday 19 March 2012

Glorious contents of a French château

Couldn't resist showing this: there's a public auction later this week of the contents of the eighteenth century Château de Digoine in southern Burgundy. A look at the catalogue gives a glimpse inside this place - a treasure trove of wonderful pieces of furniture and pictures, but also old uniforms, kitchenalia and pieces of brocante. If only...

A click on this link will give you the auction catalogue: Open sesame!
To turn the pages, flick from the bottom right.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Daphne...and subtlety

Following my post about the fragrance and romance of Daphne Odora, here’s where this beguiling scent makes an olfactory appearance in The Lantern. During a work trip to Geneva, Eve makes the short journey around the lake and across the French border is Yvoire with its renowned Labyrinth of the Five Senses. In the maze in the grounds of the château, she meets Dom for the first time.

   I wandered quite happily on my own, unconcerned by the maze but ever more certain with every sense that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere in life. My so-called career was in a dull phase, and as such a reflection of my own limitations; it was one of the reasons I accepted the job that had brought me briefly to Switzerland. As for any social life, it seemed as if high tide had receded, leaving only wrinkles and minor wreckage to show for the fun.
   Then everything changed.
   There, in a living cloister of hornbeam, the air richly perfumed by a line of daphne, there was Dom.

                                                       From The Lantern

Those readers who enjoy subtlety will appreciate how the details in this tiny scene encapsulate many of the novel’s themes. There’s perfume, of course, but with the added implication (for those who are familiar with the show-stopping qualities of daphne) that this is a moment charged with heady romance. But it bears a warning too, from the mythological Daphne being chased by Apollo to her frightening transformation. You can draw your own conclusions about the hornbeam…

This is the introduction of the sensuous theme – the interplay of all five senses - and the garden, with all its Edenic associations, enclosed here around a puzzle.

Finally, in the plant daphne is the seed to the sub-conscious that leads Eve to read Daphne du Maurier. When she discovers that Dom’s ex-wife is called Rachel (another of du Maurier’s mysterious titular characters, from My Cousin Rachel), Eve is drawn to re-read Rebecca, and in her over-imaginative isolation, she will impose that story on her own situation.

My intention was show Eve intensifying her own experience in Provence, so deeply sensitive to every detail that the dazzling world she narrates is partly her unspoken escape from reality – into a hyper-reality formed of books and stories. This rose-tinted world masks her fears about the relationship, begun with such dreamy optimism in what seemed like paradise in the South of France.

For an author, there is nothing better than a reader/ reviewer who really understands what you have tried to achieve. I know there are plenty of others who feel that the descriptions in this book are overdone; it’s a matter of personal taste, after all, and also how quickly you want to skim along the surface of a book. The Lantern is currently on a TLC Book Tour (link here) and among some lovely and receptive blog reviews is one from Courtney at Stiletto Storytime, who made my heart sing when she wrote:

The Lantern is really a feast for the senses bringing both the past and the present to life through thoughtful descriptions (…) in such lush detail from the smell of a flower to the slant of the sun and yet you never feel overwhelmed by her details just included, (…) layering events, people and every day nuances just so throughout her writing. To read this book is to really be taken away from the average and thrust into another world. A world of sights, smells and mystery…

Thank you, Courtney – a posy of Daphne Odora for you! The whole review is here. And if anyone is interested in how I see the novel, including the reasons for the entanglement with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, then click here.
Labyrinth of the Five Senses, Yvoire

Click on the link here for the garden website: Gardens at Yvoire

Wednesday 14 March 2012

The sublime scent of Daphne

Intimations that winter is ending come in the scent of our English courtyard garden. The fragrant Daphne Odora blooms in February, its tiny pink and white flowers releasing a rich aroma of sugared lemon and creamy vanilla with a zesty edge of narcissus and a hint of warm ginger: an opulently romantic scent that blends sweetness and exquisite sharpness.

Once smelled, never forgotten. My moment of discovery was at Kew Garden’s Wisley outpost in Surrey – I was literally stopped in my tracks by the fragrance as I passed. It’s a source of some gardening pride that the baby shrub I planted shortly after we arrived at our house in Kent has grown into a fine bushy specimen in the shelter of an east-facing wall.

There was delight too in discovering the name of the plant, as Daphne had long been known to me in another context. One of the first books I ever read by myself, aged about five, was Tales of Long Ago, a collection of Greek and Roman myths retold by Enid Blyton. In that book, Daphne was the heroine of one of my favourite stories  – The Maiden of the Laurel Tree.

Daphne was a wood nymph chased by Apollo, though in Blyton’s version for children, the chase was in order to propose marriage, rather than attempted rape. When she called to the nature gods for help, they responded by turning her into a beautiful laurel tree. I still vividly remember the mounting horror of reading how Daphne found she could no longer run; her slender feet grew out and extended themselves deep into the earth as roots, bark began to cover her body, and she stood helplessly watching her arms grow into branches and leaves as the transformation took place. Beware of what you wish for, the tale seemed to say: don’t ask for help without having a good idea of what form that help might take!

Say what you like about Enid Blyton – even as a child, I found her prodigious output very variable: as exciting as the adventure stories could be, they were also very repetitive, and Noddy was boring beyond belief – but Tales of Long Ago showed the best of her. She had a way of writing that drew young readers in and made them want to read by themselves. And I can’t be the only person of a certain age who retains a good knowledge of the basic classical myths thanks to this publication! 

I tried to find the actual book but couldn’t, though I know it’s here somewhere among the thousands of books in this house. Andrew Lang’s The Brown Fairy Book, another childhood book is prettier anyway. This edition was published by Longman’s in 1934. The illustration plates are by Henry Ford - the kind of pictures that take you far away into a thrilling imaginative world, and bring back all kinds of memories and associations when you happen across them as an adult.

Sunday 11 March 2012

A recipe for lavender soap

It was a solid provincial business of use to all sides, and it continued to manufacture basic lines in antiseptic lavender water and soap. While others became heroes and traitors, Marthe, blind and considered no use to anyone, was quietly experimenting with scent combinations, not using expensive ingredients like ambergris or violet-leaf absolute, but those close to hand from plants that grew freely all around, the familiar scents of her home.
                                                        From The Lantern

This description of the Distillerie Musset and the young Marthe learning her craft during the dark days of the Second World War in occupied France was the starting point for the novella on which I’ve been working so hard these past few months. From the reactions to The Lantern it seemed there was definitely a curiosity to know more about Marthe and how she became a Parisian perfumier from such a humble start, with the added difficulty of her disability.

The first draft has just gone out to my trusted first readers, so I don’t want to say too much more about it now. But I hope it will appeal to the senses in the same way as the novel, as well as providing a surprising twist on events.

So while my fingers are crossed, I’m going to offer you a recipe for lavender soap. The difficulty with looking for old French recipes was that the ingredients might be unfamiliar to many of you in America, so this is from Mission Peak in California. This is a professional quality soap, so well worth having a close read, if only for interest. They also run soapmaking classes so if you’re interested in learning more, clickety-click on their website here:

Lavender Soap
For a batch of soap of 100 ounces (in weight) in oil, the following is a breakdown of the oils used in the soap (you can make half this batch... one quarter this batch…etc. Just get your calculator out and divide each component of the recipe accordingly):
All amounts shown are weights.

Basic Oil Components
  • 40 ounces of olive oil*
  • 31 ounces of coconut oil*
  • 29 ounces of palm oil*
  • 100 ounces - total oil*
  • 30 ounces of distilled (or rain) water
14 to 14.78 ounces of Sodium Hydroxide (Lye). 14 ounces of Lye is the minimum you should use. 14 ounces of Lye results in a 5% "superfatted" soap and would be a "dry skin" formula.  14.78 ounces of Lye is the maximum amount you should use. Using 14.78 ounces of Lye would be a "Normal/Oily Skin" formula. In practice - the Soap Maker at Mission Peak Soap usually takes the midpoint between these 2 values - that would be 14.39 ounces of lye.
Fragrance:  4 & 1/4 tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) of Lavender Essential Oil (lavendula dentata and/or Lavendin) and 2 Tablespoons of Rosemary Essential Oil.
Dry Herb: Your choice. 2 level tablespoons of finely ground dried Rosemary adds a nice touch. Lavender buds are a little scratchy...
The Process...
Put on your rubber gloves and eye protection. Have rinse water handy for Lye that may come in contact with you. Better yet - keep a mild vinegar solution handy to counteract any spilled Lye. Work in a well ventilated area.
  1. Get your molds ready. Lay them all out. Professional molds are nice. Small dixie cups work OK and make nice little round soaps that look like cupcakes. Any other kind of plastic tray molds (Tupperware) work fine also. A casserole dish lined with plastic wrap is also nice (don't forget the plastic wrap!). Figure that a full batch of soap as outlined above (100 ounces of oil, 14 ounces of Lye and 30 ounces of Water) is about 150 fluid ounces. Read the containers you plan to pour the soap into. If they say "6 fluid ounces" - you're going to need at least 25 of them to hold all of your soap. Have extras handy. Get them ready.
  2. Pre-measure your dried Rosemary and Essential Oils and set aside. Some essential oils melt plastic. You might want to use a steel measuring cup for the essential oils.
  3. Stir the Lye into the (cold) Water. Set aside. Stir occasionally. Use distilled (or rain) water. Don't breathe the fumes from the lye mixture.
  4. Warm olive, coconut and palm oils in a large pot. Keep the temperature at about 120 degrees.
When Lye has cooled to 130 degrees:
  1. Combine oils and Lye/Water mixtures when both are between 125 to 130 degrees. Stir with whisk for 1 minute. Add the dried herb. Stir for another minute.
  2. Continue stirring occasionally until mixture starts to thicken - about 30 minutes. You can use a stick blender - for a couple of bursts. However, this oil mixture thickens fairly well without a lot of excess agitation. Add essential oils (warm essential oils if possible). Stir well one last time.
  3. Pour thickened mixture into molds. Use a ladle if necessary. Don't touch the soap with your hands. Use spatula to clean out pot. (note: If you are pouring into small molds, you'll want to start pouring before the mixture is so thick it's not pourable. For a single, larger mold, you can let the emulsion thicken somewhat further.)
That's it!
Leave soap in the molds for 3 days undisturbed in a warm place covered with cardboard and a towel. Then, for soap in small molds, place soap overnight in freezer. Pop frozen soap from molds onto white paper towels. Let dry in warm, dry place for 30 days before using. If you have used a larger mold lined with plastic wrap - you won't need to freeze the soap to get it out of the mold. Just turn it upside down over a cutting board, peel off plastic wrap and cut into usable sized pieces. Place the pieces on white paper towels and let dry for 30 days.
This recipe makes a wonderful, long-lasting, fragrant (but not over-powering) soap suitable for bathing and hand-washing.

*A word from Mission Peak: “We sell a pre-blended mixture of the oils shown above, ready for soapmaking. If you're new to soapmaking, a pre-blended container of oils will save you a lot of time and money over ordering the materials individually, and blending them precisely together. We guarantee our blended oils will make a nice bar of soap when used properly.”

With thanks to David Critchfield at Mission Peak Soap for permission to use this.

Thursday 8 March 2012

And the giveaway winners are...

Thank you to everyone to came by to say hello in response to The Lantern giveaway to celebrate the arrival of the US deluxe paperback edition ahead of the mass market version coming out in April.

I am delighted to announce that the two names out of the hat were:

Sandra Dickerson Knight
Jo Ann Hitt Black

I’ll send each of you a private message, and you can let me an address so I can send off the books. Hope you enjoy it. Sorry to those of you who weren’t lucky this time, but you might like to know that it’s the March Book Pick at Costco and to mark the event they are giving away 50 free copies – and here’s the link for another go at winning: Costco Giveaway

Wondering how to illustrate this post, I had a dig around all the back papers for the novel and came across the handwritten notes in the photograph. According to the date at the top, they were made on the Avignon to Paris train in November 2009. I love finding things like this because although I do sometimes write on the train, it’s hard to remember exactly what I was scribbling down and when. But the page here obviously contains the genesis of this passage in the finished book:

Bénédicte drifts though the rooms of the lower floors, into the dust of venerable scents: flecks of the lavender held in the corners of drawers; flakes of pine wood armoire; the soot of long-dead fires; and from the present: the deep mossy aroma from cloud formations of damp above the rose-tiled floor; the sharp white smells of late spring flowers outside.
   These visitors are new. She is sure she has never seen them before though she closes her eyes and tries to think calmly, to count her breaths, slowing her intake of air, scouring her memory to make sure. When she opens her eyes, they are still there.
   The strangeness is that they stare straight into her face, just as they look around her so intently, into the corners of the rooms, up to the cracked ceilings, the fissures in the walls, yet they don’t acknowledge her presence. All is silent, but for the tapping of the catalpa tree in the courtyard and the creak of a newly-opened shutter that lets in a shifting band of brightness.
   I will sit a while longer, Bénédicte thinks. Watch to see what they do next.
   Breathe. Breathe deeply.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Landscape with olive tree

I was drawn to this painting of the local landscape while walking around Vaison la Romaine. The blue mountain in the distance is particularly emblematic of northern Provence, and I like the way the path takes the eye up and through the fields into the distance. It's reminiscent of Raoul Dufy's expansive blue and green views around Nice. Truth to tell, no one could really miss this picture as it's actually a mural on an unpromising piece of wall that has been completely transformed by this piece of art for all.

It's even better when you can see more and appreciate the perspective. Look how the drainpipes and wires are assimilated - it seems to me a really joyous piece of work because it lightens a grungy corner and reminds us of the setting - unseen here - that opens up only few streets away.

According to the notice on the door, the cafe Les Terrasses de Ninou has views over the Roman bridge and the medieval city high on the rocky cliff above and it definitely seems an invitation worth pursuing, even if only to ask after the artist. The room or apartment above is A Louer - to rent - and if you're anything like me, that gives pause for thought: what would it be like to take it and live there for a while in a small town where such creativity is all around? Who might you meet and what experiences could you have...?

Thursday 1 March 2012

The Lantern giveaway!

A gorgeous deluxe paperback edition of The Lantern has been published this week by Harper in the US – the same size and interior design as the hardback, the same lovely deckled edge to the pages, but with the new lavender field jacket.

There’s some excellent news too: it’s the March Book Pick at Costco, which means it’s available there at a very competitive price as well as through bookstores.
To mark the event I’m offering two signed copies as a giveaway. I’ll send anywhere in the world so you have a chance of winning wherever you are. All you have to do is go over to my Author page on Facebook, “like” the page and say hello in the comments under the picture of the cover.  Or you can follow the blog here and leave a greeting. In a week’s time I’ll pick two names out of a hat. Easy!

If you need further persuading, here’s an excerpt from Kathy Blumenstock’s review in the Washington Post:
“The Lantern…offers a vivid escape to an intriguing place… The split-screen tales unfolding in alternating voices than span half a century eventually converge, with disturbing and surprising answers to questions that haunt both narrators… Lawrenson embellishes her merging stories with description of the rich scents surrounding the hamlet: rosemary, ripe figs, and a breath of lavender so fresh that readers might close their eyes and inhale, expecting a faint whiff of the purple-flowering plant.”
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