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Blackberry Madeleines

Autumn is now officially here; the tomatoes have turned orange on brittle stems, the courgettes are finally ending their reign, and now is the time for golden quinces, autumn apples, and a few last, late blackberries clinging to brambles.

It was when we were on our way home, the sun sinking low and golden, that we found the blackberries. Hedgerow upon hedgerow, heavy with fruit. They squashed between our fingers, on our tongues. I still remember their taste, perfumed and sweet. Not the bright, Mat sweetness of a strawberry , but deeper, more mysterious, as if they’d drawn the cold, smoky nights into their juice, as if they’d seen midnight. – From Where the Wild Cherries Grow.

I love working with ingredients that are simple, that sing to people’s memories. The taste of blackberries, to me, will always be picking them with my father, or the taste of my grandmother’s crumble, the scratches and the beads of blood that you always have to pay for the fruit with. There is no sense in buying blackberries; commercially grown blackberries are too big, too tart, and never have the musky, almost feral sweetness that makes them so timeless and evocative.

So here we are, a nod to my own memories, and to Monsieur Proust’s, and a recipe for Blackberry Madeleines.

Blackberry Madeleines

Ingredients

  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 100g plain flour
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla bean extract, or 1 vanilla bean pod
  • Large handful of blackberries (one for each cake)
  • Icing sugar, to decorate

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 200C / 400F / Gas mark 6. Brush your madeleine or bun tin with melted butter and dust with a little flour.
  2. Whisk together the eggs and caster sugar until light and frothy. 
  3. Melt the butter and leave to cool slightly, then stir in along with the flour, baking powder and vanilla bean extract.
  4. Leave to rest for a few minutes, then spoon into the prepared tins.
  5. Press a blackberry into the middle of each madeleine.
  6. Bake for around 8-10 minutes, or until risen and pale golden.
  7. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly, dust with icing sugar, and serve warm.

P.s. If you don’t have a madeleine tin, you can use a shallow bun tin or similar. This’ll make 12-14, depending on the size. Just keep an eye on your cakes as they cook.

This recipe was first featured in the excellent Domestic Sluttery Newsletter. If you liked it, do consider signing up to my own monthly newsletter. It features original recipes, historic recipes, research, Q&As with some of my favourite people, and more.

Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

In Tangier, at the very edge of the casbah overlooking the strait, is a house called Dar Zero. An old property, with white, crenelated walls, this is where Samuel Pepys lived in 1683, during the English occupation of Tangier (1661-1684), when he was employed as a secretary to George Legge, Lord Dartmouth, who had been tasked with abandoning Tangier and destroying its fortifications. In Dar Zero, Pepys wrote sections of his famous diaries, often seated beneath the shade of a huge fig tree that continues to grow in the garden to this day…

Dar Zero, in the Casbah

Dar Zero is very much an inspiration for Dar Portuna, the grand house in An Echo of Scandal. So, in honour of Pepys and his fig tree, here’s a recipe that uses ripe, seasonal figs, alongside fresh fig leaves. It’s a riff on my favourite Smitten Kitchen strawberry cake. Fig leaves have a wonderful aroma, somewhere between floral vanilla, coconut and tobacco. Here, they’re made into a syrup and mixed with whipped cream, to create a gentle, fragrant indulgent pudding that’s perfect to eat as the last golden rays of summer sink into autumn.

Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

Ingredients:
For the cake:

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 190g golden caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 190g self-raising flour
  • 120ml milk
  • 1 tsp of vanilla bean extract
  • 2-3 fresh figs (if you can’t find fresh you can used tinned, or dried figs soaked in a little water to plump them up a bit)
  • 1 tbsp of caster sugar

For the syrup and cream:

  • 2-3 fresh fig leaves
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 250ml double or whipping cream

Method
The Cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350/gas mark 4. Grease or line a 10in pie dish, or a 9in springform cake tin.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the egg, along with a tablespoon of flour to stop the mixture from splitting and beat in.
  4.  Stir in the milk and vanilla extract.
  5. Gently fold in the remaining flour until no streaks remain.
  6. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin.
  7. Cut the figs into halves or quarters, depending on size, removing any woody stems, then press gently into the surface of the cake at regular intervals.
  8. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining sugar, so the fruit turns jammy.
  9. Bake for 10 minutes before turning down the heat to 165C/325F/gas mark 3. Bake for another 35-40 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer comes out cleanish.

The syrup and cream:  

  1. Rinse the fig leaves, pat dry, and cut off any remaining stalk. Place them under the grill for a minute or two, keeping a close eye on them and turning when necessary: you want them to be gently toasted/browned but not burned. This releases the scent of the fig leaves.
  2. Place 2 tbsp of caster sugar in a pan along with around 8 tbsp of water and the fig leaves (don’t worry if they crumble).
  3. Press the fig leaves into water and stir about until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring to a gentle boil for 3-4 minutes, until the water starts to reduce to a syrup.
  5. Leave to cool, before straining through a tea strainer or muslin into a jug.
  6. Spoon 2-3 tbsp of syrup over the cake while it is still warm, so that it soaks in.
  7. Pour the double cream into a clean bowl.
  8. When the syrup is completely cool, stir 4 tbsp (or more, to taste) into the cream, then whip until soft peaks form.
  9. Serve the cake cut into wedges, with a dollop of fig leaf cream alongside.

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A 1978 Playlist

After several requests, I’m delighted to share the 1978 playlist we put together for the launch party of An Echo of Scandal last week. I’m a firm believer in immersive research, and music is a huge part of that for me. My job is made all the easier when the era in question is filled with such a wealth of great songs from totally different music genres. So, without further ado, let’s hop back in time for a few hours, to a hot, July day in Tangier during the summer of 1978…

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An Echo of Scandal Cocktail

This unique cocktail has been created specially to accompany the launch of An Echo of Scandal. Designed to conjure up a hot summer’s night in Tangier during the heady days of 1928, with jasmine on the air, liquor on the tongue and champagne flowing. Sophisticated cognac combines with heady, floral crème de violette and the bitter-sweetness of Chambéryzette: a vintage strawberry liqueur and vermouth that has not changed for over a century. Add in a squeeze of sharp lemon, a hint of absinthe and – if you’re feeling brave enough – a slosh of champagne, and drink to the past…

An Echo of Scandal Cocktail Recipe

A jigger / 45ml Cognac (we used Remy Martin 1738)
Half a jigger / 20ml Dolin Chambéryzette
1 tsp / 5ml raspberry syrup
Half a jigger / 20ml lemon juice
1 tsp / 5ml crème de violette
½ tsp / 2.5ml absinthe
Optional: top with champagne

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake well. Fine strain
into a chilled cocktail glass, and if using, top with champagne for added decadence.


This cocktail was created by World Class Finalist Dan Bovey and award-winning
bartender and artist Gareth Aldridge, specifically to accompany the publication of An Echo of Scandal.

Dandelion Syrup Cake

This is a cake I first made earlier in the year, when spring dandelions smothered my allotment in bursts of bright yellow. They looked so beautiful and healthy (I’m very good at growing weeds) that it seemed a shame to dig them up and chuck them on the compost heap. So, I picked an entire bag full, with vague memories of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine swirling around my head:

“And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine… Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass… change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.” (Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury).

As someone who has absolutely zero home-brew experience (apart from sloe gin), actual dandelion wine was a little beyond me. So I was delighted to discover dandelion syrup. The following recipe is a two-parter: how to make a syrup out of dandelion flowers, and then – of course – how to use it in a cake recipe.

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Dandelion Syrup

Ingredients:

  • Large bowl of dandelion flowers (between 50-100, depending on size)
  • 1 large apple, chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 500g caster sugar

Method:

  1. Wash the dandelion flower heads and spread them out to dry on kitchen paper or tea towels
  2. Use a pair of scissors to snip the petals away the green stalks (doesn’t matter if a few green bits find their way in)
  3. Place the petals in a large pan with about 700ml of water, the chopped apple and the lemon juice
  4. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 15 minutes
  5. Remove from the heat, and leave to cool and steep, with the lid on, for a few hours (at least 2)
  6. Strain the liquid through a muslin or a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing all the liquid from the petals and fruit
  7. Return the clear liquid to the pan
  8. Add the sugar, and bring to the boil. Simmer on a low heat for around 1 hour to 1 hour 30 mins, stirring occasionally, until the syrup thickens
  9. Pour into sterilised, sealable bottles or jars. The syrup should keep in the fridge for a few weeks to a month.

Thanks to The Nerdy Farm Wife and the Traditional Scandinavian Dandelion Syrup recipe for the inspiration!

Dandelion Syrup Cake

Now, a use for that beautiful syrup! To me, dandelion syrup has a delicate, floral taste, somewhere between dried hay and honey. It’s just what’s needed when the weather is grey and drizzly (which is more often than not, here in the UK) and you need something that tastes of the sun.

Ingredients:

  • 175g softened butter
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste (or a vanilla bean pod)
  • zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 2 tbsp dandelion syrup

For the drizzle:

  • 2 tbsp dandelion syrup
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F / Gas Mark 4. Grease and line a 900g loaf tin.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tbsp of flour with each to stop the mixture from splitting.
  4. Fold in the rest of the flour.
  5. Gently stir in the vanilla, zest, juice and syrup.
  6. Spoon into the tin and bake for around 35-40 minutes, until risen and golden and a skewer inserted comes out clean. (If the top starts browning too quickly, cover it with some foil).
  7. While the cake is still warm, poke holes in it with a skewer and spoon over the dandelion syrup so that it soaks in, followed by the lemon juice and finally the caster sugar, to give it a drizzle-cake style topping.

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Plum and Hazelnut Frangipane Cake

On my allotment, there’s a huge plum tree that overhangs the fence. Every year it sags almost to the ground under the weight of all the fruit and since I can’t bear to see them rotting on the branches, I, err, tend to liberate a fair few. (It’s not scrumping if no one else cares, right?!) I came home with a bag full the other day, and of course had to figure out a use for them.

My haul made three jars of blackberry and plum jam and this: a Plum & Hazelnut Frangipane cake.

Since this cake is part frangipane, it’s heavy on ground nuts and light on flour. (You could easily make this gluten free by substituting the flour for a GF alternative). Hazelnut frangipane is far superior to almond in my opinion: hazelnuts have such a comforting, warm, rich flavour, especially when toasted. And combined with ripe plums, vanilla and cinnamon, this cake is pretty damn addictive.

Plum & Hazelnut Frangipane Cake
Ingredients

  • 100g whole hazelnuts (or use pre-ground if you can find them)
  • 140g butter, softened
  • 140g golden caster sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 60g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 60g self-raising flour
  • 4 or 5 fresh plums, depending on size
  • Half a tbsp of honey
  • Icing sugar and a few more chopped hazelnuts, to decorate

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 160C / 325F / Gas Mark 3. Grease and line a 23cm round cake tin.
  2. If you’re using whole hazelnuts, place the nuts in a dry saucepan and set over a medium heat to toast for around 3-4 minutes, shaking frequently to make sure they don’t burn.
  3. Tip out onto a clean tea towel and rub vigorously to remove the hazelnut skins. Don’t worry if some don’t come off.
  4. Use a hand-held blender or similar to finely grind the hazelnuts. Set aside.
  5. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until pale and fluffy. 
  6. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tbsp of ground hazelnuts with each.
  7. Stir in the rest of the hazelnuts, almonds, vanilla and cinnamon. 
  8. Gently stir in the flour until just combined. 
  9. Spoon the mixture into the tin.
  10. Slice the plums into halves or quarters depending on size and press gently, face-up, into the mixture. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar. 
  11. Bake for 40-50 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. 
  12. Cool in the tin for a few minutes
  13. Dilute the honey with a splash of hot water and – while the cake is still warm – poke a few holes in the surface and spoon over the surface.
  14. Decorate with icing sugar and chopped hazelnuts.

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The Secrets Between Us: Bibliography

Author’s Note & Bibliography

(This author’s note can also be found at the back of The Secrets Between Us, but I’m posting it here too for ease of sharing links).

The Secrets Between Us is a fictional work inspired by true events that took place in the Alpes-Maritimes during the summer of 1943.

From February to September of that year, the town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, situated around forty miles from Nice, was designated an “enforced residence” for displaced Jews. Through a combination of sympathy, politics, altruism and the efforts of Jewish Italian banker Angelo Donati, the Italian Fourth Army moved thousands of Jewish refugees into Saint-Martin-Vésubie and the surrounding villages. For one summer, the valley became something of a safe haven, where the Jews were protected from persecution from German and French forces. It offered respite, relief and a degree of security for the refugees, many of who had already been fleeing for years.

With the announcement of the armistice, and Italy’s withdrawal from the war, the refugees’ safety vanished, and they were left with an impossible choice: stay in villages like Saint-Martin and await the German authorities, or take the perilous old salt roads across the mountain passes, into what they believed would be safety in Italy.

Over a thousand refugees made the crossing from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, not knowing that German forces were waiting for them on the other side. Some of those who escaped were aided by résistance members, anti-fascist groups, or French or Italian civilians, who hid the refugees in barns, attics and remote farms, even presenting Jewish children as their own during the round-ups. Many more of refugees were captured and interned at Borgo San Dalmazzo, before being sent to Drancy, and ultimately, Auschwitz.

In The Secrets Between Us, I decided to set the action in a fictional town named Saint-Antoine, rather than in real-life Saint-Martin-Vésubie. I chose to do this because – while I sincerely hope to bring this underreported area of the Second World War to wider attention – I did not want to conflate my work with the reality of what was experienced by those who were present in Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

For many individuals, that summer in the Alpes-Maritimes was just one chapter in a whole series of heart-breaking, remarkable events. The real-life stories of both the Jews and their French and Italian protectors are ones of bravery and suffering, endurance and survival that need no fictional embellishment.

The Secrets Between Us imagines only a tiny portion of what took place during Italian Occupied France. My research spanned everything from salt mines to crayfish catching, songs in Yiddish to first-hand testimonies, but these are the works I turned to the most.

Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Their Flight through France and Italy, Susan Zuccotti (Yale University Press, 2008)

La pierre de Juifs, Danielle Baudot Laksine (Editions de Bergier) Book one of five on the subject.

A Pause in the Holocaust (1943: Le temps d’un répit), 2009. Documentary directed by André Waksman.

Mussolini’s Army in the French Riviera: Italy’s Occupation of France, Emanuele Sica (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
Wandering Star, J.M.G. Le Clézio (Gallimard, 1992. Translation: C. Dickson, 2009)

Marche de la Memoire, a yearly walk, held every September to commemorate the exodus of Jewish refugees from Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

APJN page on Saint-Martin-Vésubie: (Anonymes, Justes et Persécutés durant la période Nazie dans les communes de France – “The Unknown, Righteous and Persecuted of the Nazi period in French communes”)

Where the Wild Cherries Grow: US Release!

Last week was a great one here; Where the Wild Cherries Grow was released in the US by St Martin’s Press in a beautiful hardback edition.

IMG_0678

The response from readers and bloggers so far has been wonderful; a huge thank you especially to Erika Robuck for hosting a recommendation, review and giveaway on her blog, and to Deborah Kalb for hosting a Q&A. Thanks, of course, go to the team at St Martin’s Press for all their hard work too.

Keep your ears out for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio! Where the Wild Cherries Grow has also been translated into Italian (as La Ragazza delle Ciliegie) and German (as Der Duft von Meer und Thymian). Details on the Books page!

You can pick up a copy of Where the Wild Cherries Grow at the following places: Indiebound / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Books-A-Million / Powell’s

… or of course, your local library. 🙂

L x

The Inspiration Behind The Secrets Between Us

I remember the precise moment when the idea that was to become The Secrets Between Us sprang into being. I had been poring over a map, searching the border region of France and Italy (I’m fascinated by borders), when I saw a small town, high in the Alpes-Maritimes, by the name of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. The Wikipedia page briefly mentioned the route de sel, an ancient road used to transport salt from the coast to the city of Cuneo since Roman times; that even today can be followed all the way from the Mediterranean, across the perilous mountain passes into Italy.

My interest piqued, I carried on reading, and learned something remarkable: that during the Second World War, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and several other mountain villages, became havens of relative safety for Jewish refugees.

In November 1942, following the occupation of France by German forces, the Italian Army marched into Nice and the surrounding area as occupiers. The French populace perceived this as a stab in the back. The Italians were – unlike German forces – seen as neighbours, cousins, especially in regions like the Vésubie valley, where this was often literally the case.

What’s more, it soon became clear that Italian Occupied France was operating under different rules from the rest of the country – then under German occupation – and from Italy, especially when it came to Jewish citizens and refugees. Although persecution and anti-Semetism had been widespread throughout Italy, the Italian military forces refused to deport any Jews or political refugees from the Occupied Zone, despite increasing pressure from the German administration. In the spring 1943, it was decided that many of the refugees who had flooded into Nice would be transferred away from the coast to “enforced residences” in mountain villages, partly for safety, partly to secure the coastline, and partly to stall any threats of action by Nazi officials.

Almost overnight, the population of Saint-Martin-Vésubie doubled as hundreds of refugees arrived; not only French but German, Russian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Belgian. For one summer, Saint-Martin-Vésubie became a bustling, cosmopolitan refuge where Jewish people and other refugees experienced some level of relief, safe from persecution by French and German forces.

Once I had read about all of this – the border, the salt road, the Italian occupation and the refugees – I knew I wanted to try and write a story set amongst it all. I knew I wanted to bring these remarkable events to life for readers who may never have heard of them otherwise.

I’ll write another post soon on my research methods; the books I’m indebted to, the trips I took to the National Archives, the articles and documentaries and films I devoured in the writing of this book. But today, I wanted to share my experience of the place that inspired the story.

The Secrets Between Us is set in a fictional village in the Alpes-Maritimes, named Saint-Antoine; a decision I made both to allow myself some narrative freedom, and to respect the history of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and the real-life experiences of all those involved, whose stories of survival and persecution need no fictional embellishment.

Physically, however, I took much inspiration from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, from the mountains, the surrounding countryside and the villages of the Vésubie valley. I hope to be able to share just a little of this remarkable place with you here.

L x

From The Secrets Between Us:

Our gargouille was different. It wasn’t a monster at all, but a waterway; a stone channel as old as the town, running from a fall in the mountains, all the way along our steep, main street and down into the river. Generations of people had channelled the flow so that it seemed to spout on almost every corner. Its water washed our clothes and bathed our children, filled our cooking pots and drenched our thirsty plants in the summer. It was the throat of the mountain, and we drank from it.

  

 

I turned from the hotel, took the back way through twisting passages and narrow alleys. They smelled old, of shadowed stone that never dried, that hadn’t had the sun on its face for more than half a millennium. I shivered, walked faster. Ahead I could see the little square in front of the church, where sunlight fell bright and made the old yellow stone glow. I stepped into it gratefully. All around, moisture seemed to be seeping from the village’s damp-clogged walls, like honey.

  


Finally, we came to a place where the trees parted around a pile of huge, grey rocks that looked down over town, its roofs a jumble of terracotta shards on the mountain. The sun fell bright; the air was quenching and clean.

 


Saint-Antoine, she says; a place of granite and wildflowers, of trees that cling stubbornly to the steepest slopes. A place where marmots cry their warnings, where goats wander, belonging to no one but themselves, and elusive chamois look on from impossible heights. It’s a place where the wind blows from the peaks, tasting of ice even in summer. A place where larches turn the mountainside gold in the autumn, like the candlelit hair of the church’s ancient Madonna.

 


It’s so narrow that I find myself looking up fearfully. Wooden balconies and walkways cling between the buildings, brittle as old bones.

 


To visit Saint-Martin-Vésubie you can fly to Nice, and either drive or catch one of a few buses a day up the steep, narrow winding mountain roads to the village. (Don’t look over the edge…)

We stayed at La Bonne Auberge; a lovely family-run hotel (which I believe was where the Italian Army held registrations for foreigners during the occupation). There’s a big, Alpine style lounge, simple rooms, and good food, plus an enormous collection of genepi, liqueurs and other spirits…

 

Finally, a little way along from the hotel you can find a series of stone memorials, commemorating the events which took place in Saint-Martin-Vésubie and remembering those who fought, those who resisted and those who were killed.

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The Secrets Between Us Blog Tour

As part of the release of The Secrets Between Us, my wonderful publicist Hannah has put together a blog tour!

LauraMBlogTour(1)

Writing is a lonely business, and the first weeks of new book’s release can feel especially daunting, before you’ve quite used to the idea of other people reading your words… So I’m grateful for the support and hard work of bloggers, readers and reviewers who all help to kick-start a book’s sales and get the word out there. I’ll share links to the individual blog posts on here as and when they are published.

Many thanks again all; I owe you a glass of wine! (Or a cake. Or both).

L x