Talking Food with… Tiffani Angus

In my Talking Food series I’ll be featuring short interviews with authors, chefs, cooks, historians and food writers about their experiences of food, from memories to favourite recipes.

Today I’d like to introduce author and lecturer Tiffani Angus, whose debut speculative historical novel Threading the Labyrinth is published July 13th by Unsung Stories:

Cover image for Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus

If Robert Macfarlane wrote a ghost story this would be it. Haunting, delicate and multilayered, Angus channels her own humane understanding of our relationship with the quiet places of the world, the places hidden away, neglected, but always eager to blossom with the right kind of attention.

– Helen Marshall, award-winning author of The Migration and Gifts for the One Who Comes After

Headshot of author Tiffani Angus

An American ex-pat, Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer in Publishing and the course leader for the MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, as well as the General Director of the Anglia Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. A Clarion (2009) graduate, she has published short fiction in several genres in a variety of anthologies. Threading the Labyrinth, in its original form, was part of her PhD dissertation, paired with an analysis of time and space in fantasy gardens. Her research into gardening history and women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction feed into her fiction. You can follow Tiffani online, on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.

LM: Threading the Labyrinth takes places across different time periods and focuses on the heart and history of a whole garden, including the kitchen garden. Can you tell us some of the ways the kitchen garden changes across the centuries in the book? (without giving away too much!)

TA: Kitchen gardens are one of my favourite! I have a soft spot for geometric, formal gardens and kitchen gardens have to be tidy and organised, which makes me happy. Plus, they’ve got a constant specific function beyond just being pretty, which makes them different from pleasure gardens that change according to the fashion of the day. After the Civil War, pleasure gardens were considered frivolous and growing fruit and veg the moral choice; there was even an attempt to make growing fruit trees mandatory for all landowners. My kitchen garden is special because the house for the head gardener is built right into the kitchen wall; in Threading the Labyrinth, the walled garden and the kitchen garden both feature, and this house is the setting for several scenes in the novel as a place where some threads of history intersect.

walled garden Audley End
Walled garden at Audley End

The kitchen garden (as well as the central walled garden) in Threading, which I envisioned as existing in some form for hundreds of years before the beginning of the book (since part of the house was originally an abbey, which would have grown food for the resident nuns), would have changed across the centuries mostly in what it grew; as the empire expanded new foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, and aubergines were brought back and, after some time, became garden staples. Kitchen gardens are also where garden technology advanced, with cold frames and hot frames leading to greenhouses with their own heating systems where plants from other countries — both flowers (especially for carpet bedding) and food, such as pineapples — could be grown in England’s rainy climate. In the eighteenth century, with the rising popularity of the landscape garden in England, anything considered unsightly was often moved—this includes kitchen gardens and even villages! The kitchen garden is under threat of this at one point in Threading but luckily fate intervenes.

 LM: Are there any particularly intriguing examples of kitchen or herb gardens you encountered in your research? 

illustrating arched doorway

TA: I travelled to see gardens all over the country during my research; it was the best part of it. And I always gravitated toward the walled gardens, be they walled pleasure gardens or kitchen gardens. My favourites are Kentwell Hall, Blickling Hall, Audley End, Ickworth, and Glastonbury, where a monk’s herb garden has been recreated. Kentwell Hall is especially wonderful; it has a huge walled kitchen garden complete with gnarled old apple trees, espaliered fruit trees that are hundreds of years old, a potager and herb garden, and a gothic-arch-shaped door; Blickling Hall’s kitchen garden is amazing for its sheer size; Audley End’s kitchen garden is especially charming; and at Ickworth, there is a brick house built into the brick wall, which was a bit of an inspiration for Threading of course. One of the best things about going to some of the historic houses around the country that have extensive kitchen gardens is getting to see the historic kitchens; I get almost as excited about the kitchens as I do the gardens!

 LM: You grew up in the desert in the American southwest before coming to the UK to study for a PhD, and have spoken before about a fascination from a young age with English landscapes and gardens. Are there any idealised versions of food that you encountered first in fiction, before trying them in reality? (E.g. when I was a kid, I was always bemused and fascinated by the “shrimp paste” and “chocolate creams” of Enid Blyton books…)

TA: When I was a kid I, like so many other Americans, always wondered what Turkish Delight, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tasted like. I was not impressed when I finally had it! I can’t remember where I first read about clotted cream, but in my head I imagined it was something like cottage cheese (I think the word ‘clotted’ made me think of chunks!). When I finally got to have it HOLY COW where was this all my life? I also remember stories often having children eating toast—which I seem to remember they called toasted bread sometimes, which sounded quaint to my American ears—and marmalade; I mean, marmalade exists in the US but it isn’t something I ever really ate, and toast has always been a food group in my life so I suppose I felt that I at least had something in common with British kids!

LM: Do you have any favourite food-related scenes in fiction?

cover image for Gail Carriger's Soulless book

TA: I love how talks, and battles, often tend to happen over a tea cart in Gail Carriger’s Soulless series; I mean, shouldn’t everything happen over a tea cart full of cakes and scones? Life would be much more enjoyable! And one of my favorite books is Douglas Coupland’s microserfs; when I think of it I often remember the scene were the group are trying to get Michael to eat after he’s locked himself in his office so they slide whatever two-dimensional foods they can under his door, from cheese slices to Pop-tarts. I like reading about people cooking, and one of the ways that food gets used in books I like to read is the creation of magical spells, especially those that use herbs and other plants.

LM: Time for some quickfire questions! First, coffee or tea?

TA: Tea. Well, iced tea (American, sorry!). If I drink hot tea, you know I am getting sick or I’m out having an afternoon or cream tea. Coffee smells amazing (I even have coffee candles!) but tastes like poo.

LM: Ha ha, we will have to agree to disagree, says the coffee addict. Chocolate or cheese?

TA: CHOCOLATE! Although for health/weight reasons I am on a chocolate moratorium right now until July 1. So June is cheese 😊

LM: Breakfast or dinner?

TA: Breakfast. I even love having breakfast for dinner!

LM: Favourite beverage to relax with?

TA: G&T (I love the citrus or fruit flavored ones) or a spicy, bold red wine.

LM: If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?

TA: I love to bake—cookies, brownies, etc.

LM: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Nicholas Culpeper image
Nicholas Culpeper

TA: I have been working on a novel that I started before I started the PhD, and I am about 75K along on it. It’s about an apocalypse, of all things, which will be a hard sell right now (but it’s not a pandemic, so there’s that). It’s about how women deal with the end of things as they were and the beginning of something new, so I’m excited about that aspect of it. Living through this pandemic and observing how people act has really started to inform some of the novel, and I’ve made a few tweaks to it as a result. In my head I think of it as Little House at the end of the world. After that I am considering a research-heavy novel about Nicholas Culpeper (author of the first herbal for the populace) or, more challenging, his wife about whom little is known.

Thanks so much to Tiffani for joining me. Threading the Labyrinth is out NOW as an ebook, available for pre-order from 23rd June, and officially published on 13th July by Unsung Stories. You can find it at: Hive| Amazon| Waterstones | Goodreads

And if you like speculative fiction, you should definitely check out FIYAH; a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that features stories by and about Black people of the African Diaspora. An annual subscription is just $15.

You can also sign up to my newsletter for more news, interviews and exclusive subscriber content.

At the Sauce Podcast

I was delighted to be a guest on episode 35 of At the Sauce; a brilliant food and drink themed podcast based here in Bristol. It was a joy to talk to Alex and Karis, especially knowing they’d recently interviewed one of my favourite food writers, Bee Wilson.

Check out the episode below. You can find other episodes with guests ranging from chefs to producers to other writers over at At the Sauce and you can also support their work via their Patreon. Thanks Alex and Karis!

It’s a heck of a newsletter this month, with a seasonal recipe perfect for Burns Night, news, a short story and more. Click below to sign up.

Talking Food With… Katy Moran

In my Talking Food series I’ll be featuring short interviews with authors, chefs, cooks, historians and food writers about their experiences of food, from memories to favourite recipes.

Today, I’d like to introduce as my guest author Katy Moran. Katy is a former book editor who now lives in Shropshire with her husband and three children. Her first novel Bloodline was published in 2008 and was an epic adventure set amongst the warring kingdoms of the Dark Ages. After a series of successful Young Adult Novels, Katy has turned her attention to adult fiction. Her debut adult novel False Lights has been described as ‘Georgette Heyer meets William Boyd’ and as having ‘… a marvellously dark and compelling anti-hero and a truly gutsy heroine… a terrific read’. Katy’s latest novel, Wicked by Design, was published in September.

And if you follow either of us on Twitter, you’ll know that Katy and I were allies this summer in the fight against the never-ending courgette hoards.

LM: Hi Katy! Your latest book, Wicked by Design, is set in an alternate Napoleonic era. Do historical recipes and/or food history have a place in your research? 

KM: Yes, I think that because my books are set in an alternative Napoleonic universe, details like period recipes and the food that people ate have an important role in grounding readers in the world and making them believe in it. In Wicked by Design, I seem to focus in on details of what people are eating or drinking at moments of extreme stress. There is a moment in St Petersburg when one of my heroes, Crow, is really falling to pieces at the supper table under the combined effect of grief, opium and too much brandy. Somehow, zeroing in on the details of the creamed spinach tart and beef olives that everyone else is eating throws his state of disintegration into contrast. (There is a recipe for beef olives in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, published in 1747). Crow’s state and behaviour at this moment were also partly inspired by the music video for Johnny Cash’s cover of hurt, which features him surrounded by a feast; opulent but somehow repellent platters of rich food. 

LM: Any favourite examples of food in fiction?

KM: Yes, I always remember Sylvia Green’s tiny ham rolls that she ate on the train north to Willoughby Chase, and the awful contrast with her unnerving travelling companion’s rich confectionery oozing with violet icing. Actually, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken was one of the inspirations behind my alternative timeline: ‘This book is set during a period of history that never happened’.

LM: Can you share a little about your research process? Are there any tips, tricks or strange practices you find yourself following?

KM: I work in a second-hand bookshop and much of my research is driven by books I stumble on while filing new stock in the history section, so my advice would be to visit a shop like the one I work in, that has a varied and esoteric selection of books. It’s one of the best ways to get yourself out of a plot hole, too. I always find answers that I’d never have come up with by approaching the problem head on.

LM: What is it that draws you to the Cornish coast as a setting? Can you share a favourite historical fact or piece of folklore from the region?

Hell Bay, Bryher

KM: For one of the companion novels to Wicked by Design, I needed a setting in close proximity to an island. My husband’s father was born on Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly, so that’s why one of my heroines, Hester, was brought up on the island of Bryher, and that’s how I arrived at the more general Cornish setting, too.

LM: Some quickfire questions! First, coffee or tea?

KM: Coffee!

Chocolate or cheese?

KM: Chocolate.

Breakfast or dinner?

KM: Dinner.

What’s your favourite beverage to relax with?

KM: A Gin & Tonic.

If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?

KM: I love baking and anything that involves the creative use of leftovers or hiding vegetables so that they are undetected by my children. Last night, I made a pie from the remains of a roast chicken and a baked ham, and the stock from the chicken is bubbling away in my kitchen. My kids spent the summer gorging on chocolate cake without a clue it was made with courgettes from the terrifying mountains that kept appearing in the garden. I’m not always this organised, though, and we’ll be having frozen pizza this evening.

LM: Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

KM: Another novel set in the world of Wicked by Design, but eight years further on.

Thank you Katy! You can find out more about Katy at: https://katymoran.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter @Katyjamoran.

If you liked this post be sure to sign up to my newsletter which I send out on the last Friday of every month. Subscribers get first access to new and historic recipes, Q&As like the one above, historical research, offers, events, and original fiction.

Talking Food With… Lucy Hounsom

In my Talking Food series I’ll be featuring short interviews with authors, chefs, cooks, historians and food writers about their experiences of food, from memories to favourite recipes.

Today, I’d like to introduce as my guest author Lucy Hounsom. Lucy is the author of The Worldmaker Trilogy. Her first book, STARBORN, was shortlisted in the 2016 Gemmell Awards for Best Fantasy Debut. Her fourth book, SISTERSONG, will be published by Pan Macmillan in 2021. She is a Waterstones bookseller and co-hosts the award-winning geek feminist podcast ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper’, which last weekend won Best Audio at the British Fantasy Awards 2019. She lives half the time in Devon with two cats and the other half in Skyrim.

And for people who don’t know… she is also my older sister. 🙂

LM: Hello, err, Lucy. (I won’t share our ridiculous nicknames for each other here). Let’s get started: what are some of your favourite examples of food in fiction?

Lucy: Definitely the descriptions of fruit in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. They’re so luscious and visceral; I especially love the way she dwells on each fruit in its turn:

Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy

– Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market (1859)

Another all time favourite has to be from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry is found on the Knight Bus and taken to The Leaky Cauldron. Cornelius Fudge sits him down in front of the fire with an enormous platter of hot, buttered crumpets. Every time I read the passage, I have this unreasonable fear that Fudge will devour all of the crumpets before Harry can even take one; I always want to yell at him to stop talking and start eating!

LM: Well, now I want crumpets. Can you share some of your strongest food memories, pleasant or otherwise?

Lucy: An unpleasant memory is undoubtedly the time I stuck my fork into a chicken kiev and it exploded boiling garlic butter all over me. I must have been about ten at the time, and I remember the exact top I was wearing. Even though it was washed, it forever after smelt of garlic…

A much better memory is from when we were younger, just about old enough to use the oven on our own. We used to sneak Linda McCartney pies from the freezer and cook them in the afternoon while Mum was at work, completely ruining our dinner. She must have noticed that they always went missing, but never said anything. After a few years we lost interest, partly because I’m sure they reduced the salt content… or perhaps it was just the illicit fun of cooking pies unsupervised and wolfing them down in secret.

LM: Do you ever use food to set the scene in your own work?

My new book, Sistersong, set in magical ancient Britain, actually uses a lack of food to set the scene. For example, at Beltane, in May, they celebrate the coming summer by eating the first strawberries, but it quickly becomes apparent that ominous weather will lead to a terrible harvest. In an isolated, tribal community, such as the one where Sistersong is set, the success or failure of the harvest is life or death, bound up with the prosperity of the kingdom. In a time of famine, everyone starves, even the King’s household.

On the other hand, the opening chapter of Starborn takes place inside a busy inn, filled with hot stews and pints of cider and ale, while rain pours down outside. I wanted to juxtapose the inclement weather with a deep sense of familiarity, comfort and security that will all too soon be threatened…

LM: No spoilers!

Lucy: Fine! I will say that inns in fantasy – and the food you find there – are tropes in their own right. Picture The Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings. Adventurers come in from the cold and sit by the fire with flagons of ale, a wheel of cheese, a hunk of dark bread and bowls of stew… “Unidentified Stew” is classic fantasy fare, and can range from delicious and savoury to downright disgusting.

LM: Time for some rapid fire questions! First, the eternal choice: chocolate or cheese?

Lucy: Cheese.

Tea or coffee?

Lucy: Aaaaah. Tea. For the varieties.

Potatoes, bread or rice?

Lucy: Bread.

Breakfast or Dinner?

Lucy: Breakfast. Brioche. Croissants. Muesli. Porridge with blueberries. Endless delights.

Favourite drink to relax with?

Lucy: Tough one. I’ll say prosecco or a nice Provence rosé.

LM: If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?

Lucy: Probably jambalaya with prawns and frankfurters. Or anything with smoked paprika!

So, there we are – I hope you’re all now suitably hungry. You can check out Lucy’s work at https://lucyhounsom.co.uk/ or follow her on Twitter and Instagram as @silvanhistorian or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/lucyhounsom.

SISTERSONG will be published under the name Lucy Holland by Pan MacMillan in Spring 2021.

If you liked this post be sure to sign up to my newsletter which I send out on the last Friday of every month. Subscribers get first access to new and historic recipes, Q&As like the one above, historical research, offers, events, and original fiction.