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.

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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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Recipe: Winter Spice Madeleines

Festive Madeleines

Madeleines have got to be one of my favourite things to bake (and no, of course I’m not biased!) They’re sweet, petite, take only a few ingredients, a fraction of the baking time of a larger cake, and bring so much happiness. The last batch I baked disappeared alongside a pot of tea in around ten minutes. These cakes might be simple, but they’re fiendishly moreish.

The scallop-shape of the madeleine apparently dates – according to baking mythology at least – from the 18th century. One story relates how Madeleine Paulmier, a cook for Stanislaus I, duke of Lorraine and exiled King of Poland, was forced to improvise a dessert, and on the spur of the moment baked the little cakes in scallop shells. Of course, the scallop shell is also inextricably linked to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, another place where these cakes may have originated…

Whatever the history, madeleines continue to charm whoever eats them. They’re especially magnificent when dipped in tea – a la Proust – or in my case, coffee.

With this recipe, I’ve tried to bring together the simple elegance of a classic French madeleine, with the spices and flavours that, for me, signify winter and the festive season. I’ve replaced classic lemon zest with orange, and added saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon and a dash of clove to call to mind those intoxicating scents and flavours that make you feel as if you’re being wrapped in homely, kitchen warmth having come in from the cold.

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P.s. I infused my caster sugar with a cinnamon stick, a handful of cloves and a fresh nutmeg for a week or two before using it. It smells amazing, and is a useful thing to have around in the festive season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Spice Madeleines

Makes 12-14

Ingredients

  • small pinch of saffron strands
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • 4-5 whole cloves
  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • zest of 1/2 orange
  • 100g self-raising flour (or 100g of plain flour and 3/4 tsp baking powder)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • fresh nutmeg

For the spiced sugar:

  • 1 1/2 tbsp golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • fresh nutmeg

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 200C / 400F / Gas mark 6. Brush your madeleine tin with melted butter and dust with a little flour.
  2. Place the saffron strands into a bowl or pan with the milk and cloves and warm gently, either in the microwave for a few seconds, or over the hob. Set aside to cool and infuse.
  3. Whisk together the eggs and caster sugar until light and frothy.
  4. Melt the butter and leave to cool slightly, then stir in along with the orange zest.
  5. Remove the cloves from the milk. Add the milk and saffron to the cake mixture.
  6. Sift in the flour and cinnamon and a good grating of fresh nutmeg. Stir gently to combine.
  7. Leave to rest for a few minutes, then spoon into the prepared tins, so that they are 3/4 full.
  8. Bake for around 8-10 minutes, or until risen and pale golden. Place the tray on a wire rack to cool slightly.
  9. Meanwhile, grind the caster sugar in a pestle and mortar (or with a spice grinder) until it has a finer texture – somewhere between caster and icing sugar.
  10. Place it on a plate with the cinnamon and another good grating of nutmeg and stir together.
  11. Quickly, while the cakes are still warm, roll them around in the sugar.
  12. Serve fresh, with a cup of tea, coffee or even mulled wine…

 

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La ragazza delle ciliegie

It’s always an apprehensive moment, seeing cover designs for the first time. Do the designers share the same ideas about the book as me? What visual cues have they taken? Which colours have they focused on? Something that always surprises people is how little an author is usually involved when it comes to design; I tend to send mood boards and visual references to the publisher, but really, it’s down to them and their design team to come up with something that will both represent the content and catch a reader’s attention on a shelf. Not an easy task.

Nevertheless, it’s exciting too, and slightly unbelievable, when someone creates an book cover for a thing that started life as a word document on your computer.

I find it particularly interesting to see how different countries respond to cover design for the same book. The cover for the French version of The Confectioner’s Tale, (Le Portrait de l’oubli) is a case in point! Compared to the UK version, it’s definitely different, and not what I expected, but I love it.

So, I’m excited to reveal the cover for the Italian translation of Where the Wild Cherries Grow, published as La ragazza delle ciliegie by Piemme in June 2017. I think they’ve done a brilliant job on the design, both with the cherry blossom, and a hint of wild, windswept shore beyond. Bravo, Piemme!

la ragazze delle ciliegie

For contrast, here’s the cover for the German translation, titled Der Duft von Meer und Thymian, published in July 2017 by Bastei Lübbe, which is different again, somehow less moody, but also lovely.

der duft von meer und thymian

But of course, it’s the UK version that I’m going to focusing on over the next few weeks, seeing as it is released on the 15th June. I’m so excited that the book will finally be available in the shops, and can’t wait to hear from future readers.

In the meantime, watch this space for articles, recipes and book launch event info!

L x

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Where the Wild Cherries Grow: ebook release

I’m going to jump on the bandwagon with the sentence that everybody is saying today: I can’t believe it’s March already!

We’ve officially left February behind, with its long, grey days of neverending winter. Now, the daffodils and irises are out in my garden, the blossom is starting to froth on the trees and spring is on the way.

And I have some exciting news for readers with kindles and other e-readers, which is that my latest novel Where the Wild Cherries Grow is scheduled to be released in e-book version early, on 23rd March!

where-the-wild-cherries-grow-cover

It’s currently available to pre-order on Amazon, in ebook (£4.99) and paperback.

I’m afraid that paperback readers will have to wait until the official release date of 15th June 2017 – sorry! – although eagle-eyed shoppers may be able to find early editions in WH Smith Travel shops from April. I can promise too that there’ll be all sorts of exciting content, interviews, articles and recipes appearing between now and then.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers for their patience regarding the publication of this book; as you may know, it was originally intended to be published last year, but for various reasons (ah, the mystical world of publishing) has been delayed. I’m so excited that it will finally be making its way onto shelves, it feels like I’ve been waiting a long time. I can’t wait to pass it on to new readers.

Thanks again, and more from me soon!

Laura x

The Confectioner’s Tale Launch Party

The Confectioner’s Tale is officially out in the world, which can only mean that it’s time for a CELEBRATORY BOOK LAUNCH.

The Confectioner's Tale Invite

I’m absolutely thrilled that Hart’s Bakery have agreed to play host to the evening’s shenanigans. If you don’t know Hart’s, it’s a gorgeous little working bakery under the railway arches next to Temple Meads station. With its open kitchen, railway connections and reputation for making some of the best baked goods in Bristol, it seems like the perfect place to officially toast The Confectioner’s Tale into the world.

There will be cake,  books, wine and maybe a reading, so do come along and enjoy; all are welcome! There’s a handy RSVP form here.

Hope to see some of you there!

(Thanks go to Becky for her invitation design wizardry)