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.

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The Secret Slang of Paris’ Butchers

One of my favourite things about writing historical fiction is the research. To me, it’s like detective work: inevitably, I end up taking deep dives into a particular subject. (I just spent two days reading about the changing judicial system and socio-economic make-up of the Paris police force at the start of the Second Empire and will probably end up writing “he was a policeman”). Research is an essential part of the writing process for me, not least because I often get my best ideas for plot and character (not to mention future novels) while researching.

This month I ended up taking a fascinating detour into argot – French slang – and particularly types of vernacular native to Paris. And so I discovered louchébem; the secret slang of Paris butchers.

Louchébem is just one form of the many types of argot that have existed in Paris; it is a variant form of a slang called largonji, and similar to javanais and verlan, in which individual words are disguised by using a set of rules. For example, in javanais, [av] is inserted after every consonant followed by a vowel: “bonjour” thus becomes “bavonjavour”. Louchébem substutites [l] for the consonant at the start of the word: the original consonant is them re-attached at the end of the word, followed by an em/ème suffix. “Boucher” (butcher) thus becomes “louchébem”.


Les Halles centrales de Paris, construites sous le règne de Napoléon III. 1862, Baltard, Callet

In Les Misérables (1862) Victor Hugo called argot “the language of the dark” and “the language of misery”, and like all slang, louchébem had its ties to the underworld. Originating some-time during the mid-nineteeth century, some sources claim that louchébem was invented by inmates at Brest prison, though it was mostly spoken in the stalls, alleyways, bars and cafes around Les Halles: the enormous food market that was the setting for Émile Zola’s 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris “The Belly of Paris”.

Les Halles itself was a liminal place, by turns seedy, glamorous, luxurious and cutthroat, where societal lines were necessarily blurred; among the plenty was great poverty, and prostitution thrived in the surrounding streets. It was in this tight-knit world of commerce in all its forms that louchébem thrived. A cross between a type of cant and jargon, designed to be unintelligible to outsiders while using the specialised vocabulary of a profession, it was spoken almost exclusively by the city’s butchers, but due to close proximity, many of the other vendors and workers understood it well. For example, the “larçonguesse” (garçons) in the “listrobems” (bistrots) that surrounded Les Halles were known to speak louchébem to the butchers who came in after their shifts, carrying their “lobékesse” (gobbets) of meat for the chefs to cook.

Postcard showing Les Halles, 1900.

Louchébem was spoken among the butchers and vendors of Les Halles until the 1950s, and was used by members of the Parisian Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. Apparently, although not as widely known these days, it is still spoken by some workers in the meat industry. Some of the words have even crossed into common use in French, for example the word “loufoque” (“crazy”).

Anyway, here’s a short glossary of louchébem, to get you started:

Lonjourbem, ça va lienbem?” = Bonjour, ça va bien? = Hello, how are you?

larlépem” = parlé = talk

lijonpem” = “pigeon”

lardonpem” = pardon = excuse me?

lerchem” = cher = expensive

lortefeuillepem” = portefeuille = wallet

A lotvem” = à votre santé = to your health / cheers!

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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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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.

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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

 

The Secrets Between Us: OUT NOW!

My new novel, The Secrets Between Us, is out NOW in ebook format, and the rest of January you can grab it for only £0.99p! (On Kindle and Kobo at least). That’s six months of my life, a lot of swearing, many glasses of wine, a trip to the Alpes-Maritimes, not much sleep, a lot of reading and even more editing, deleting, re-writing and refining for less than a coffee or a fancy croissant!

secretsbetweenus

Here’s the cover blurb:

A gripping mystery with a heart-breaking revelation, The Secrets Between Us is a sublimely satisfying story of lost love, betrayal and the dangers of war. Perfect for fans of Kate Morton’s The Lake House and Dinah Jeffries’ Before the Rains.

High in the mountains in the South of France, eighteen-year-old Ceci Corvin is trying hard to carry on as normal. But in 1943, there is no such thing as normal; especially not for a young woman in love with the wrong person. Scandal, it would seem, can be more dangerous than war.

Fifty years later, Annie is looking for her long-lost grandmother. Armed with nothing more than a sheaf of papers, she travels from England to Paris in pursuit of the truth. But as she traces her grandmother’s story, Annie uncovers something she wasn’t expecting, something that changes everything she knew about her family – and everything she thought she knew about herself…

So if it sounds like something you might enjoy, please do give the ebook a punt. The paperback is due out in April, so physical book-lovers will have to wait until then, I’m afraid. Links below.

As always, it’s an incredibly odd feeling, a new book being released into the world, but so far, I’ve had some great support and reviews from readers and bloggers alike. THANK YOU all!

Now I’m off to work on the next one…

L x

Amazon

Kobo

Google Books 

iTunes

 

Where the Wild Cherries Grow: Book Launch

I’m so excited; Where the Wild Cherries Grow is finally being released into the wild THIS WEEK.

WTWCG1

It feels like it’s forever since I sat in front of a fire, in a cottage in west Wales, writing the first few chapters of what would eventually become this book. But now it’s finally going to be available in the shops, and I can’t wait to wave it on its way!

Which I’ll be doing this week with a launch event at Waterstones Exeter Roman Gate on Thursday 15th June.

Living and working in the South West as I do, Devon holds a special place in my heart, especially as my family home is only a half an hour drive away, by the sea. And Exeter Roman Gate Waterstones is doubly important, since my sister – fantasy novelist Lucy Hounsom – also works there! So the launch will be something of a family affair.

Come and join us from 6.30pm on Thursday 15th June for a short talk and a reading by me (and free wine!) to help us launch Where the Wild Cherries Grow into the swirling currents of the bookselling world.

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Also keep your eyes peeled for a special recipe to accompany this book, which I’ll be posting on Thursday…