Monday, 30 July 2012

Good old goulash

Next up in my Villa Serena recipe series is beef goulash. It's a dish that couldn't be more synonymous with Hungary. My mum always cooked it for us at home; she favoured a soupy version which we'd hunch over, blowing on our spoons and dipping hunks of bread. In Hungary I've eaten goulash from a battered tin pan at a dusty roadside cafe, and I've had it served in a Herend porcelain bowl by a black-jacketed waiter at a refined Budapest restaurant. Whether it's street-food or fine dining, goulash always tastes the same to me. Robust. Fiery. Salty. Sweet. And full of heart.

In The Book of Summers, Erzsi remembers Marika making a wickedly hot goulash just to put the frighteners on her English relatives... "On the rare occasions that my aunt visited, Marika used her extra hot paprika in the goulash soup she made, and filled the house with gypsy music that made the cobwebs tremble." 

I think a recipe should be a starting point for inspiration, rather than something to be followed slavishly, and goulash is a great dish for freestyling. Despite what the purists may say, for me the only essential ingredients are beef and paprika... after that, it's a case of adding lots of what you fancy and less of what you don't. So if the inclusion of lard in the list below makes you balk, just swap it for a good splash of extra virgin. Or if you're not keen on the reedy taste of celery, throw in some more onions. I like my goulash to have a real kick but milder versions are good too - just add your chilli and paprika according to taste. I also prefer it to have the consistency of a stew rather than soup, but if you like the latter, just add more liquid. Here's beef goulash the way I make it...    

Ingredients (to serve 4):
Lard - a golf ball sized hunk (or however much your conscience can take)
750g-1kg beef (depending on how greedy you're feeling) - stewing steak or casserole
2 x large onions - chopped finely
1 x teaspoon of dried chili flakes (or more... )
3 x stems of celery - chopped chunkily 
2 x cloves of garlic - finely chopped
2 x heaped tablespoons of paprika* (medium strength)
Beef stock - approximately 1 pint 
2 x red peppers - sliced lengthways
1 x yellow pepper - sliced lengthways
1 x dried or fresh chili pepper - thrown in whole for extra heat (optional)
Chives & sour cream for garnish
Salt and pepper for seasoning

*I also like to use a spoonful of hot paprika paste (see jar in picture) - you can buy this from specialist Hungarian delis online.

Use a nice big heavy-bottomed pan. Melt your lard (okay, okay, or oil!) then fry the hunks of beef in batches until nicely browned. Once done, remove from the pan and set aside. Next fry the chopped onions, celery and garlic until glistening. Then add in the red and yellow peppers, and the chilli flakes, and fry until softened. Next, stir in the paprika, then get your beef back into the pan. Combine it all nicely, and then pour over your beef stock until everything is just covered. Add a little hot water from the kettle if you need more liquid. Bring to the boil and then turn it down to a simmer. If you've managed to get hold of the paprika paste, here's when I'd add it. After seasoning generously, now all you do is leave it to cook in. Turn the heat down as low as it'll go, put the lid partially on, and let it cook for about 1.5-2 hours (or until you can't resist the smell any longer). I sometimes like to leave it even longer, so that all the peppers and onions entirely break down and the sauce becomes really thick. To serve, scatter chopped chives and add the requisite dollop of sour cream.

I like my goulash accompanied by gnocchi - a little Italian-Hungarian combination that works brilliantly - and a zingy side of cucumber salad. This might seem like a wintry dish but to me it says 'summer'; hot sun on your skin, fire on your tongue and in your belly. And if you're serving your goulash at lunchtime there's nothing more perfect for dessert than an afternoon snooze in the shade. Jo étvágyat!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hometown signing

On Saturday I went back to Devon for a book signing at WHSmith Guildhall in Exeter. So many friendly people stopped to chat and bought a book. The store had made a sign proclaiming me a local author - never have I felt prouder to have been born a Devon girl.
I went to college in Exeter, studying A-level English in a building just steps from the WHSmith door. In fact my former tutor popped down to say 'hello' - I hadn't seen her in maybe 14 years. We reminisced about sitting in class watching Colin Firth emerge dripping from the Pemberley pond, all in the name of the study of literature. The Bloody Chamber, Hamlet, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof... such happy memories of A-Level English. I loved studying in Exeter; visit it now and even with its cathedral, university and new shopping centres, it has the feeling of a quiet country town - to me at sixteen though, it was a heaving metropolis, and way before the high-street coffee chains rolled in I used to frequent its cafés, with a novel or notebook usually in hand. I used to hang out at The American Diner (now gone), making a butterscotch milkshake last all afternoon and playing 'Young Hearts Run Free' on the jukebox (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet had just come out). Or the French café (also gone) in the concrete precinct, where I first tasted a Cappuccino to the strains of accordion music, and fancied myself in Paris. And in later years when I was home for the holidays from university and worked in a café-bar just off the Cathedral Green - spending my tips afterwards in a place called Number Five (gone? yes, gone), where giant leather armchairs swallowed you up and the waitresses' footsteps clattered across the uneven flagstones.  It always feels like winter when I think of Number Five - low lamplight inside and frosted cobbles outside; rushing the last of my coffee before I dashed to catch the country bus home, hoping it'd make it through Haldon Forest without skittering on ice. 

Ah, the country bus. Unlike my favourite cafés, nothing's changed there; it still runs infrequently, bumping along the green-tunnel lanes, gears complaining on the steep hills, often slowed by clusters of wandering sheep. I caught the bus after my signing, just as I had when I was a teenager, for as much as Exeter feels like home it isn't really. I come from a place where you can cross the River Teign on one good swing of a tattered rope and where on a clear day you can see all the way to the blue-grey hills of Dartmoor. One day I'd like to try and paint this place with words but for now my father's brush is better. Here's one of his pictures. Here's home.
Teign Valley, by Alwyn Hall

Thank you to WHSmith, and to everyone who came along, for making Saturday's signing so memorable. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

My week with Richard and Judy

Over the course of the summer each of the ten selections in the Richard and Judy Book Club enjoy their time in the sun. This week it's the turn of The Book of Summers.
On Thursday (tomorrow), from 12-2pm, I'll be doing a live web chat through the R&J Book Club's Facebook page - go HERE to check it out. People are already posting their questions and my fingers are itching to answer them... I need to point out here that I'm possibly one of the few remaining two-finger typists (but no less quick fire - pit me against a touch typist and... well... perhaps not). I'm really looking forward to answering everyone's questions. Maybe see you online tomorrow?

This coming saturday (the 21st) I'm heading to my home town of Exeter to sign books at WHSmith Guildhall and will be there from noon. I attended Exeter College for my A-levels and studied English in a building just steps from the WHSmith door... happy times, and it'll be great to be back on home turf. If you're in the area, do drop by and say 'hello.'

My interview with Richard and Judy is also available to watch now, and you can see it HERE. And the podcast we recorded is also live - go HERE to listen. They were both so lovely and easy to talk to, quickly relaxing a twitchy, nervous author - it was great to be in the hands of such pros.

As part of the Book Club The Book of Summers also features in Woman's Own this week. As well as Richard and Judy's own reviews four Woman's Own readers have reviewed the book  - thanks to Nazreen, Deborah, Lizzy, and Karen for saying such kind things. I doubt that my delight in knowing that my book has been read and enjoyed will ever fade.

Then the book itself... the edition that's for sale in WHSmith has extra Book Club bonus material in the back, including an extended Q&A and a piece I've written called 'Travelling With A Book' about the inspirations behind The Book of Summers. I also talk about some of my favourite holiday reads that still bear the marks of my travels. Just as a reader never forgets a good book, I like to think a book never forgets a good reader. My shelves are groaning with happily dog-eared titles; dust-flecked and sun-cream smeared, we've had some grand adventures together.
Finally - talking of special books - my publisher Headline are marking this week with a competition to win a very limited edition copy of The Book of Summers. It's a signed proof*, is hard-backed, gold-foiled, and astonishingly beautiful (see above pic). There are 15 to win, from a print run of only 90. You can enter HERE - on The Book of Summers Facebook page.

Thanks to Richard and Judy, WHSmith, Woman's Own, Headline, and everyone else involved - especially the readers - for making this such a brilliantly busy week of Summers.

*... which means it isn't the final, final version - so beware odd typos and other inconsistencies!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

We'll always have the book - a Book Slam blog

What happens when our favourite books are turned into films? I recently heard James Sallis and Lee Child speak and the words of the latter made me think that maybe, just maybe, we should try not to take it all so personally... (unless, you know, Ryan Gosling is playing our lead, in which case let's dial up the personal). To read more, hop on over to the Book Slam website.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Independent Booksellers' Week

To help celebrate Independent Booksellers' Week on 5th July I visited Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye. It's a beautiful shop run by the husband and wife team of Andy and Victoria Rossiter, and one of two stores owned by the couple (the other's down the road in Monmouth). I first met Andy a few weeks ago while doing a signing in Waterstones, he was shopping with his children and stopped to chat. Serendipitously he was planning his events programme and was kind enough to ask me to be a part of it. Rossiter Books is clearly beloved within the local community. A great crowd came along, all friendly faces, and full of perky questions. It was my first evening event at a bookshop and I'm so happy to have been involved in Independent Booksellers' Week in some way. I went back to do some shopping the next day, and came away with a bag full of beautiful hardbacks. Lucky people of Ross, to have such a gem on their doorstep. Thanks to Andy, Carol and Richard who gave me such a lovely welcome - and to all those who came along on the night. Hurrah for indies!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Summers in Madrid

On 4th July The Book of Summers, El libro de los veranos, was published in Spain and my publisher, Suma de letras, invited me over for the launch. WHAT a time to be visiting Madrid. The city was euphoric, riding high on the football team's stunning success. I arrived in the middle of a city-wide street party, with Gran Via, the central thoroughfare akin to Oxford Street, entirely closed to traffic. Marta, from the Suma de letras publicity team, met me at the airport - a taxi took us as far as it could then we walked the last steps to the hotel. It was past 9pm and the heat of the day was still thick in the air. We sauntered to the tune of air horns and whistles, drum beats and joyous renditions of Viva España. Underfoot the street was sticky with spilt drinks and paper replicas of the Euro 2012 trophy were scattered like giant confetti. As an arrival in another country goes, it couldn't have been more intoxicating. As soon as I'd checked in I went out to join the red and yellow blaze of the party. 
The next morning I threw open my balcony doors. Even though it was only 8am it was already white-hot, and Gran Via was back to business as usual, football shirts swapped for office wear, and humming with traffic. I was getting ready for work too; the next day and a half held ten interviews with some of Spain's biggest papers, magazines, radio stations and websites. El libro de los veranos and I were going to be busy.

Our base for the day was my hotel, Hotel de las Letras, a place with a fine literary heritage and apparently the venue of choice for visiting authors. I met Marta and my interpreter - the super smart Diana - in the cool-white lounge, and so began an exciting, stimulating, exhausting day of interviews and photo shoots. 
After lunch at a cool little restaurant across the street (where my new Spanish friends laughed at our crazy English ways - puny sandwich lunches 'al desko' and bed before midnight) we sped through the afternoon. After the last interview Marta introduced me to the delights of San Anton market, helping me pick the finest Manchego cheese and Chorizo sausage to take home. By the evening I was pooped (last night's air horns not proving to be the softest lullaby) but Madrid is not the kind of city you want to draw a curtain on. Thanks to the late hours everyone keeps I still had time to wander around the shops, spotting El Libro de los veranos in three bookstores and two window displays, all within steps of one another.  In El Corte Inglés - Spain's biggest department store chain - the book is being sold together with a lovely desk-top photo album, meanwhile in Fnac in Valencia (books, music, movies) there's a huge banner advertising El libro de los veranos on the building's exterior... for a girl who used to work in Ad Land, that's especially awesome. I'm told Suma de Letras have even more exciting advertising plans for the summer... so watch this blog.
Rejuvenated by these 'in the wild' sightings I took to the hotel's rooftop bar for a nightcap and caught up with some work on book two (a deadline's a deadline, even when you've escaped your desk). The pink-white dusk was rolling in gently, Madrid's rooftops were luminous, and I found a quiet corner all to myself. Bliss.
I woke up the next morning with the sense I always get on my last day in a foreign city - I didn't want to go home. But there was plenty to keep my mind off departure, with more interviews - including with Spain's biggest daily El Pais - followed by lunch with the very lovely editorial team of Gonzalo and Pablo. They took me to a gem of a restaurant tucked in the back-streets, where giant hams hung from the ceiling and old boy waiters served up Spanish specialities. Gonzalo is a dedicated Anglophile and we talked cream teas, Agatha Christie and the indescribable joy of plucking a perfectly risen pie from the oven.
After bidding goodbye, I spent my last couple of hours in Madrid wandering the streets surrounding Gran Via. I found the brilliantly tatty English second-hand book shop J&J Books & Coffee where I drank a café con leche and browsed the stacks, coming across a near-new copy of Paul Hendrickson's Hemingway's Boat. Ernest famously loved Spain, and the last page of The Sun Also Rises takes place on Gran Via, with Jake and Brett in a cab.
My own taxi was waiting, so I hastened back to the hotel. As I walked, smiling and sweltering in the full heat of a weekday afternoon, the incredible warmth of my Madrid welcome over the past couple of days hit me. And it's with me still. I feel incredibly lucky to be published in Spain by people as passionate and enthusiastic as the Suma de letras team (thank you - Gonzalo, Pablo, Marta, Patricia, and interpreters Diana and Beth - for such an amazing trip). I feel grateful that so many journalists were willing to meet me and talk about my book. And I feel awed that The Book of Summers has taken on a life of its own, as El libro de los veranos, and will still be in Spain even when I can't be. Muchas gracias y Viva España!