How to be a Good Hostess: 1950s manual

After writing How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice I have become somewhat of a magpie for seeking out old fashioned manuals and books of instruction, so imagine my delight when my lovely cousin sent me this book entitled ‘How to be a Good Hostess’. It is full of some fantastic gems which I thought I would share here.Hostess1x600

The book belonged to my late Grandad and was printed in the 1950s for Spillers, a British company who milled flour. My Grandad worked for Spillers as a chemist. It seems it was hoped that by providing lots of fabulous recipes with Spillers flour in the ingredients it would benefit the brand.

The 1950s had seen a great relaxation of many of the social ‘rules’ that had governed society (it is interesting to note the far more casual tips in this 1950s book, compared to a much more rigid Victorian manual), but a certain amount of social norms remained. This booklet no doubt provided useful tips to those unsure of the changing styles of etiquette.

How to be a Good Hostess

How to be a Good Hostess is marvellously of its time, featuring a foreword by the popular British actress Anna Neagle (1904–86), in which she says:

‘If your home is known as a friendly meeting place: if guests feel well and truly welcome: if whatever you offer them is beautifully made and attractively served, you’ll find your reputation as a hostess grows.’

How to invite people to a party

The first few pages are concerned with how to invite people to a party. It is advised that most invitations should be sent via a letter and that it should be from woman to woman (the hostess writes from herself and her husband to her friend and her husband). A word of caution is given:

A photo from How to Be a Good Hostess of a telephone conversation

‘The TELEPHONE is often a useful way of calling up a few friends … and for those of your close friends who love to be asked “on the hop” for an informal meal, it gives that stimulating feeling of the unexpected. But some people dislike being telephoned to make any date – think twice before you dial their number, and then write instead!’

After discussing the various formal methods for inviting folk to a party by letter or card, the booklet goes on to divulge a more informal method:

‘And for the “young” party, or the out-of-the-ordinary party – perhaps a check-cloth Bohemian kitchen supper – there are novelty invitations in the shops bright enough to spark off the party spirit the minute they arrive.’

Put your house in shining good order

A good hostess’s house ‘should literally shine out a welcome to your guests. Gleaming floors and furniture, winking-bright windows, laundry-fresh curtains.’

The booklet advises a thorough clean of the house the day before, including ‘brushing lampshades, polishing looking glasses, putting extra lustre on brass and silver and, if necessary, washing china ornaments.’

A floral display to cheer up the room is also recommended and the booklet contains a series of instructions to create various flower arrangements, including a centre-piece for the dining table.

It is hard to imagine someone these days going to quite so much trouble for a dinner party, I think my friends would be rather surprised if they came round to dinner to find I had fashioned an elaborate floral display for the table!

What to wear

There is a wonderful section on what to wear, with some great illustrations of many glamorous outfits for a variety of occasions, from a dinner party to a country weekend.hostess2x600

The following advice is given for what to wear for a teenage get-together:

‘A teenager entertaining her own friends can say if it’s to be a shorts and slacks evening. Or, if she wants to wear a black top and flowery skirt, or her white tweed dress with its orange cummerbund, she decides it’s a dress up night and says so. What she mustn’t do is tell everybody shirts and jeans, then floor them all with her new pink taffeta.’

‘She must remember she won’t look good in clothes borrowed from Mum and neither will she get away with Mum’s heavy scent or long, drop ear-rings. As hostess, she must instruct the boys what to wear.’

What to eat

The booklet features a number of recipes for all sorts of occasions. To modern tastes the recipes seem rather old-fashioned, including instructions for how to make delights such as meat loaf, orange chocolate mousse, pineapple gateau, egg and onion flan, coq au vin and Viennese coffee.hostess3

There is also some advice on how to order wine if dining out at a restaurant:

‘When the waiter has taken your luncheon order he will ask whether you’d care for anything to drink. If you don’t want a drink, don’t. Offer your friends a drink, of course, but if she refuses don’t let it embarrass you. Many women lunching out together don’t drink, especially when following diets that rule out alcohol.’

Party manners

The booklet ends with a jolly round-up of advice, which I think is worth sharing as it demonstrates that although times have moved on and things are less formal nowadays some advice is timeless:

‘A good hostess makes certain that guests know what they are expected to wear: and in her own dressing she never tries to outshine them.’

‘She is careful to tell her guests when they are expected: keeps calm when they are late: is ready to accept apologies for lateness with good grace.’

‘She never criticises the drinks her husband pours: the way her son hands them round: never flaps when drinks are spilt – merely mops and smiles.’

‘She never has flowers for her dining table that hide guests from one another: and if she likes background music, keeps it below talk level.’

‘She steers conversation away from a guests who’d monopolise it: gives a talking point to a shy guest: always has a lively anecdote to fill a gap.’

‘She is mindful to serve hot food hot and cold food cold: never needs to make excuses for poor coffee: empties ashtrays before they’re overflowing.’

For more on etiquette, old advice and lost instructions see How to Skin a Lion

How to darn: adventures in mending socks

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know what I am up to, but if not, let me explain! My book How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice will be published in May 2015 and as a result I am attempting to follow some of the historic advice contained in the book.

Darning was once a skill everyone had. In the days before our disposable culture, a hole was there to be patched and mended, not an excuse to bin the offending item and buy a new one.

I have to admit that I have already had a bit of a head start with darning, in that my mother taught me to darn when I was a teenager and seemed to be going through socks like a dose of salts. She thought that if I learned to mend them my sock collection might last a bit longer.holysockx600

Unfortunately as a moody teen my enthusiasm for darning was akin to my enthusiasm for sixteenth century organ music – unkindled.

As the owner of a large collection of holey socks I thought this was certainly a skill to be resurrected. Andy tried to persuade me to practice my skills on his socks, but in the interests of feminism I decided to darn my own darn socks!

The method

I selected a navy pair of socks with a classic heel hole as I already possessed some navy darning wool from my earlier dalliance with the dark arts of darning.

The instructions from Cassell’s Home Encyclopedia (1934) advise:

darnequipmentx600The idea is to counterfeit the weaving of the material, first one way and then the other, till the hole is filled with closely interlaced threads going over and under each other at right angles.’

This is where modern factory produced socks tripped me up. The idea that I might be able to recreate the extremely fine knit weave of my modern socks is beyond me. If I had owned a lovely home knitted pair of chunky socks, I might have been able to create a more seamless darn, but with modern materials my darning wool will stick out like a sore thumb.

Start on sound material well outside the edges of the hole, running the needle (threaded double for all but small repairs) in and out of the stuff in a straight line. Return as close as possible to the first line, going under the stuff where that went over, and vice versa. At the end of each line do not pull thread tight, but leave a tiny loop. This allows for the shrinking of the new thread in the wash. Continue darning up and down till well outside the hole on the far side and on sound stuff again.’1Dx600

I double threaded my needle, put one hand inside the sock to keep the hole open and used the other to start sewing straight lines across the hole, from sound material on one side to the other. Having double threaded I had under-estimated how much thread I would need and ran out halfway through, requiring me to tie a knot and start again.

Once I had covered the hole with stiches in one direction it looked rather neat, but I knew the next step was the more fiddly aspect of the endeavour:

weavex600Then darn closely across at right angles, alternately under and over the original lines of the stitches until the hole is completely filled.’

This under and over business is way more tricky than it sounds. It is quite hard to manoeuvre the needle in and out of the rows and to remember if you are supposed to be going over or under. It also takes an awful lot of thread.

The result

This is certainly a skill I think you need to practice, as this attempt though adequate was not as neat as I’d hoped. Once I had finished weaving through my second layer I had reasonable coverage of the hole, but on putting the sock on you can still see a few tiny holes. However, it felt really strong and I think it is a good solid mend.darnedx600

The instructions for this task were really nice and easy to follow and the skill itself very useful. I think darning modern socks is probably not worth it as the cost of the darning thread is about the same as that of a new pair of socks! However, having practised this skill I subsequently successfully darned a hole in a jumper, which was great as it gave a much-loved jumper a new lease of life.

So here is an old fashioned skill that I shall certainly be putting to good use in the future.

Do you have any darning or mending tips? If so please share with a comment.

How to read moles

"Talpa europaea MHNT" by Didier Descouens - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
A mole.

Now, before you get excited this is not an ancient lost skill of mole whispering, whereby using the power of stroking and blowing in a mole’s face you persuade them to kindly stop digging up your lawn. No, this is about facial moles.

As Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) explains:

Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune.’

If you have read my previous blog posts you will know I am attempting to try out some of the historic advice contained in my upcoming book How to Skin a Lion (published 14 May 2015). My previous dip in the pool of fortune-telling was rather grim (see my post on How to tell the future with cards) but hopefully my mystic powers will be engaged by this task.

I have to admit I am somewhat lacking in the mole department, so I shall be mostly using celebrities to illustrate the power of physiognomy.

But first I feel I must assess the significance of my only facial mole, a delightful eyebrow nestling specimen.

A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband.’

At last a good result from the realms of the occult (I was beginning to take a very dim view). I do indeed have a good husband, so one point to the mystics.

Thankfully the Internet has created many an article and picture gallery on ‘celebrities with moles’ so I was able to find a few examples to assess the quality of my mole reading technique.

A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end.’

This description fits Angelina Jolie rather well, she had well documented issues in her youth but now seems to have found great happiness with her husband Brad Pitt and their six children. Point number two for the mystics.

A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed.’

Oh dear Natalie Portman and Cary Grant, not a promising reading for those with moles on their left cheek. Portman is rich and has a child and Cary Grant, though unlucky in love (he married five times), was also rich and had a child, so I think we can say this reading is not true. It is now two to the mystics and one to the sceptics.

A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby.’

Goldie Hawn has a mole on the right corner of her mouth and does appear to be a very happy person (but who really knows? I am judging this purely by the fact that anyone married to Kurt Russell must have a pretty awesome life). Cindy Crawford and Mariah Carey both have moles on their left side but I am not sure I am in a position to judge if they have had unlawful copulation! I think I’ll call this one a draw, one point for mystics and one for sceptics.

Thus my short tour of physiognomy has come to an end, and the totally unscientific score was 3 points to the mystics and 2 points to the sceptics. It’s certainly fun to try and judge a person’s character or future by the moles on their face but I think we can safely say it is not hugely accurate.

Do you have any facial moles? If so, what do the predictions say about you? Please leave a comment!

How to make barley water

When I was searching for entries in the book which I could recreate myself this one immediately jumped out at me. I have lovely memories of drinking lemon barley water on hot sunny days as a child and it was something I was keen to recreate (shame about the lack of hot sunny days in March, damn you British weather!).barleyingredientsx600

The ingredients are nice and simple so I thought this would be an easy task, however I did not bank on the international barley crisis*. I tried my usual supermarket, no barley (not even in the health foods section with its shelves heaving with dried beans, pulses and obscure grains). I tried my closest supermarket, feeling more confident I would find the elusive barley as this is a ‘posh’ supermarket, but no, still no barley.

Supermarkets failing me I trekked into Cambridge where I sought out a health food shop and there at last was some barley. Ingredients secured, let the task begin <blows whistle>.

* There isn’t really an actual international barley crisis.

The instructions

The recipe comes from Cassell’s Home Encyclopedia (1934) a fascinating book full of amazing advice and instruction (there is a really lovely entry in the How to Skin a Lion on how to set a sundial that I also got from this book). The instructions are as follows:

barleycookingx600Wash 2 tablespoonfuls of pearl barley in cold water, put it into a saucepan with two pints of cold water, bring to the boil and boil gently till the liquid is reduced to 1 pint.’

It is at this point I realise my barley quest wasn’t quite as successful as I first thought, I had bought ‘pot’ barley not ‘pearl’ barley. A quick google suggests the difference is not disastrous and in fact the pot version may be a little healthier.

I left the concoction to boil and reduce for at least half an hour and it turned a lovely caramel brown colour. The instructions gives various options at this point, either adding salt, sugar or milk to enhance the drink, but I opted for lemon:

For large quantities of barley water as a wholesome drink make as above, adding to every pint, while hot, the  juice of half a lemon and one tablespoon of sugar.’

I squeezed in one whole lemon (not worrying about the pips as it was going to get strained anyway) and two tablespoons of caster sugar, which quickly dissolved.

I then strained the liquid into a jug to cool. Unfortunately I didn’t leave it long enough so when I served some up for the kids to try over dinner they were a little put off that it was still warm!barleydrinkx600

My 7-year-old was most impressed declaring ‘You made this drink all on your own – wow!’ He was fairly keen and said it was ‘warm and zesty’. The 3-year-old was less keen and said ‘I don’t like it’, while the 4-year-old was in such a bad mood he wouldn’t even try it!

It was nice warm, but was even better the next day when it had properly cooled down. It tasted really nice and lemony and almost exactly like the lemon barley drink from my childhood. I will certainly be making this recipe again as it was so easy and I can see it being a lovely refreshing drink to have on a summers day.

How to bandage an arm

Bandaging an arm is a properly useful skill to have and frankly, as a mother of three, I am slightly ashamed to say my first aid skills thus far have only stretched to retrieving a pea from a nostril (twice!). So I think knowing how to correctly bandage an arm will be a good addition to my armoury.

Thankfully none of the family currently has an injured arm, but then I think it best to practice such a skill on an uninjured person first so the technique is consigned to the memory banks and can be swiftly put into action should an emergency arise.

I managed to persuade my long-suffering husband Andy to be my guinea pig in exchange for the promise of some wine.bandagesx600

I sourced a couple of rolls of bandages from a chemist as on reading the instructions it seemed quite a length of bandage was required to effectively mummify a whole arm.

I’ll admit I had to read the instructions (taken from Cassell’s Home Encyclopedia, 1934) a few times before I could begin and ended up getting Andy to read it aloud to me as I started, but once I actually began wrapping the bandage around the hand it made good sense:

With the arm and hand palm downwards, the bandage is laid across the back of the wrist, the free end towards the patient’s body, and kept in position by the operator’s free hand. The roll is then carried across the back of the hand from thumb side to little finger side, around the outer side, across under the palm, up through the angle between the thumb and first finger, over the back of the hand, around the wrist and again over the back of the hand from the thumb side towards the little finger side.’

This first step created a pretty good and secure hand bandage, covering the palm and wrist and by pulling the bandage quite tight it did not need any pins, I just needed to make sure the end was tucked in.bandage3

Once this initial hand bandage had been applied all that was left was to spiral the bandage up the arm:

Two or three of these figure of eight loops will cover the hand. A spiral bandage is then continued up the arm, the spiral being reversed when necessary. At the elbow a return may be made to the figure of eight turns, similar to those described above.’

I ran out of bandage at about elbow level so tucked in the ends and started a new roll, which naturally created a bit of a gap for the bent elbow to poke out.

I was quite proud of my bandaging skills and Andy said it was most comfortable. Seeing as he was being so obliging I made him keep the bandage on for the rest of the evening and he successfully managed to eat dinner, drink a number of glasses of wine and operate the remote control for the television.

winebandagesx600The bandage was still mostly intact by the end of the evening, requiring just a bit of re-tucking where the elbow joined.

I now feel confident that I could apply a hand, wrist or full arm bandage in the event of an actual accident, so I am rather pleased with this new skill!

How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards:

It was with some trepidation that I decided to dabble in a bit of fortune-telling for my next task. Not because I am wary of the occult, nor because I have anything to hide, but more because the instructions were so complicated!

‘In many cases, the position of the cards entirely changes their signification, their individual and relative meaning being often widely different. Thus, for example, the King of Hearts, the Nine of Hearts, and the Nine of Clubs respectively signify a liberal man, joy, and success in love; but change their position by placing the King between the two nines, and you would read that a man, then rich and happy, would ere long be consigned to prison.’playingcards1x600

The advice comes from A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by the fabulously named Grand Orient (1889).

I decided to add my own sprinkling of mysticism by choosing a pack of cards that I had owned since childhood (note: they are French so the King is (R)oi, the Queen is (D)ame and the Jack is (V)alet). This set of Asterix playing cards had travelled the world with my then boyfriend, now husband and I, and have given many hours of card-playing enjoyment. These cards, I felt, must have absorbed some of our very essence.

The technique

The first instructions were:

After having well shuffled, cut them three times, and lay them out in rows of nine cards each.’

This was easily done and I filled the table with neat rows of nine cards, all face up. I then asked my victim husband (who I shall from now on refer to as Andy, for that is his name) to select which King he thought should represent him, as advised by the Grand Orient himself:

layoutcardsx600Select any King or Queen you please to represent yourself, and wherever you find that card placed, count nine cards every way, reckoning it as one; and every ninth card will prove the prophetic one.’

Andy chose the King of Clubs, which I quickly looked up and found this uncanny description:

King of Clubs – A dark man, upright, faithful, and affectionate in disposition.’

From here we counted every ninth card and noted down what we found in order to make our predictions. These are the cards and their meanings:

‘Three of Hearts – Sorrow caused by a person’s own imprudence.

Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret.

Five of Hearts – Troubles caused by unfounded jealousy.

Eight of Hearts – Pleasure, company.

Five of Spades – Shews that a bad temper requires correcting.’

This sounds to me like a party going wrong. We have quite a few social engagements coming up so I will be on my guard for any unfounded jealousy or imprudence.Andycards

The next step was to identify the Knave of Clubs and count every nine cards from thence as described here:

As the Knaves of the various suits represent the thoughts of the person represented by the picture cards of a corresponding colour, they should also be counted from.’

This should reveal Andy’s inner thoughts. This is what we found:

Knave of Clubs – A sincere but hasty friend. Also a dark man’s thoughts.

Two of Clubs – A disappointment.

Ace of Hearts – The house. If attended by clubs, feasting and merry-making.

Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking.

King of Hearts – A fair man, of good-natured disposition, but hasty and rash.

Nine of Clubs – Disobedience to friends’ wishes.’

This seems to fit in fairly well with my interpretation of a future social gathering marred by gossip or disagreement with friends. I really hope this doesn’t come true but I shall be vigilant and report back if our next party goes horribly awry.

Andy was fairly nonplussed by the predictions, nothing jumped out as especially insightful, but as this is fortune-telling who knows what may yet occur.

Then it was my turn. After this faintly depressing reading for Andy I was hoping for some wonderful cards full of good fortune, success and great wealth. How wrong could I be?

The second attempt

We reshuffled, cut and laid out the cards in rows of nine as before. Because Andy had chosen the King of Clubs to represent himself, I followed Grand Orient’s advice and made myself the Queen of Clubs, who is described thus:

Queen of Clubs – A dark woman, gentle and pleasing.’

Anyone who really knows me would not describe me thus (I am ginger for a start!) but I shall glide past that small issue and plough on. The ‘significant’ cards (every ninth counted each way from the Queen of Clubs) were:

‘King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful.

Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood.

Five of Hearts – Troubles caused by unfounded jealousy.

Four of Hearts – A person not easily won.

Ace of Spades – Great misfortune, spite.’

Oh. Pretty bleak. My dreams of fame and fortune dashed. That song ‘The Ace of Spades’ is now whirling round in my head. Not helped by the fact that Andy guffawed loudly when this, the most grim of all cards, came up for my future.

Not sure how to interpret this really as I have no idea who this revengeful fair-headed man is (not Andy, he is dark) and the reference to early marriage is puzzling as I didn’t wed until 27 so by modern standards not especially early.

It is interesting that both Andy and I got the five of hearts, however neither of us are the jealous type so maybe this refers to someone close to us? Whatever way you look at these cards they are not giving me a message of joy. But wait, it gets worse …

On to my thoughts, counting every ninth card from the Knave of Clubs:

Ten of Spades – Grief, imprisonment

Two of Clubs – A disappointment.

King of Clubs – A dark man, upright, faithful, and affectionate in disposition.

Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette.

Five of Clubs – A prudent marriage.’

The first two don’t sound great but the last three could represent Andy and I. Let’s hope the first two are not what awaits me, I don’t think I am made for prison life.

The conclusion

This dabble in the waters of mysticism didn’t quite turn up the glowing future I had hoped, however it was quite a diverting way to spend an evening and I imagine it could be a quite useful starting points for some self-analysis, were you that way inclined.

At this point I am hoping my inexpert reading does not come true and that somehow the actual alignment of the cards inverts their meaning. But if my next blog post is about ‘my life in the slammer’ you’ll know otherwise.

Can you interpret these cards any better than I? Have you tried fortune-telling? If so please leave a comment.

How to make mushroom ketchup

When compiling How to Skin a Lion I was so fascinated by the many lost and outmoded skills I resolved to try some of the more achievable instructions.

I would have loved to have trained a hawk, panned for gold or got myself presented at court but unfortunately I did not have the time, resources or good breeding.mushroomsx600

Instead I focused on some of the skills I could easily recreate in the hope that it might inspire others to have a go too.

When reading through Georgian and Victorian texts for How to Skin a Lion, I came across a number of references to mushroom ketchup.

My interest was piqued as I had never heard of this forgotten condiment and wondered what it tasted like and how it was used.

I selected the recipe published in A Shilling’s Worth of Practical Receipts (1856) for the book because it contained ingredients that are readily available today and I vowed to have a go at making it myself.

The recipe begins

Gather the broad flapped and red gilded mushroom before the sun has discoloured them.

My gathering involved selecting a 250g box of chestnut mushrooms from Sainsbury’s online and awaiting delivery. They did, however, appear unharmed by the sun.

Wipe, and break them into an earthern pan. To every three handfuls throw in one handful of salt, stir them two or three times a day till the salt is dissolved, and the mushrooms are liquid.’

mushroomssaltx600First problem was a lack of earthern pan. In my version this delightfully rustic sounding receptacle was replaced by the more modern china bowl.

The second problem was that I misread the instructions. In a fit of gay abandon I confused the ratio of mushroom to salt and ended up adding a handful of salt for every handful of mushrooms.

Luckily I soon noted my error, cursed my inattention, chucked the resulting salty sludge, returned to my computer and re-ordered a box of mushrooms from Mr Sainsbury.

New mushrooms arrived I carefully broke them into pieces. From my 250g I ended up with six handfuls of mushrooms and this time I correctly added two handfuls of salt and gave them a good stir.

The recipe does not disclose exactly how long the mushrooms should be left for, so I covered them with a tea towel and parked them in a dark cupboard. Every day I gave them a little stir and soon they were indeed turning to liquid.

However after about five days they didn’t seem to be breaking down further (to be honest I think I should have broken the mushrooms into smaller pieces to start with). So I left them for a further two days for good measure before moving onto the next step.

Bruise what bits remain, set the whole over a gentle fire till the goodness is extracted; strain the hot liquor through a fine hair sieve, boil it gently with allspice, whole black pepper, ginger, horse-radish, and an onion or shallots, with two or three laurel leaves.onhobx600

I tried mushing the remaining mushrooms with a wooden spoon but they seemed resolutely spongy and resistant to breaking up further so I popped them in a saucepan and gently warmed them to see if this would break them down further.

At this point the mushrooms began to smell delicious, radiating a wonderful earthy smell throughout the kitchen. Encouraged by this development I dipped my spoon in the pot to taste. Big mistake! The saltiness was overpowering and I had to spit it out, but the aftertaste was promising.

I left the mushrooms to gently cook for about 20 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.


The recipe did not include any amounts so I estimated and compromised on a few of the stipulations. I used the following to flavour my ketchup:ingredientsx600

½ onion, thinly sliced.

2 bay leaves (I assumed this was what they meant when they said laurel leaves)

16 black peppercorns

A thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, grated

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp allspice powder

1 tsp horseradish sauce (no fresh unfortunately)

After 20 minutes I strained the mushrooms through a sieve. There were still some large chunks of mushroom so I used a wooden spoon to pass them through the sieve and despite putting in some serious effort I was still left with about two handfuls of mushrooms that refused to relent, so I gave up on these unruly fungi and chucked them on the compost heap.

The resulting dark brown liquid looked pretty decent so I added the other ingredients, brought it to the boil then left it to simmer.

After about 45 minutes of simmering it had gone really dry and congealed so I added some more water to get it back to the correct consistency.

I simmered it for an hour in total before sieving it once again to remove the whole spices. Again I pushed it through the sieve to make sure I got all the goodness out, I say goodness but by this time it smelt pretty bad and looked even worse.finishedketchupx600

I ended up with about 200ml of very dark brown ketchup which I put it in my lovely Orla Kiely pot to try and make it look more appealing.

Fortunately I was spared trying it straight away as the advice is to leave it to settle for 24 hours before using.

The result

The days ticked by and I kidded myself I was putting off trying it due to a lack of decent accompaniment (mushroom ketchup is apparently traditionally eaten with poultry or steak) but really I was just scared it was going to be grim.

steak&ketchupx600I grasped the nettle and cooked up some lovely steak, roast potatoes and green beans. I spooned a reasonable amount of ketchup onto each plate and served the resulting meal up to my delighted husband. Let’s just say he didn’t stay delighted for long …

Unfortunately the ketchup was just way too salty to be edible. The background flavour of the earthy mushroom and spices was good but the overwhelming flavour was bitter salt.

On looking up some modern recipes I think the key missing ingredient here is some vinegar and possibly some sugar. Were I to attempt this again I would certainly cut right back on the salt as it seems my modern tastes are not quite in line with my Victorian forebears.

I think I will attempt a non-food related task for my next How to …

How to Skin a Lion: the challenge

I spent much of 2014 in book heaven – that is immersed in the British Library rare books room. I enjoyed many days poring through Georgian, Victorian and early twentieth century books researching How to Skin a Lion: A TreasuryHTSALx600 of Outmoded Advice.

I selected snippets of fascinating information on a wealth of lost arts such as how to address a Maharajah, how to shoe a horse, how to train a falcon and how to read the future with snails.

As I compiled the book I realised that although many of the skills described were lost or forgotten, some of them were still relevant today. I resolved to collect some of the more doable skills (I would love to train a falcon but lack the necessary time, space and bird) and try them out myself.

I have just started this journey and will be blogging here about how I get on. The first task is to make mushroom ketchup (it sounds delicious) and I will report back shortly on how it went.

Finding your inspiration: what to write about?

As I sat on a train winding its way through the flat fields of East Anglia on my way to the British Library for a research trip I began thinking about what I write about and why.light-bulbx600

I realised that ever since I was young I had an inner monologue rumbling on, collating words and creating sentences to describe the world around me. Yet I rarely use this type of descriptive writing in my work, instead filing it away for some theoretical future project.

It made me consider how many writers get stuck in the creativity void. As writers what we want to write is beautiful soaring prose, but what pays the bills or gets the publishing deal is frequently not those flowery sentences but a truly great concept.

So although it is useful to flex your writing muscles, it is also good discipline to focus that creativity on finding a really great idea first.

The idea:

The advice that is most frequently given out to writers seeking inspiration is to write about what you know. That is because it is great advice – ignore this at your peril.

When selling a book idea the key questions to ask yourself are: who cares? So what? And why are you the best person to write this book? This approach can help you to find an idea.

Think carefully about the stories you have to tell, the knowledge you could pass on, or the quirky angle with which to tackle a hackneyed subject. By looking at ideas or starting points through this prism it will help you to find your own voice or a fresh approach.

That said I think this can be qualified. Much of my writing career has been based on writing about something I previously had no knowledge of. Sometimes having too much knowledge of a subject can make it hard to communicate with a beginner. But by coming at a subject from the position of a learner thorough research can help you to communicate its essence to the reader.

For example, Stef Penney set her wonderful novel The Tenderness of Wolves in Canada in 1860. At the time of her writing she was suffering from agoraphobia so never visited Canada herself, but created a great sense of time and place through extensive library research.

When searching for your inspiration think about not only what you know about but also what you are interested in, this may help you to find that elusive niche.

Say for example you are writing a novel but finding it hard to get it published perhaps think about other areas you know about. Perhaps your day job is in digital marketing and you have a lot of useful specialist knowledge that could make a valuable non-fiction book.

Perhaps you have an interest in local history, have travelled extensively or play an unusual musical instrument to a high standard? These passions could all be avenues to explore in the search for inspiration.

Reading widely is also a great way to find an idea. Whether reading through newspapers, blogs, Twitter, leaflets I always keep my eye out for an interesting fact or story that could grow into an idea.

My friend and former colleague Bess Lovejoy came up with a great book idea after finding a small news item in the Guardian about the artist Francis Bacon’s strange request to friends in the event of his death: ‘When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.’

From there she researched and wrote a short item on the subject for Schott’s Almanac and realised there was a lot of scope to tell some great stories on the fate of famous bodies. The resulting book Rest in Pieces was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013.

Likewise I am constantly clipping out interesting articles or collecting nuggets of information that I think are worth exploring. When researching The Georgian Art of Gambling I began to think about how different life was in the Georgian era.

That led me to think about the skills that many people once knew (such as riding side saddle) that have now been lost, and it was this small idea that grew into my book How to Skin a Lion.

Be curious. Be interested. Listen, read, consume. Find your quirk, your niche, your expertise and you will find your idea.