About a year ago I read Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin, author and journalist famous for her biographies on famous writers. Although it was a deeply compelling biography on an intriguing subject, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a sensitive nervous system: though Tomalin's writing and research is wonderful (as always), the book left me panting and rather depleted. Reason for this was the book's subject - New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) - who lived and worked as though the devil was at her heels, as if she knew she would die young (which she did - of TBC). It was far from a relaxed way to live - in fact, she was stressed and unhappy a lot of the time, always out to prove her worth as a woman and as a writer. All this makes her life story a heavy one to digest. What a contrast then, with her writing. The stories I'm having the pleasure of rereading for school are sensual, smooth, evocative, funny, full of beautiful imagery, and characters who take the time to savour life. Many of her scenes are like still lifes; images painted with exactly the right words and tone.
Some of her most evocative passages are ones involving food. Take butter. Now I enjoy reading about butter; it always reminds me of my grandmother who loved butter (because there was none in the war, she would say) and when she visited us in New Zealand I would enjoy watching her spread a slice of bread with butter so thick you could carve your name in it. "Butter is so cheap here," she would marvel, "you folks should appreciate it more." And of course she was right - butter was something we took for granted. Now, whenever I bake anything with butter, I am in awe of its importance to the recipe, it's richness of texture and taste. But now I'm digressing; back to butter in two of my all-time favourite stories, "The Garden Party" and "The Daughters of the Late Colonel", in which it is presented as something luxurious, reserved only for the privileged. In the first story Laura, the protagonist, is to oversee the arrangements for an elaborate garden party her mother and sisters are throwing at their beautiful home, situated on a hill:
"But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and kimono jacket.
'You'll have to go, Laura; you're the artistic one.'
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else." (p.38, Penguin Classics edition).
In the course of the story Laura is confronted with the poverty of others, and death, and this changes her forever.
In the second story, two sisters are dealing with the death of their father. In contrast to the first story, there is quite a bit of subtle humour in this one. Especially when the sisters make a fuss over all sorts of seemingly trivial things:
"Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn't help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly - of course it wasn't absent-mindedly - taking another helping."(p.54)
And, when their young pompous nephew Cyril comes to visit:
"'Now, Cyril, you mustn't be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard's this morning. We know what a man's appetite is. So don't be ashamed of making a good tea.'
Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake (...)
"I say, aunt Josephine, I simply can't. I've only just had lunch, you know."
"Oh Cyril, that can't be true! It's after four," cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll." (p.62)
The recipe that follows is about as simple as they come. It is both buttery and chocolaty - I'm sure my grandmother and Ms. Mansfield would more than approve. It at least comes highly recommended from anyone I know who has tasted it.
Chocolate Fork Biscuits
Adapted from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book, by Mary Berry
100g butter, softened
50g palm sugar
120g spelt flour
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa
yields about 16 biscuits
- preheat the oven 180 degrees Celsius
- line a baking tray with baking paper
- gently beat butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon
- add flour and cocoa; bring mixture together with your hands to form a dough
- roll the dough into smallish balls and place on the baking tray
- flatten the balls gently with a fork
- bake for 15 minutes
And don't forget to check out what everyone else is reading over at The Year in Books...