We must all agree that the best prezzies are those we buy for ourselves (thereby ensuring that we get what we want not some naff bit of old rubbish that wastes space in the attic until a decent enough length of time has gone by to throw it away). However, if you really want to surprise your loved one with a little parcel on Christmas Day, the Sock has some great suggestions for you - and today it's ideas for books.
This years must have book is Mark Diacono's 'A Taste of the Unexpected'. If you haven't read a blog review of it somewhere yet you must be one of the few. Everybody but the Sock applied for a review copy, to the point that Mark sent out so many free books that he now owes his publishing company a lot of money.* It will be borlotti bean pie with a sprinkling of szechuan pepper for Mark's Chrimbo dinner - unless you fill his coffers by buying the book. The Sock paid full whack for hers but really it is worth it. Bright and attractive illustrations, inspiring ideas and recipes, a pleasure to read - what more could you want? The Socks had always believed their garden was too small to dedicate a great deal of space to fruit and veg but were so inspired by Mark's talk at Wisley that the Sock is thinking of relinquishing her beloved alpines and turning that small raised bed into a more productive patch. We are going to grow only things we can't easily buy or which, like supermarket tomatoes, bear no resemblance to the home grown variety. Courgettes are out, cucurbits 'Fat Baby' Achocha are in, as is 'Alberto's Quillquina' a culinary herb similar to coriander. Oca is on order, sweet cicely, lovage and a variety of other more unusual herbs, spices and peppers are planned or in production. After Mark's talk the Bedsock said "This is what I have been saying for years!" - much of this new growth will be his responsibility!
If you want a fab cookbook which makes lots of use of herbs and interesting ingredients the Sock's favourite this year is Yotam Ottolenghi's 'Plenty' (also Ottolenghi's 'The Cookbook'). This has revived the Sock's interest in cooking which is just as well now that the Bedsock is mostly coming home for his tea rather than working away. The Guardian Weekend has been printing Yotam's recipes - search their online site for examples of them. This One Pot Wonder is one of the Sock's favourites - a real treat and a great change from a traditional cooked breakfast although unfortunately no less calorific!
If you didn't buy Matthew Wilson's 'Making a Garden' last year then rush out and do so now (Sock review here). Matthew is joint winner of this years Horticultural OMG Award for 'Most Snoggable Male' and there are plenty of pictures of him being gorgeous in the book.
The Sock's love to pass long car journeys listening to audio books. A tour around Iceland was Philip Pulman's fabulous 'Dark Materials' trilogy - totally in keeping with the landscape and atmosphere. Australia's 'Great Ocean Road' gave us Robert Harris' 'The Ghost' and Apollo Bay to Adelaide Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys', mid-France gave us the beautifully read C.J. Sansom's 'Dissolution' whilst South-West France, a route much travelled by the Socks has given us Robert Harris' 'Pompeii', and more recently the complex, intriguing and unmissable 'Imperium' and 'Lustrum'. The latter two deal with the Roman life and times of Cicero and illustrate perfectly that in politics some things never change. Listening to an audio book together is an enjoyably intimate experience - discussions about the plot, shared jokes and laughter create memorable moments.. we can never drive past Saintes in western France without bringing to mind the ridiculous Welsh Dwarf from the occasionally funny Hobbit spoof 'The Soddit'.
But better than all of these is the gift of a story. One Christmas a friend gave us a tattered old copy of 'The Jungle Book' - the Socks were a bit bemused until we were told that the present wasn't the book, the present was that when staying in a holiday cottage we had rented together, she would read us a story from it every night. There was something so wonderfully warm and nurturing to be sat around the log fire at night being entertained and enthralled by a new tale. After that, when on holiday the Socks would buy a book of short stories, perhaps as in Iceland based on local folk tales and take it in turns to read one to each other before going to bed. The folk tales were gloriously ridiculous invariably consisting of only a beginning, no middle or end - along the lines of 'There was once a peasant had three daughters. One was fat and married a blacksmith, one was tall and married a merchant and one was thin..' No punchline or progression would be forthcoming so the reader would have to utter the words 'Er..that's it!' to denote the end of each story. Every night we would fall asleep laughing - and what could be a better present than that!
* This might be a slight exaggeration or possibly even a lie.