Last year I wrote about Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark here. (https://haftonandkelly.com/2020/06/is the link but it’s the third post that month so you’ll have to scroll down past the garden and Matilda). Subtitled Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia it managed to convert my kitchen and garden into a glimpse of Sardinia several times while we were unable to leave our homes. Now she has written La Vita è Dolce, in the same charming style, but this time with recipes that cater for the sweeter side of life. Many of the cakes, tarts, biscuits, puddings and pastries look magnificent but this is not a fiddly patisserie-style book; the recipes are enticing rather than intimidating. In a recipe for Sbriciolata (a delicious ricotta and dark chocolate almond crumble tart) Letitia describes the crumble mixture as ‘a loose and ragged rubble’ – none of the ‘fine breadcrumbs’ so often called for are deemed necessary here.
A preliminary read-through to find which recipes I’d like to make resulted in a huge list of potential delectables. I’m delighted to discover that Amaretti are easy to make and that there is a cake with Campari – a delicious-looking, upside-down creation with oranges and melt-in-the-mouth yoghurty sponge.
In between the recipes there are short pieces on various ingredients, moka coffee pots and quanto basta, or why recipes can never be exact. Letitia is the perfect cookery writer: opinionated, helpful and easy-going. I made Ricciolinis partly because I love the combination of almonds and cherries but, if I’m honest, mainly because the name translates as ‘little hedgehogs’. They were utterly delicious.
Obviously I think you should buy the book, equally obviously I think that you should buy it from a real bookshop, not the faceless online you-know-what.
I have a new job – as well as enjoying myself in the Children’s and Cookery departments at Hatchards I am writing for the blog on the new(ish) Hatchards website. Blog Writer may sound less prestigious than Shop Scribe, which was my previous unofficial title as catalogue-writer for the shop, but this is so much more fun. I have been given carte blanche to write about any books I like. I can’t quite believe it’s true – part of me is waiting for an email along the lines of: ‘Do you think could write about this terribly boring business book instead of the one about dragons that you were going to choose?’ But, so far so good, I’m actively being encouraged to read cookery, gardening and children’s books. It’s a dream job come true.
The point of this website has always been to concentrate on the good things in life; and, as far as I am concerned, reading is definitely up there with gardening, baking cakes and making patchwork, so my pieces will probably appear here as well as there. Albeit sometimes tweaked a little. The first book I chose was The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant.
Should you judge a book by its cover? Probably not, but most of us do. There are thousands of titles in every bookshop, all vying for the customer’s attention, all striving to be the one that is picked up, taken home and read, although committed book-buyers always have at least one pile of ‘just about to be read’ books.
There are books you know you want or need: the latest title by a favourite novelist, the book that will tell you how to make the perfect meringue or the one which will ensure outstanding GCSE results. Then there are the ones you didn’t know you wanted – books which cry out to you from the shelf or table, sometimes because of the subject but, more often, because of the cover. The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant is one of these books.
Its enchanting cover will stop you in your tracks. There are intriguing details too – the T of Hatmakers is formed from a needle and thread, there is a slightly raised image of a white pigeon carrying a letter and golden stars everywhere. Then, if you remove the paper cover, the boards below have enticing details: a ship, a feather, a reel of thread, several interesting hats and a motto in Latin. Inside there are starry endpapers and even a map (I love a map in a book and, if possible, a family tree).
The crucial point, of course, is whether the story stands up to all this fanfare. It does. With space to spare. It is exciting, magical and, at moments, hilarious. ‘It was a wild and lightning-struck night’ is a great opening and a little further down the page we meet Cordelia Hatmaker, clearly the heroine, who is satisfyingly not afraid of the storm – no one wants a weedy heroine. Then there is the sound of somebody banging on the door and we are off – straight into a thrilling adventure.
The story is set in a not-quite London in the not-quite eighteenth century where Cordelia lives in a magical house with whispering books and an invisible cupboard door. But this is logical as her family are Hatmakers to the Crown, adding secret ingredients to the wonderful caps, bonnets and boaters they make. When her father is lost at sea she is the only member of the family who isn’t upset, after all, she reasons what is lost can be found. But, while she is concerned with finding her father, the rest of the country is worried about the imminent war with France, the increasing (very jolly) madness of the king and the fact that someone is attempting to inflame the ancient rivalries between the various Maker families. This is a spellbinding story wrapped inside an exquisitely-decorated cover.
It is aimed at 9-12 year-olds but it is one of those books that could also be enjoyed by imaginative adults or read to much younger children. A sequel, The Mapmakers is due to be published in February 2022. As always, please buy them from a real bookshop.