a little taste of susan branch’s a fine romance + lemon butter cookies

“England, with its history and air of magic, the soil and woods thick with meanings that survive in fragments, is an empire of imagination.” ~ T.S. Eliot

IMG_2197
Help yourself to a cup of organic darjeeling and a lemon butter cookie.

Fancy a drive along a winding country road, rolling green hills and grey stone walls as far as the eye can see? Perhaps a leisurely stroll along an ancient footpath across a meadow resplendent with wildflowers?

Maybe you’d rather visit Beatrix Potter’s house, explore the formal gardens of a stately home, find a welcoming inn for a spot of tea, or join the convivial conversation at a neighborhood pub.

I cannot think of a better way to celebrate all that is glorious, interesting, inspiring, beautiful, memorable, unique and charming about England than to pore over the pages of Susan Branch’s latest book, A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside (Vineyard Stories, 2013).

This gorgeous, handwritten, illustrated diary chronicles the two months in 2012 when Susan and her true love Joe wandered around England from Tenterden, Kent, up to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, and down through the Cotswolds.

IMG_2162

Whether you’re a diehard Anglophile like me, or someone who dreams of visiting England someday, you’ll find much to love about this enchanting gem. Susan’s narrative is eminently readable — warm, animated, genuine, and intimate, infused with vivid detail and informed by her trained artist eye and sensibility.

IMG_2173

IMG_2177

Moreover, her deep, abiding love for English history and culture is palpable on every page — there’s childlike wonder in serendipitous discovery, unabashed excitement and enthusiasm for dreams coming true, and a dreamy air of romance, for this is also a love story about Susan and her beloved Joe (this trip was their 25th anniversary celebration).

I fairly swooned as this fellow Beatrix Potter, Emma Bridgewater, Jane Austen, thatched cottage, tearoom, antiques, castle, quaint village and all-things-handmade lover related her adventures via words, photos and watercolors. Many of you know how much I also love hand-lettering and typography, a form of art which makes everything feel more personable and personal.

IMG_4580

How many people write entire books by hand anymore? Every single page is a feast for the eyes; I appreciated all the careful attention paid to the seamless integration of text with art. Perhaps in another life, Susan, with her flair for decoration, was a master of the illuminated manuscript in the Middle Ages. She probably also made some delicious soup and bread for everyone in the refectory when she wasn’t busy scribbling and sketching.🙂

Gardening enthusiasts will enjoy Susan’s fastidious naming of flowers and shrubs, and her interest in both natural and man-made landscapes; literary buffs will feel their pulses race as she walks through Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Kipling’s Bateman’s, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston, Jane Austen’s home in Chawton, Potter’s Hill Top Farm.

IMG_2165

If you’re a fan of Susan’s illustrated cookbooks, you’ll be happy to know she’s included 9 recipes, a section all about TEA (!), and of course, delicious mention of some of their most memorable meals, whether pub grub, teatime, fancy restaurant, in friends’ homes, or aboard the Queen Mary 2 (Susan and Joe always dreamed of sailing to England on an ocean liner!).

IMG_2155

IMG_4564

Naturally, I had to try one of the recipes, and since I still had some lemons on hand after making the teacake, I baked the Lemon Butter Cookies.

The recipe is actually from Susan’s friend and longtime penpal Rachel Lucas, whom she visited in Aylesbury. Rachel is a professional baker and writer, who lives with her husband Paul and the most adorable wire fox terrier, Alice (“a heartbeat at my feet”). Rachel served these cookies at tea and had packed some in cellophane bags for Susan and Joe to take along as they made their way to the Peak District.

IMG_4552

IMG_4549

IMG_4554

I knew they would be good since it was an all-butter recipe with the addition of cornstarch (I see this more often in British recipes: Natasha Lowe’s Shortbread remains a big favorite). The recipe also calls for 1/2 cup of cornmeal, which helps give the cookie a nice texture. Pretty straightforward and easy to make, with the option of sprinkling sugar crystals on top for extra crunch (I did half sugared, half unsugared).

While these beauties are baking, of course you should linger over Susan’s book, so when you finally taste the cookies with a cup of your favorite tea, you’ll be right there with her and Joe on the terrace of a wonderful stone cottage called “Weathericks.” Have as many as you like, but mind Darcy the peacock!

*   *   *

IMG_4557

LEMON BUTTER COOKIES

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1-1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • sugar crystals (for extra crunch, but optional)

Cream butter, sugar, vanilla & zest until smooth.

Add dry ingredients until just incorporated.

Use wax paper to shape and roll dough into two 8-inch logs — about the width of a cookie. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice cookies about 1/4 inch thick. Put on ungreased cookie sheets.

Sprinkle them with sugar crystals (or roll logs in sugar before cutting). Bake 15 minutes until slightly golden.

Cool on waxed paper. Makes about 40 cookies.

*Can be rolled out and cut with cutters into teapot or heart shapes.

IMG_4559

*   *   *

A Fine Romance is the perfect teatime, wintertime, anytime read — a travel guide, memoir, art book, scrapbook, history book, love story all in one. As with Susan’s other delightful books and calendars, it is sprinkled throughout with lovely and inspiring quotes, all hand-lettered, of course!

Susan has also compiled an awesome APPENDIX at her website. There, she’s provided a boatload of links corresponding to every ★ red star ★ in the book — everything you need to plan a trip of your own, with fun videos and information about all the people and places mentioned.

IMG_2163

I gave A Fine Romance to everyone I could think of for Christmas last year, and know I will go back to it again and again, especially savoring those “tears in the eyes” moments of elation I remember so well from when I lived there.

If you’re not already following Susan’s blog, you should subscribe immediately. Treat yourself to a haven to handmade, homemade beauty where it always feels like a good friend is writing a letter just to you. How can you resist someone who expresses herself with so much heart?

IMG_2168

*   *   *

A FINE ROMANCE: Falling in Love with the English Countryside
written and illustrated by Susan Branch
published by Vineyard Stories, 2013
Nonfiction, 260 pp.

Visit Susan’s Website and Blog

Stay current with Susan’s news via the Friends of Susan Branch Facebook Page

Rachel Lucas blogs at Mozart’s Girl and Baking Brownies for Mozart (yum!)

Susan discusses the book in this TV interview:

*

To see my review of Parts 1 and 2 of Susan’s 3-part memoir, click here.

*   *   *

IMG_4583

“And beyond the timeless meadows & emerald pastures, the rabbit holes and moss-covered oak and rowan trees, and the ‘slippy-sloppy’ houses of frogs, the woodland-scented wind rushed between the leaves and blew around the gray veil that dipped below the fells, swirling up in a mist, blurring the edges of the distant forest.” (A Fine Romance, p. 177)

*   *   *

wkendcookingiconThis post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your fancy bibs and come join the fun!

—————————-

Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

53 thoughts on “a little taste of susan branch’s a fine romance + lemon butter cookies

  1. What a stunning book! I just ordered it for my sister-in-law, who loves England. And I will most likely get a copy for myself as well. In the meantime, I’l be making those lemon cookies. I love all things lemon!

    Like

    1. Your SIL will LOVE it (as will you).

      The cookies are so good — really perfect with tea or coffee on a snowy day. They also keep well (I like to store my cookies in tins).

      Like

  2. Ooh, I can’t wait to find this one. I love walking in England, and Susan Branch’s art and yummy treats for tea…and now it’s all in one book! Thank you!

    Like

  3. O (sigh) I love the Cotswolds…remembering this icy morning an adorable B & B in the village of Uffington, where the innkeeper would walk out to her coop and bring back eggs for the sumptuous spread that were about 4 minutes old…and you could look off in the distance and see the famous White Horse spread across the hill overlooking the village. Thanks, Jama, for taking me back to this time and place…

    Like

  4. Ooh, Jama, you’ve sold me another book! “Teapot’s on, cups are waiting”. I have the others, but some have flown through lending. This is delightful and wonderful and just the thought of doing that trip sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I guess I’ll have to settle for the book and cookies! Thank you!

    Like

    1. I like her other books, too, but this is my favorite! I’ve also liked all the recipes I’ve tried from her books. I know you’ll really enjoy this one, and yes, it will make you want to paddle across the pond and visit these places for yourself.🙂

      Like

  5. Hello! As the aforementioned Rachel Lucas, I just HAD to leave you a comment to say how much I enjoyed and appreciated your beautiful review. As you can imagine, this book above all of Susan’s (except perhaps Vineyard Seasons, which brought her to me over 20 years ago) is very special to me. I’m so glad that you loved it and that you enjoyed ‘my’ cookies too…your version look delicious (love the sprinkles!) Wishing you a wonderful week x

    Like

    1. Hi Rachel,

      Such a nice surprise to hear from you. I remember Susan blogging about visiting your beautiful home, so it was exciting seeing the section about you in the book! It’s wonderful that you first “met” as pen pals and have been friends ever since.

      LOVE your lemon butter cookies! My husband Len smiles every time he bites into another one. Have added it to my favorite cookies of all time list — even more special now that I’ve heard from you.

      Thanks so much for the lovely comment. My best to Paul, and big hugs to Alice🙂.

      Like

  6. Hi Jama, Saw your post. Thank you for sharing A Fine Romance with me. I’ve been perusing through the book in my free time but would like to dedicate some quality time to it. Thank you for always broadening my world. I have many of the things you have given me at work. It makes my workplace a kinder place. Those lemon cookies look fantastic! Hugs to you and Lenny. Alison

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    1. Hi Alison,

      Just trying to whet your appetite by sharing this book with you. Of course you’ll have to visit England someday — Julia won’t be happy till you all make the trip. I can totally vouch for those cookies — bake some soon (Newt will love them; they’re almost like his fave refrigerator cookies but with a nice bright lemon flavor).

      Have a good week. Hugs back!

      Like

  7. Oh, your review was amazing! You said everything I thought about this book! Only Susan could “write” one as lovely, interesting and imaginatory as this was. You know…as her ‘girlfriends’ we all got to sneak in their luggage and travel with them on this amazing adventure…weren’t we blessed? And now everyone who has this book gets to travel with them too!

    Thank you for sharing this review with all of us!

    Blessings,
    Gert

    Like

    1. So nice to hear from a fellow Girlfriend! You’re right — only Susan could write a book like this. I love how she took all of us along on their trip, keeping us updated on “our book.”

      From a business point of view, authors who are interested in self-publishing could learn a lot by following her example of building a platform via website/blog/social media. I think her down-to-earth personality and personal touch with everything she does has a lot to do with her success. No wonder the book is a bestseller and sold out its first printing in no time.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Gert!

      Like

  8. Joe and Susan aren’t married. In the book, she never actually calls him her husband. Yankee Magazine was wrong and it was never corrected. Susan should really address this misconception.

    Like

    1. Thank you for pointing that out — you’re right! This trip was taken as the 25th anniversary of their “first date that never ended.”

      I think mine is a common misconception, and it is entirely her prerogative whether she wishes to address the issue or not. In any case, I think we’re all very lucky that she chose to share her personal love story with us.

      I could have sworn I once saw a wedding pic of them, though . . .🙂

      Like

  9. *Gorgeous* book! (Maybe more people would handwrite books if their writing was like hers :-)) Those cookies look terrific. I will give them a try. Just bought a James Herriot audio book this morning — his stories are great for long car rides.

    Like

    1. Susan’s amazing — don’t know how she does it.

      You will like the cookies🙂. I miss seeing All Creatures Great and Small on television. I’m not one for audio books — I try to avoid long car rides whenever possible.🙂

      Like

  10. Gorgeous review, Jama!! So glad Susan retweeted it. You captured the essence and beauty of the book so wonderfully! I so appreciate the completely handwritten and painted quality if A Fine Romance. Such a joy to read again and again and find some new little tidbit each time! And I think we’ve all tried and fallen in love with dear Rachel’s lemon shortbread cookies! Thank you for sharing this!

    Like

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Karen. I think whoever has read the book feels just the same — we want to read it over and over. I read slowly because I didn’t want it to end, and I do find something new each time I go back. Yay for Rachel’s cookies — I’d been wanting to make them for months and finally got around to it.

      Like

      1. I read slowly, too! Everyone seemed to be rushing through to finish it but I had to savor each page. My heart skipped a beat with every page turn. I disciplined myself NOT to look ahead so I’d be surprised. Silly….I know!

        Like

      2. Karen you really are a kindred spirit. I did the same thing. Slowly studied every page, held my breath with excitement with each page turn.🙂

        Like

  11. Jama! You’ve poured your heart into the review of Susan’s A Fine Romance! What a beautiful recap of highlights (Yes! For me, The recipe for Rachel’s Lemon Cookies was one of the highlights!) After reading your wonderful words and seeing your scans of the pages, who wouldn’t want to run right out and purchase their very own copy! Beautifully done! Visiting your blog has been such a treat!

    Like

    1. Thank you so much! I was bursting with so much love and enthusiasm for the book that it was hard finding the right words. There was a lot more I could say but I had to limit myself. Happy to hear from another lemon butter cookie lover. Think I’ll have another right now.🙂

      Thanks for visiting!

      Like

  12. My day is never complete unless I visit your blog, Jama. Imagine my delight to see you highlighting a book by Susan Branch which I do not own. Of course I will remedy that immediately by placing an order. Reading your review is like listening to a favorite tune as I sit here in front of a crackling fire with a sleeping Xena next to me. I’m still full from the recent batch of homemade cinnamon rolls I made this weekend but I see lemons in my future. Thanks!

    Like

    1. You are in for such a treat, Margie — perfect book to read and savor while sitting by the fire. Sigh. Homemade cinnamon rolls. Sigh again. Hug Xena for me and keep warm — I saw the pic of frost on your fireplace!

      Like

  13. Oh my oh my oh my. I’m off to order this book. And hope to try those lemon cookies soon. And dreaming of England, though I haven’t even been back home long. Thanks for the lovely trip, as only you know how to host!

    Like

    1. Welcome back! We were all so envious of your trip! Susan’s book is the perfect re-entry read. It will *almost* make you feel like you’re still there🙂.

      Like

  14. Oh, gosh – that looks fabulous! (And, hey, why didn’t *I* get one for Christmas?😉 ) So cozy and personable and I wanna go to England right now!! I’ll definitely check out her blog (it chirps!) and put her book on my wishlist. Thanks, as always, for introducing your fans to such marvelous books. And thanks to your bears for patiently posing for your photos.😀

    Like

    1. Yes, chirping! Only one of the many charms of visiting Susan’s blog. Cornelius loves posing for pictures. In fact, we can’t get him to STOP posing, especially since he gets to eat the food that he’s posing with.🙂

      Like

Comments are closed.