Hot, Hot, Hot: Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival 2016

 Events, Writing  Comments Off on Hot, Hot, Hot: Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival 2016
Jul 262016

Whether you are a crime writer or a crime fiction fan Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival is the place to be at the end of July each year. For a few days Harrogate, a normally civilised, understated spa town in North Yorkshire, becomes the beating heart of all things criminal.

Of course Harrogate was famous for its crime writing connections long before Theakston’s Festival was a twinkle in the organising committee’s collective eyes. It was there that Agatha Christie was eventually discovered after she disappeared without a trace in December 1926. A police manhunt lasted eleven days before she was finally spotted by a banjo player at the Old Swan Hotel.

These days Agatha would find it distinctly more difficult to go unnoticed at the Old Swan. With 15,000 people, including some of the best loved names in the crime writing world, attending this year’s Festival somebody would certainly spot her. And one thing is for sure she wouldn’t be allowed to sit quietly by in a corner. Here you’re just as likely to find yourself chatting to authors such as Peter James, Natasha Cooper, Mari Hannah, Elly Griffiths or Val McDermid, as you are to a fellow fan. For people who spend their lives alone in small rooms devising ways to bump people off and dispose of their mortal remains, crime writers are a surprisingly approachable bunch.

Festival at night

The Old Swan gardens lit up at night

There’s always so much going on at the Festival, which runs from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, that it’s difficult to pick out highlights. But two of mine are Val McDermid’s Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award and her Friday night interview with Susan Calman. The first brought the entire house to its feet and the second reduced most of the audience to tears (the laughter must have been heard on the other side of Harrogate).

Val McDermid

As you can see the place was packed for Val and Susan’s panel.

Few of this year’s panels can have covered quite so much ground as You Couldn’t Make It Up. Or Could You? chaired by Sharon Bolton with Peter James, Mari Hannah, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Graham Bartlett. The range of inspiration that the panellists drew on said something for the breadth of the crime writing community and the diversity of crime fiction. The conversation ranged from elves and their influence on Icelandic life (no really), through the hard won experience of working as a probation officer, to the realities of life as a police officer and why the world’s worst bank robber carried his bicycle seat with him.


Icelandic author Yrsa proudly sported her country’s football shirt!

I attended a crime scene brought to life from The Moth Catcher novel by Ann Cleeves, in Pan Macmillan’s Would you make a good detective?

A fascinating forensics and crime scene experience, I also got to don a Tyvek body suit, mask and gloves in 26C+ degree heat! I really enjoyed trying my hand at 21st century crime scene forensics with the pros, before stepping back into the 20th century to consider the Legacy of the Golden Age [of crime fiction] with Simon Brett, Catriona McPherson, Susan Ware, Frances Brody and Ann Granger.

For me the most compelling session was Gerald Seymour in conversation with Joe Haddow. The publication of Gerald’s first thriller Harry’s Game was truly ground breaking. Quietly spoken and unassuming it was obvious from the moment that he began to speak that he had a gift for the telling of tales. His years as an ITV correspondent covering stories around the globe provided a fertile breeding ground for his extraordinary and productive imagination that has so far created no less than 32 books. His approach and his insights were an inspiration.


I only managed to be there from Thursday to Saturday, but whether you come to the Festival to be entertained, to learn, to meet up with old friends or to make new ones – you won’t be disappointed. It would be a crime to miss it.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm

One a penny, two a penny…

 Recipe  Comments Off on One a penny, two a penny…
Apr 122014

Spiced Stout Sourdough Hot Cross Buns

Makes about 10 buns


160ml Guinness (or other stout, or water)

75g sourdough starter

¾ tsp ginger

¾ tsp cinnamon

¾ tsp allspice

400g strong white flour

125g raisins

125g sultanas

100ml hot black tea

1 egg, beaten

25g melted butter

25g sugar

½ tsp salt

(plus 1tbsp plain flour for the crosses and 1tbsp sugar for the glaze)


The evening before baking: whisk together the stout and the sourdough starter in a large bowl and stir in spices and 125g of the strong white flour. In a separate bowl mix the raisins, sultanas and the hot black tea. Cover and leave overnight, in the morning the sourdough batter will have swollen.

The next day: mix the beaten egg and melted butter through the plumped up fruit, then stir the fruit into the spiced beer sourdough batter. Mix in the rest of the flour, sugar and salt and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Then stretch the dough and leave at room temperature for 30 minutes, covered with a clean, damp tea towel. Stretch the dough again and leave for another 30 minutes. Take the dough out of the bowl to fold, then return it to the bowl and leave it for an hour. Fold the dough again and leave once more for around 2 hours. Now the dough can be shaped.

Here’s a short video clip, from Weekend Bakery, showing the stretch and fold technique.

Weigh out roughly 100g balls of dough. Roll them in your hands then pinch them into a rough boule shape. Place them on a baking tray lined with baking parchment so that each bun is just touching. Leave the buns at room temperature, covered with a tea towel, for 3-4 hours until fully risen.

When the buns are nearly ready, heat the oven to 180C fan. Mix a little plain flour with water to form a paste, the consistency needs to be soft enough to pipe. Pipe crosses over the hot cross buns and then bake the buns for 25 minutes until golden. Mix a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of boiling water and brush over the buns while they’re still hot to give that traditional shiny glaze.

Once cool break them apart, cut in half, toast, butter and enjoy.

 Posted by at 12:13 pm

Christmas Sourdough Stollen

 Recipe  Comments Off on Christmas Sourdough Stollen
Dec 152013

I’ve not posted on the blog for ages, been busy with the day job, but as I’ve started baking with sourdough starter instead of commercial yeasts I decided to try and adjust the old stollen recipe:

Sourdough Stollen

Makes 2 medium loaves


100g sultanas

75g currants

50g blanched almonds, chopped

30g chopped candied peel

60ml dark rum

325g white bread flour

½ tsp salt

35g caster sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

150g active wheat sourdough starter (made with equal parts flour and water)

1 egg, lightly beaten

70ml lukewarm milk

70g butter, melted

225g almond paste

melted butter, for brushing

icing sugar, for dusting


The evening before: you want to make the stollen you need to do two things:

Soak the fruit and peel in the rum (don’t add more liquid than recipe as will mean fruit becomes too wet to incorporate into the dough). Cover and leave until the next day.

Take 150 g of refreshed sourdough starter and add 70ml of milk, 165g flour and 5g of caster sugar. You need to work this as it will be hard to incorporate the flour. Cover it and leave it at least 12 hours, if not 16.

Next day: to the (now bubbly) pre-dough add the sugar, cinnamon, salt, egg, melted butter and rest of the flour. Adjust the amount of flour added to the final dough so that it is soft but manageable, a typical bun dough. If the dough is too slack add a bit of flour, if it is too stiff add more melted butter. The dough must be soft almost like a brioche dough. Using the dough hook (or by hand) knead this for a good 10 minutes.

Remove the mixer bowl complete with dough, cover and leave in a warm place to rise for 1½ hours, or until doubled in size.

Using the dough hook, knock back and briefly knead the dough on speed 1 for 45-60 seconds. Turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and roll into a 2.5cm thick rectangle. Sprinkle over the soaked fruits and almonds. Fold and knead repeatedly to incorporate the fruit and nuts. Divide the dough into two equal pieces and then roll into two 15 x 20cm ovals. Roll the centre slightly thinner than the edges.

Roll the almond paste into a 18cm long sausage shape and place along the centre of the dough. Fold the dough over to enclose it, making sure the top edge is set back slightly from the base edge. Press down to seal.

Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cover and leave to rise in warm place for 60-90 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190°C/170C fan.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when the base is tapped. Immediately brush the tops with melted butter, and drench with icing sugar then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Either wrap loaf in foil, or put in a air-tight box and leave for a week or so, then dust again with icing sugar before eating.

Almond Paste

Makes 225g


115g ground almonds

55g icing sugar

55g caster sugar

½ lightly beaten egg (not too much or paste too sticky)

½ tsp lemon juice

2-3 drops of vanilla extract


Place all the ingredients in the mixing bowl. Using the K Beater on minimum speed, mix together until the ingredients bind together to form a paste.

Transfer to a work surface lightly dusted with icing sugar and knead into a ball. Cover until ready to use.


Merry Christmas everybody!

 Posted by at 10:39 am