Isn’t this a mysterious image? Every afternoon, slightly earlier every day now as the days get longer, this design floats across the wall in our front hallway, reflected from the stained glass window in the front door. A little bit of accidental magic, every day.
No one appreciates the spring sun more than Tacy.
Except perhaps for Keechie.
I have a confession to make, one which would make my daughter sever all ties with me if she knew: I really like exam season, hers, that is. And since this is our last one, I’ll explain why: she’s home all the time, which as flying-the-nest fast approaches, is a very luxurious thing. Although I’m really not meant to distract her, it’s frightfully easy when she’s sitting with her piles of books just to mention something I wanted to ask her, her opinion about something, what she’d like for dinner. And she’s right there. Very pleasant.
Mind you, not so much for her.
What a funny week it’s been! A sort of glimpse into the future when Avery’s not living here anymore, in fact. I’ll explain.
We’ve been to Zurich, just the two of us, John and I, for a whirlwind, exhausting, exciting, expensive, delicious two days and two nights. What a thrill just to hop on a plane, and 90 minutes later land in Switzerland, a night flight, so that our walk to the hotel from the airport was a glorious tour of the darkened, but glittery, great city.
I can’t remember the last time I was in a proper hotel — a desperately awful motel at JFK the night before a flight does not count! This one, the Hotel Helmhaus in the very centre of the city, was quite, quite perfect, with gorgeous white sheets and a chocolately soft throw, a gorgeous bathroom and fantastically helpful staff. A total luxury, a birthday gift from my mother. What an escape.
In the morning, we headed out to explore our neighborhood, dominated by the massive Grossmunster church.
The doors are decorated in a kind of 20th century reference to the Baroque doors by Ghiberti in Florence, these distinctively childlike depictions by the great Otto Munch.
And the views from the top of the tower? (We puffed.) Simply glorious.
John looked so happy, sitting by a little interior window, catching his breath.
Then we meandered over to the intensely beautiful Fraumunster Church, home to a collection of the most sublime stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. How I wish I could have taken pictures of these glowing, lively, celebratory windows, but such is not allowed. You must look online at how stunning they are, impossibly colorful and happy, despite the obviously complex messages within.
Nothing was ordinary.
What a joy to see something new.
A gurgle of water, but extraordinary.
And everywhere messages that I could not read. How frustrating to be such a failure at German, as it happens.
And can I just tell you how obsessed Zurich is with Easter? A veritable riot of chocolate, bunnies, and chocolate bunnies, this one from the famous chocolatier Sprungli (we may have done a bit of work for the Easter Bunny here).
Everywhere were displays, and not just candy or flowers, but whole installations, this one of tiny, delicate tin animals, out for a day in the country.
I couldn’t help myself: I went inside and found a tiny Steiff hedghog for Avery, and an unexpected display of Christmas ornaments. My choices are packed away carefully for December, now, having been brought home in hand luggage.
There was a nunnery.
And then we arrived at our destination, the purpose of this whole Swiss adventure: a visit to the Tamedia building, a seemingly simple newspaper office in the centre of the city. Designed by the architect who’s going to be building our dream house, on our small plot of land. At first it was hard to imagine what this building could possibly have in common with a family home.
Inside, however, the magic was instantly visible.
What seemed at first glance to be merely a beautiful office building revealed, gradually, details of absolute genius. The supporting columns made of laminated spruce, the unexpected floor of polished Swiss river stones.
The lobby is furnished with chairs and tables using the recycled paper tubes that our architect is famous for: he’s built entire villages to benefit refugees of environmental disasters, using these tubes.
They are incredibly stylish. And such good, good things. Maybe he will build some for us.
I feel really excited, hopeful, for the first time, about our eventual house. With the warmth of the spruce, the inventiveness of the floors, the civic-mindedness and yet sheer beauty of the furnishings, I can really see this building translated into a proper home: gorgeous but welcoming, and a perfect backdrop for our books, and art, brought out of storage at long last. Our guide seemed very happy at our happiness.
And John was just absolutely thrilled.
Sigh of relief, and of expectation.
We said our goodbyes and went directly to a Vietnamese restaurant we had spied on our way to Tamedia, Saigon.
I ended up with a beautiful plate of green curried chicken with bamboo shoots, SUPER hot peppers and a creamy coconut milk sauce, heaven. John had noodles for which he was offered, mercifully, a bib, to protect his snowy white shirt. We ate ourselves silly, then meandered home to the hotel to put our feet up for just a bit. Except that of course I’d left my phone at the restaurant, so with misgivings John gave me his, pointed me to Google maps, and said goodbye as if he’d never see me again.
I had fun, taking more pictures.
I found the only bookshelf in the world I didn’t want to bring home.
Who lives down these little streets, in perfect Swiss style? I want to, someday.
When I returned, safe and sound, we went back out, into the slightly sprinkly, damp afternoon, to explore again.
I bought new shoes, gorgeous Thierry Rabotin classic laceups, and also a nice springy pair of loafers. Shoe shopping is always a winner. We passed the famous Cabaret Voltaire, unbelievably still in business just shy of 100 years after its formation as the home of Dadaism. Shades of my art historical youth!
After a most welcome cocktail back at the hotel, we headed out in the rain, by romantic tram, to dinner, at Stefs, a restaurant John had chosen because all the most glowing reviews online were… written in German. A present from John’s mom for his birthday, this was a much-awaited event because as you know, we NEVER go out for dinner. I go to lunch with friends, we occasionally go to lunch together, but dinner? Out? Just the two of us? Never. It was an epic meal.
Our maitre d’ explained the menu to us, pointing out in perfect, beautifully accented English that all the produce, most especially the meat, comes from their farm in the Swiss countryside. “We call the meat, how do you say, ‘lucky meat.’ This is why it tastes so very good. It has been a lucky life, for these meats.”
We began with a very modern (and lucky) steak tartare, served with the requisite hard-boiled, grated quail’s yolk, but then most fusion-y with a harissa cream and tiny leaves of baby chicory (I had to ask), and a spoonful of rich, caramelised onion relish. Perfectly textured steak in a portion that left us wanting more, shades of our Prague adventure last year. Then onto what was described to us as a curry soup, but was OH so much more than that. A gentle, delicate, subtly flavored creamy broth (more coconut milk, twice in one day!) with, floating demurely, tiny slivers of exotic mushrooms, carrots and celeriac. How I wish I could make such a thing. Again, we clamored for more.
And then a main course of pork fillet, with a smooth, tender texture we’d never quite experienced before, with quenelles of creamy mashed potato and two perfectly cooked stalks of asparagus, all with a morel mushroom sauce (our only complaint was that we wanted more sauce, but we could be simply greedy). Dessert was a more elegant version of something I might make: a mango yogurt with a surprise of chocolate ice cream buried inside, topped with a crumble. Simple and much homelier than the three savoury courses, leading me to suspect that the chef has about as much interest in posh desserts as I have: very little. A lovely end to a quite perfect meal.
But it wasn’t the end! Because I had asked so dag-nabbit many questions during the meal, the lovely maitre d’ , Meinrad Schlatter, fetched the chef! And I was able to shake the hand of the man who had provided us with such a magical parade of flavors. Stefan Wieser, a genius plain and simple.
What a cook. What a kitchen! “I see you cook with gas,” I said, with a sly glance toward my husband who aspires to more technological methods of applying heat to food. “Oh, yes, always with the gas,” Stef assured me. Thank you.
We talked about the meal all the way home — the ambience of the small restaurant (seating just 20 or so people, and we the only non-Swiss as far as we could tell), the simplicity of the menu. Perhaps I could have a small restaurant if I could limit the choices to just a few. We had the tasting menu, but there were only three more dishes on offer, plus Meinrad’s special cheese board (I was tempted, but even I have my limits).
What heaven to fall into the bed — made up perfectly by NOT ME — with a book and a digestif, looking around the elegant room, feeling a little bit of the me I was before I was a mother, creep back into my bones. Maybe, just maybe, there is life after the child flies the nest.
In the morning we had nothing special planned — and who needs anything more special than the day before had been ! — so after a spectacular scrambled egg breakfast at the Helmhaus (why are foreign cold cuts so much more splendid than anything you can get at home?), we ambled out and off on the tram to take a look at Lake Zurich. Most fascinating to me was this tiny, public water park. Can you imagine an American lake daring to offer such an array of unprotected, fantastically dangerous-looking water features, for anyone to use in ignorance and then sue someone for? Charming!
Every bit of this climbing structure stretches over concrete surfaces just begging to have a head crack upon them. And diving boards! Even private HOTELS in America have jettisoned them all, in fear of lawsuits. What a shame. These looked very inviting.
Well, perhaps not on that very day.
Fancy a slide?
The whole place seemed to me emblematic of the Zurich frame of mind: simple beauty everywhere and an effortless sense of style, as well as a calm, peaceful enjoyment of life. I could just imagine the scene on a hot summer day, perfect little Swiss children running sedately to and fro, while their gorgeously fashionable and eminently calm parents looked on. Munching on Swiss chocolate, no doubt, and congratulating themselves on their determined and peaceful neutrality. If there is something not to like about life in Switzerland, we didn’t see it on our trip to Zurich.
We popped on the tram again to try to find what was billed as the “Shoreditch of Zurich,” that is to say the sort of hipster neighborhood. We didn’t find it, but I did stumble across this gorgeous food shop, Bascher, causing literally the only moment of the entire trip when I wished I had a kitchen. Oh, the fresh meats and cheeses, the glorious profusion of pastas, dried mushrooms, preserved meats. I did bring home some preserved Swiss pastrami-like beef, but that only tormented me for more.
We whiled away the afternoon aimlessly, just enjoying each other’s company and the foreign sights to behold on every corner.
Finally it was time to go home. We slipped into the lounge at the airport to indulge in a little pile of brown bread sandwiches, featuring — again — the simplest of ingredients, but the best: Swiss cheeses, little pickles, little local salamis. And home to Avery.
Who promptly left for Dublin on a school trip! We barely overlapped, which means on top of our Zurich sojourn without her, we also had four days at home without her. I’m getting used to it. But I myself took off on Saturday morning on a quixotic journey by train to Bath, to have lunch with my friend Sam and then — the purpose of the adventure — to meet up with my beautiful friend Laurie’s handsome son Christian, here all the way from South Africa to… play hockey. I can’t make this stuff up. He gallantly risked embarrassment in front of his mates to pose for a photograph with me, which gave his mother, so far away, immense pleasure.
Christian and his mother had been our guests, you’ll remember, five years and one house ago, for a memorable, fun-filled visit. Now, so much older, more mature, and TALLER, Christian hasn’t really changed a bit. Still with gorgeous manners, a ready smile, and a zest for life. Laurie should be terribly proud. “I hear congratulations are in order,” he said with unbelievable poise. “Avery is off to Oxford, well done!” What a wonderful boy.
After all, the point of all this parenthood is to set them free, isn’t it — whether to Dublin or to Bath — to watch them pack up their suitcases and their experience and set off on their own. It’s a bit like that old story of bringing a pot of water to boil with a frog in it: the boiling process happens so gradually that he’s cooked before he knows it. Of course it seems like five minutes ago that Avery was 13, that Christian was 10, days when their flying off for their own adventures would have been unthinkable. But it happens. And if John’s and my life over the last week is any indication, the future looks bright for all of us.
Until today, I would have said that the English air held an unmistakable warmth of spring. Then I got onto my bike for yoga and positively froze this morning! But a beautiful, crisp day, reminiscent of Saturday’s “Women’s Head of the River Race” on the Thames. Fourth from the left in this photo is the divine Sarah Weaver, in from Cambridge, our houseguest from the evening before. We screamed ourselves silly when she went by. We felt very cool to know someone in the race, and sat with our coffee on the river’s edge, watching the spectacle.
It’s just lovely living so near to the Thames. Someday I will succeed in getting a photograph of the river rolling by outside my bedroom window. In the meantime, all I can do is assure you how hypnotic it is, with the lights glittering over the tidal movement.
Spring, however chilly, has been delicious. I could not have predicted how relaxing it would be to enjoy Life After Cookbook, picking up the threads of my social existence that had been put rather on hold in favor of things like acquiring ISBNs, import licences, writing an index, mailing hundreds of books. We’ve had time to enjoy the frequent visits of dear Cressie, the neighbor cat who defines “fluff.”
Cressie appears in the garden, meowing silently outside the glass door, desperate for some love. Of course, neighborhood opinion is divided between those of us who think of her as Cressie and those of us who think of her as Oscar. It’s not important.
Last week I meandered into Bloomsbury to meet my friend Jen at the phenomenally delicious Honey and Co., brainchild of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, Middle Eastern chefs extraordinaire. We sat down to the crunchiest cinnamon-flecked, sesame-covered falafel to start, and progressed to a sort of lamb and cauliflower shepherd’s pie with a yogurt and sesame crust. But the star of the lunch was the fresh, grilled sardines, my first ever. Stuffed with herbs and intensely lemony, these small fishes were a revelation. We ate every single bit.
Jen is the ultimate food-loving lunch companion, matching me for obsessiveness bite for bite. We take forever over every dish, analyzing ingredients, combinations of flavors, textures. It’s a great deal of fun, for us (and it means no one else has to put up with us).
I popped into this incredible bookstore on the way home. My theatre-loving friends and family would simply be in heaven, being able to do that.
Simply shelf after shelf of dear Shakespeare.
Why not come home with chocolate bars named for Shakespearean heroines? Truly clever to have the sea salt chocolate named for Miranda, don’t you think?
From that sublime afternoon, it was wonderful to get on the cosy local Southwest train the next day to visit my friend Catherine — in from Philadelphia again, just a month after she was here for my book launch! She was in town to look after her nephews, two of the sweetest boys on the planet. Together with Catherine’s daughter Mimi, we wore those little boys out building train tracks, running to the park. Mimi displayed her squirrel-like climbing skills.
Artie watched in adoring astonishment.
Catherine and I sat peaceably by, secure in the knowledge that we were no longer expected to climb, run, jump or slide. We wondered to each other if we had been able to appreciate our own children as effortlessly as we’re able to enjoy other people’s now, with relaxation and simple enjoyment. Why did we spend so much time in those days planning for what came next — the next nap, meal, activity — instead of revelling in the moment. At least now we’re able to enjoy each other unfettered.
When I succeed in making Catherine’s delectable dark chocolate coconut bars, I will let you know.
On the way home we took time to note the very strict neighborhood dog-walking strictures. Otis is indignant that anyone thinks four dogs are an appropriate limit.
I left their cosy, boyish household, feeling quite envious. The best thing to do was to distract myself with another girly lunch, this time with my boon companion Sue, recent Elf at my birthday bash. I met her in Sloane Square, surely one of the richest atmospheres in the world. For a brief moment, it was fun and luxurious to be surrounded with so many rich-looking people, such beautiful architecture, so many shops filled with beautiful things.
I bought some satin shorts for Avery and gorgeous leggings for myself at my new favorite shop, Club Monaco. Just a treat. What fun for someone who is a rubbish shopper, as a rule.
On to lunch! This time at Rabbit, a sister restaurant to the immensely popular Shed, with the same ethos of extreme seasonality — as in weekly! — and foraging. Three brothers run the vineyard, farm and kitchen of the restaurant, while the father wrote the text for their gorgeous cookbook. And how we ate! You can order little tiny dishes called, appropriately “mouthfuls,” for £1.50, and we took full advantage: endive with goats cheese and pomegranate jam, rabbit rillettes on tiny cheese crackers. Then we proceeded to duck liver tempura, beetroot-cured trout with caviar and shaved beets, veal “stogies,” which were a fabulous concoction of shredded confit meat wrapped in wontons and deep-fried. Heaven! So inspiring.
What fun to sit with a dear friend, savoring unlikely and inventive flavors, solving the world’s problems, then to come home to cook dinner myself, something intensely savory and comforting. This is a variation of the veal chops recipe in our cookbook. It’s also very good with chicken, and with even more mushrooms and a vegetable stock, could easily be a marvellous vegetarian dish.
Pork Tenderloin in a Creamy Mushroom and Madeira sauce
(serves 4 with leftovers)
2 tbsps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and fresh black pepper
2 small pork tenderloins, completely trimmed of fat and gristle
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 leaves sage, roughly chopped
1 shallot, finely minced
1 dozen mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 tbsp flour
more butter if needed
1 1/2 cup/375ml beef stock
good splash Madeira or Marsala
1/2 cup/ 118 ml creme fraiche or sour cream
Heat the butter and oil together in a large frying pan with the salt and pepper until they stop foaming, then fry the tenderloins about 2 minutes per side so they get nicely browned. Remove to a plate, then fry the garlic, sage, shallots and mushrooms until soft. Remove to the plate with the pork, taking care to leave as much of the butter and oil behind as possible. Sprinkle the flour onto this fat, adding more butter if needed to make a stiff paste. Whisk in the beef stock and Madeira until the sauce is thickened, then add the creme fraiche and whisk well. Put the pork and mushrooms, along with any juices left on the plate, back into the frying pan and simmer in the sauce until the pork is cooked through. This will take between 10–20 minutes depending on the thickness of the tenderloin. When cooked, turn off the heat and remove the pork from the frying pan and slice into thick slices, then return them to the sauce and heat through. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.
This dish is delightfully comforting. Perfect for winter, or for spring that is acting like winter a bit past its prime.
I spent a beautiful lunch with my friend Claire and her two boys, watching them devour my smoked and roasted salmon mousse, little slices of those French crispy toasts, radishes, butter and salt. Claire and I discussed whether or not I, as a foreigner, should begin using British words in order to fit in. Something in me balks — as if it would be fake — at using terms like “mate,” “bloke,” or “blimey.” “Oh, blimey’s one of my favorites,” Claire laughed, but then it can be, she’s got the most sublime Belfast accent. But me? I’d feel like a fake. When she uses words like “sarky,” which I thought meant “snarky” but turns out to be an abbreviation of “sarcastic,” I just wish, wish to be Northern Irish.
“What does ‘mardy’ mean?” I asked.
“Now that, I don’t know,” she said. It turns out to mean “grumpy” or “moody,” so it seems a very useful word to know, especially if I travel to the North where it is common usage.
Before I left, it seemed like a very good idea to put the babies into my bag. They seemed to enjoy it. Freddie first…
I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the babies or Claire and me. You simply cannot have a care in the world when these two boys are around!
March has been very good to me, here in our London lives. As much as Avery’s life, lately, is a combination of stressful and boring (exam preparations), I selfishly enjoy these weeks when she spends a lot of time at home, curled up on the sofa with piles of notes and books, entertaining things to read about Ireland and Phillip II aloud to us, questions to ask. It is terribly hard to believe that next year, her spot on the sofa will be empty. It’s important to enjoy every cosy moment, however incomprehensible are many of the things that she reads aloud. I finally do understand “Ulsterisation,” but it took awhile.
Next week will see us in Zurich for a short architectural tour, so watch this space. Will it be delicious? I will let you know.
I sit here on my sofa with the thin March sun at my back, nursing a cold, feeling a heavy, warm cat draped over my legs. The back garden sports its colorful expanse of spring flowers, the emergence of which took us by such surprise last year, our first spring in this house. As my American friends, especially my family in Indiana and Iowa, describe the constant snowfalls and frigid temperatures, I’m torn between gratitude at the mild beauty here, and a bit of envy of a real winter.
As always, the annoyance of being felled by a cold is assuaged by the beauty of a pot of chicken soup.
Just as medicinal as the ambrosial, golden soup is the relief of climbing into bed with a good book, in my cosy bedroom, from whose window I can see the Thames, feathery in the wind. Surrounded by books and lovely candlelight, I often wish bedtime could last for hours.
The fanfare of “Tonight at 7.30″ has evolved into a gentler, daily pleasure, of finding new reviews on Amazon, having friends ring me up to say they’ve seen a story about it in the darling London magazine “Angels and Urchins.” Then, too, the local bookshop rings up to say they’ve run out of copies and could I bring another stack? Most certainly. Every morning my email inbox and Facebook pages are full of reports of what’s been cooked and how it was received, and just the pleasure of leafing through the book almost as fiction, as in this lovely blog review. I love the idea of Avery and me being a “dream team.”
Now that the book is a reality, I’ve been able to turn my attention away from that constant responsibility and give some time to the other things I love, namely bell ringing. Or to be precise, what should be the annual — but is never such — job of Cleaning the Bell Tower. Hoovering dangerously under the bells in the belfry, the winding and perilous staircase, the carpet under our ringing feet, clearing out the deceptively small cupboard. Who would ever dream that it takes quite so much clobber to run a ringing chamber? Ringing instruction booklets, bandages for sore hands, thumbtacks for special notices, back issues of “The Ringing World,” which is, believe it or not, a weekly report on ringing doings. We made a good job of it, in the dust-motey sunshine in church.
What happy memories I have of this teaching tool, the colorful yarns tracing our methods.
There is something terribly touching about this weekly prayer, said every Sunday by someone in the Tower, so simple and sincere.
The boxes on which small ringers stand now and then were found to be housing quite a number of spiders. It was time for a brush-off in the fresh air, alongside the various signs we need to communicate with visitors to the bell chamber.
How lucky I felt to spend the day there, like a character in an Agatha Christie novel. Our fearless leader, the lovely tower captain Trisha, would be such a fantastic character.
I’ve also had time for some much-needed new cooking ideas! The cookbook is filled, of course, with our family favorites, and every time I cook one of them I feel a surge of pride that the book is really just what it says on the tin: recipes we use all the time, with such happy memories of dinner at 7.30. But at a certain point, even the most beloved and delicious list of favorite dishes needs an infusion of fresh flavors. And with Avery’s wish to eat more fish, we delved into something truly delectable last week. Keep in mind that these are my photographs, as Avery has accepted a well-deserved early retirement.
Baked English Trout with Lemon and Thyme
4 fillets English trout
zest of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
4 sprigs thyme, leaves only
splash white wine
drizzle olive oil
fresh black pepper and sea salt
Line a baking dish with foil and arrange the fish fillets in a single layer. If you can’t find English trout (if for example you live in America), you can substitute any delicate white fish, like sole.
Sprinkle evenly over each fillet all the remaining ingredients, then bake at 220C/425F for about 8 minutes, or slightly longer if the fillets are thick. Do not overcook.
This dish was delicious with a side offering of sauteed bright peppers and broccoli, tossed with bean sprouts and soy sauce.
And because we are only three, we had a fillet leftover next day for lunch. Inspired by my friend Camille, who reported making my crab cakes (pp. 108–9 in the cookbook) with roasted salmon instead of crab, I decided a trout cake was just the thing. Simply mixed by fork with minced red peppers, spring onions, Panko breadcrumbs and a spoonful of mayonnaise, then sauteed in olive oil. Simply heavenly, and RICH.
Then I was given a fantastic new idea by a re-read of one of my old favorites on the cookbook shelf, “Taste” by David Rosengarten. His prose simply makes you want to rush to the supermarket and fill your basket with a worldwide list of ingredients, and come home to cook all day. While I probably will never be brave enough to cut off the face of a soft-shell crab, I certainly was capable of preparing a version of his “Hacked Chicken,” a Szechuan speciality. “Hacked” is just a cheffy term for shredded, really. I added ginger and lots of it, because I love ginger, and I left out his suggested brown peppercorns because I didn’t have any, but the basic premise is David’s.
Hacked Chicken on a Lettuce Leaf
4 chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2-inch knob ginger, peeled
100ml/1/3 cup dark soy sauce (the dark sort really makes a difference, if you can find it, but if you can’t, regular soy sauce is fine)
100 ml/1/3 cup Japanese mirin or dry sherry
100 ml/1/3 cup clear honey
12 tbsps/3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 bunch spring onions, thinly sliced including green parts
2 heads butter/Little Gem lettuce, leaves separated and washed
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add the chicken breasts. Turn water down to a high simmer and cook the breasts until “just past pink” David says. This will take about 10–15 minutes. It won’t hurt the chicken a bit to cut into the middle to see if it’s cooked through. Drain the chicken in a colander and run cold water over it to stop it cooking. Set aside to cool.
Now place all the other ingredients except the spring onions and lettuce in a small food processor or blender and blend until smooth.
Shred the chicken fairly finely by tearing in long strips along the grain of the meat. Place in a bowl and pour the sauce over. Toss well, and serve topped by the spring onions, in lettuce leaves.
What makes this dish interesting, as David says, is that the chicken is not marinated in the sauce. The chicken is plain, simple and delicate. The sauce merely coats it, and since it’s not a cooked sauce, it’s terribly fresh and light. It’s nice to know that every once in awhile, I can cook something that doesn’t depend on butter! This would (and will) be the perfect dish for a Lost Property lunch, because it can easily be doubled or even tripled. Savoury, unusual, delicious.
It’s impossible to cook, or eat, these days without being incredibly grateful for the luxury of having enough. This viewpoint has been enhanced by my new volunteer job: spending cold Friday mornings in a shed at the local Food Bank!
What fun it is to bundle up and ride my bike to the shed and spend a few hours organising the different sorts of tinned and boxed fish, vegetables, waxy cartons of juice and milk, boxes of tea and coffee, bags of pasta and rice. Families turn up with vouchers from various neighborhood organisations and my friend Francesca and I frantically fill up bags and weigh them, then deliver them to the warm cafe where the clients are enjoying a cup of coffee and a chat with local volunteers.
“You’re the first volunteer I’ve had,” Francesca said laughing, “who reads the ingredients on all the food, not just the ‘best-by’ date.” I confess that I do obsess over the ingredients, and was pleasantly surprised to find that so much prepared food in England really contains no rubbish. And then there’s the inimitably British sense of design.
Life has been further enhanced by a visit from my young friend Sam, recipe tester and editor extraordinaire, who came for dinner and to spent the night.
We trooped off to church together in the morning so Sam could see and hear me ring. I like to think he was terribly impressed.
So life moseys along in these quiet weeks of late winter. More to be grateful for than I could ever wish. Happy spring, everyone!
We all know that life is a roller coaster. Sometimes on the downward bits of the ride, we’d like to get off, saying, “Actually, this sort of up and down experience doesn’t suit me. I’ll go for the bumper cars instead, as I’m quite able to handle hard knocks. It’s the ups and downs I can’t deal with.” But life doesn’t give us the option to change rides in the middle of the fair.
What life does do, however, is give us, every once in awhile, a massive upward trajectory, and a chance to hover at the top of the track, with a heady sense of oxygen and a clear view of everything below: where we’ve been, how high we had to climb to get where we are now.
The last few weeks have seen me all over the damn ride. But I’m on a definite high now, with my beloved “Tonight at 7.30″ getting glowing reviews on both Amazon US and Amazon UK. Life doesn’t get much happier than that.
But let’s go backwards, through this mad month of mine. You definitely need a bit of a glimpse of last week’s half-term “holiday.”
How long has it been since you were in a position to spend four days in a remote country district without internet, television or telephone, unless you got in a car and drove five miles? Before you answer that, how long has it been since you were in said situation, and then the car was driven away by your husband, leaving you and your offspring in the misty Devon countryside in a massive 18th century stone house? I give you: The Library.
Of course in this photo we’ve just arrived, with all the clobber we (I) seem to require to leave home: several thick sweaters, Wellies, candles and candlesticks, a popcorn maker, an immersion blender, my special salt. And John was there to settle us in, and to look quite Lord of the Manor as he did so.
The first day was lovely. The sky dawned unbelievably blue. Here is our view from the main house to the “Orangery” where Avery slept. Yes, Mom (my mother was totally disbelieving when I revealed this to her): we actually made Avery sleep in an outbuilding. An unheated outbuilding. Hey, we brought along an electric blanket! And under this bright blue sky, it seemed quite reasonable. Really. It was only after John left, and the skies opened and the temperature dropped right down, that we realised it had been a bit mad. Here was her “room.”
As befits an Orangery, there was an orange.
At least the original glass ceiling had long-since given way and be replaced with a normal roof. Can you imagine the temperature with a glass ceiling?
When we planned our Devon getaway a few weeks ago, we didn’t reckon with the arrival in London of our fabulous architect from Paris, who would want to spend the middle of the week with his beloved client, poring over drawings and large-scale models of our dream home. But we had made our plans, and so we went, agreeing that John would leave halfway through the week, and Avery and I would stay on, just the two of us for a couple of days, and relax.
It was a mind-boggling contrast to the multi-tasking-on-steroids way I usually live my life, the peaceful week in the wilds of Devon. I could tend my fire, or I could cook, or I could read. That’s all. We watched and listened to the native birds flying from one ancient tree to another, from the wide window seats, admiring the carved stone accoutrements on the facade.
We read aloud funny bits from whatever book had taken our fancy. Avery and I have had particular fun since she discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, as I’ve memorized nearly all of his adventures in detection.
She would begin reading aloud, and I chimed in with portions of dialogue. “Lord Saint George says that he gate-crashed your acquaintance, destroyed your property, and that you instantly concluded he must be a relation of mine.” “…bumblin’ away like a bumble-bee in a bottle…” John rolled his eyes.
Well, he did do, until he drove away leaving us utterly becalmed in that isolated place! I honestly felt a bit of a panic attacking doing my food shopping, knowing that for 48 hours I would have absolutely NO Plan B, short of calling 999, and even I recognize that running out of butter is probably not a real emergency.
Avery brought back her belongings from the quaint but cavernous and unheated “Orangery” and I devoted myself to keeping the fire up so she could stay warm.
The last two nights she slept in the equally cavernous but heated main room of the “Library,” with its cherry-red walls and crackling fire. There was a wild kitty sighting! A striped and curlicued creature with pointed and attentive ears, perched below the ha-ha. When he met our eyes, he ran like the wind, tearing around the ancient yew trees to a safe haven somewhere. The last morning, sitting in the window seat drying my hair, I saw him again, but limping this time. We put out roast chicken for him.
Said roast chicken embodied for me the thrift that always comes over me in those shivery, old-fashioned English country holidays in a Landmark Trust house. You roast the chicken for dinner one night, with rich potatoes dauphinoise. The next lunch, you shred the chicken and sauté the two dishes together for a rich sort of hash. Then, the next lunch, you pile juicy scraps on buttered toast along with thick slices of sweet onion. Then you put out the final shreds for the cat. All from a small, unpretentious kitchen containing everything you need. Naturally I travel with my own apron.
Oh, the stars! We were so far out in the countryside that the stars seemed to be a kind of quilt or blanket that we’d thrown over us to make a fort, like we used to do with dining room chairs. The stars were so close! And the longer we stood, shivering, pulling our sweaters around us, the more appeared. I feel sad that there cannot be a photograph of this experience, the sight of the stars mingling with the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of a thick cashmere cardigan.
But by the time Friday came, Avery and I were ready to leave behind rustic country charm. Modern women can exist only so long in a world where email can be checked only at unpredictable times under one particularly drippy tree, in the cold rain.
We came home, via taxi, two trains, a tube ride and another taxi. I found that while we were away, Facebook had simply exploded with everyone’s photos of the cookbook arriving in their homes, dishes they were cooking, their joy at finally having it in their hands, after so many months of anticipation. Kickstarter had made it all such fun, such a community project. All my friends and family, all over the world, such a unique support system, had got their rewards.
The last month has exceeded beyond my wildest dreams the sheer FUN of letting “Tonight at 7.30” loose on the world. Since I last updated you all on what was happening, EVERYTHING has happened. Seven years of patient labor, not to mention about six months of absolute flat-out devotion, paid off in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of when I first set out to “write a cookbook.”
The most important thing to remember is that without Avery, and her extraordinary photographic abilities, what had been my dream would likely have stayed just that, a dream. Until she picked up her camera and made my food beautiful, and made my rather lonely project a partnership, I could never find the focus I needed just to get the book DONE, not to matter out there in the world. She gave the project a shape, and a purpose. I can never say enough to thank her for that.
On the 22nd of January, the books arrived! Twenty-three beautiful cardboard cartons, all the way from China, emblazoned with “Tonight at 7.30” and some excitingly exotic characters which were eventually translated by a Chinese friend as “last box has seven copies.”
“Did you open them?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Oh, please can I have one, or maybe more?”
“Well, yes, but why on earth are you acting like this?” I put a copy of the book in her hands.
“Oh. I meant the potato snacks, you know, from Poland, the ones you ordered for me from Amazon?”
Now it all made sense.
The UPS guy really WAS excited, though, when he arrived, to put my cartons on his dolly and play his role in my little drama. “I’ll look after these babies for you!”
And then began the final stretch of Project Cookbook. Every day, Avery and I signed copies for the lovely people who had ordered them.
It probably didn’t occur to me when I blithely made that offer on Kickstarter – “a signed copy and an apron”! — that I’d have to mail them all myself.
John popped off to Paris for a couple of days to see his architect, leaving me slightly overwhelmed but quite happy to get down to the business of folding and packing.
By the time I was finished, I felt overqualified for a job at the Gap. Then I realized that I don’t drive. A lovely car service came to get me and my piles of books. I had a grubby little piece of paper on which was written the numbers of parcels going to America, to Europe, to South Africa, to Australia. I was the Post Office’s employee’s worst nightmare. “How much will this cost to send to Spain? Because I need five of whatever that is, and 22 to America, and…” The poor lady definitely would have benefited from working on commission, that day.
On the way home from the post office, I thought, “You need a treat. You need something just for YOU.” When Avery came in from school, I asked, “Do you want to share a treat with me, the thing I most wanted as a reward for a job well-done?” And I offered up a plate of crispy, salty roasted guinea fowl SKIN. Just the skin! We could eat the real meat another time, but that afternoon, we sat on the sofa together eating that skin and feeling quite, quite happy. That was a good day to remember.
John came home from Paris with drawings of our dream home, and I felt terribly emotional, sitting in our candlelit living room that night, empty of cookbooks, looking at the plans. So much of our hard work coming to fruition, all at the same time.
As I was sitting on my hands waiting for everyone to tell me that their books had arrived, I was happy to have my friend Catherine arrive from America to help me cook for the book launch! Oh, the fun we had.
We chopped endless heads of garlic, big red bell peppers, the insides of over 100 small mushrooms, sautéed, mixed, stirred, tasted. We chopped tarragon, dill, cilantro and parsley and roasted salmon, for mousse. We made a lot of food.
We got a lot of talking done. To think that we had met, actually met, only twice in person, two days in a row, some four years ago. But when you get two avid writers to begin corresponding over the pond, you get a great deal of virtual conversation. It’s magical to get emails from a novelist, I have found. And so we just picked up where we had left off, all those years ago. And… she likes Tacy.
The next day dawned bright and beautiful, as befitted a book launch. John drove me to Madeleine’s Cake Boutique under a cloudless blue sky.
My elves — Elizabeth, Fiona, Kim and Sue — arrived to help me build the wee salmon mousses on endive and baguette, to serve, pour bubbly, greet guests. Avery arrived to sign books. John arrived with the till and a ready smile for everyone, as always the glue that holds everything together.
Kim curated the apron display.
Elizabeth got artistic with the salmon on chicory, Fiona carried trays of mushrooms, Sue poured countless glasses of Prosecco, Lisa made batch after batch of, you guessed it, her very own madeleines. (She had wisely come to this decision after one tragi-comic afternoon spent leafing through my dessert recipes, laconic in the extreme, she felt. “What do you intend your readers to bake this apple and banana cake IN, Kristen? You don’t say in the recipe!” “Oh, a tea cup, or a wine glass?” I suggest frivolously.) Her madeleines were, everyone agreed, the best ever. Lisa is the best ever, really.
She was the perfect hostess, and I watched her gratefully, mindful of the hard work she put in for the launch itself, but also of the number of times she held my hand (and often my head) as I told her story after story of the birth of the book.
My darling sister sent flowers! Extravagant and beautiful, “all the way from America,” people kept marvelling.
Everyone under the sun came. Avery’s former skating teacher! My social work supervisors! The receptionist at Avery’s school, my fellow bellringers. Mike has long been a fan of my cheesy spinach, which he insists on calling “green goo.” Now his beloved Jill can make it for him.
I felt very pleased that after years of seeing me only as a bumbling, slow-learning ringer, my teacher Eddie could finally see me in a slightly more capable light. He brought his beautiful daughter.
There were friends I’ve sweated through weight-training with, and struggled through writing classes with!
My friend Colin was thrilled to meet so many beautiful ladies, but he had a moment just for me.
My elves slaved away. But I think they also had fun, if the smiles were anything to go by. I have the best friends in the world.
Oh, the madeleines!
Sue, doing what Sue does best: making people feel comfortable.
It was one of the best afternoons of my life. And it was my 50th birthday! What a perfect way to celebrate. Avery inscribed book after book, apron after apron flew from the boxes. I couldn’t really believe that something we had worked so hard for, for such a long time, had actually come to fruition. You know how it’s possible that such a moment, so hotly anticipated, will disappoint? It just didn’t. It was a wonderful, perfect day. The only thing that could have made it better would have been to have our families to help celebrate, since they had done so much to make the book happen.
Finally 5 o’clock came. We packed up the car with the rented wineglasses, birthday presents, the unsold books and aprons, and John drove them home. And I was taken to Elizabeth’s house in the cold dusk, to be given presents and to chat, and thence to one of the best meals of my life at “The Glasshouse,” a simply divine restaurant in Kew, where we indulged in such things as the Perfect Manhattan, foie gras wrapped in duck confit, roasted stuffed guinea fowl breast, celeriac fondant. And a passion-fruit tart with a candle in it. Simply perfection.
So begins my 51st year. How on earth will the second half-century compete? I vow to take much better care of my blog, since “Kristen in London” is where my cooking life was born and bred. Who knows? Perhaps it’s time for Volume II…
“Oh if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one–!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never you know had one.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Early January in London typically has very little to recommend it: in the first few days there is the dastardly combination of jetlag, unpacking, cleaning up the crunchy Christmas tree, more jetlag. Avery and I suffer particularly as nightowls. We stay up far too late, spanning those five hours’ difference we’ve lived with over the holiday, struggling to get up at a remotely decent hour.
John bravely carried on meeting at Potters Fields, I yawned through playing with my Home-Start babies, we even booked a fancy lunch at a swanky restaurant in the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. As you can see above, it was a spectacularly gloomy afternoon, even the fabulous view dimmed by rain. Somehow that greyness conveyed itself to all three of us as we sat at the table trying to have fun. Between courses, Avery’s head dropped slowly to the table.
We gave up and came home on the cosy little Southwest train to Barnes in the early twilight, feeling it would be better just to crawl into a burlap sack with the top tied shut until we got over jetlag.
Finally, we woke up. Avery got into Oxford, which was a good thing. And because life never runs on only one track, final work on getting “Tonight at 7.30″ out into the world has continued unabated. Getting to the end of this gargantuan task is like herding cats: because my book is most people’s first experience with crowd-funding, and also with electronic books, there have been hundreds of interactions with people coming to grips with which application runs the book on which device, how to download the book, how to login to Kickstarter to provide their addresses. Every day my inbox is full of anxious queries, easily answered, but a heck of a lot of work.
The poor thing, I left it in my bicycle basket overnight, in a rainstorm! Happily it survived intact, a good sign for when it’s opened up on people’s kitchen counters being splattered with olive oil and duck fat.
It’s all worth it when I can show the one advance copy I have left, to all my friends. What a complete thrill to take it to St Mary’s for ringing practice.
What a moment. My Home-Start family turned up to hear the bell practice, and the mum picked up the cookbook, exclaiming over its beauty. My ringing friends rejoiced with me over Avery’s news, offering their own anecdotes about Oxford. It was quite simply the perfect day, combining nearly all my London worlds — Avery, cookbook, ringing, Home-Start — in one place, under one audacious blue sky.
We celebrated everything with comfort food. Is there anything more wonderful than breakfast for dinner, eaten on laps in the living room, with candles and something on the telly? An omelet with Boursin (“European Velveeta,” I’ve heard it called), roasted ham, crisp “streaky” bacon, roasted tomatoes, a ripe avocado and buttered toast. Heaven.
Another unforgettable moment: the arrival of my beautiful cousin Katie Jane, with her parents Sarah and Steve, for an afternoon’s fun at the Olympic Cafe, trip to the bookshop, a walk down the Barnes High Street and Pond. Avery captured her perfectly.
It felt so funny, seeing childhood (in my cousin Steve, companion on countless family vacations when we were little), Sarah, his beautiful wife, and the future in little Katie Jane.
And this moment, yesterday afternoon with the wan winter sun coming through the living room windows. Napkins for our launch party! Because of course, we’re having one.
We admired them, last night, a brief relaxing image in the morass of decisions and work that is launch-planning. It will be on my 50th birthday, early next month. Watch this space.
For the books have landed at their UK port! They are safely on land, somewhere between Portsmouth and my house, to arrive “o/o/a” (cargo-speak for “on or around”) Thursday of this week. There was a momentary scare last week when I got a call saying, “Your EORI number is not activated.” I bet you didn’t even know I HAVE an EORI number. It’s a highly-coveted thing to possess, proving that I’m not a human trafficker, that my books are a legitimate import from China. After a flurry of emails, everything turned out all right. Another heart attack narrowly averted.
“If life were made of moments…” It’s important to remember them, because they all add up to Life.
We are ensconced in the most impersonal, red/black/grey/silver hotel room on earth, a breath away from JFK in preparation for our early-morning flight tomorrow, awaiting a Domino’s pizza delivery.
In short, nothing could be in starker contrast to our last two weeks’ holiday at Red Gate Farm. And yet it’s strangely relaxing to be in an environment where I can’t do anything to make the experience more…memorable. I just get to sit quietly and review the lovely, lovely time we had over our Christmas holiday.
We were so happy to pop round, the day after Christmas, to see Avery’s darling protegee Jessica, kitten of so many summers ago now, beloved cat daughter of our friends Mike and Lauren. Jessica always remembers Avery.
Mike remembered “just coming by to say hello, and meet a kitten, because Anne said you had one,” and he fell instantly in love. The rest is history, and now there are Mike, Lauren, their darling girl Abigail, and baby Gabriel, irresistible to me, of course.
We left them feeling, as always, that there is some magical star hovering over their lives, giving their family some incalculable lucky dip. What lovely, generous, happy people. I wish we had much more time to spend with them, and learn their secrets to happiness.
The next morning, without room to breathe, we hopped in our car, packed to the gills with everything I could bring from home for The Most Important Dinner Party Ever.
We were away to produce my first-ever paid dinner party, for our Kickstarter superstar-supporters Kathleen and her family. She’s only the mother of Avery’s first lifetime friend. No pressure there.
And there wasn’t. Any pressure, I mean, once I arrived and my nerves settled down. It was just our long, long friendship, and the fun of being together, and of looking at the cookbook that Kathleen and her family had helped be born.
I made Kathleen close her eyes one more time and we donned our aprons, for the first time. What a thrill! Very teary-making, I have to admit.
I cooked through the long, dusky afternoon and evening, and her family arrived and we sat down to eat. Creamy red pepper soup, roasted chicken with goat cheese under the skin, roasted salmon with Fox Point, roasted carrots, butternut squash and beets with plenty of olive oil, cannellini beans cooked with garlic, Parmesan and arugula, and finally chocolate mousse. An evening to remember.
I made a tiny speech, trying not to cry. For me, the evening encapsulated my teaching days when as a young professor, I met Kathleen, a beautiful and talented artist so close to my own age, so inspiring, and Avery’s childhood friendship with darling Cici, our experiences in the very space where we were having dinner, on September 11, 2001. Prompted by Kathleen’s speech, I thought back to our lives together on Jay Street in Tribeca, the Book Club I gave to the little kids in Avery’s childhood group, my gallery days, her shows with me. What a rich, beautiful history we have.
We ate, we chatted, we hugged and kissed. We drove away. How is it possible to have such relationships across an ocean that must be left behind? It’s this reality that makes our Christmas holidays “home” so very rich, and yet so hard to leave behind. How we can have the multiplicity of lives — London, New York City, Red Gate Farm — so full of people we love, each of which must be left behind in order to have the other.
Sigh. This is what I contemplate, sitting tucked up in my anonymous bed on the outskirts of JFK Airport.
Jill’s family arrived for one last brunch together: eggs brought by Joel from the hens he’s been looking after over the Christmas holiday! My hens clucked over them before they were scrambled.
We sat around the dining room table, discussing the girls’ various schools, our jobs, we signed the cookbook — yay! — we tucked into Jill’s “awesome blueberry muffins.” How incredible that after all the years of planning, the book is finished, and on page whatever, Jill’s muffins appear. It feels a bit exhausting even to write this down. In every interaction of our Christmas holiday, the cookbook loomed, happy, laden with memories, with pride, with disbelief.
We played “I’ll be your hands” games with darling Jane and Molly, giving fake high fives to each other, not wanting to admit it was time to say goodbye. There was a final measure. I find it terribly touching and a bit sad that there isn’t a single stretch of the measuring doorway that shows all three: Avery, Jane and Molly. Molly is too small.
We drove to the mall for a soul-destroying trip of “I don’t want to buy anything, all these people are awful” sort of emotion, and came home to our lighted, cosy house with two trees full of precious ornaments, and a pot of oyster stew, a plate of roasted ham. I ran across the road to deliver two of Avery’s outgrown sweaters to dear Kate. Oh, the fun of a few stolen moments at Anne and David’s house, unburdening myself about maternal anxiety. Their response is always, “We know this is coming for us… how quickly it all goes.” There is something about that family in the “house across the road” that is magically comforting, loving, encouraging and precious to me. I walked home across the vaguely foggy, Christmassy road, feeling unspeakably grateful.
That night, late, after Nonna had thought she was packed and had said goodnight, we, plus Avery, found ourselves in the Christmassy sitting room, candlelit and lovely, with Avery covering her face with a cushion, simply dreading the weeks to come and the news they will offer, and yet feeling excited about that news, too. The Christmas atmosphere helped, in a way. There is a lot to come, in the weeks and months ahead, the magnitude of which bears not thinking of.
We packed up the house. Each morning of this task,we awake in denial that this involves untold loads of laundry, unmaking, washing, drying and remaking three beds. Last showers and THAT laundry. Last meals, cleaning out the fridge, and THAT dishwasher load.
I left behind a clean, empty fridge, of course, with brilliant Anne and David carrying away turkey stock, chocolate mousse, potatoes, lemons and onions. “Can we have that for dessert?” little Kate asks, pointing in the twilight to the chocolate mousse. She and Taylor displayed their Christmas American Girl dolls, which brought back a lot of memories of Avery’s childhood, so recent and yet so seemingly remote.
Oh, the Red Gate Farm twilight. The last sunset.
So we sit, in our sterile and comforting hotel room, ready to fly home to London and whatever the New Year will bring. We have in our suitcase the one last “advance copy” of “Tonight at 7.30,” ready to show our friends who will be so thrilled to see it in the weeks before their own copies come. Most importantly, we have had a jolly, overwhelming, emotional, threads-tightening, family– and friends-packed Christmas that will give us something beautiful to think about in the grey, quiet weeks of winter to come. We are grateful.
When we planned to spend “twelve days of Christmas” here in Connecticut, I never dreamed they would fly by like cartoon days off a calendar. From the moment we arrived on the night of the 18th, we have been running around like mad people, simultaneously creating and trying to run from an avalanche of wrapping, food-shopping, cooking, hostessing and guesting.
First up on the agenda, however, after we lugged in our suitcases and greeted Rosemary who had arrived two days before, was a quick look at the cookbook, which I must tell you is even more beautiful than I expected.
Avery and I flicked through it a bit anxiously. “I hate that photo,” Avery said about a couple of them, and we realised that as the autumn progressed, she had had far too much of her own real life to be able to make final decisions about the book. A shame, but it couldn’t be helped. And of course the rest of us can find no fault with her work.
It’s just heavy enough, weighty and significant and velvety and smooth. We feel very proud, and everyone who comes over to visit gets to hold it and leaf through it. To think in January, 1000 of them will find their way out into the world.
I spent one long afternoon with John learning how to send out the e-book.
But Christmas waits for no man, especially not one with an inappropriately prideful joy in her own creation. I’m not sure which I’m prouder of: Avery or the book, and maybe they can’t really be separated, for me.
On the first morning, of course, we popped over to Judy’s brother’s farm to get our two trees, fragrant things of beauty so different from their fiendishly non-smelling British counterparts. Judy’s sister-in-law greeted us. “Hi there! Welcome home; I have your wreaths and garland all saved for you over here.” She explained that there is a new hybrid tree called the “Frasam” or “Balser,” she couldn’t remember which, with delicate needles and a heady piney aroma. They were perfect.
“What a beautiful job you have here,” I marvelled, “surrounded by this incredible smell all day long, all season long.”
“Really?” our helper mused. “I can’t really smell it anymore. I think I develop a, what do you call it, immunity. But I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
It was such fun to open the dusty boxes of ornaments, brought up from the scary and hideous basement (“I’m NEVER going down there,” Avery says firmly, and I’d love to say the same). Glittering treasures, new and old, greeted us with gentle reminiscences as they do every year.
I described finding this last little fellow, a one-of-a-kind creation from the amazing craftsmen at Bombki, at the incomparably festive “Spirit of Christmas” fair at Olympia in London. “We should all go together sometime,” I suggested, and John promptly said, “That sounds very dangerous.”
All this loot was the bounty of our traditional trip to Walgreen’s to see what the American Mercantile Industrial Complex has dreamed up in the way of festive giftwrap. Cheap and cheerful is the way to go, we discovered, and brought everything home in the damp fog, to search through the house for sticky tape — we had 8 rolls stashed about — and scissors — not nearly enough. “Don’t come in here!” one or other other of us spent several days shouting, or “You can walk through this room, but QUICKLY and don’t look around you!” Finally all was in readiness under the tree.
It lasted only a few hours, less than a day really, but the feeling of mindless, childlike festivity that it roused in me reminded me what Christmas is really all about: sheer joy of that kind that makes you smile even when you can’t really explain why.
At Christmastime, even a bad thing pales in significance compared to the joys, so when one afternoon I had a dreadful stomachache, it was almost a pleasure to give in to it and sit quietly on the sofa, with a hot water bottle and a throw over my knees, watching John and Rosemary scramble eggs and assemble smoked salmon and bagels for their dinner, with Avery adding judicious helping hands. Is there anything more important to appreciate, and easier to take for granted than good health and loved family members? When you spend as much time apart from your mother-in-law as I do, it’s a life lesson to remember that when she’s within reach, it’s a gift. And that’s what Christmas provides, for me.
Family and friends within reach explode into chaos at Red Gate Farm at Christmas! Jill and her rambunctious, festive family arrived in a torrential rainstorm on Christmas Eve, followed shortly by Anne-From-Across-the-Road and her family, and with oyster stew and Joel’s famous pulled pork on the menu, I somehow decided that as well, we should invent some wontons, or “wantons” as I’ve decided to call them since they were spelled that way on a restaurant menu in London. After all, our family tradition when we were children was to order Chinese food on Christmas Eve. How hard could they be? Not hard at all, as it turns out, and a tremendous lot of fun. When I get back to London, I’ll try them again and produce a more official recipe, but for the time being, I give you:
Christmas Eve Wantons
(makes at least 2 dozen)
1.5 lb chicken breasts
1 tbsp peanut oil
2 bunches spring onions
2 handfuls bean sprouts
2 handfuls shredded carrots
2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage, separated into two piles
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and grated (not finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic, grated (not finely chopped)
juice of 1 lime
2 tbsps oyster sauce
oil for frying (either in deep frying pan or deep fryer)
24 square wonton wrappers
Put the chicken breasts through a grinder or pulse in a food processor until the size of small pebbles, then saute in the peanut oil until cooked thoroughly. Clean the grinder or processor and pass through the chicken again to make uniform pieces. Place in a large bowl.
Add all the vegetables, but only half the Chinese cabbage. Sprinkle over the ginger and garlic and lime juice, then stir through the oyster sauce and set in refrigerator until wanted. When ready to fry, add the remaining Chinese cabbage and stir well.
Heat oil to readiness.
For each wonton, place about a tablespoon of the chicken mixture in the center, then moisten edges with water on your fingertip and fold over edges to make a triangular parcel. Bring point together and press until stuck together. Fry for about 2 minutes, turning once if in frying pan. Drain on paper towel and serve right away, with any sauces you like: sweet and sour, spicy mayo, peanut sauce.
The girls graciously posed for one moment, before the little ones resumed their frantic race around our tiny house, pausing now and then to pound on the piano keys.
Christmas Eve wouldn’t be the same unless John made Molly cry, so he duly did, squeezing the life out of her, upside down. “Too tight, Uncle John, too tight!” Mommy comforts her. Very soon after, “More, Uncle John, more!”
Jane loves to see Molly cry, in her big-sister fashion. How well I remember it, the being-a-big-sister thing.
Kate always begins her evenings with Jane and Molly looking horrified at the mayhem, but then begins to smile admiringly.
Finally, she is firmly part of the clan.
We passed the wantons around and listened to Christmas carols in the background as we told stories about our various autumns, tried to keep John from killing the children, looked through the cookbook. Finally we trooped to the table for oyster stew, pulled pork and cole slaw.
Every bite was sublime, but really, surpassed by the simple happiness of having my family — some born, some brought in by marriage, some by neighborliness — around me.
No time at Red Gate Farm passes without my feeling grateful at the fates that placed Anne and her family “across the road.”
We tucked into Anne’s beautiful German cookie display.
Finally everyone called “good night” and braved the awful, cold rain, which had prevented our traditional lighting of the Victorian candles on the hydrangea. “It’s too cold and rainy to go light them, and they will just go out in an instant anyway,” we agreed, but it was a bit sad.
The next day, Christmas Day, more than made up for this. Bright blue skies, crunchy frosty grass. We opened our presents in a leisurely fashion, enjoying every creative present, then cooked like CRAZY — stuffing, cheesy spinach, pumpkin pie — and motored — with “Cabin Pressure” to entertain us, especially, “Get Dressed, Ye Merry Gentlemen” — to Jill’s house. The kitchen smelled incredibly of roasting turkey, baking cheesy potatoes with celery soup and sour cream. Merriment ensued. Avery was given, memorably, a piggy bank labeled “Capitalist Pig.” “Do you know what Capitalism is, Jane?” she asked. “OF COURSE I do!” Jane answered indignantly. “I’m not dumb! It’s when the first letter of a sentence is bigger than all the rest!”
There were thumbhole running clothes!
Jammies! With feet.
The table was set by the local reindeer and elves…
Home late through the starry night, everyone to bed, except me, who stayed up late and took pictures of everything beautiful that I wanted to remember.
Waking up this morning, I thought more and more about the brevity of our time here, how much I love all the images I will take away from our holiday.
As I walk through the house, inhaling the precious aroma of balsam, Fraser, whatever amalgam has created the magic of this year, I wish aloud, “I want it to be Christmas all year long. Why shouldn’t I have you all around me, and this heavenly fragrance, all year long?”
Avery listens, and considers. “I’ll tell you why. It’s exactly what the tree-selling lady said. She becomes immune to the aroma.”
How very true. If we were allowed to have our families, and our gorgeous ornaments, and our beautiful trees, around us all the time, they would lose their power. It’s meant to be just once a year, so we can still appreciate it all. Or so I tell myself, to explain why life can’t be this perfect all year long.
More to the point: all the ingredients for life being this perfect all year long are in place all the time. I just need to learn to sniff, and appreciate them.
Merry Christmas, all…
It’s hard to believe that this time tomorrow, we’ll be approaching JFK and the Red Gate Farm part of our Christmas celebrations!
Life has been an absolute, unmitigated madhouse for our family in the last several weeks. It seems as if every possible “fast-forward” on every remote control in the world has been pushed.
Avery has survived, even thrived, during her university application process. She’s endured and even enjoyed her interviews, and has retained her sense of humor, if not entirely her energy level. She NEEDS a break, plenty of days to sleep and remember to enjoy life.
John’s triumphed in his plans to acquire the perfect plot of land to build our dream home, outlasting the most circuitous of council planners. 2015 will bring building drawings!
I’ve rung my last English bell of 2014, at a lovely wedding. Who could have dreamed, nearly four years ago when I first pulled a rope, that I would be able to be part of someone’s most important day?
We’ve taken a deep breath and decorated for Christmas. What could be more beautiful, and uplifting?
Every year, the old ornaments take me back to my childhood. How kind of my mother to take apart my baby crib’s mobile to give me this beauty?
Christmas in London wouldn’t be Christmas without the skating rink, of course…
I’ve been able to relax for a few days with the cookbook project, to create a couple of fantastic new dishes! Tiny, tiny squashes to cook with a creamy, garlicky, Parmesan sauce and surround with sauteed scallops and girolle mushrooms?
And one tired evening with a pizza ordered in made us all frown in disappointment, and for me to retreat to the kitchen to invent a pizza with — instead of a tomato sauce — a creamy truffled sauce inspired by the squash dish! You can put ANYTHING on this pizza, but be sure to make the crust with the lovely, smoky water infused with the dried truffles.
John has come up with the ultimate Christmas gift for Avery and me. Blessed as we are with unusual figures — each in our own way! — it’s incredibly difficult to find shirts that fit properly! Shoulders big enough for me will result in a shirt that billows. Not anymore. John’s suitmaker from banking days gone by has come around to measure us for shirts that will really FIT. And for no more cost than the Gap, if you can imagine. I just can’t wait.
Of course, what I want desperately to show you is an image of the darling, darling babies I have been privileged to visit, as a Home-Start volunteer. What fun that would be, to show you their little faces. I haven’t even minded the endless parade of upper-respiratory illnesses that have been my gift from my wintery time with them. Sitting in a room full of babies in a refurbished power station, shouting when the heat turns on and then lowering our voices when it goes off, wiping noses, sharing bananas, holding newborns when our little 1-year-olds suddenly seem so simple to care for. I LOVE it. But confidentiality rules, of course.
Late nights, with Avery working and me fretting over the cookbook’s waning days of production, we suddenly hear a yowling sound. From the cold midnight rain, we pluck Miss Cressida, visitor kitty extraordinaire.
In a holiday season usually filled to the brim with festive events, this year we just didn’t have the energy. There was too much happening during the days for us to have the reserves of energy to leave the house. So in fact, the best thing to do was have people in. My beloved graphic designer Briony came for lunch, such a cosy thing to do.
And one night we felt brave enough even to have cherished friends in for dinner! They’re going through the same university process Avery is, so we all felt completely understood, and relaxed, and grateful to have each other. Ham, potatoes dauphinoise, oranges and chocolate cake. And just plain happiness.
This afternoon brought the last London day. After a few days of utter, utter confusion and disappointment over the last few admin details of the cookbook, I decamped to my beloved St Mary’s to spend a couple of hours in the quiet, awaiting customers for the charity Christmas cards we sell each year. The tree smelled so spicy, the bell ropes swung tantalisingly, and Swedish school children practiced their Christmas songs in the nave. Heavenly, just to escape life for a moment.
After my hours in church, feeling restored, I came home to find that my mother-in-law Rosemary, safely enconsced a day ahead of us at Red Gate Farm for Christmas, had received a very important box. “Open it, please!” I said. And here is what emerged.
And so tomorrow will take us to Red Gate Farm. We are all ready to leave our emotional baggage behind us and take our real baggage — full of Christmas presents! — on the plane in the morning and arrive, ready for the holiday. Watch this space!
How neglectful I have been of my precious blog!
Believe me, I have cause. Let me explain.
I feel that my feet have not touched the ground in three months. Since late August, when the heat really turned up under the cookbook — the COOKBOOK! — I’ve been full-steam ahead getting it ready. It all began with the graphic design, with my beloved Briony of Bournemouth, a long process toward perfection.
The job proceeded through a fog of admin: I’ve become the proud owner of an ISBN, and an importers’ license in both the US and the UK. I’ve learned to compile an index (that one was nearly the death of me).
I’ve approved the colour proofs, as you see above (THAT was an exciting day!) and seen the thrilling end of our Kickstarter campaign.
Very soon, yet another milestone will be achieved: the “ebook” will be uploaded to various sites as a phenomenon to be read on Kindles, iPads and phones, believe it or not! Tomorrow I’ll approve the cover, which will be terribly exciting, with its biographies, photographs and blurbs. It will feel very real, at that point.
And then it’s a waiting game. The holidays will come and we will settle ourselves comfortably in the winter wonderland of Red Gate Farm. We will all put the book out of minds, as best we can, to wait for its arrival in January. A real book, to hold in our hands.
Whenever I have felt vaguely, usually very late at night, that I just can’t learn another thing, accomplish another thing, I have been given a gift of some kind, of encouragement from my readers. I have permission from one reader to share with you her feelings about the book.
“So many things have happened since I first caught sight of your blog (way back in 2007). Numerous jobs, countless flats and… oh, I wasn’t even married back then! I can honestly say that there aren’t many blogs I’ve followed for so long. But somehow, I always come back to yours — it’s like the solid ingredient amongst all the moving parts of life. You have a way of writing that draws people in. And ‘wow’ to all your recipes, including one lamb recipe from long ago that even my (now) husband can’t forget.
When I mentioned I funded a kickstarter campaign to get a cookbook, he knew straight away that it must have been written by “the lady with that blog that had the lamb recipe”. I haven’t cooked that dish for years! It obviously made an impact!
Like many backers, I look forward to receiving the cookbook…”
But because life is never played on just one level, our autumn has been filled with every other conceivable delight.
I spent a heavenly weekend, when I was at the absolute depth of my “I can’t possibly accomplish this” mood, at Kingston Lacy, a sublime National Trust property, at a writing workshop organised by my brilliant friend Rosie, Writer-in-Residence, and taught by my equally brilliant mentor, Orlando. What a shot in the arm, a stimulus at just the right moment.
Two complete days of work on writing, no domesticity, no family, just pondering the future of my writing career under the support and love of Rosie and Orlando was just what the doctor ordered.
And then more happened.
The following week brought our half-term holiday, spent in the fairytale city of Prague. John’s lovely mom came all the way from Iowa to join us, and the four of us walked, climbed, shopped, and ate our way through this magical Czech city.
We visited the Castle, after a heavenly walk across the Charles Bridge.
Our glorious guide Irena introduced us to “Prague’s Most Dangerous Beverage,” a light and delicious “early wine.” What fun to toast one another, at one of Prague’s farmer’s markets, after a day of touring.
By far the most memorable food we ate in Prague was discovered by John on our very first night, at the stunningly simple cafe “Nase Maso,” or “Our Meat.” Quite simply, they serve steak tartare, chock-a-block with capers, onions and cornichons, served with traditional Czech rye sourdough. We WILL be back. We ate there twice more!
We visited the Kafka Museum, the Communist Museum, and refreshed ourselves with traditional rolled pastries, “trdelnik,” crisp, warm and rich with cinnamon.
We spent lots of money at the fabulous Shakespeare bookshop.
Then we ate at the popular restaurant Lokal, with delicious old-fashioned dishes like schnitzel, and the most amazing soup of liver and dumplings.
Avery’s contribution to our tourism was our late-afternoon visit, on our last day, to the Cafe Kaficko, with quite simply the most unusual hot chocolate in the world. An impossible combination of thick and lovely, intensely chocolatey.
As always, one of my favorite parts of a holiday was the time to spend with my family, time not given over to homework, property development, cookbook issues. Just time to enjoy life, which for Avery meant life with her Leica.
How we walked! Every night we collapsed at our flat with feet that felt they couldn’t take another step. Then the next day we were ready for more. John’s mom treated us to a magical dinner atop a roof near the city centre, with views you simply couldn’t believe were real. And fireworks! What a city. And how lucky we were to have Rosemary with us on our adventure.
Home from Prague, it was time for Avery’s birthday, her 18th. It was almost impossible to celebrate, with her Oxford University exam looming, with all the pressure that can possibly be exerted on these girls to succeed. We gave her her presents and remembered the olden days when everything was much simpler (although it didn’t feel that way at the time).
On the volunteering front, my Home-Start babes have turned one! I face the end of my time with them with equanimity this time, being slightly more mature than I was a year ago, facing goodbyes to my last family. They will be fine. I will miss them, and our weekly walks through the bright leaves of Barnes, as I talk to them, feed them, play with them during our afternoons together.
On the Eve of Remembrance Sunday, John and I took a trip to East London, to the Tower, to see the famous poppy exhibit, quite simply one of the most emotive experiences I have ever had. Airplanes from City Airport took special routes, to give their passengers a chance to see this unbelievable installation.
To add an almost palpable sense of excitement to life, Mom and Andy came to visit! This epic event had been hotly anticipated since summer, when Mom first bandied about the idea that she might be feeling well enough to brave the long journey. And she did!
What fun we had! I don’t think we could have crammed any more into the six days of their visit. A bus tour on a day that started out rather wet, but the skies cleared miraculously in time for us to enjoy the views, especially of the Weeping Window at the Tower, with the poppies still in place.
Tea at the Goring with Fiona and Kim!
Lunch with Sue at The Botanist, conversation simply unstoppable, and dinner here at home with Elizabeth and Maddie, for a late celebration of Avery’s birthday!
There were important birthday cupcakes, from Madeleine’s Boutique in Sheen. How would Avery have got through so much of the last year without television (lots of it really bad)?
We had lunch at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries, too early for their Christmas celebrations, but still lovely with its climbing vines.
We popped in a cab and made our way to Tottenham Court Road to see “White Christmas,” a dream come true for the three of us, who together (and probably separately) can quote the entire film! Mom reminisced about her date to see the premiere, when she was in high school. An unforgettable matinee, “all that snow.”
She and Andy were here to view the proofs of the cookbook!
Andy himself had what I think was a fine, fine time. I had fixed him up with a B&B here in our little neighborhood, with a lovely lady who gives over her cozy summerhouse to guests. She and Andy hit it off straightaway, and every morning when he came to our house after his evening and breakfast with her, he was simply thrilled with his chats. She had been involved in the rock scene of London in the 1970s, which couldn’t have fit better with Andy’s life. He himself went on a rock and roll tour — including Abbey Road! — and to the British Museum, braving public transport and having a grand holiday. She sent him to a local memorial to musician Mark Bolan, who died in a car crash here in Barnes.
As much as I loved all the special events I’d planned — ending with Mom hearing me ring and meeting my ringing friends, and brunch at the Olympic with John and Suzanne — the best was having her in the kitchen with me, talking over everything that we miss saying all the year long — what’s happening with Avery, our building plans, my friends, her friends, Days of Our Lives! Just time to be together, relaxed.
Before we could catch our breath, it was time for the school Christmas Fair! Always one of the happiest days of the holiday season, the culmination of months and months of work with hundreds of volunteers, all to flower on one day in November. John as Treasurer and I as helper in the “Vintage” clothing stall had our work cut out. Clothes folded, hung, tagged, priced and arranged, gossip exchanged with mothers who have been my friends for seven years — a bittersweet day because this time next year, everything will be so different. No more school. It was a day to remember.
This memorable autumn. How have we managed to get up every day and accomplish all these things! And managed, at the same time, to get homework done, to get Potters Fields to the starting line, to get dinner cooked each night. How we will have earned our Christmas holiday. And that’s probably where you’ll see us next…