Impossibly, we’ve been back in our London lives for two weeks. Thrown in at the deep end, it’s been about unpacking, first, with the help of our kitties. They missed us, I think.
We’ve had the first Parents Guild meeting, I’ve reunited with the Home-Start infants, now crawling, “like beetles,” their mum says, laughing. And of course I’ve been ringing. The putto at Chiswick, surveying us from on high in the ringing chamber, does not change.
We’ve been cooking, for ourselves and for the Lost Property lunch. Those ladies form such a beloved part of my life; I can’t bear to think of this time next year when my relationship with the school will be over. Must enjoy every bit of life right now.
It’s always so hard to believe, when we wake up on the last day of summer, that the next time we get out of bed it will be in London. I’m too old-fashioned to think that’s normal, no matter how many summers (and Christmases) we go through the unbelievable transition. Change, and saying goodbye, is never my favorite thing.
We drove one last time to New Jersey, four weeks after the big Summer Experiment of 2014, to pick up Avery at Jeanne and Cynthia’s where she’s lived, high at the top of their celestial house, commuting to New York. Goodness, the experiences she has had, many of them she is anxious not to repeat, mostly of a commuting nature. South Orange, New Jersey Transit, the PATH train, Hoboken, Seacaucus, Penn Station, Grand Central, Bridgeport, Seymour. The MetroCard in her wallet can now be shelved. But living with Jeanne and Binky? That was heaven.
We arrived for lunch, bringing egg salad made from the eggman’s last delivery. But there was no one at home! I thought for a moment that they had all been beamed up by aliens (including Binky’s car). In a moment, though, we found that Jeanne was taking a quiet nap in the library, and then the girls came in from a most profitable trip to the consignment shop: glorious sweater bargains! We had our lunch, then said goodbye, feeling a funny cocktail of emotions: nostalgia for all the meals we’ve enjoyed around that kitchen table, relief that Avery’s summer of tri-state drama had come to an end with no bones broken, and sadness at saying goodbye.
Avery, in her end-of-summer exhaustion, growled out the window at the passing landscape. “Blast you, Newark,” and then slept peacefully all the way home.
At home, we raced to the farmer’s market to meet Mike, Lauren and their kids for a picnic from the Chubby Oven, a moveable pizza feast: but they had run out of food! A quick exchange of phone calls revealed that Mike and Lauren already knew this and were headed to Red Gate Farm armed with Di Palma’s pizzas, which we devoured on the terrace. As the sun set, we moved inside for some serious dollhouse time for Abigail, for me to hold Gabriel on my shoulder. Rosemary’s gift, left behind for Abigail, was a big success.
To think that we met Mike only because Anne-across-the-road thought he might be a candidate to adopt one of Avery’s shelter projects, the divine kitten Jessica. Four years, two kids and countless meals together later, they are a treasured addition to the cast of characters at Red Gate Farm. It’s good to have friends who are at a different (earlier or later) stage of life than where we are, fun to look back and remember, or look ahead and imagine.
The last days slipped by. Every day we said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful day?”, not minding the repetition.
You know how they say that if you stand by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus for 24 hours, someone you know will pass along? Change that to five minutes, and you’ll have some idea of what our terrace is like, the last few days of our visit. Sometimes I think it is my most beloved place on earth.
I love Judy’s geranium waving pinkly, maple leaves falling onto the picnic table, the changing view high over head, a patch of sky between the trees and chimneys.
Judy herself stopped by as I was performing my usual futile and yet pleasant task of carrying stacks of books from one room to another, shelving, changing my mind, reshelving. Hot and sweaty, I was more than happy to sit with Judy and a glass of ice water and while away an hour or so, discussing the summer. Regina from the Land Trust saw us enjoying the afternoon and came to join us.
I do believe that we all need as many mothers as we can get, and I am very happy to have Judy in my arsenal, although she’s really far too young to be my mother. She is everyone’s mother.
Truth to tell, though, her starring role is as Little Rollie’s grandmother. She brought him by for a quick jump on the trampoline.
Once he got over his shyness, he popped up to the terrace to gaze adoringly at Avery, to watch the chipmunks and squirrels helping themselves to peanuts from the glass John keeps filled.
Fully confident, then, he began discussing with amazing specificity the various farm implements he had encountered on a recent visit to his great-uncle’s farm. “I saw a backhoe, and a brewer’s grain hauler, and a hay-baler…” Fourth-generation Connecticut farmer in the making.
Anne crossed the road with Kate and sat with us, strategizing our joint project of the cookbook and her plans to bring her grandmother’s writings into the 21st century. We both think Gladys would be happy to think of us talking about her work, updating her recipe for chicken liver pate, feeding her granddaughter in the iconic kitchen. I sit with my copy of Anne’s mother’s memoir of their childhood. Kate exists happily in the reflected glow of her ancestors.
How on earth did the whole summer go by without a trip to the pool? Excuse me, the Poo.
Years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the “L” blew off the pavilion (a rather grand name for the lifeguards’ hut). Yesterday I said in surprise, “But I thought you replaced the ‘L’. Didn’t I see it last summer?”
“Yep, but in the middle of the night last month, somebody took it off again. We keep meaning to put one back, but…”
“I like it that way,” I said stubbornly.
“Yeah, well, so does somebody else.”
Because school’s already in session, we practically had the poo to ourselves. A bronzed teenage lifeguard horsed around with his little clients, an elderly lady swam majestically up and down her lane. Avery read aloud from “Missing Susan,” one of our summer staples, and the afternoon progressed as all pool afternoons do.
We shared the absolutely necessary bag of Bugles, simply the best snack ever invented.
“How do you even GET 53% of your daily allowance of saturated fat into just 210 calories?” I marvelled.
“52%,” Avery answered, taking one.
We swung by Mike and Lauren’s house on a last, joyful errand: petting Jessica, who Mike captured and held for us.
And because it’s always nice to have something to look forward to, while we’re away this autumn, our friend Al will fix the windows in the Big Red Barn, a project that’s been staring us in the face since we bought the house.
Away we fly this evening with lots to think about: Mountain Station, “Fresh Out,” steamed clams and lobsters, American cheese, grams versus cups, the shady court, pizza delivered, 666, The Honourable Woman, chipmunks, squirrels, woodpeckers and goldfinches, moldy cars, a family reunion, grandmothers, yellow balloons, forgotten photographs, newly-cut wood, daddy-long-legs, corn on the cob, tomatoes, spicy mayo, hot dogs. See you in just four months.
Ten years ago this month, our family moved into Red Gate Farm.
It seems like just a breath ago, but also the place seems to have been part of our lives forever, this little white farmhouse sitting demurely in a dusty bend of Sanford Road. The moment we brought Red Gate Farm into our family, the house and its setting, its atmosphere and its aura of tranquility, began to nourish and sustain us.
I didn’t want a weekend house.
“I like New York on the weekends, when everyone else goes away,” I insisted.
“Have you ever thought that there might be a good reason that everyone else goes away?” my husband asked reasonably. “Maybe they’ve got something we haven’t.”
“Yes, traffic, and packing up the car, and weekend guests, and worrying about the house while we’re in town all week,” I said.
But I knew it was only a matter of time. My husband loves real estate. He loves to look at houses and apartments, any houses and apartments, whether he’s in the market to buy or not. But I could recognize that behind his insistence this time was a real impulse to have an escape hatch. So I went looking with him.
Weekend after weekend, we left behind the quiet, abandoned city and sat in the cars of real estate agents as they drove us all around the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, in case you’re not from there), and even venturing into the riotously expensive neighborhoods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We saw many, many terrible houses.
“This house was built by the architect who built Madison Square Garden!” chirped one enthusiastic agent, not seeming to conjure up a mental image of that monstrosity, the most hideous of strains upon the New York City skyline.
“Don’t pay any attention to the smell of cat pee, it’s only in the carpet,” caroled another optimistic go-between, leading me to wonder if other houses boasted pee in the walls as well.
“The kitchen is bigger than it looks, it’s just because it’s so dark inside that it seems small.” True enough.
After trawling these places for Saturdays and Sundays we struggled back in the home-going traffic while I tried not to think, “I told you so, I told you so.”
Finally I put my foot down. It was May. New York City was fresh and dewy and much more appealing than the highways where we were spending all our time stuck between SUVs and trucks filled with hydrogen. “This is it,” I said firmly. “The last weekend, and then we admit defeat, and just stay here, where we’re happy.” “Fair enough,” John said, and we headed out, with our little 7-year-old daughter in tow.
The day brought fresh disappointments, if fresh could be the word. In the minuscule driveway of one sad little dwelling, the agent reassured us, “I know this yard is awfully small, but think how close you’ll be to the road if you need to be plowed out!” At this, I shut my lips in a tight, thin line and John said, “One more house, then we’re finished.”
As we pulled off the felicitously-named Jeremy Swamp Road onto an unpaved bit in dappled sunshine, I admitted, “This is more like it.” A pervasive quiet hung in the air, as we came up a gentle hill. We stepped out, walked to the gate of a white picket fence, opened it. “That gate should be red,” I thought suddenly. “This is Nancy Drew’s Red Gate Farm, only the gate is white.” I looked up through massive maple leaves into a blinking blue sky, saw two red barns speaking gently to each other across an expanse of green, green lawn, a low brick chicken house in the distance, the depths and darkness of a pond enclosed by ancient stones. The house itself, a little white saltbox with a rambling, awkward addition on the back, sat quietly by a graying woodshed with wavy glass in the windows. Over all flowed a generous sense of peace.
“I don’t even need to go in,” I said. “This is it.”
John later pointed out to me the undesirability of this statement, from a negotiating standpoint. But he was smitten, too. And when we did go inside, it was a house made to order for us. Dark, original floors, white, white walls, and where there could have been a dark, unpleasant original kitchen, the Fico brothers who restored it had opened up the “borning room” into a double-height space of light and air, soaring but cozy. The bedrooms upstairs were perfect for us, with Avery’s tiny space being just large enough to picture two twin beds, and lots of laughing sleepovers.
That was that. We bought it. And scrounged around in our storage spaces for antique (and just plain old) furniture we had put away in favor of the modern pieces in our New York apartment. There was everything we needed, except beds, which ended up coming from LL Bean. Every object we brought into the house seemed to float into just the right spot, benches sitting happily under windows, leather chairs flanking a little old fireplace, mismatching bookshelves finding ceilings of just the right height, old rugs brought back from Russia settling onto the wide-beamed floors as if they belonged there.
So Red Gate Farm became our weekend haven. And because Southbury has always been intelligent enough not to become fashionable, traffic posed no problems for us. We sped up there every Friday evening without fail, longing to arrive to the peace and calm, after the craziness of the city.
Of course the peace and calm brought with them their own plagues.
“Was there always a hole in the dining room floor?” I asked in some panic, late one Friday night.
“There! It’s as big as my fist, going down into the basement.”
Our neighbor farmer Rollie, who would soon become one of our closest friends, came by to investigate. “That’s from a country rat,” he said knowledgeably.
“How’s that different from a regular rat, like we have in New York?”
“Well, it lives in the country.”
And there was the evening we arrived to find that the pound block of butter I had left out on the counter had been thoroughly gnawed into a neat little pyramid, teeth marks clearly showing. Country rat again, no doubt.
And the skunk that slithered out from the garbage bag I had left on the kitchen step for a moment, and the mouse I just stepped on in my morning-bare feet, but not quite enough to do him in. And the bat we discovered in the barn one chilly October day. I poked it with a stick, sure it was dead. When it wiggled to life, Rollie said slyly, “Happy Halloween,” amid our screams.
So many girls, from babies to teenagers, have shouted with laughter on the trampoline under the big maple! Avery invented an elaborate game of complex jumps named for the characters in the venerable Archies comics, so the sticky summer air was often filled with cries of “Veronica, Veronica, BETTY!” Minnows without number have emerged from the pond to be inspected and thrown tenderly back, and it’s also been transformed into a perilous skating rink one winter.
“Do you think this ice is thick enough to hold Avery?” I asked our neighbor Anne one winter day when the air made icicles inside your nose.
“Oh, sure, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said blithely, and tested it herself. When we all heard cracking sounds, we scrambled to give Anne our hands and get her out in time.
In recent years, as our daughter became less of a player and more of a thinker, our shelf space and floor space and in fact, any horizontal space, have become burdened with her books, and mingling with my books, provide a revealing glimpse into our lives: “There is No Such Thing As Society,” “Les Miserables,” “Lord Byron and His Circle,” “How To Eat Supper.”
Also as Avery grows up and away, John and I have learned to create our own patterns of quiet life at Red Gate Farm, with long days of work on the terrace, in the forests cutting the wood for a Christmas holiday, in the kitchen watching “Days of Our Lives” and scrubbing the floor, in advance of guests to come in the months we’re away in London.
The Aggravation board, and unfinished jigsaw puzzles, lie in wait for the unwary guest, and John’s beloved goldfinches crowd the bird-feeders, an exercise in tranquillity for anyone willing to collapse on the terrace and watch for a minute, an hour, an afternoon.
Of course, because I am a cook, when I think of Red Gate Farm, I think of food. And guests, and parties, and people I have fed. These memories bring great joy.
There have been countless meals at Red Gate Farm, whether lobster feasts at the picnic table on the terrace (a terrace lovingly built from local stone by the last owner’s husband), or blueberry muffin breakfasts at the little blue kitchen table overlooking the big hay meadow, or enormous turkeys for Thanksgiving in the cozy, candlelit dining room. I remember one summer feast with my friend Shelley during a power failure, surrounded by candlelight from tall holders and tiny votives, watching the rain lash the curvy old window glass.
Family and friends have streamed endlessly through the doors: some choosing the muddy springtime path to the back door, some the treacherous snowy walkway to the front of the house. Lighted candles have twinkled from the hydrangea tree every Christmas Eve, and we’ve established a treasured tradition at the table once the lights are lit: every year, Anne, David, Alice, Connie and little Katie troop across the road for a creamy, garlicky, celery-laden oyster stew, complete with round, dusty little oyster crackers to pop in the bowl and scoop up with a silver spoon.
Red Gate Farm has seen long, lazy visits by my precious parents-in-law, birthday parties for my mother, August half-birthdays for my niece Jane, and Camp Kristen weeks with lots of little girls rushing in and out in bathing suits, shouting, “Who has my goggles?”, piled in sleeping bags in the guest room eating popcorn and watching “The Pink Panther.”
There have been sad days of illness, and days that were a gift because illness had retreated, and days where the house itself provided a cocoon of comfort to those of us living with loss and bereavement. The house has seen and welcomed the birth and babyhood of my two nieces and our dear Katie across the road. I often think of Avery, her cousins and their neighbor Katie leaning over the fence, long after we are gone, exchanging gossip, and maybe even recipes.
Sadly for our love of Red Gate Farm, we moved to London just a year and a half after we bought the gorgeous place. A year and a half of peaceful weekends was in our past. But the future brought Christmases there, and summers. Now, although we feel quite English and happy to live in our new home most of the time, each December and June we find ourselves reaching out to Red Gate Farm, pining for its serenity, imagining the glories we will find when we arrive.
There is the new tradition of driving wearily up the road in the dead of night, jetlagged, the car packed to the gills with everything we need for our holiday. We approach the house in the dark to see its lights blazing, since Rollie, Judy and Anne have made everything ready for our arrival. They vie, sweetly, for who can turn up the heat, who can stock the refrigerator before the other gets a chance. How lucky we are in our neighbors.
We stagger up the walk under our luggage, push open the front door that sticks with age, drop everything on the floor and simply drink in the atmosphere: a mixture of old books, ashes in empty fireplaces, woolen rugs and leather chairs. We feel both the weight and the lightness of the generations of people who have opened that door before us, we sigh, and are home.
Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves 8, with leftovers)
6 tbsps butter
3 tbsps plain flour
8 pints shucked oysters, in their liquor
6 stalks celery, minced
2 white onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
celery salt to taste
Tabasco to taste
lemon juice to taste
In a very large, heavy stockpot, melt the butter, add the flour and cook together until bubbling but not browned. Add the celery, onions and garlic and sauté until celery and onions are softened. Pour in the oysters and their liquor and stir them constantly over medium heat until their edges curl firmly. Heat the milk in a separate pan and just before it boils, add it to the oyster mixture. Whisk until flour is thoroughly incorporated and the broth is creamy and smooth. Add the cream and then begin adding seasonings to taste. Taste continually as the broth heats through and get the balance of flavors just right to suit you. Serve with oyster crackers. The flavors intensify over time, so you may make the stew ahead of time. Just be sure not to reheat it too intensely as the oysters will become tough.
It’s our last Tuesday morning at Red Gate Farm and all our guests have departed. Even our child has departed. The air is still and warm and I should probably pop up to find something for lunch, but it’s just too peaceful to move.
A far cry from the crazy round of activity and celebration that’s been the scene for the last two weeks!
It never seems quite like summer until John’s mom arrives, and she did, to kick off the August mania. Her first evening was the last quiet moment for days on end, it seemed.
Oddly, for Connecticut in August, it’s been cool in the mornings and evenings, requiring everyone to snuggle into cardigans and throws. But the days have been intensely lovely, with unbelievable blue skies and puffy clouds. The farmer’s market soaks it all up.
We have eaten an incredible number of ears of corn on the cob, of juicy tomatoes drizzled with the special Tuscan Herb olive oil from the market. And for an afternoon treat, why not sample one of dear Kate’s homemade strawberry muffins? Only 50 cents, right here in Sanford Road.
“They are still warm from the oven,” Kate assures me in her quiet way. Irresistible, even to this military gentleman cruising along the road. “I’m off to South Korea tomorrow. Happy to support small local businesses,” he says with a grin.
And yes, before you tell me, I know the fence looks just awful. It’s a fact of Red Gate Farm that everything is falling down; it’s just a question of what’s falling down fastest, and therefore gets the quickest attention. The fence has been collapsing by degrees for the last decade, and I suppose it can go awhile longer. John applied some elbow grease and bubble gum to the gate, at least.
Avery has had what can be called only “The Commuting Summer,” making her way from New Jersey every morning to spend the day in New York, either at her AIDS charity or at her internship with our historian friend Anne Nelson. And then of course she needs to get up here to Connecticut for the occasional moment of leisure, like dear Cici’s graduation party in Mystic. We motored there one lovely Friday evening. These two girls never change.
We reminisced with Cici’s parents and her friend Emily’s family — they were celebrating together — and marvelled that we are talking about Cici’s departure to college, and Avery’s applications next year. Is the world ready for these two to be unleashed upon it? Cici’s dad said in his eloquent toast, “We’re counting on you.” How heartwarming to be included in the party.
With Avery home, it was time to make some of the last dishes to photograph for the cookbook. Avery is frankly living for the day that she no longer constantly hears, “Can you get a picture of…” Sometimes, though, these last jobs remind us how delicious forgotten dishes are.
Warm Cannellini Beans with Rosemary and Rocket
2 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 large stems fresh rosemary, leaves only, minced
2 15oz/400g cans cannellini beans, drained
1/3 c/30g fresh breadcrumbs
4 oz/113g grated Parmesan or Pecorino
2 handfuls arugula/rocket
olive oil to drizzle
fresh black pepper and sea salt to taste
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan and add the garlic, rosemary and cannellini beans. Saute until garlic is soft. In a clean frying pan, toast the breadcrumbs until crisp and add to the beans. When ready to serve, add the cheese and arugula and toss well. Add more olive oil if needed and season to taste. Serve warm.
The warm, idyllic, peaceful weekend afternoons were spent with Avery and her grandmother discussing her Russian trip, her work experience, her internship. I slaved away trying diligently to make sure that every one of the 100+ recipes in the cookbook has proper measurements in both American and European methods.
What IS this American obsession with putting things into cups to see how much space they take up? I want to give every American cook a scale and be done with it. “Loosely packed, ” “a scant cup”? The mind boggles. But it must be done. Every person who has come through the door in the last month has been subjected to discussions of measurement and phrasing, and no person will be gladder than I when this is all finished.
John recovered with some good, hard physical labor with a chainsaw, hacking away at felled trees in our forest. Our woodshed is full, for Christmas.
I found time to cross the road in search of one of Gladys Taber’s cookbooks, there to find a classic recipe or two. It’s impossible to imagine writing my own cookbook without her example: remarking on the unremarkable, the daily, the delicious. We have been so lucky to have her family across the road all these years.
Weekends last for no one, though, and all too soon it was back to the city for Avery, and this time John’s mom and I joined her, just a couple of commuters we.
What a delightful train journey (if you don’t have to do it every day!).
Somehow, the American version of “Mind the Gap” seems less stern. More just an observation.
Avery’s discovery of the Upper West Side, through her historian boss Anne, has been a joy. I think she’s found her niche. The apartment itself where she has been working — on mysteries of the French resistance — is as if you distilled Avery herself into a piece of real estate.
She is in heaven. Watch this space for an announcement of the book she’s been helping with. It seems almost unfair for her to put this experience on her resume; every hour has been something to remember.
The four of us repaired to Central Park, never a feature of my New York (downtowner that I was), to discover its delights. Almost lily ponds! Waterfalls. Just a backdrop to the four of us, appreciating each other’s company and the incomparable feeling of being in New York, with its unique energy.
Finally we had to let the two scholars get back to work, so it was but the taxi ride of a moment for Rosemary and me to get ourselves to Zabar’s. Oh, the bagels. Oh, the nova, smooth as silk, oily and fragrant. Breakfast for dinner was in order.
What happy memories that place brings, not to mention 300 different types of cream cheese. It’s almost painful to enjoy a true New York bagel, knowing it will be months before we encounter one again.
Finally summer ratcheted up into high gear with the arrival of my mother for her birthday celebrations. It was time to head to Jill’s house for the reunion, and the birthday girl was in fine form.
Th evening involved involved tomato-basil risotto and a certain amount of silliness.
The next afternoon brought a long-awaited visit from my cousin Dewaine and his wife Clare, making Red Gate Farm part of an East Coast jaunt. Something made John’s mom and me seek out an old leather suitcase full of photographs. “I wonder if there are any of Dewaine in here?” There were. An orgy of reminiscences ensued. My Philadelphia PhD graduation in 1992!
Avery turned up from train station in time to laugh over our former selves. Ah, her turn will come.
Avery and Dewaine had met before, but many years ago. it was lovely to see them together again; at her baby naming ceremony he made quite a prophetic speech about the young lady she would turn out to be.
With all the family in place, we feasted on barbecued chicken, two-cabbage and carrot slaw and crab-stuffed mushrooms. As we ate, a thousand old family stories were aired and enjoyed.
But it was the chocolate mousse that made the meal. Is there such a thing as “too much chocolate mousse”? Jane asked, with her ubiquitous “air quotes.”
The birthday luncheon proceeded as it always does, with a nice warm afternoon filled with food: Jill’s devilled eggs, my clam chowder, corn on the cob, tomato salad. There were hot dogs for the girls (and my brother), and finally, lemon blueberry birthday cake. Jane had to make sure it smelled all right.
Lemon Polenta Cake with Blueberries
1 c/225g butter, softened
1 c/225g sugar
2 ¼ c/225g ground almonds
2 tsps vanilla extract
zest of 4 lemons
juice of 1 lemon
1 c/125g cornmeal/polenta
1 ½ tsps baking powder
pinch sea salt
1 c/100g blueberries
Butter and flour a 12-inch/30cm springform or plain round cake pan. It does not need to be particularly deep.
Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
Scrape the batter into the pan and scatter the blueberries on top. Bake at 350F/180C for 45–55 minutes. Test with a toothpick or skewer in the center; if it comes out clean, the cake is done. The center may seem jiggly, but the sides of the cake should have come away a bit from the tin. Check frequently to make sure the top does not burn; it should have a deep golden brown color, but not blackened.
This cake is inspired by my friend Elizabeth who has made it for me many times without blueberries. It is a lovely cake both ways, and very nice to have for people who don’t eat wheat.
What a nice way to mark the years, with this party, and all my favorite cast of characters on the stage.
We never seem to run out of things to say, this group! Land Trust news, news of “Little Rollie” and his adventures, anticipation of the school year to come for everyone, even a discussion of “Days of Our Lives” for Mom, Judy and me. A new topic of conversation: “Is this picnic bench sagging? How old is this table anyway?” Peaceful times.
The sun disappeared to be replaced with low clouds and maybe even a hint of rain to come. We had had fun, our mother and we.
Avery has gone back to the city for her last week of work, and we have had our last blow-out dinner of the summer. Lobster, naturally.
We must pack up the house, say goodbye to the daddy-long-legs, prepare ourselves for the school and work year to come. But we will go with a thousand summer memories.
It’s the picture that will make us laugh in deepest February, the picture that will sum up Summer 2014, the one that spells our family in a nutshell (and I mean that) and keeps us looking forward to every time we have the chance to be together.
You know those family stories where you can’t really tell truth from fiction anymore? This is one of them. “The Tall Tale of the Ice Bag.” Yes, it has our name in the handle (and also in the inside of the bag, but that’s not important). It’s one of the LL Bean bags we bought years ago in Maine at the outlet store, a store full of bags with mistaken monograms, mistaken names, or just monograms and names of people who forgot to pick up their orders. I think this one says “Dylan.” Did John give it to Joel? Did Joel experience an understandable moment of bag envy and simply walk off with it? The matter has been thrashed out in every possible way, with both men clinging in a completely incomprehensible way to this piece of canvas.
Finally, with the wave of a Sharpie, Joel solved the mystery once and for all.
Molly, in the background, smiled her approval.
This was our Sunday, a perfect scrambled egg-bacon brunch with my sister’s family, Jill herself coming armed with her own “Awesome Blueberry Muffins.” They were.
Jill’s Awesome Blueberry Muffins
(makes 16 )
3 cups/378g plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup/200g white sugar
4 oz/113g butter
zest of 2 lemons
2 tbsps vegetable oil
1 cup/250ml sour cream or creme fraiche
1/2 cup/125ml milk
1 tsp lemon extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Mix the first four ingredients with a fork. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, then add the zest and oil and beat until mixed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between each. Stir in the sour cream. milk and extracts until well-mixed.
Pour half the dry mixture into the wet and fold just until mixed. Add the second half of the dry mixture and stir gently until just mixed. Fold in the blueberries and spoon into muffin tins lined with muffin paper.
Bake at 375F/190C for about 30 minutes, until browned.
Can you tell by the muffin photo that we had Avery back for the weekend? What a joy it was, after a day of complicated travel for her (yes, 42nd Street and “Grand Central” are the same stop on the subway; this is not an obvious thing) and lots of remote advice from John, to pick her up in nearby Seymour, Connecticut, a charming little hamlet containing a Metro-North station through which came this old-fashioned train.
She hadn’t eaten since the night before, in New Jersey, and had spent the day traipsing through New York on a shopping spree, carrying a good portion of her worldly belongings in a bag that conveniently split on a train platform about halfway through the day. She was ready to be picked up, fed a couple of slices of pizza in the car, and driven through the green and undulating hills to Jane’s summer camp, and the “Moosical”!
Yes, it was about a farm full of discontented cows who refuse to produce enough milk for the local ice cream bar. I can’t make this stuff up.
Jane’s performance was nothing short of dramatic genius, which didn’t stop Jill, Avery and me from collapsing into our annual puddle of uncontrollable laughter. It’s a family weakness.
A great summer tradition, Jane’s musical. What next year, a group of tie-dyed veal farmers?
It was very pleasant to have Avery under our roof again, and no, not only so she could photograph all the recipes I’d been experimenting on during the week. But there was that.
New England Clam Chowder
50 littleneck clams
1/2 cup/118ml white wine
4 whole stems fresh thyme
4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced the size of (well) dice
3 tbsps butter
4 stalks celery, minced
1 white onion, minced
8 stems fresh thyme, leaves only
3 quarts/2.8 liters whole milk
1 cup/236ml heavy/double cream
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
flat-leaf parsley to garnish
Place clams in a large bowl and cover with fresh, cold water. Leave for 20 minutes, then drain in a colander. Bring the wine to a boil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or stockpot with a close-fitting lid. Place the clams in the wine and cover. Steam the clams until they open, which they will begin to do in about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and with tongs begin lifting out the clams that have opened, and others will open as you do so. When you judge that all have opened that plan to, discard any that have remained closed. If there is no grit in the cooking liquid, discard the thyme and keep the liquid to add to your chowder. Rinse stockpot and dry thoroughly.
Cool clams until you can handle them. Meanwhile, melt butter in the stockpot and saute celery, onion, thyme leaves and potatoes for 2 minutes. Cover with milk and cream and season to taste. Add clam liquid of you like. Simmer very low until potatoes are soft, about 15 minutes.
While chowder is simmering, take the clams from their shells and remove the hard “mantle” and attached innards and discard them. Rinse the clam that remains (the belly and foot) and chop as coarse or fine as you like. Add the clams to the chowder and stir to mix. Heat very gently before serving. Garnish with a few chopped clams and a bit of chopped parsley.
The afternoon taking photographs was simply perfect.
Avery and I took a break from all this photography and recipe-writing to spend some money at the local Gap (a favorite summer activity), get an iced tea at the Starbucks (ditto) and pay a visit to the visiting animal shelter which had parked a truck full of puppies in the parking lot. We are suffering from pet withdrawal and as such could have adopted the lot. From there we progressed to the pet shop where Avery cuddled a lionhead bunny and moaned softly.
When we got home, our beautiful neighbor Taylor had dropped by with her latest American Girl acquisition and a number of tall tales to tell, which her mother later corroborated. Mummified hoarder lady found in collapsed house by Taylor’s rescue dogs? Check. Dead local cow dropped off in Taylor’s driveway to be made into dog food? Check. Her face belies these horrors.
Taylor picked up Avery’s camera and revealed an unexpected talent. I love this photo of Avery.
And this lovely image of the Aggravation marbles, fodder for so many perfect Red Gate Farm shrieking games.
The next morning brought my New York best friend, Alyssa. And Tina, the Wonder Dog.
Alyssa is my best friend for many reasons, high on the list being her understanding of the cravings I get for New York Jewish foods. She brought bagels and everything to go on them from our beloved Russ & Daughters, scene of our delicious early summer lunch. Whitefish and baked salmon salad, horseradish cream cheese, sable and smoked salmon.
I have never been a dog person, but we all had to agree that this might be in part due to the extreme strangeness of Alyssa’s previous canine children. Sydney? Super odd. Lila? Don’t ask. But Tina?
What luxury, to sit around exchanging bagel plates for fruit salad plates, whiling away the summer afternoon giving and getting news: of Annabelle’s university choices, Elliot’s performance at the World Trade Center memorial, plans for summer vacation on Fire Island, neighborhood news from our precious Tribeca. Old friends’ talk. One of those afternoons to remember.
Tina is a most devoted dog. She did not approve of Alyssa’s brief trip inside the house without her.
Dinner that night was a typical Sanford Road barbecue with Anne, David and Kate trooping across the road. We were having so much fun chatting, and such reaching-over-each-other confusion eating, that we didn’t even pick up a camera. The barbecued chicken was a delight: marinated in a funny mixture of buffalo wing sauce, Ranch dressing and Worcester sauce! And of course corn on the cob. And potato salad, still warm from being made at the last minute.
The next morning brought Jill’s family and the blueberry muffins, and the girls showed their annual interest in the spidery room in the Big Red Barn, and the seemingly endless numbers of Avery’s cherished picture books that emerge from cardboard movers’ boxes therein. Quiet, old-fashioned fun.
What lovely girls my nieces are. Sweet Jane, nearly ten years old now.
This is an uncharacteristically docile image of Molly, but it shows her true beauty.
Tomorrow will bring John’s mom! Summer always reaches a new level of celebration when she arrives, to inhabit her cozy bedroom at the front of the house, with its barn-red spread and piles of books. And next week, my mom, here for her annual birthday bash. It’s life, concentrated. Just add water.
In the early evening, here at Red Gate Farm in the first days of August, the peace is really indescribable. It is the sensation of utter calm that we look forward to all year. We sit on the terrace and try to read, or work, but what we really do is look up and out over the landscape, listening to the squawking of John’s finches and the squabbling of the squirrels and chipmunks, and feel grateful to be here.
I wander around taking photograph after photograph of views that have been captured before, many times, but I don’t mind. I see them fresh every summer.
A week ago today, we were still in the halcyon mood of happiness that came from having picked up Avery at Heathrow, from her adventures in Russia. It was a life-changing experience.
We listened in admiration to her stories of the human kindness, generosity and sheer good fun of the people she met there in the orphanage “community,” where she washed dishes, made costumes, woke in the middle of “the night of the hornets” to swat at creatures who grew larger with every telling of the story. Her colloquial Russian improved by leaps and bounds, so if anyone needs to know, quick, how to say, “please bring the scissors, the Scotch tape and the spray paint,” Avery’s your woman.
We awoke on the dreaded travel day with that single-minded purpose that sort of blinds us every year to the unpleasantness to come: the emptying of the fridge (thank you, Elizabeth, for giving a home to my cheeses and eggs), the saying goodbye to the puzzled cats, wrangling luggage in the hot London sun, suffering through security, downing a meal, the long flight, customs, the long drive in the dark to the house. And to sleep, about 16 hours after we left “home,” waking several times in the night with no idea where I was.
In the morning, we awoke early to this lovely sight.
Deadly or not, we decided not to take any chances and simply shut the door again after we each had an incredulous, disgusted stare. I think the car will have to be shredded.
For the time being, we are keeping our rental car while we come to terms with the finality of goodbye to a car that’s seen us through a dozen happy years. I just don’t think it can be reclaimed.
We turned to happier things, like the first brunch at the Laurel Diner! Nothing like it.
Oh, the goodness of butter. Perfect corned-beef hash, hash browns, a fried egg or two with cheese, sausage AND bacon. Avery and I shared everything and it was a feast. John has his own, of course.
With meals like this, we’ll have to measure Avery one more time, although I think she’s stopped growing.
We’ll also have to play plenty of tennis to work it all off. After taking the whole year away from the courts, what with my bum ankle, John’s bum knee, and our obsession with cycling, it’s been nice to get back to our game, as untutored as it is. We always have fun.
It was time to whip up the interstate to share a pub dinner with Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly. Jane brought along the script to her upcoming musical (something involving dairy and some French tourists; we’ll see it this week), and we had a good discussion.
Since last year’s musical was a neo-Socialist foray into labor conditions at a button factory, anything could happen, on Thursday night. I would like to tell you all the plot details I learned from Jane, but truth be told, I was too busy just enjoying the sound of her voice and having her sitting next to me, to pay much attention to the exact details.
Oh, jetlag. How difficult it is those first few nights to stay awake! How easy it is to wake up very early. But the sights and sounds are not to be missed.
We’ve been joined, as every summer, by one of the little fellows who lives under the terrace. What must they think of our yearly arrival, and the inexplicable largesse that comes with it? They make hay.
We made our usual inaugural trip to the farmer’s market where we bought the first corn on the cob, the first tomatoes and cucumbers, and petted the resident baby goat, advertising goat’s milk soaps. I always feel vaguely that I’m getting away with something, petting the goat but never, ever buying any soap.
After leaving us to our own devices for a day or two, the visitors begin. We take farmer’s market apple cider doughnuts to Alice-across-the-road, and persuade her to come over to the terrace for a peaceful catching-up of recents events, mostly Avery’s tales of her Russian adventure. And then our friend Peter comes from around the corner to report on haying up in the meadow, and Tricia and little Rollie come to warn us about an alleged bear sighting. “Mind your bird feeders,” Tricia says. “This bear made a real mess of Rollie’s hives, up the hill.”
I feel bad about the hives, but I’d love to see the bear.
The peace is broken only slightly by the work that’s followed us here: the cookbook and Potters Fields. John spends the early part of every day catching up on what comes over the wires from England during the night. That house WILL get built.
It was time, on Sunday, for a little party.
Since we saw Mike, Lauren and the beautiful Abigail last, they have acquired baby Gabriel, and he was well worth the wait.
Abigail seemed to take him entirely in her stride, simply plopping herself down on the ground to play with Avery’s old dollhouse, much as she ever has, while Lauren and John chatted, and Mike and Avery took care of brunch, which was Russian blini! Avery and I concocted these from her memories of having flipped them at the orphanage, and a culling of several different recipes. Some were buckwheat, and some plain flour. All were delicious.
(makes enough for 6)
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
large pinch salt
small pinch sugar
3 cups milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
butter for the pan
Simply whisk everything together thoroughly, then melt butter in a very large frying pan and ladle in enough batter to coat the bottom of the pan, no more.
Cook until easily loosened from pan with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, then flip or turn over, as your braveness indicates.
We piled these with sour cream, smoked salmon, some smoked pork, and julienned roasted pickled beets. They were divine.
Abigail ate them plain. Six of them!
We finished with a glorious, purely American fruit salad.
It was time, then, to pile into the car and drive toward Avery’s real summer: her stay with our darling friends Jeanne and Cynthia, in the most heavenly bedroom in the world, high on the third floor of their celestial house…
We ate by candlelight, savoring the truly fabulous Scotch that Cynthia had laid in for us, and went to sleep peacefully, as we always do under their loving roof, me in the high four-poster bed I always have, and John on his sleeping porch. Some things never change.
In the morning it was time to walk to the train station, board NJ Transit bound for Hoboken, switch to the PATH and take the short walk crosstown to Avery’s internship for the month, at AIDS Service Center New York, a non-profit group involved in confidential testing, advice and advocacy. You’d never guess such important things could happen behind this front.
It was exciting to walk along the fantastically rich and beautiful Fifth Avenue, passing gorgeous townhouses on the cross streets and curlicued apartment buildings, only to find that this big-hearted advocacy group occupies such a stark office.
We popped into Patsy’s down the street for a quick pizza, before dropping her off.
And Avery was gone, in the big blue front doors and off to her summer adventure. No matter what time she is able to spend up here with us, it’s a bit of a milestone, waving her off to live her own life. We’ll keep you posted on what we hear. And what we eat…
Vacation is here.
My, it’s hot. Although Londoners always express amazement whatever the weather, it really is amazingly hot. We’ve dragged our sprinkler from the basement to try to alleviate the dryness. The smell of wet grass evokes lovely childhood Indiana memories of my dad watering the tomato garden, and kindly turning the water on the grass for a bit so we could race through it. Wet grass is universal.
Tacy doesn’t mind the heat.
The day has finally arrived: Avery is coming home from Russia this evening, our bags are packed, passports sorted, cat dishes full, and tomorrow we leave for Connecticut!
It’s been a funny time here in London, with everyone I normally see during the year saying in a puzzled way, “Aren’t you usually gone by now?” I’ve spent an extra month with my Home-Start family, watching the babies grow almost visibly on our weekly visits. I’ve never spent this much time with small babies since Avery was one, and it’s incredible to see them acquiring new skills — tracking a passing train with their eyes, holding their own bottles of milk, sitting up with their fat little hands on either side to support themselves. The extra month has been a real joy, and it’s a bit of a wrench to think how they’ll have grown and changed in the coming month that we’ll spend apart.
My fellow bell ringers looked startled to see me at Sunday services yesterday. “You’re still here?” I sweated my way through Grandsire Doubles, ringing the tenor behind to Stedmans, and even calling some changes myself, and getting very flustered calling us back into rounds. “Nervous sweat,” diagnosed Andrew sagely. Then it was onto Chiswick where for the first time ever in my experience, the back door to the ringing chamber was open, to admit a breeze. The atmosphere was so lovely, so ancient and yet so breezily modern, and of-the-moment, that I felt I couldn’t breathe for the beauty.
While Avery’s been away — and nearly silently, without internet of phone most of the time and so tantalizingly without tale-telling — we’ve been busy feeding friends, seeing plays, seeing other friends. We’ve made a couple of superb and delicious discoveries. John always mocks me for getting obsessed with a dish and making it over and over until I get it just right, but sometimes it’s not too difficult to live through the process. Oh, clams.
Vongole e Spaghetti con Pomodori, Olive e Aglio
1.5 kilos/3.5 lb small clams, raw
50ml/1/4 c very good quality extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsps butter
2 large handfuls flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 hot Thai chilli, seeds removed and minced (or to taste)
fresh black pepper, sea salt to taste
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
12 oil-cured Moroccan black olives, pitted and halved
1 lb spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
75 ml/6 oz good white wine
Clean the clams carefully and discard any that are not firmly closed, or do not promptly close when you tap on them with a fingernail.
In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil and sweat the garlic gently in it. Do not brown the garlic. Add the butter, half the parsley and the chilli, the pepper and salt, tomatoes and olives and heat gently until butter is melted.
Just before you are ready to serve, boil the spaghetti until very slightly undercooked, then drain into a serving bowl and toss with the olive oil to stop pasta from sticking.
To the hot, empty pasta pan, pour in the white wine and bring quickly to a boil. Tip in the clams and put the spaghetti in on top. Clap a tight lid on and cook, stirring twice, for 5 minutes.
Pour the clams and spaghetti into the serving bowl and pour the garlic mixture over top, then toss well till completely mixed. Scatter the rest of the parsley on top. Serve with a good crusty bread.
I just knew John and Suzanne would be the perfect guests for the first draft of this meal — without the tomatoes or olives, just a TON of garlic and parsley — and they were their usual ebullient selves, up for any guinea pig food assignment.
With a first course of ice-cold vichyssoise and Suzanne’s divine peach trifle to end, this was a meal to remember.
So simple: crushed amaretto biscuits with amaretto poured over, then whipped cream, ripe peach slices and slivered almonds. Heaven.
Why is it so much fun to eat something that makes a mess? Bones or shells, always a winner.
While the very simple version of the clam dish was lovely, I think the added tomatoes and olives elevated the experience, almost to a puttanesca level, but we agreed that adding anchovies and capers would take the experiment too far. One never knows, though; I could be convinced to try it in Connecticut.
Over dinner, John and Suzanne reminded me of a gorgeous dish he made for us years ago, a miraculous feat of almost no cooking, a bit of waiting, and one hell of a perfect cut of beef.
Turmeric-rubbed Seared Beef Fillet
600-800g beef fillet
olive oil to coat
1/2 tsp each: coriander seeds, sea salt, lemon zest, fresh black pepper
1 tsp soy sauce
1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled and grated, or 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp olive oil
Coat the beef with the olive oil. Place all other ingredients in a mortar and pestle and mash until a nice paste. Rub all over the beef fillet and leave to marinate at least 1 hour in the fridge.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the beef at a very high heat on all sides, and both ends, for a total of 10 minutes. Wrap tightly in four layers of aluminium foil and leave to rest for at least 10 minutes.
Slice extremely thin and serve the beef with lots of fresh wild rocket and lashings of shaved parmesan, the whole dish drizzled with a good-quality olive oil.
Turmeric. The wonder spice. It is reputed to solve any number of health issues: inflammation, pain, even cancer. I have never before found it in its fresh form, but I came upon some at the sublime Green Valley grocer in Upper Berkeley Street, and snapped it up.
A funny little plant, isn’t it? It looks like a hybrid between a Jerusalem artichoke and a ginger root. It tastes like a sort of hyped-up carrot on steroids, and the deep yellow you’d associate with the ground variety in a jar isn’t a PATCH on the golden hue that permeated my fingers and lasted through washing dinner dishes AND the next day’s shower. Ground up in a mortar and pestle with heavenly fresh coriander seed…
The exotic rub, barely-cooked, velvety beef, salty Parmesan and bitter rocket: this dish was a definite winner, and even better cold for lunch the next day.
We needed all the strength we could get for our cultural outings. We had seen “Medea” with Avery just before she left, and my goodness, what a tour de force for Helen McCrory. If you had asked me before the play if it was even remotely interesting to contemplate a character who would kill her children because she was jilted by her husband, I’d have honestly laughed. Especially waving my only child off on a bit of a rocky adventure to Russia the next day, the idea of sacrificing little ones in retribution for being abandoned by their father seemed and seems very silly. That’s what makes McCrory’s performance so perfect, and so chilling. You believe it’s a possible choice.
And then there was “Skylight.” Again, the success of the play is in the rescuing of an old-hat scenario — much older man trying to get back into the good graces of the young woman who’s rejected their relationship. In this case, the cliche is brought to life by the impossibly charismatic Bill Nighy (yup, he’s 64) and the luminous Carey Mulligan (uh huh, she’s 29). They are completely believable as a couple, and their emotional machinations totally compelling. The irony? With all the political content of the play — the two characters divided by their places in very different economic classes — the tickets were notably pricey. Avery would have choked.
Still under the spell of “Skylight,” we wandered in the late afternoon heat to the National Portrait Gallery to meet my pal Jo and take in the exhibition about Virginia Woolf. It is terribly sad, even when you know the ending is coming. Again, isn’t that a testament to the quality of an artistic achievement: taking the familiar, even the trite, and making it new and moving. Lovely original editions of her books, childhood photographs, diaries. The most upsetting bits to me were the photographs of the Blitzed homes of the Woolfs and the Bells, and the letters she wrote to her sister and husband before killing herself. How these things, so commonplace in our understanding of history, could still be so moving, means that you should go and see them if you can.
All we could do was fall into squishy leather chairs and imbibe cocktails at the ridiculously chic St Martin’s Hotel Bar just around the corner. Jo is one of those effervescent, totally-herself people who is a joy to share all things with, sad exhibitions and gin and tonics alike. The atmosphere made us all feel very cool.
Finally, to fill up our culture cup, one breathlessly hot evening we cycled up the village street to the local Olympic Cinema to relax in welcome air conditioning for “Camille Claudel 1915.” Those of you who know me from the old country, in my dark art historical past, will remember that I wrote my dissertation on this tragic artist, subject of the massively successful and beautiful 1988 film “Camille Claudel.” That early film focused on the disastrous relationship between Claudel and Rodin, and was very dramatic and lush. This film, by contrast, chronicles three days in the life of the older Claudel, now committed to a mental asylum on a windswept hilltop in wartime France.
Depressing? There are no words. But Juliette Binoche puts in a performance of deep sadness and authenticity. To me, the most touching thing about the film was its use of quotations from Claudel’s heartbreaking letters, as dialogue. I remember so clearly reading them in their original French in the attic archives of the Musee Rodin in Paris, feeling her isolation and desperation. They were stored in the little room with the window just at the top of the house, on the right.
Hearing the words spoken aloud was stunning. The film will have a limited release, but seek it out if you can.
The clock ticks. Avery’s plane is in the air. Tomorrow at this time we’ll be awaiting our flight to Connecticut, to our summer holiday, to Red Gate Farm. A month without theatre, without museums, without fancy films. But it will have green grass, red barns, white picket fences, family. I can’t wait.
It’s a first for us, spending July away from Red Gate Farm. And while I’ve gradually got used to early bits of July, even the Fourth of July here, the idea of spending the whole of the month here is a bit of an adjustment.
At the end of this week, Avery goes off to spend ten days volunteering in Russia, and while I recognise that it’s silly of me to be nervous about it, I thought it was not too insane to want to stay just one continent away while she’s there. So we’ve dug in the summer trenches here in London, ready to enjoy what the month will bring. So far it’s brought beautiful weather.
Barnes Pond is always a lovely sight, whether I’m cycling past on my way to the Saturday farmer’s market or wheeling my Home-Start babes around it to find the ducklings and cygnets to admire. My beloved village High Street above, complete with cosy bakery, fruit and veg shop, pharmacy and newagent, basks in the lovely afternoon blinking sun.
We’ve been to a simply sublime theatre experience, “The Crucible.” I fully admit that much of my ambition to sit through the 2 3/4 hours of this play stemmed from my adoration of its star, Richard Armitage, a long-standing crush of mine from “North and South” and “The Vicar of Dibley” days.
He has lost none of his magnetic appeal (watch for the completely gratuitous shirt-off face-washing scene), but the play contains more than heartthrob moments. Honestly, I never knew nearly three hours in a theatre to pass so quickly. Everyone in the cast is noteworthy and the puritanical religious fever quite timeless. You can see it until September (although how all the shouting actors will maintain their voices I cannot imagine), so do.
July has brought a visitor, too, in the shape of dear Sam, who in his teaching holidays landed here for a spot of domestic bliss (he doesn’t have time to cook for himself as he should), and family life. He’s the perfect stand-in for Avery’s brother.
Rosie’s Celestial Amaretto Chocolate Mousse
60g/2 oz amaretto biscuits (approximately 12), crushed
150g/6 oz high-content chocolate (70% or more)
1 tbsp salted butter, or unsalted plus pinch salt
1 tbsp strong espresso coffee
1 tbsp Amaretto liqueuer
4 eggs, separated
1 tbsp white sugar
300 ml/1 1/4 c double/heavy cream
Line a loaf tin with plastic wrap, then scatter half the crushed biscuits on the bottom. Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over simmering water, then stir in the butter, coffee and Amaretto. Set aside to cool.
Whisk the egg whites with an electric mixer or by hand until stiff. Set aside. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until thickened, creamy and about doubled in volume, and set aside. Whip the cream until just whipped.
Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then the yolk mixture, then the whipped cream. Pour into loaf pan and scatter remaining biscuits on top. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. Service in slices with fresh berries, if liked, or whipped cream. A glass of Amaretto on the side would be lovely as well. Alternately, the mousse can be spooned into glasses and left to set there, as a parfait rather than a slice.
We food shopped as only cooking nuts can, enjoying reading every label, comparing brands, getting distracted and buying more than we wanted. Borough Market in particular led to this sort of diversion.
Lest you wonder, the pork and seaweed sausage made an exceptional addition to homemade pizza, which is so much better than store-bought, or delivery, that you will wonder why you don’t make it every week. It’s very simple and the dough — which has the benefit of very easy but CRUCIAL seasoning — does not have to rise.
Homemade Pizza With Mozzarella, Mushrooms, Red Onions, Hot Peppers, Black Olives and Sausage (arugula optional)
(dough makes 4 pizzas, toppings make 1 which will serve 2 people)
300 grams/10 ounces/2 cups plain flour
1 packet/2tsps dried yeast granules
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp each: onion powder, garlic powder
250 grams/8 ounces/1 cup warm water
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp milk
1 soup-size tin of plum tomatoes
1 tsp each: garlic salt, garlic powder, onion powder
250 grams/1/2 pound-ish grated mozzarella cheese
8 brown mushrooms, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
2 small hot green peppers, sliced
handful black oil-cured olives, pitted
4 pork sausages, cooked and sliced
handful grated Parmesan
drizzle truffled olive oil
arugula leaves, if wanted
In a very large bowl, mix together with a fork all the dry ingredients, then mix the water, oil and milk and pour it onto the dry stuff. Mix with a fork and then your hands, bringing together all the bits of flour. If you need a bit more water, just add it in sprinkles. When the dough hangs together and has incorporated all the flour, knead it gently with the ball of your hand, this way and that, turning and squishing, until it is a fine smooth blob. Use the dough immediately, or if you have time, let it rise in a warm place, covered, for an hour, then punch it down. This dough works either way.
Put the tomatoes, basil and seasonings in the food processor and pulse till smooth.
Place your pizza stone in your very hot (220C/425F) oven for at least half an hour before the dough is ready. Now pinch off about 1/4 of the dough and cover your clean countertop with flour, as well as your hands, and the ball of dough, and your rolling pin. Roll the dough out, flouring liberally on top and underneath, until it is the size of your pizza stone. Take the stone from the oven, place the dough on it and bake for about 10 minutes or until thoroughly dry and a bit crisp.
Spoon on tomato sauce. Pile on your toppings as evenly as possible. Drizzle the olive oil over all and bake again until cheese is a bit melty, perhaps another 8–10 minutes.
Does your pizza crust go through this schizophrenic pitta phase? I know not why mine does, but it’s a lot of fun. It just has to be pricked with a fork and smacked a bit.
And of course the moment the skies threatened rain, we jumped onto the train to visit Potters Fields, now not only paved, but numbered as the true parking lot (until March) it is.
Sadly, Sam had to leave us for his real life, and we settled down into the Barnes routine, which included for the first time the Barnes Fair! A much-vaunted tradition, the Fair has grown from a humble affair of a few stalls boasting local handicrafts and a glass of Pimm’s or two, to this greatly anticipated extravaganza.
All of Barnes, Mortlake, Kew and Richmond seemed to have descended on our little village. I bought presents for my mother’s upcoming birthday (I shall say no more because she may read this), a cute t-shirt for myself, elderflower cordial for Avery and me. It was a hot and beautiful Saturday afternoon.
Since one of my absolute favorite things to do is to hang around the church helping out for some event or other, I had happily spent the previous afternoon feeding lunch to the lovely volunteers who organised the bike sale. The church was filled with bicycles.
The volunteer tent was full of personalities. How I would love to write a novel about them all someday. I think, after long hours spent in close proximity with church volunteers, that there is no community in the world so full of characters: the cheerful vicar in what Avery described as “clerical casual,” the mild, patient church secretary with a darling King Charles spaniel on the lead, the effervescent bell-ringing teacher who has nothing but appreciative praise for her helpers, the teenager whose found his calling repairing bikes. I was able to pair up several of my fellow yoga students with their wives, dressed in perfect English weekend garb and all saying their lines perfectly. “I am perishing for a cup of tea…” Minus the Body in the Bellchamber, it was, as always, an afternoon straight out of Agatha Christie.
So at the Fair, I was happy to see that the Bike Sale in the churchyard was going gangbusters in the hot sun.
I took my place at the folding table ready to take money for visitors to climb the 70+ steps to the top of the belltower, to see the views. It soon became apparent, however, that the views were only a small reason to turn up at the tower. The real attraction: Teddy Parachuting. My ringing friend Flora was in charge, patiently attaching the silken parachutes to the children’s beloved teddies and flinging them off the tower to float slowly downward.
It will be seen, then, that the first half of July has not been dull. What the second has in store, besides delicious summery things to eat, remains to be seen.
It’s impossible to overstate how compelling Oxford is. The sheer weight of history, the famed, adventuresome, beloved figures from the past that seem to peep out from every corner, the honeyed stone and yes, the Dreaming Spires.
We began this, the last leg of our university journey, early in the morning at Paddington Station. In itself a bastion of tradition, with a newish roof and still absolutely nowhere to sit, Paddington lets you begin every trip with a feeling of energy and aliveness.
We made our way to the “History Taster Lecture,” a fascinating British professor’s look at how Americans write their history, always with a view toward contextualizing events in the past. He showed slides of Obama giving speeches at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of glass cases holding the original Constitution. An interesting perspective. Then, a daunting but informative talk on the admissions process, with three impossibly poised first-year students telling their tales.
The good news is, the speakers could have been describing Avery, I thought. She would be in positive heaven in the joint honours programme in history and politics. The bad news is, she’s chosen among the very most difficult programmes to get into. Already, history accepts only about 25% of applicants. But add Avery’s special programme, and you’ve hit a university-wide low of 13% acceptance. She can only do her best.
Feeling some combination of inspiration and intimidation, we managed a quick lunch, then wandered over to the first College on her list, Wadham.
Did you know that Oxford University was made up of Colleges? These are groupings of buildings — living, eating and learning quarters for three years– under the rubric of particular Student Union governing bodies, and with very particular sporting traditions, gardens, political leanings, coffers, points of pride. Avery had done a fair amount of research to find the Colleges that appealed the most to her.
It was hard to believe that any place represented by such structures could be considered liberal. Everything is so, so ancient.
We were given a tour by a lovely, energetic, generous young man who took to Avery’s political views straightaway and it was a very nice first welcome to Oxford. We saw sample bedrooms, the Junior Common Room, the beautiful gardens.
And then on to Balliol, most beloved College to me because it boasts my favorite alumnus of any institution, Lord Peter Wimsey. Speaking of ancient, Balliol is happily celebrating its 750th birthday.
The guide went on at some length about meal plans, dinners per week, etc., but all I could think was “Eat? Who would bother eating when you could just gaze around and feel part of history.” (The food sounds all right, actually, and they wear gowns only occasionally, which is too bad.)
From here we traipsed over to the library, wherein I could imagine Avery doing any amount of research, or indeed just dreaming.
We popped along to St. John’s College, which is apparently referred to simply as “John’s.”
The richest college at Oxford — and the sweet young Irish tour guide seemed to think this rather bald claim was made all right by describing how generously students are supported financially — the gardens stretched on simply forever, and the buildings were stunning in their age and beauty.
John was terribly excited by the sight of an award-winning group of residence halls, Kendrew Quadrangle. I found them horrifyingly modern, so I did not take a photo. And anyway, can I tell you how I was frowned on for the entire day by my family for taking photographs at all? But aren’t you glad I did.
The tour guide, rosy-cheeked and charming, explained when asked that she was reading Art History. I thought about confessing to my defunct PhD but then had to remind myself that no one had the slightest interest in an old mother. Better just to enjoy the scenery.
We found ourselves at University College, the oldest in Oxford.
We had a tour guide all to ourselves, as the day was winding down.
From here we met up with my darling pal Jo, on a blistering street corner in the blazing sun. We parted company, Jo and me to have a lovely cold drink together in the gardens of the Quod (THE place to eat and drink in Oxford), and a bit of a gossip. One heavenly thing about Oxford would be the chance to see Jo whenever I pop over for a visit (very infrequently, I assure you).
John and Avery staggered to our table some 40 minutes later, having soaked in the sights and sounds of beautiful Magdelen (pronounced Maudlin) College, one of the very largest and most spacious.
Having said goodbye to Jo and decided that we had it in us to visit one more College — and Avery had run into friends who told her exactly which one this last should be — we walked slowly to The Queen’s College.
In the gradually clouding-over sky, we contemplated the magnificent proportions of the College, although our guide — an adorably outgoing man studying Chemistry of all things — was a bit apologetic that a fire had destroyed the original 14th century buildings and what we were looking at were only 250 years old. Shame, that.
The College possesses two bells! Two. Which our tour guide rings; what was the chance of that, meeting the College Ringer? “And of course, we are very proud of our most illustrious alumnus, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. The current Prime Minister of Australia also spent some time here. Perhaps we’re not so proud of that.”
The gardens were, he assured us, very popular places for barbecues, Pimm’s parties, and any manner of high jinks. For all that, they looked inescapably peaceful.
The day in Oxford was at an end. We pulled ourselves back from all the dreams that had filled our imaginations, and went home. Nine hours, 8.7 miles and almost 30,000 steps walked in Oxford, we were ready for an early night, at the train journey’s end.
So ends our month of university adventures. All we can do now is wait for AS-level exam results in August, support Avery through her applications in the autumn, and then soldier on to decision time before Christmas. She feels confident that among all the places we’ve seen, she will find a place to be happy. As one of the counsellors at school said wisely, “You must remember, parents, that 95% of the girls in this school will be happy no matter where they go. And the other 5% will be unhappy no matter where they go. All you can do is to help your girl to be one of that 95% percent.”
For right now, though, it’s been enough to have these delightful trips, in each other’s company, pushing Avery’s boat out on the next big river. Whether or not it is the Isis remains to be seen…
On this hot, hot, HOT Wednesday afternoon, we all converged on Avery’s one London choice of universities: The London School of Economics and Political Science, known throughout the world as simply “LSE.”
One of the “colleges” of the University of London, it’s just what it says on the tin, a true “London School.” Set in the middle of Aldwych, a funny little island in the London borough of Westminster (can’t get much more central than that), it’s bustling with urban life, spread out among many buildings a brisk walk from Holborn Tube station. The passersby are a motley assortment of obvious local businesspeople, students, and the odd tourist probably looking for Trafalgar Square.
Avery, fresh from a morning’s tour of the Houses of Parliament (“Everything in the House of Lords is gold leaf”), and we, not so fresh from a session mentoring girls at school who want to run a stall at next year’s Christmas Fair, arrived at LSE separately. She took herself off to a taster History lecture and we repaired to a daunting parental discussion of financial aid. Brilliantly, here in the UK student loans’ payback is directly tied to the post-graduation income of the student in question. You make £21,000 or less? Payback is halted until your income goes up. Very civilised, and so different from the punishing life of an American student laboring under the weight of six-figure debt in perpetuity.
The prospective students surging out from the lectures were by far the most diverse-looking of any group we’d seen so far at university visits, as befits a city setting, we supposed. A positive box to tick, for LSE.
We set out in the broiling sun to walk along the Embankment.
Then we crossed the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge to land south of the river at Bankside, the neighborhood stretching from that Bridge to London Bridge, where some of the LSE student housing is located. Interestingly, every single first-year student is guaranteed London accommodation, even if her parents are living right in Central London. Thank goodness, because it would be a definite deal-breaker if Avery were forced to live at home.
The accommodation couldn’t have been more urban, less like a college campus.
In the debate called “to stay in London or not to stay in London,” the citified, apartment-block nature of the accommodation was definitely in LSE’s favor. The puce-coloured kitchen walls, the soul-destroying overhead fluorescent lighting? Not so much. But the bedroom’s ceilings were high and the windows generous. We stood about self-consciously, the parents and their children, each trying to imagine the future, set not in our cosy, personal homes, but in these little random boxes which it will be our kids’ job to make their own.
To put LSE in perspective with our future home-to-be, we taxied over to the erstwhile “plot of nettles and dirt,” to find THIS amazing sight.
The next-door building project has rented our little plot of land from us to use as a parking lot, until we begin to break ground. It was quite stunning to see the bit of land not so much as a wild, untamed, garbagey rectangle where foxes sleep perchance to dream, and more a nice flat piece of real estate on which to build a house.
Finally we walked wearily to the Tube, then to the train, then the hot walk home, our heads filled not so much with sugarplums as with almost impossible visions of our futures stretching out: a home without Avery, a new home we can’t even envision yet, a vista of university choices now supplemented by a London option. We all felt quite overwhelmed, ready to come in out of the sun, rest our tired feet and imaginations, down a few hundred glasses of cold, cold water.
And because there is not rest for the wicked, tomorrow will take us, bright and early, to Oxford. The jewel in the crown of the university world, one might think (Oxford certainly thinks), and a fitting end to our journeys across the country in search of Avery’s future. But first, a nice summertime barbecued veal chop.
The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce, For a Nice Veal Chop
4 1-inch thick rose veal chops (the humane sort, from happy little calves)
for the marinade (allow 7 hours, no cheating)
about 250g/1/2 lb each: mango, papaya, pineapple, peeled, seeded and cut in chunks
large knob ginger, peeled
8 cloves garlic, peeled
5 small red Thai chillis, or to taste
4 stems fresh thyme, leaves only
for barbecue sauce:
extra marinade, plus leftover from marinating bag
200g/7 oz ketchup
40g/1/1/2 dark brown sugar
2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce
cayenne pepper to taste
large pinch salt
large pinch fresh ground pepper
In a small food processor, pulverize all marinade ingredients until smooth as possible. Smother veal chops in marinade and place in zippered plastic bag. Reserve any extra marinade, in a small saucepan. Refrigerate chops for 3 hours, then turn over, massaging plastic bag to coat all meat. Refrigerate a further 3 hours or longer, then remove from refrigerator for 1 hour before cooking the chops.
Pour the leftover marinade from the plastic bag into the saucepan containing the extra marinade. Add the barbecue sauce ingredients. Cook over a low heat, covered, for at least 15 minutes.
Heat grill to 425F/220C and place chops on grill, coat first side with barbecue sauce, and grill for 4 minutes, then turn and coat the second side and grill for a further 4 minutes. Repeat the barbecue procedure once more per side, cooking for about 2 minutes each side until done to your desired doneness. Rest for a few minutes, then slice each chop on the bias and serve with the rest of the barbecue sauce.
Then we’ll get a good night’s sleep, and up again for the next adventure.