A distraction, a massive time-waster, a postmodern conversion of true friendship into a series of “likes,” call it what you will. I love Facebook. The reason was never clearer than in this past week, when we’ve been reunited with one of our dear friends from university days, Charlie.
There are just certain people in your life, and you know who they are, for whom the passage of time has made no difference. Ironically, these are often people with whom you’ve lost touch, usually because one of you stayed in the same place and the other flew the coop, or because both of you went merrily off in different directions, and other friends, other experiences, other ties, came to fill the gap.
When you have the chance to be reunited, you are thoroughly flooded with memories of the joys of that past friendship, and you grab it back with both hands and come away absolutely determined not to lose each other again. Such has been our week with Charlie. And we owe it all to Facebook, to bring us together, remind us how much we always made each other laugh, and make a point of…
It breaks my heart to write those words, because this week we lost a beloved member of our family, the majestic, artistocratic Lord Peter Wimsey of Balliol.
Of course it’s part of having pets as part of the family. Once, many years ago when saying goodbye to beloved foster kittens, I watched little Avery cry and asked her, “Are you sure it’s worth it, for you to be this sad?” And she answered, “That’s how you know it’s worth it, when you’re this sad.”
The wisdom of a small child was needed this week when we had to make the awful decision to let our lovely vet help Wimsey out of the world. He had been failing for some days, refusing to eat, hissing at his sisters, wandering the house looking uncomfortable and unhappy. We took him into the vet where he then spent four days in hospital, while the whole of the staff tried to piece together what was wrong. Finally he came home for the weekend.
But the lovely thing was, he had one last wander around his beloved garden, sniffing for signs of visitor cats, walking as he often did right through the plantings of perennial bulbs, which had raised their heads earlier this month. That night, he slept behind a chair, and Avery brought him a sweater to sleep on. “He looked cold.”
And that was that. The vet asked us to bring him back on Monday for another scan, and there the cause of his distress became clear; several spots of cancer. It was the end.
We all said goodbye to him that evening. He stood next to each of us, on the vet’s table, pressing his face into our chests one by one. We murmured how much we loved him, feeling his bones too prominent. And then I stayed while the vet took the difficult action that is the kindest thing we can do for our beloved pets. Afterward, the vet said, “It was the right thing to do. I know that doesn’t make it any easier.” “Yes, it does,” I said. Then I sat in the dark churchyard across the road and cried. There was one candle alight in the window of the ancient, 13th century chapel, which comforted me obscurely.
All week we’ve been remembering the funny ways he had. The first month or so that we had him, as a tiny shelter kitten, when we drove him to visit our friends Livia and Janice in New Jersey for the Fourth of July. My, it was hot! He lay on his back on their cretonne-covered sofa, with his pink kitten mouth slightly open, panting in the heat; they had no air-conditioning. Finally in desperation, John drove him all the way back into the city to deposit him in our cool apartment, then drove back to spend the rest of the holiday with us. It was only in the weeks and months to come that we realised he always breathed with his little mouth slightly open. This incident gave rise to one of his many nicknames, “Lord Peter Flimsey.”
Every Easter, he consented to have the perfect white tip of his tail dipped in the very brightest of the egg dyes, and Avery delighted in kissing his white forehead with bright red lipstick, leaving a lingering pink kiss for some days.
He was our only boy, ever. His sisters treated him with great respect, love and longing, and occasionally he condescended to give a bath to one of them, or share a chair. The two tabbies could often be seen together.
He was the absolute apple of Keechie’s eye and she spent most of her life trying to get his attention. How thrilled she was when she had success.
He was the absolute king of the nightly treat of awful wet food, leading the pack of cats churning into the kitchen every time John moved a muscle, in the hour or so leading up to the magical 6 o’clock, wailing furiously all the while. All that excitement every day, for about 90 seconds of happiness.
Little Avery, who was five years old when he came to us, used to stroke his fur in one direction and say, “More stripes,” then stroke in the other direction for “More white.” He strolled with authority through our enormous New York loft, like a furry landlord surveying his property. He moved bravely with us to London, and from the first house to four more.
In each house he set about finding the cosiest places to sleep, the best window from which to watch leaves or snow fall (which he chased with his eyes).
Even unwell, in his last weeks, he could make us smile. I had set a plate out on the counter containing a leftover pork chop and a few roasted beets. I turned my back (never do that). The next thing I knew, Wimsey had absconded with a chunk of beet, desirable for its proximity to the pork chop. He dashed about the kitchen with the beet in his mouth, pursued by me and Avery. “Release the beet! Release the beet!” we cried, as he ran past us, dropping the beet here, then there. Oh the greediness of a tabby!
He was only twelve years old, really much too soon to say goodbye.
We are muddling through with the other three, who are responding rather bemusedly, being rather more affectionate than usual. We all miss him, his affection, his rather bumbly personality, his love. Our family is less without him. Rest in peace, dear Lord Peter.
Well, little did I know when John took this photograph on our post-flood footpath by the Thames that it would make me wax all nostalgic just a few days later.
Because I have sprained my ankle. Walking down a slippery, rainy set of steps outside a Children’s Centre with my Home-Start infant strapped to my chest, I tripped. Luckily I was able to save the baby and not simply pitch downwards onto both our faces, but the save was at the expense of my foot, which twisted under me at a most unnatural angle. It took me just a moment to swallow my yelp of astonished pain and to remind myself that I was there to HELP, not hinder. So I persevered. We walked the babies to their house, I kissed them and said goodbye, limped to my bicycle in the pouring rain and got myself home to the sofa.
I have hardly budged from there for three days. Ouch!
The lovely thing has been having John and Avery coddle me, carrying laundry, cleaning litter boxes, fetching bags of frozen peas for my ankle and hot water bottles to thaw the rest of me. And John has been cooking! A delicious supper of grilled pork chops, sauteed spinach and everyone’s favorite comfort dish.
(serves 4 generously)
6 medium potatoes
1 tbsp butter
sprinkle onion, garlic powders
sea salt and fresh black pepper
2 small shallots or 1 banana shallot, minced
1 cup/236ml whole milk
1 cup/236ml single cream
2 tbsps butter
Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly or run them through the slicer of a food processor.
Butter an ovenproof dish about 9 inches/22cm square. Layer half the potatoes on the bottom, then sprinkle over minced shallot, onion and garlic powders. Add another layer of potatoes, then mix milk and cream and pour over the potatoes. Dot in four places with the butter. Bake at 425F/220 for about an hour, checking to make sure the potatoes are not browning too much and turning down heat slightly if they are. Serve hot.
My main accomplishments since being felled have been reading all of “Lolita” at one sitting (a bit sickening, to be honest), and cleaning up the entire recipe index on this lovely blog! No more duplications, no more finding chicken meatballs under “salads,” no more unwanted recipes from many years ago, and lots of photographs added. Enjoy!
It’s the half-term “holiday” which is a tiny bit of a joke because Avery has stacks of books, files and notes at which she is meant to stare for upwards of six hours a day. The “mock” exams for these will occur right after the “holiday,” so there’s no rest for the weary. All she can do is surface now and then to take lovely photographs of the springlike garden in our February winter. We are very lucky to have been spared any flooding in this epic English season.
The clock is ticking on my sprained ankle because this week is full of things to look forward to: coffee with friends, a matinee of “Les Mis” with Avery, lunch with a chum coming in from Oxford and dinner with a long-awaited visiting Chicago friend! So I shall sit here, patiently on my sofa, while life occurs all round me and I heal. Wish me luck.
I am an absolute glutton for birthday celebrations. I’ll tell you why.
Every other “holiday” is reciprocal; everyone has to care about how everyone else is feeling. Halloween, you have to make sure that everyone gets a say in the design of the jack o’lanterns. Thanksgiving involves so many hundreds of people that the enjoyment of it is mostly in the chaos and mad social uncertainty! Christmas… is Christmas, absolute tops in requiring that everyone’s wishes are answered. And don’t misunderstand me. I love all those occasions, too.
But my birthday is just for me! Selfishly, I love it. Presents, of course. Many years ago I declared that I was all grown-up and didn’t need any presents. Unfortunately everyone took me at my word. I cried. Never again. I love presents! John is a past master at choosing just the right quirky things: a bright blue silicone colander, the perfect black turtleneck, an orange messenger bag to replace my tired handbag.
Part of the fun of a birthday is, of course, stretching it out over an entire week, or as close as I can get to it. First was a jaunt to Brick Lane in East London, for Nordic Noir! A whole festival dedicated to Scandinavian crime telly dramas. I am not making this up.
We trooped off early Sunday morning to spend the entire day, shivering in an abandoned brewery, screening (hipster-speak for “watching”) episodes of our favorites, “Wallander” and “The Bridge,” and revelling in Q&A sessions with the actors. It was, as John said, about as nerdy a thing as one could ever do, except perhaps for bell-ringing. The fact that I left bell-ringing early to get to “Nordicana” says something quite eloquent about my life. And there were Swedish meatballs. What fun.
The revelries continued on Wednesday with my darling friend Elspeth treating me to lunch at the new trendy local place, the “Olympic,” a cafe and cinema in the High Street. We came in from the nasty, blowy February rain and feasted on roasted cod, hangar steak and roasted winter vegetables, washed down with a celebratory glass of Prosecco, and then meandered into the unbelievably plushy red cinema, for a fabulous screening (again with the “screening”!) of a live performance of the National Theatre’s “Coriolanus,” starring the impressive Tom Hiddleston. Oh my.
What a simple and yet brilliant idea, such a democratic way to share an extraordinary theatrical experience: have proper camera people swan around a Shakespearean production at the Donmar Warehouse, getting far better inclusive views than a live person could get no matter how good the seat, then show the film in cinemas. The film has been shown worldwide since January 30, so if you get a chance at your local theatre, do not miss this fabulous (if bloody) production. Star-studded, too, with even one of our favorite Scandy stars, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, playing Virgilia, Mark Gattis as Menenius. But it was Tom who stole the show, and it has made him a star of epic proportions.
We came away in a daze of admiration for Hiddleston’s nuanced, sensitive performance (watch for the scene where he washes his battle wounds in a shower cascading from the enormously high ceiling). Luckily I had a good, warming winter supper planned: pan-fried pork tenderloin and roasted root vegetables in quite the most perfect sauce ever.
Roasted Root Vegetables with Tahini Ginger Sauce
(serves 4 as a main course)
4 medium beetroots
1 large butternut squash
1 medium head cauliflower
2 tbsps olive oil
1/3 cup tahini
2 tbsps clear honey
3 tbsps soy sauce
juice and zest of 1 lime
2-inch knob ginger
4 cloves garlic
Peel the beetroots and cut into bite-sized pieces. Peel and seed the squash and cut into pieces twice as big as the beets. Cut the cauliflower into florets, halved if very large. Toss all the vegetables in the olive oil and scatter in one layer in a foil-lined tray. Bake at 425F/220C for about 40 minutes, or until all vegetables are tender to a knifepoint.
Place the tahini, honey, soy sauce and lime juice in a medium bowl and grate the ginger and garlic into it. Whisk together well, adding a bit of very hot water if too thick.
Drizzle over the vegetables, hot or room temperature. This sauce will also be delicious with whatever meat might be on your plate, in our case roasted chicken.
And because I am incredibly lucky in my girlfriends, a casual invitation to have “a birthday coffee” at a local hotel turned into a festival of flowers, cupcakes, sparklers, presents and “Happy Birthday” played for me on tiny handbells! We solved all the problems of the local universe, agreed that all our children are above average, recommended dozens of books and generally had a quite perfect time, over latte.
We went our separate ways, me to Lost Property where I hoped to see Avery, but she was too busy. It was, however, as much fun as always to catch up with the staff and their news, especially Jon the Gardener, a man as intimidating to the new girls as he is beloved to the older ones, with his long fairy-tale beard and hair, his stories of departed teachers buried under the lacrosse field, his identity as merely “Jon” in a school full of Dr This and Miss That. In fact, at a recent school play, our tickets were listed under “Curran,” but Jon’s were listed under… “Jon.” That made him laugh. “Sometimes I forget I have a last name myself.”
And then it was home, laden with gorgeous ingredients from the butcher, greengrocer and baker, to get ready for the next day’s birthday lunch. The garden woke up to welcome me to the kitchen, with a rare London February sun shining through the skylight.
For my birthday celebrations, I decided on the dish that embodies everything I love about food: slow, loving cooking, rich duck and lamb, tons of haricot beans, and GARLIC. Unlike most of my recipes which I can say with total honesty are quite simple, this dish requires one or more complete days in the kitchen, about a thousand different techniques and ingredients, and all your devotion as a cook. It is worth every minute you put into it.
(serves 6 hearty eaters)
for the confit:
1/2 cup/120ml olive oil
1/2 cup/100g duck fat
4 duck legs
coarse sea salt
4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 bay leaves, broken in half
2 cups/570ml white wine
for the cassoulet:
4 Toulouse sausages, ready-made or make your own
350g/12oz belly pork, skinned and diced (slab bacon, or ordinary bacon if you must)
350g/12oz lamb neck fillet, shoulder or rolled breast, diced
1 large onion, chopped roughly
2 large carrots, chopped roughly
2 celery sticks, chopped roughly
400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
sea salt and pepper
290ml/½ pint dry white wine
3 soup cans haricot or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 1/2 cups/850ml chicken stock, with more to add later if needed
for the topping:
1 large day-old baguette (or 1 cup fresh homemade breadcrumbs)
2 fat garlic cloves, halved
4 tbsp butter
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
In a large frying pan big enough to accommodate the duck, and which has a lid, heat the duck fat until melted. Place the duck legs skin side down in the frying pan, sprinkle with the salt, garlic and bay leaves and pour the white wine around. Place the lid on top and cook at the tiniest simmer possible, for two hours. Of course, for real confit you’d pour the winey fat over the duck in a sealed container and preserve it, but no need for that step here, as you’ll be using the duck straightaway.
Meanwhile, place the sausages in a 220C/425F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large stovetop– and ovenproof dish that will hold all the ingredients, place the belly pork and heat gently until fat begins to be released, then raise heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the fat has been released and the pork is crisp, but not dry. Lift the pork onto a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving all the fat behind.
Add the lamb to the pork fat and cook until colored on all sides, then lift out with slotted spoon and set aside with the pork.
Add the diced vegetables to the pork fat and cook till soft. Tip the ingredients from the plate back into the dish. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée and herbs, then season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Add the wine, haricot beans and chicken stock to the dish and bring to the boil. Stir, then lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering. Keep the mixture in the same dish to cook or transfer it to an earthenware dish.
When the duck has cooked for two hours, remove it from the duck-fat/wine and cool to handle. Remove the skin from the duck, then tuck the duck legs into the cassoulet. Set aside the duck-fat/wine mixture.
Peel off the sausage skins, slice the sausagemeat thickly on the diagonal and tuck into the dish.
Cover the dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring once. Stir, then cook uncovered for a further 1–1½ hours, stirring halfway, until the meat is really tender and the sauce is thickened. Take the dish out of the oven and remove the duck legs. Strip the meat from the bones (it will fall off easily) and return the meat to the dish. Stir and add a little stock and some of the duck-fat/wine, if necessary. Season if necessary, then return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes until all the meat and beans are very tender. At this point the cassoulet can be refrigerated for up to two days, then reheated to serve.
For the topping, cut the crusts off the baguette, tear the bread into pieces and put in a food processor. Add the garlic and chop into coarse crumbs (you should have about a cup of garlicky bread crumbs).
Heat the butter in a large frying pan until sizzling, then stir fry the breadcrumbs and garlic over a moderate to high heat for 7–8 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the heat, toss in the herbs and stir to mix, then season well with salt and pepper.
Ladle the cassoulet in generous servings into warm bowls, sprinkle on a bit of topping, and serve.
As I labored, watching “General Hospital“and “Days of Our Lives” on my computer, I was surprised by Avery’s early arrival, tradition on Fridays these days. “I’m so glad you’re here! Can you take some photographs?”
And we had the happiest afternoon, discussing politics, favorite books, the upcoming debate day for which she would have to miss my birthday lunch. It was the sort of afternoon I will miss greatly when she goes off to university.
And then John came home and we made our own Toulouse Sausages to include in the cassoulet. No cutting corners for me! But it is a two-man job, with another to record it all.
And then it was onto Elspeth’s gorgeous lemon-polenta-almond cake, just about the only dessert I actually request.
We finished my Birthday Week in the most unexpectedly enjoyable way: watching the Olympic opening ceremonies with someone who speaks Russian! “That’s not really what he’s saying,” Avery said at certain points, re-pronouncing athletes’ names in the proper manner, explaining the alphabet to us (why Canada and Korea were together, for instance; there is no hard C in the Russian language!).
Altogether a most auspicious week to start my 50th year. What will next year’s landmark birthday hold? Watch this space, and rest assured whatever happens, it will be delicious.
Isn’t it funny how a simple head cold can make you feel like everything is beyond your grasp? I knew when I sneezed 31 times in a row two evenings ago that something was up, and sure enough. The silver lining to feeling unwell is having a husband willing and able to make possibly the world’s most medicinal soup.
Homemade Tom Yum Paste
(makes enough for soup to serve 4)
1 stalk lemongrass, lightly crushed, or zest of 1 lemon
1-inch knob of ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic
2 Kaffir lime leaves sliced thinly, or zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste or chilli garlic sauce
Thai bird’s eye chillies, to taste
2 tbsps Thai fish sauce
juice of 1 lime
1 banana shallot, peeled and cut into chunks
handful coriander/cilantro with stems
Simply place everything in your food processor and process till as smooth as you can get it. Dump it in a saucepan with a can of half-fat coconut milk and 2 cups/473ml water or stock (fish or chicken).
Now for the soup:
1 pound raw peeled shrimp, or chicken breast thinly sliced on the bias
8 chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions/spring onions, thinly sliced both white and green part
chopped red hot chillis to taste
handful coriander/cilantro leaves, no stems
Bring the paste and milk mixture to a simmer and put in the shrimp and mushrooms. Simmer for just a couple of minutes until the shrimp are JUST cooked. Add everything else and serve hot, with rice vermicelli if desired.
This soup has everything: spicy, sour, sweet, with the refreshing zing of plenty of ginger and the creamy luxury of coconut milk. It may make your nose run just a tiny bit more, but in a good way. That cold can’t last forever, and a little Tom Yum is pure comfort.
To think that over the weekend I was perfectly well, well enough for an entire Saturday’s bellringing adventure. The ivy-filled churchyard above was just one of the beautiful places on our agenda, as we went from tower to tower along the banks of the Thames, ringing as guests of very hospitable people who were only too happy to open their ringing chambers for us.
It’s a funny distinction, but I always think of us as visiting “churches,” where real ringers think of them, and indeed refer to them, as “towers,” as if the only relevant aspect of the structure is the part that houses the bells. I love the whole churchly aspect to these places, the sense of the passage of time, the acknowledgement of the way history has affected the parishioners.
We happened upon one particularly stunning monument in the wonderfully-named St James the Less, parish church to Dorney Court, a gorgeous medieval private home that’s been in the Palmer family uninterruptedly for the last 450 years.
If you look closely, you can see that some of the 15 children of this particular generation of Palmers are holding skulls, indicating that they died before their parents. How touching, that even in the days when it was quite common to have children die young, this family felt each loss so deeply.
We rang at three churches in the morning, had lunch, then rang in three more in the afternoon, before heading home in the dusk, tired, but satisfied with our labors. Whenever I feel disappointed in my ringing achievements, knowing I have so much more to learn, I have to stop and be satisfied just a little bit that I could take part in a whole day’s outing, participating in many of the rings, a welcome member of the group.
And my reward for all this activity was to come home to a perfect dinner cooked by John, who although he does not love cooking, is happy to do it when I’ve been out (or ill), and it’s a good opportunity to test one of the cookbook recipes, and prove that it works. This pasta dish is one of the all-time umami favorites, featuring very strong flavors of caper, anchovy and oil-cured olives. One of the nice bits of this recipe is that aside from the Parmesan, you can have everything in your cupboard and not have to go shopping.
1/2 lb spaghetti
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1/2 red onion
7 oz/200g oil-cured black olives, pitted and cut in half
1 soup-size can peeled tomatoes, cut in sixths
3 tbsps capers, rinsed if held in salt
6 anchovies, rinsed
1 cup grated Parmesan
Boil spaghetti. In the meantime, mince the garlic and onion. Saute in olive oil in a saucepan, then when soft, add the olives, tomatoes, capers and anchovies. Saute till mixed. Throw in the drained spaghetti and serve with cheese.
It was absolutely heavenly to rest in bed that night, full of Puttanesca sauce, with a hot water bottle, a cat at my feet under the covers, a glass of brandy at my elbow, a sleeping husband at my side, listening to Avery practice for her upcoming singing exams up in her room, watching the rain swish against the bedroom windows with the Thames just below.
We’ve been to two absolutely unforgettable Shakespeare productions which are still on, if you can but get a ticket. I don’t know which was more impressive: the tour de force that was Simon Russell Beale’s “King Lear,” or the equally outstanding David Tennant as “Richard II.” Two completely different actors: Beale a burly, cruel bully, and Tennant a lithe and sensuous poet, equally at the top of their games. We enjoyed both tremendously, feeling our usual sense of exhilaration at being south of the river in the thick of the theatre.
I am thrilled to say that I have my new Home-Start family! Of course I cannot tell you anything about them for confidentiality’s sake, but suffice it to say that they are very small babies, smaller than I had remembered they start. What fun to go back to the beginning of the whole maternal adventure. I found myself slightly envious — although I don’t think I have it in me to start over — of having a child at an age where the things they could possibly need, or even want, are so few in number, and it’s entirely within the parent’s power to provide them all. How much more confusing, I find, to have a child who isn’t even any longer a child, whose thoughts are entirely her own and usually unknowable to a parent, whose needs and wants are so much more complex.
How can we possibly be talking about university choices? But we are.
Finally it was time for that most enjoyable of January activities: the first Lost Property luncheon of the new year! It’s always such fun to set out all the champagne glasses, put up the extra table and chairs, throw together a couple of main courses for 20, and let the doorbell start ringing.
There is something in the nature of a lady who would want to volunteer at Lost Property that makes her a good friend. It’s partly a lack of pretension about getting dirty — those lacrosse boots can be pretty overwhelming — and partly a desire to help, to make order out of mess, to reunite girls with their belongings (“oh, thank goodness, I have chemistry next and I had no idea I’d lost my file!”), to eavesdrop on their funny conversations, to get an hour’s glimpse once or twice a term into their daily lives.
I offered them a luscious roasted side of salmon with a lovely, simple salsa of red pepper and cucumber, and a bowl of garlic mayonnaise. But the star of the show was the eggplant casserole. How else can you use up about a half a bottle of olive oil in one go? I’ve posted this recipe before, but it bears repeating, as every lady wanted to make it when she got home.
Eggplant, Chickpea and Tomato Casserole
(serves about 6 as side dish)
4 medium eggplants, cut in 1/4 inch slices
1/2 cup olive oil (add more as needed)
1 soup-size tin chickpeas
1 large tin plum tomatoes
2 medium white onions, sliced thin
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 balls buffalo mozzarella cheese
sprinkling Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
sea salt and fresh black pepper
handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
With all eggplants sliced and ready, heat olive oil in a large shallow frying pan. In a series of single-layer batches, fry eggplant slices until soft, adding olive oil as needed. Set aside on paper towels.
Fry sliced onions in the leftover oil until soft, then add garlic. Do not burn the garlic.
When all eggplant and onions and garlic are fried, cover the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish with a layer of eggplant, then spread the onions and garlic over them. Add another layer of eggplant and scatter over half the plum tomatoes, squeezing them into smallish pieces as you take them out of the tin. Add salt and fresh pepper. Add the chickpeas. Add half the cheese, torn into bite-size pieces, then finish with a layer of eggplant and top with the rest of the tomatoes and scatter the remaining cheese on top. Season sauce to taste and stir in half the parsley.
Alternately, just tip the eggplants back in the frying pan with the onions and garlic, then stir in the tomatoes and chickpeas and half the parsley, then season to taste. Simmer until you are ready to serve, then tear the mozzarella into bite-sized pieces and scatter them over the casserole with the rest of the parsley. Serve hot or warm.
This is the perfect main course for the vegetarian in your life, or even the vegan if you leave out the cheese. Some of my friends swear by the substitution of tofu for mozzarella in many dishes, and this should certainly be one of them. It’s also an excellent side dish to any roasted or grilled meat. I served a bowl of sliced Cumberland sausages alongside the casserole at the Lost Property lunch, for anyone who wanted a heartier lunch.
Because it’s a potluck, I get the chance to eat other wonderful dishes like the roasted beet and walnut salad brought by my lovely friend Elspeth.
We all agree that the chance to get together with 30+ like-minded, intelligent and willing women, raise a glass of bubbly within while cold rains persist without, is one of the moments to look forward to in this dreary month.
Surely I can last two more days, and then the shortest month, and the one happily containing my birthday, will be here, banishing January for one more year.
What a whirlwind of a two weeks we’ve had! In my usual post-holiday sense of confusion, it seems mightily unbelievable to me that two weeks ago today, we were in transit back to our London lives, after the joys and chaos of Christmas.
But here we are. With irises blooming in the back garden, as you see, and little shoots of things coming up in the front garden, if you can imagine it. The weather is incredibly mild, a bit disturbingly so after the more appropriate frozen tundra we left behind in America. Actually, the deep freeze happened as our plane was taking off from Newark. What we actually left behind at Red Gate Farm was torrential rainfall and this resulting drama from Anne’s pond.
And twelve hours later, we arrived at our other home, one that’s much more about responsibilities, pressure, schedules, challenges. It’s hard to explain why, given this stark contrast, we are always happy to be back in London. Of course, some of that is about our feline family, left alone for the holidays. They were very happy to see us.
January food is, to me, all about contrast from the warm, comfortable, comforting food of the holiday season. It’s about simple flavors, bright colors, challenging textures. And not a sage leaf or turkey leg in sight.
Scallop, Egg, Beetroot, Goat Cheese, Avocado, Asparagus, Bacon, Spinach Salad
(serves 4 as a main course)
4 medium beetroots
8 eggs, hard-boiled
1 tbsp butter
12 large scallops
340g/12 ounces crumbly goat cheese
1 ripe avocado
juice of 1/2 lemon
24 spears asparagus
8 slices smoked pancetta bacon
4 handfuls baby spinach
2 tbsps balsamic vinegar
First, wrap the beetroots in foil and roast for 1 hour at 220C/425C. Let rest in the closed foil for a few minutes to allow the skin to steam loose, then rub the skin from the beetroots and cut them into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
While the beetroots cook, bring the eggs to boil and boil for 5 minutes, then run under cold water, peel and cut into quarters.
In a very hot frying pan, melt the butter. Then fry the scallops for about 90 seconds on one side or until lightly coloured, then turn over and cook on the other side for about the same time, until the scallops feel slightly stiff to the touch. Err on the side of undercooked, and set aside on a covered plate, leaving the buttery frying pan to use later.
Crumble the goat cheese and set aside.
De-seed, peel and slice the avocado, then sprinkle lemon juice over and toss till all slices are covered in juice.
In the scallop frying pan, fry the asparagus in the butter left behind, as well as any scallop juices that have accumulated on the scallop plate, until lightly colored and leave in the frying pan to stay warm.
Bake the bacon in a very hot oven just until crisp, about four minutes.
Now it’s just an assembly job. Arrange the ingredients on 4 individual plates, in whatever way pleases you — the asparagus like the spokes of a wheel in the centre is pretty — and drizzle with the balsamic vinegar. Heaven on a plate.
This salad combines everything I love in taste and texture, as well as in visual delights. Soft buttery scallops, rich egg yolk, crisp asparagus, earthy beetroot, all the green goodness of the avocado and spinach, and well, bacon: there is no need to justify bacon! It’s natural human instinct.
We had this salad for dinner, and afterward we both agreed that it felt more like a very substantial lunch. For an equally superfoody jolt to dinner, try this soup for your first course.
Watercress Soup with Nutmeg
1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
4 bunches or bags (about 340g/12 ounces fresh watercress, washed and spun dry
chicken stock or vegetable stock to cover the leaves nearly halfway — about 2 cups
pinch fresh nutmeg
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 cup creme fraiche (if desired)
Saute the garlic and shallot in the butter until soft. Add the watercress and pour in chicken stock until the level of liquid is about halfway up the level of leaves. Simmer for two minutes, then season with nutmeg and fresh pepper to taste. Adjust salt if the stock needs it. Blend with hand blender until completely smooth (flecks of watercress will remain). Add cream if desired. Serve either hot or cold. This soup is also delicious with a few handfuls of fresh spinach added to the watercress.
Every January, I throw myself immediately into all my usual activities, trying to pretend jetlag isn’t a real thing. But I am a creature who depends on sleep, and waking up gritty-eyed and cranky every hour or so does not suit me. This is my nighttime experience for days after travelling east (travelling west does not seem to bother me). A peripatetic friend has actually suggested to me that once you’ve been living in five hours’ time change for five days, you have to count on one day for each of those five hours to recover when you go back. The best way to persevere through those five painful days is to face up to… January Lost Property at Avery’s school.
Every holiday, the cleaning staff go nuts scooping up every item in school that isn’t stapled to a flat surface. Which means this on Day One after Christmas.
Eight bin liners simply bloated with STUFF, not to mention the two giant bins that hold the normal dose of Lost Property on a daily basis. Some vague combination of OCD and a martyrish devotion to duty meant that I worked all by myself to clear all this away. Filthy lacrosse boots, countless PE kit hoodies, random text books, about 16 copies of “The French Revolution,” library books, several Santa hats from pre-holiday celebrations, and undoubtedly the grossest thing to find: bags full of crunchy, mouldy towels and rolled-up, dried out swimsuits. Ick! But after two days, this was the vista:
A place for everything, everything in its place. Throughout those two dusty, chilly, chaotic days, it was great fun to see the girls trooping in during their lunchtimes, screaming with glee at finding a missing pencil case, chemistry notebook, a mother’s cashmere jumper nicked from her closet, HOUSE KEYS. Avery popped in with her clan to say hello and advise that I just turn off the lights, lock the door, and abandon the whole project. “You’re head of Lost Property! Just walk away.”
Of course my beloved bells at St Mary’s welcomed me back, maybe even more than my fellow ringers. We got started right away with ringing for a funeral. Really, it was more the celebration of a life than an occasion for mourning: the 96-year-old great-grandmother of our teenage ringer Flora. The singing sunshine of the January day lit the graveyard with a glow that seemed to reflect the family’s pride and sorrow.
The sheer age of some of the graves, crypts and plaques is a line drawn under all our common humanity. Part reassurance, part a reminder of how fleeting all this is.
Finally then the rains came, and we were ready, at last, for a comfort dinner.
Pork Chops with Mushrooms, Fresh Sage and Creme Fraiche
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
pinch sea salt and fresh black pepper
4 boneless pork chops
8 leaves sage, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 banana shallot, minced
12 chestnut or baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp flour
1 1/2 c/350 ml beef stock
2 tbsps Madeira or Marsala
1/2 c /118ml half-fat creme fraiche or sour cream
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil, butter and salt and pepper until bubbling fast. Place the pork chops in the saucepan over high heat and fry for 2 minutes, then turn over and fry on second side for two minutes. Remove to a plate and place the sage, garlic, shallot and mushrooms in the saucepan in the pork chop juices, pouring over any that may accumulate on the pork chop plate. Fry until mushrooms are soft and fully cooked. Remove mushrooms to a plate.
Sprinkle the flour on the juices remaining in the saucepan and fry until bubbling, adding a bit more olive oil if needed. Pour in the beef stock and Madeira or Marsala and bring to a high simmer, whisking until thickened. Add creme fraiche or sour cream and whisk until smooth.
At this point you may turn off the heat and wait until your side dishes are ready to serve. When about five minutes away from serving, turn up the heat high under the sauce until bubbling and place the pork chops and the mushrooms in the sauce. Cook, moving the pork chops around, for about 2 further minutes or until pork chops are just pink and firm to the touch. You may choose to serve each person with a whole chop, or slice them all on a cutting board and arrange on a platter with the sauce. If you choose to slice them, remove them to the cutting board and allow to rest for 2 minutes before slicing. Keep sauce hot in either case until ready to serve.
This dish is perfect with mashed or Dauphinoise potatoes and something bright green, like sauteed broccoli, spinach or asparagus. You may also substitute chicken breasts, veal chops or fillet steak.
We have been taking our customary long walks along the river — one of the benefits, along with seeing the lovely Thames from my bedroom window, of living right on its banks. We start here in Barnes, walking along to Chiswick Bridge, crossing over to continue along the north side of the river, past boating houses and playing fields, and finally crossing over Barnes Bridge, stopping to look back at the incomparable river sunset, so peaceful and timeless.
There has been time for a bit of culture, as well. My dear friend Susan treated me to an evening of Fascinating Aida, a three-woman cabaret act of incomparable wit, brilliance and shocking language! The show isn’t called “Charm Offensive” for nothing. They are like a three-person combination of the great musician and comedian Christine Lavin, and the amazing Tom Lehrer. Go, if you ever get a chance. They are touring now, so give it a whirl. Incredibly clever; you’ll have to sit up and pay attention.
As always, on leaving the Royal Festival Hall, one has to stop and just marvel at the view.
It wouldn’t be home in London without having friends over, and really my favorite way these days is a leisurely Sunday brunch. We’re just not English enough for the mid-afternoon, traditional roast dinner with all the trimmings. We’re much more likely to do a vast platter of bagels with cream cheese, smoked salmon and avocados, or a huge skillet of rich scrambled eggs wit sauteed mushrooms. Or in this case, for our friends Nora and Tom and their two adorable little boys, a make-ahead, cooks-itself indulgence, a sort of “faux souffle,” recipe courtesy of Saveur Magazine.
Warm, cheesy, soft and luscious, this dish, along with a fruit salad brought by generous guests, will set you up for the whole of the day. It certainly gave dear, dear Artie enough energy to lounge in the one place in the kitchen just the right size for him.
And finally, this weekend, something we’d all been looking forward to immensely: Simon Russell Beale in “King Lear.” It was worth the wait.
It’s a difficult play to watch, and it was my first time. There is a great deal of violence, of hatred, of tragic family loss and trauma. But Beale brought a spectrum of emotion and vulnerability to Lear that made it bearable to witness. The play’s just in previews, Press Night Thursday. Go if you possibly can.
Onward we press, on this third week of the (to me) longest month of the year. Eleven months until Christmas, short wet days, grey skies and all, January hasn’t beaten me yet.
It’s the night before we go back “home,” whatever that means, to London. We are all running around the house turning Red Gate Farm back from a Christmas wonderland to a plain old house, ready to welcome us back in July. This means taking down the decorations and carrying the two trees to the back meadow where they join their branchless cousins of Christmases past, and hoovering up all the needles from between the wide floorboards, washing all the sheets and making the beds fresh, cleaning out the fridge and putting all the mice-tempting comestibles from the pantry into a big plastic box to await summer’s menus.
In short, it’s depressing.
So to reward myself for all my hard work, I’m going to show you all the fun we had over the past week, cramming all the important — well, almost all the important relationships into a very short time, and even having a surprise or two.
There was New Year’s Eve dinner here at home with Anne, David and Kate from “across the road.” Four-cheese lasagne!
No holiday at Red Gate Farm would be complete without a celebratory trip into the city, whether in the blistering heat of an August afternoon or, as it was this time, nostril-shrivelling subzero temperatures! Never mind, we saw FRIENDS! Avery was reunited with her beloved Cici from her babyhood, and I was reunited with their pug, who obviously worships me.
Cici’s mother fed us a beautiful eggy, sausagey brunch dish and we families caught up with our busy lives as best we could in a short couple of hours, trying to hear everyone’s news in entirely too little time. How to squash the lives of three very accomplished kids — an aspiring political historian (Avery), visual artist and filmmaker (Cici) and professional tennis player (seriously, Noah) into one morning was impossible, but terribly touching, and nostalgic, thinking back to our long history together.
I rushed from seeing them to a slightly hysterical lunch at the Odeon for a “perfect hangover” brunch with my dearest Alyssa, although neither of us had hangovers… fried calamari, french fries, French onion soup. Mostly an unbelievably luxurious two hours to spend together gossiping, reminiscing, trying to believe that the girls we introduced at age 2+ are nearly 18… And a momentary cuddle with the — let me get this straight — “long-haired Teacup Chihuahua” they’re babysitting over the holidays. Oh. Em. Gee.
Alyssa and I always ask each other after our biannual get-togethers, “Why doesn’t it ever feel as if any time has passed?” I remember so clearly our first meeting, when she dropped off her little Annabelle for one of Avery’s first playdates, and the girls spent the afternoon sharing grilled cheese and stepping into the carefully-planned bowls of beads I had laid out for them to make bracelets. Much more fun to kick them around. Happy memories. As Alyssa and I always remark after our times together, “There is nothing quite like OLD friends.” They play a heart-warming part in your life that no new, or even semi-old friends can.
Then onto a totally unexpected meetup with my London best friend of years gone by, Becky! In town for just a day with her eldest. We met up at the Standard Hotel at Chelsea’s Highline.
Worlds colliding! London when our girls were little, Greenwich when they first moved back to the States, putting Avery on her first-ever alone flight to visit them in Charlotte, their visit to us several hot summers ago for my mother’s birthday… I will never be able to put into words the love that Becky’s family offered to us when we moved to London, the warmth and love and history that bind our two families. Spending a cold late afternoon in Chelsea together, over cups of tea and hot chocolate, was heaven on earth.
To console herself, Avery had her hair colored. Why not, aged 17? It looks glorious.
And then, it SNOWED.
In the morning, the world was glittery, powdery, perfection. John and I both had immediate flashbacks to our Midwestern childhoods full of snow that fell in December and never melted until Easter. We had the luxury, that January morning here at Red Gate Farm, of frozen perfection.
How we thought back to last summer and the hot, HOT day when Dave and John repaired the ancient mailboxes, now crowned with snowy caps.
We slipped in visits to Mike, Lauren and beautiful Abigail, as a coda to their dinner with us. We managed a visit from Shelley, our beloved friend who captured our hearts years ago when she adopted Avery’s rescue kitten Captain Hastings… we spent an afternoon sledding on first Prickly Bush Hill…
Remember when you were a child and at the first sight of a snowfall, you went out and STAYED out until your mother made you come home, and then your clothes were all stiff with snow and you couldn’t feel your toes or fingers? That’s how we all felt. We settled down in front of the fire, blue-flamed with the colored pine cones Jill gave me for Christmas, to enjoy hot chocolate spiked with candy canes, and Nonna’s Cappuccino Cookies.
Nonna’s Cappuccino Cookies
(makes about 4 dozen)
1 cup/226g butter, softened
1/2 cup/100g +2 tbsps/ sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp freeze-dried coffee/espresso
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup/128g cake flour
1 cup/128g white flour
1/2 cup/64g mini chocolate chips
Cream butter till fluffy. Add sugar and cream again. Mix coffee, cocoa, cinnamon and salt in a small dish. Add by small amounts to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. Mix two flours, then add gradually to butter and sugar mixture. Stir in chips with a spatula.
Divide dough into thirds and roll each third onto parchment paper in 1-inch logs. Chill 1 hour. Bake at 350F/180C for about 8 minutes, then cool on rack.
Jill and her family came for a last joyful, chaotic brunch with Rollie and Judy dropping in to say hello, the dishwasher breaking down, laundry loads overflowing as we prepared to leave.
And finally, we had our last glimpse of holiday Stillmeadow, our cherished view across the road, the last before we must leave for our “real” lives across the pond. It is almost impossible for me to believe that all these dear people, all these beautiful places, our experiences and memories, will be here for us to recapture in July. But they will.
Next post: the fresh school term in London! Happy New Year, all!
It’s that time of the holiday season when I can feel January breathing down my neck, and I just want to concentrate on the happiness, bright lights, wonderful aromas and tastes, lovely people and sheer FUN of the last month, appreciating it all to the fullest.
I am trying to wrap my head around the idea that our Thanksgiving dinner in London was exactly a month ago, but it’s been a month so filled chock-a-block with excitement that the rest of the year will have a hard time catching up.
For one thing, nobody in our family has quite got over the overwhelming excitement of “Les Mis” at school.
I will never forget all the tissues that were required for me to attend two performances of that sublime musical, the sheer amazement at talent like that coming from kids the oldest of whom was 18, the devotion that they had all put into a musical that if I’d paid £50 to see in the West End, I’d have left happy.
Part of the sense of celebration was having John’s mom with us every step of the way, just as crazy about all the music as we were, unable as we were to get “Do You Hear The People Sing?” out of heads, day and night. “You think YOU have the music in your heads?” Avery asked reasonably. I thought back to my own high school days, playing Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and the feeling that whatever life might have to offer in the future, this moment onstage was pretty much the apex. Thank you, Avery, for giving us such fun. I wish it had never had to end! The two of us are going to hit the West End production in the New Year. Something to look forward to.
Having John’s mom with us for Thanksgiving made it all the more festive, playing the Macy’s parade in the background as we cooked, seeing the kitchen fill up with more and more people — 19 in total! — fussing over the Turkey That Cooked Too Fast, making the best gravy in the world… the secret to the gravy? Brine the turkey for five days in the dregs of all the opened spice packets in your cupboard — Italian season, garlic salt, hot peppers, celery salt, something called “bolognese mix,” along with lots of good salt. The resulting turkey juices were just sublime. A little cream, and bob’s your uncle.
And then suddenly it was Christmas! I’ve long since resigned myself to the trees in London not smelling like Christmas. Some pernicious tree-scientist has come up with a variety that never loses its needles, which would be good news except that the price is: no smell. But even that couldn’t dampen our spirits. We spent a glorious evening decorating, and then I woke up in the middle of the night absolutely sure I’d forgotten a box of decorations in the basement, and so I had! Another lovely evening ensued, hanging the precious baubles whilst conversing entirely to the cadence of Javert’s big solo song to 24601. “We have found another boxful, let the hanging now commence, we’d never buy another bauble, if we had some common sense.”
Of course, the skating rink came to life, with the usual wintry drama.
The perfect accompaniment to such festive activities?
Creamy Butternut Squash soup
1 large butternut squash
1 tbsp butter
4 sage leaves
chicken stock to cover the squash, perhaps 3 cups/700 ml
1/2 cup/118 ml light cream
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Place half the butter in each hollow and two sage leaves inside. Sprinkle with black pepper and roast at 425F 220C until very soft, about 45 minutes.
Scoop out the flesh of the squash and place in a saucepan. Cover with chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cream and blend with hand blender. Sprinkle with more black pepper and serve warm.
All too soon, it was time for John’s mom to fly away to Iowa, but we parted with countless memories of our adventures: long walks over Kew Bridge, lunch at the Depot, a surprisingly festive shopping trip to Westfield, Saturday afternoon at Portobello Market, dinner at the White Hart, misty evening walks up the High Street to the bookshop, Two Peas in a Pod, girly lunches with Fiona, Kim and Sue — and we had light hearts because we knew in just a few weeks, we’d be together for Christmas!
And because volunteering waits for no man, it was then time for the termly Lost Property Sale, the perfect opportunity to see the girls as they queue up for lunch, to exchange holiday greetings with teachers and staff as they pass, enjoy the Christmas decorations in the great marble hall, called, appropriately, the Marble.
Our reward was the Christmas concert, featuring a newly-formed adult choir of parents, staff and just community members, singing Mozart’s Requiem along with the Senior Choir. Another heavenly, impressive, tear-making musical experience at school that left me in awe of these children, who somehow find time and energy to become so proficient at their craft while also being intelligent, hard-working students, and very nice family members. The perfect way to set off the Christmas season!
The head mistress actually sought me out and said, “Kristen, I almost didn’t recognise you. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen you with your hair down before!” I KNEW it was worth it to spend three long hours in a stylist’s chair! John of course had to speak up and explain that for the past several years, he’s been cutting my hair. So much for my glamorous image! But I do like my new look.
Of course it is in the contract with each family that a year is the limit for our relationship, and in the beginning the year sounds so long that I feel quite comfortable with the notion of ultimately saying goodbye. But somehow in the intervening twelve months, the hours of holding little sweaty hands, of listening, commiserating, worrying and caring, added to up an indefinably important part of my life. On the last afternoon, I shared little Christmas gifts with them all, kissed and hugged everyone goodbye, and finally had to go, through everyone’s tears.
2014 will bring another family to me. And with each relationship and goodbye, I gain something immeasurable, to bring to the next experience.
Then, unexcitingly, it was time to squeeze in a headcold, conveniently spaced between Thanksgiving and Christmas, necessitating an emergency batch of chicken meatball soup made for me by John. Thank goodness he knows how!
And before we knew it, we were on the plane to Red Gate Farm. Time to tromp through the thick layer of snow, throw open the heavy door and smell that unique combination of smells: old books, leather, dust, mothballs, woodfires. Snuggling down under thick woollen blankets up under the eaves in our cozy bedroom that night, sipping a Scotch and reading a Christmas mystery, I felt completely happy. The morning brought a miraculous sunrise.
John went off to get his mom at the airport and we headed straight to Judy’s brother’s tree farm and came home with two beauties. And they SMELL! We hauled the various boxes of decorations and lights out of the basement and various cupboards and trunks and started right in. Avery revealed a hidden talent for lights, thank goodness.
John fell asleep at this point and his mom, Avery and I spent one of the pleasantest evenings ever, decorating together in the cozy sitting room, watching the snow outside, smelling the amazing piney aroma, laughing over each treasure, carefully judging the placement of every one.
The next day I entered foreign territory for me: crafts! I had been sorely tempted by a gorgeous big red burlap bow that I saw in a catalogue, but simply could not bring myself to pay $49 for a piece of burlap. So I rashly ordered a roll of green, and a roll of red, and figured someone in my circle would be able to transform them into bows. And of course, John’s mom, mother of two, grandmother of three, former Junior Leaguer and generally good at all things, could!
The ornaments themselves were something to exclaim over, piece by piece.
The next day we devoted ourselves to polishing the 24 silver bells, our traditional annual gift from John’s mom, to hang on their very own tree. Being married 24 years (today!) looks very impressive in silver.
It was time to see family! Two huge roasted chickens just barely fed us all, with Joel’s traditional gift of the chocolates our dad used to give us every Christmas filling in the chinks.
It is always such brief, glorious fun all to be together. The banging of the out-of-tune piano, the girls’ shrieking, a quick visit from Anne and Kate: in short, a typical Red Gate Farm evening. We decided to pose for the obligatory awkward family photo, 2013.
The next day it was off to Jill’s house to see their tree, for me and my mother to gossip about “Days of Our Lives” and bully everyone into watching a documentary on the waning industry of the soap opera, “Who Shot The Soap?”, kindly taped for me by my darling brother in law. Jane watched entranced, asking, “Who’s JR and who shot him?”
We repaired to the kitchen for a new tradition: stringing cranberries and popcorn! Little Molly persevered with an amazing attention span.
The next afternoon Avery’s and my strings graced the hydrangea, with the traditional Victorian candles.
The next day found us exchanging glorious gifts, each one perfectly suited to the person. John got a t-shirt that says, “Potters Fields Design Team,” his mom an iPhoto book of all our cookbook photos, Avery a tote bag bearing the redacted titles of banned books, and I? I got the perfect gift, combining my two obsessions.
Then it was a rush to make cheesy spinach, take the dishes of stuffing from the cold shed, and pack up the car full of presents to take to Jill’s for our second Christmas, equally festive. We all cooked together, with time for a hug from Jane, one of my absolute favorite nieces.
Since then we’ve enjoyed calm, peaceful days around the Christmas tree, drinking in the balsam aroma, watching the ornaments wiggle gently when the registers emit a blast of heat. We’ve read our Christmas books (at least half of us on a screen rather than on paper, shocking!). We’ve been to the mall where I laughed hysterically over a Williams-Sonoma jar of “turkey brining herbs” for $18, we’ve been for a long walk up the road and Phillips Farm to John’s Dad’s Bench, on a cold and sunny afternoon with Anne and Kate.
I’ve managed to slip in two very successful bellringing practices at my beloved Brewster tower, home to such happy times.
The first practice involved lots of children, and as such was raucous and lively and joyful. We all had a fabulous time, me on Grandsire from the Three (a meaningless factoid for most of you, but a big milestone for me).
And yesterday, on a virtual dare, I managed Grandsire from the Four! I had a bit of a private handling lesson from Tom, a New England gentleman, scholar, musician, minister, and ringer of epic skill.
The temperature is dropping steadily this evening over the meadows of Red Gate Farm. I’m burning steadily the pine cones Jill gave me for Christmas which give off a blue light, and I’m already planning what to wear on our Big City Trip on Wednesday. Actually, while Avery is shopping with her friend, and John and his mom are taking in some “cultchah” at the Guggenheim, my main plan is to hunker down with a couple of girlfriends over coffee and lunch and ignore the city entirely.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, let me wish you each the very best that 2014 has to offer, and all the happiness in the world from our home to yours!
Some days I wake up with a sort of reasonless melancholy. I think we all do.
For me, it is often the letdown from an especially wonderful time, as we have had in the last several weeks. John’s mom has been here for a simply spectacular visit; we’ve had a sumptuous and extravagant Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by many of our dearest friends.
Avery’s school musical, “Les Miserables,” whose preparation and drama have occupied our household for months, has come and gone, a glorious spectacle far beyond anything you could dream of for a “school play.”
This morning, with John’s mother back in Iowa, and John and Avery gone on their various ways, I felt unaccountably sad. The Christmas tree is up and sparkling, which should have made me happy.
So it was all to the good that I had to get on my bicycle and head to the church. To ring for a funeral.
We all, eight of us, gathered in the bellchamber, cheerful and quotidien, discussing plans for the week, children coming home from university, ordinary bits of conversation, in contrast to the quiet mourners gathering in the church.
Then we rang, the bells half-muffled, which produces a sound I can’t fully describe. One stroke is clear — well, clear as a bell, actually –clear, gracious and true — and the next is shadowy, really more an echo than a true sound, but exactly reminiscent of the clear stroke before.
Then we stood in silence as the casket was brought in. She was a lady in her 50s, having married rather late in life and so, left behind teenage children, walking behind the casket in dark clothes. The church was full. The piano began to play, and we ringers left the bellchamber quietly, emerging into the glorious December sunshine.
My ringing friend Teresa and I stood for a moment, making our plans to gather again this evening to ring for a charity Carol Concert to benefit my social work organisation. We talked for a bit about wishes for our own funerals, and about our daughters who would not be ready today to say goodbye to us. “Aren’t we lucky, to come out of the church into this lovely day,” Teresa said, and we looked at each other with so much unspoken, and rode away on our bicycles.
I looked up at the clock tower as I passed and felt a complete reversal of my morning’s inexplicable sadness.
This afternoon I will see my social work family for the penultimate visit; it’s time for us to say goodbye to each other. Then I’ll come to the church and ring my bells once more, and sit down next to Avery in the church pew to listen to Christmas readings and sing Christmas carols. All these things will be a complete pleasure not because they’re so special, but because they’re completely ordinary, and I am here to do them.
All I needed was a bit of perspective.
My goodness, we’ve been rushed off our feet these days. Halloween and Avery’s birthday, two of my favorite days of the year, have come and gone in a blur. Our new neighborhood is quite chockful of children, so happily we had plenty of little monsters and angels, devils and Draculas to grace our doorstep.
And for Avery’s 17th birthday we headed to a matinee of quite the most perfect comedy any of us can remember. Go and see “Perfect Nonsense,” a Jeeves and Wooster farce, if you possibly can. Starring the divine Matthew Macfadyen (one of my most deserved crushes) and Stephen Mangan, it’s start-to-finish glittery, clever and sleek. Laughs at itself as much as you will.
Emerging after the play we were faced with this beautiful London sunset above, reminding us how lucky we are to live here and have this scene right at our fingertips every day.
There have been the usual grey, drizzly days so typical of London in November (or almost any other month for that matter!) filled with meetings for the church Christmas Fair, meetings to stuff envelopes of Christmas cards for my beloved Home-Start charity. Christmas in London begins too early, in my view, because of course they have no Thanksgiving to obsess over. I have, however, been obsessed, and our table will be groaning with delicacies to feed 19 of us! My new triumph: cornbread!
I am especially pleased about finally finding the perfect recipe for this filling and homely dish, because one of our expected guests on Thanksgiving is a young friend of Avery’s, a ROWER. I have been told by no fewer than a dozen people that rowing young men eat as much as three army regiments! I will arm myself with two turkeys, a ham, three potato dishes, and… cornbread.
(serves one rower, or probably 6–8 normal people)
1 1/4 cups/175 g plain flour
3/4 cup/105 g corn meal
1/4 cup/35 g sugar
4 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup/225 ml milk
1 tbsp olive oil
1 egg, well-beaten
Place a cast-iron frying pan (about 8 inches across) in a hot oven, 425F/220C for half an hour. (Thank you to my friend Annie for this sage advice!)
Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly with a fork, then add all the other ingredients and stir until just mixed.
When the pan is hot, pour the mixture in and bake for about 20 minutes.
Perhaps it is the aroma of such comforting delights as my cornbread that led this little fellow (lady?) to our door one chilly evening last week.
Avery of course is deep into rehearsals for the upcoming school musical, “Les Mis.” What I don’t know about “liberte, egalite, fraternite” is really not worth knowing, and our family has been treated to many versions of every musical number on YouTube. How I will get through the production (I get to see it twice!) without crying buckets I can’t imagine. Even stalwart Avery admits she has fears of simply breaking down onstage.
Of course no November would be complete without the bell-ringers’ annual Training Day, a truly challenging event in the countryside, being taught the most impossible things by the most talented people.
We rang happily all day, coming home late and tired. But not too tired to get up to ring for a brilliantly sunny Remembrance Sunday. The ringing was more beautiful than ever, I think, with the sound half-muffled in respect, and all our attention given to making it sound as perfect as possible.
Afterward in the churchyard the terribly moving poem was read, and the trumpet sounded. “They shall not grow old, nor the years condemn…”
My ringing friend Tricia said simply, “It’s lovely when Remembrance Day is sunny, and we can wake up to appreciate it when so many people can’t.” Precisely so.
All this activity, and I haven’t even told you about Copenhagen!
We were determined this year’s half-term break to go somewhere really foreign. “Really foreign” meaning, to me, a place where I don’t speak a smidgen of the language. I can get by in France and Italy, and of course Avery can thrive in Russia. We could even survive in Morocco. But Denmark! Not a word of Danish. Well, “tak” for thank you, but that was the extent of it. We set off in high spirits, and no wonder, because this is what we found.
This is called Nyhavn, “new harbor,” and it’s a gorgeous canal leading — as we found on our first day’s boat tour — to the lovely rivers that form Copenhagen’s waterways. Much was made of the history of Danish shipping (and not so much of the history of slavery that accompanied it) and their massive Navy.
And about speaking Danish? We found instantly that absolutely everyone speaks perfect English. So we contented ourselves with perusing menus and street signs in the local language and simply shaking our heads in amazement.
After our boat tour had given us some ideas of what we wanted to visit, we sat down at a darling creperie called “La Petanque” and enjoyed crisp, lacy crepes stuffed with spinach and goat cheese, with grilled chicken and cumin, and finally for Avery, Suzettes, suitably flaming. We were restored enough for a visit to the truly luxurious (and hideously expensive, like everything in Denmark!) Torvehallerne, which means “food market.” I wanted one of everything, but I was restrained. Just look at the display of fresh pine cones! Have you ever?
I perused all the incredible prepared foods — every smoked fish you can imagine, tiny little open-faced sandwiches piled with shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, and platters of sushi — and contented myself with three gorgeous pork meatballs in a creamy sauce (which combined with Danish eggs, sausage, Havarti cheese and a crusty roll made the best breakfast EVER. Although we ate it for dinner!).
For a full foodie rundown of our stay in Copenhagen, read all about it here.
We visited Rosenborg Castle, which one of Denmark’s kings built as a summer house for his lover. That would be a pretty fair inducement for a love affair!
We visited the palaces of the royal family of Denmark, Amalienborg, one of four buildings around a central courtyard which has been devoted to a museum housing really touching memorabilia of centuries of seemingly delightful, happy people who grow up to marry other happy people and produce generations of pleasant monarchs, all incredibly beautiful. And in the courtyard we witnessed a small Changing of the Guard (small because apparently the Queen was not in residence at the time), and an even smaller devoted admirer.
We had found a tour guide online who would be willing to show us the sights in Copenhagen associated with Danish crime dramas! I know it sounds daft, but in fact, the tour was only a little bit about crime scenes and much more about Danish life for real Danish people. There is no one like a former teacher to give you a guide about anything, I know, and we came up very lucky in our guide, Lise Lotte Frederiksen (I know!) who operates Peter and Ping, literary tours of Copenhagen.
We tramped all around the city, visiting first the police station, scene of many a fictional interrogation, unmarked save for its traditional star.
She took us to the famed Black Diamond royal library and cultural centre, whose granite surfaces reflect the sparkling water of the canal.
There, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Denmark’s most famous young poet, Yahya Hassan, who has received death threats after writing poetry critical of Islam. Inside the library, he was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters hanging on his every word. We would never have known about him without Lise to explain for us!
She explained so many things, including the Danish character, which she described as rather ironic, self-effacing, with a wicked sense of humor. Rather like the British, in fact! “We are a very small country and have just one of everything here in Denmark: one famous novelist, Isak Dinesen, one famous philosopher, Kierkegaard. So we are very proud of them.” My philosophy-major past came rushing back.
Finally we hopped on a bus and made our way to the little enclave where Carlsberg beer is everything, built by a Victorian brewing magnate in 1847. He was one J.C. Jakobsen, and a benevolent patriarchal figure to his fiefdom. The architecture knows no bounds, as befits a man determined to build an entire little village around his factory. He liked to think big.
Finally we parted with Lise over enthusiastic thanks, and spent the rest of the afternoon valiantly trying to help Avery spend her grandmothers’ generous birthday money! There are lovely small shops in Copenhagen selling beautiful clothes at unbelievable prices, but finally she found a crispy white couture shirt, and was happy.
Next day found us walking through the city hearing church bells ringing. “That’s Grandsire,“Avery said at one point, and I went into a long, tiresome harangue about how European bells don’t live on frames and as such cannot ring methods, they can only chime. She listened patiently to me and then repeated, “That’s definitely change-ringing in the distance.” We followed the sound and found the adorable St Alban’s Anglican Church.
This church serves the English population of Copenhagen, and as such has an incredible peal of 15 “tubular” bells, which are played via a computer program! What an amazing sound to hear in the Danish air, and how generous of HRH Prince Charles to put his power behind the project and make sure the ring was complete. And how wonderful that my daughter could recognise the sound!
After a lovely train ride through the autumnal countryside (much more colorful than in England), we found ourselves at Kronborg, the castle that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. You may have noticed that nearly every place name I’ve mentioned ends in “borg.” This word, Lise explained, means something like “power,” so it’s natural that kings, queens and heads of state might name their palaces and places of government with this word. Of course it’s the root of the fabulous Danish crime drama “Borgen,” set in the Prime Minister’s office.
Kronborg is just massive.
Avery dressed appropriately, of course.
Finally our luck with Danish weather broke. The heavens opened. We got completely soaked on the way to the train, and soaked again when we emerged in Copenhagen. It was deemed that dinner out was a good idea, and we repaired to the nearby Ravage Restaurant, which we can all highly recommend. Meltingly tender steak, crispy, fluffy fries with real, fresh Hollandaise, mussels in a creamy, winey sauce. It was heaven to sit back and be fed, since I had been cooking for us the rest of the holiday. Supermarket shopping in Copenhagen is a treat because of Irma, the family of grocery stores that stock Danish produce (at horrific prices, but amazing quality). I have never cooked with such magnificent dairy products! The cream made a potatoes dauphinoise to die for. But going out for once, was nice.
Perhaps the single most charming thing about Copenhagen is its bicycle culture!
As a cyclist in London, I often feel that it’s me against the world, with cars and buses and lorries all battling for ways to unseat me from my chariot. Not so in Copenhagen! The bicycle lane is fully as wide as the automobile lanes, and people ride — stylishly, wrapped all round in clever scarves! — three abreast, stopping at the lights just like the cars. In fact, Lise explained to us that it is against Danish culture to cross against the light, whether as a pedestrian or a cyclist. It’s so civilised!
And that was our Danish holiday. We came home with a deep admiration for the friendliness, generosity, calmness and life-affirming quality of the people we met, and a deep desire to live there one day. If we win the lottery! Really the best part of the holiday was getting to spend so much time with Avery, relaxing in conversation that didn’t have to be rushed or on-topic. Over one of our many meals together, she tried to explain Russian grammar to us.
“There are many cases. The nominative, the accusative…”
“Accusative?” John asked.
“Yes, like I love water, or I hate water.”
“‘I hate water’ sounds a lot more accusative to me,” John said. “J’accuse!”
And so now life moves with its inexorable energy toward the holidays. First among the celebrations will be John’s mom’s heralded arrival next week! We have much to look forward to. Thank goodness we have some energy stored up.