It is a beautiful spring day here in London, edging ever closer, day by day, to true summer. The churchyard is hung with bunting to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, whose signing took place in Runnymede, and one of whose signers, Bishop Langton, came through our neighborhood on his way home, and sanctified our church chapel. 800 years ago. That is history.
It’s helpful to focus on the REALLY long game, because I won’t lie to you. I’m finding the big picture of my own small life at the moment to be a bit challenging.
It’s the forest that’s getting to me. The trees themselves are perfectly lovely: Avery is in the last month of her much-appreciated secondary education, doing well, anticipating the excitement of university in October, after a summer of blissful travel. She is ready to leave.
John is in the throes of applying for permissions for the details of our dream house, to be built in the coming two or three years at the foot of Tower Bridge. It’s an unbelievably complex process, a drama peopled by seemingly…
It’s that time of year again…
The Gathering of Nuts in May, that annual celebration of gluttony – or gastronomy, as my Nuts and I choose to think of it – shared by a half dozen or so aspiring food writers, reunited every May after our 2008 adventure with the Arvon Foundation, at Totleigh Barton, a pre-Domesday whitewashed house in the wilds of Devon.
Who would ever have predicted that we six, survivors of the original 15 writers who gathered in the wilds of Devon seven years ago, for five days of instruction by our tutors (some of it painfully, even brutally honest!). Oh, the hours we spent honing our craft.
What happy memories we all have of our shared experiments in learning, writing, reading, reading aloud what we’d written, in an ancient English barn.
Funnily enough, the least of our adventure back then was in the eating! Arvon arranges for its students to cook together every evening, in teams, but little did we know that for a weekend every May ever since, those diehards among us would eventually think of virtually nothing BUT cooking, for the several days we spend together. Our memories of our first meeting are bright, if fuzzy.
At our reunions, we are unabashedly obsessed with food. There’s the shopping. And the eating. And the talking about shopping and cooking and eating. We none of us finish a meal without instantly talking about where the next one is coming from, what it will be, who will cook it. It’s a recipe for intense boredom for most people I know – including my long-suffering family! – but for we six, it’s heaven. Kristen, Rosie, Sam, Susan, Pauline and Katie: the GNIM.
And for the last several years, we’ve been joined by one of our original tutors, the divine Orlando, such a staunch supporter of all our work from Day One, generous writer of one of the “blurbs” on my cookbook flap, cook extraordinaire and writer to match. Even with a flower behind his ear.
This year, Orlando offered to pick me up at the train station closest to our destination – a truly remarkable house found by our Susan, in Ilfracombe, coastal Devon. This sort of favor isn’t really properly appreciated until I tell you what burdens I labored under. Because the Friday night plan, on our precious weekends, is for me to bring the supper and Rosie to bring the pudding, I had with me a large crustless tart containing a wealth of white crab meat and lashings of cream and goat cheese, plus a plastic box of delicate potato salad, made with new Jersey Royals just dug out of the ground. Not by me, of course, but fresh nonetheless. So it was most welcome when Orlando’s car pulled up at the local train station and we motored on over to the coast.
This was our view from the sitting room of The Round House, which was just what it said on the tin.
Built on a dare from one architect to another, The Round House is truly round. Curved everywhere.
Inside, it’s large enough that its roundness isn’t immediately noticeable, especially in the spacious sitting room, furnished like the very best Edwardian retreat.
We were astonished at the sheer wealth of THINGS that the owners left behind, so vulnerable to the average renter.
Furniture simply overflowing with precious things.
Some verged on the creepy, in an entirely charming way.
Rosie, Susan and Pauline greeted us and began to give us a tour, but before we could properly settle in, of course, provisions of a lavish nature had to be delivered.
Oh, the butter, the cream, the eggs, bacon, olive oil, lemons and limes, garlic and onions, bread, marmalade, coffee. The basics, so that we could focus our considerable food-gathering talents on the Stars of the Show each meal: the fresh meats and vegetables bought locally, for the maximum in fun.
Rooms were apportioned, luggage stowed, hands washed, and Orlando and I set out on a voyage of discovery in the nearby town of Ilfracombe, pronounced “coom.” Here we searched in vain for a wine shop, armed with Orlando’s phone video of Rosie’s describing precisely the type of cider she would most like to drink. We played this video for the young woman behind the till in the shop that finally yielded up the cider. “You can see that this is not a woman to be trifled with,” Orlando explained. The young woman backed away from us. “I think she was tapping her foot on some sort of panic button, there at the end,” he hazarded. “We might just have crossed that border from friendly to frightening.”
Ilfracombe itself was a little… odd. A bit of a town that time forgot, with all unique and rather tired, dusty shops containing a plethora of odd items.
More on the town later, as it was time to settle in at The Round House.
As the afternoon came to a close, up drove the gorgeous Sam, still in his work clothes and extremely glad to have left his students behind for the long weekend.
Orlando and Sam have a unique bond, forged in years gone by in the hot kitchens of Orlando’s luxury hotel.
Everyone feels better after the first hug from Rosie.
And then came our beautiful, calm Katie, fresh from the rigors of the Britvic invention labs.
“Roomie!” she cried, arms around me. We always room together, even if we don’t stay up half the night as we used to do, younger selves who didn’t know each other quite well enough.
And it was time to pour drinks, catch up with everyone’s news. Rosie has had a spell of feeling poorly and I think we all shared the sense of fragile relief that she is well, and with us for the celebratory weekend. She looked over the plans of Potters Fields with Orlando, discussing the kitchen, of course.
We munched on a selection of cured meats, a treat I would never normally think to buy, but so delicious, in the way that only something so purely fatty can be. The platter rested near a certain cookbook that everyone was truly lovely about: the culmination of the project that, when we first met nearly eight years ago, was but a dream, the reason for my turning up at the food writers’ course.
Susan brought out her super surprise: one of the new decorated cakes in the Marks and Spencer line she’s been proudly working on.
Personalised for us!
We trooped into the elaborate dining room for our inaugural supper. I brought along a special little touch.
We greatly enjoyed the crab tart.
But is it a tart, if it’s crustless? We discussed this with the level of detail that only seven such insane people can bring to a topic. “Strictly speaking, a tart does imply pastry,” was the general consensus. “It could be a frittata,” I said, “except that it doesn’t start on the stovetop.” “How about a quiche?” “That’s really a specific term for a type of tart from Eastern France,” Orlando clarified. “A tartine?” All very absorbing conversation.
We ate it all.
The potato salad came under similar scrutiny for the level of mayonnaise-y-ness. “I don’t really think there’s enough mayo,” I apologized, “but I left some home for Avery and she really hates gloppy potato salad.” “It may have soaked up some in the journey,” was suggested, and the general feeling was that any deficiency in the mayo was made up for by the delicacy of the potatoes and the zing of lemon grass.
Then Rosie brought in her divine chocolate mousse, the absolute star of the dessert section of my cookbook. Where I serve mine in a champagne coupe, she serves hers in a gorgeous loaf, topped with biscuits and accompanied by luxurious shots of Amaretto.
We lay becalmed on the living room rug, talking and talking over each other until the prospect of a good night’s sleep beckoned.
Next morning found us fretting that the Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labor. We assuaged our anxiety with huge numbers of poached eggs (a pot of simmering water remained on the stovetop for the duration of breakfast, growing progressively cloudier as eggs of various levels of proficiency were popped in and scooped out. Orlando was the king of poaching, everyone turning out perfectly. Bacon and juicy sausages, fried mushrooms and tomatoes, bread of every description toasted and slathered with butter and jam. And there were Orlando’s incomparable brownies.
Orlando’s ‘After-Dinner’ Brownies (from his “A Table in the Tarn: Living, Eating and Cooking in South-west France”)
(makes about 36 small brownies)
85g/6.5 ounces unsalted butter
285g/10 ounces dark chocolate, broken up into small bits
85g/3 ounces plain flour
40g/1.5 ounces cocoa
100g/3.5 ounces walnuts or pecans, cut in pieces and toasted lightly in a frying pan
3 large eggs
275g/9.75 ounces caster/granulated sugar
“Carnation” tinned caramel sauce for drizzling
Melt the butter with the 185g chocolate (that portion that’s been broken up), either over hot water or in the microwave (about 2 minutes on high).
Sift the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt into a bowl, then add the nuts. Keep the sieve conveniently to hand.
Whisk the eggs and sugar together, using a stand mixer or electric whisk, for 3–8 minutes (depending on how powerful your mixer is) until thick and foamy. When you lift out the beaters, the egg should leave a short-lived trail on the surface of the mixture rather than sink straight into it.
Pour the chocolate mixture over the surface of the egg mixture, then gently fold in with a large spatula until evenly mixed. Now sift over the flour-cocoa mixture and start to fold this in. Before it is fully amalgamated, tip in the remaining chocolate that you’ve left in small squares. Continue folding, stopping just before the flour is fully mixed (you should spot some flecks of unmixed flour — trust me, this is correct).
Bake in a 20cm/8-inch square tin at 180C/350F for 22–30 minutes until the cake no longer wobbles in the middle and the sides are just beginning to come away from the tin. A toothpick or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should emerge with sticky crumbs attached (unless you accidentally speared a piece of chocolate in which case try again.
[Orlando assures me privately — and now you know — of a couple of secrets. “You must get the egg-sugar mixture truly mousse-like. Fold in the choc mix and flour gently, stop mixing while there are still light traces of flour evident. And as always, underbake, and as Katharine Hepburn said, ‘Never add too much flour to your brownies.’”]
Dishes done, it was time to begin the journey into town for lunch! To be fair, we also intended to shop for the evening’s “protein” and vegetables. Pauline, Katie and I set off on foot. Oh, the lovely Devon architecture.
And unparalleled floral displays, set into the rather tired, old-fashioned hotel and guesthouse lawns.
Ilfracombe. How to describe it? For a seaside resort, on a Bank Holiday weekend, it seemed oddly muted and certainly not flashy or full of itself. The narrow pavements (what the British call sidewalks) were chock-a-block with locals carrying children, doing their weekend shop, talking in an accent that I found truly challenging unless the person was talking directly to me. The local Green Party occupied space outside one shop, extolling their virtues for the upcoming General Election on Thursday. Sam succumbed.
We acquired a gorgeous slab of pork belly and a couple of roasting chickens from a simply fantastic butcher, Mike Turton, since 1855.
Food always tastes better if the purveyor has a sense of humor.
Susan always achieves the very best bargains.
“It’s a GIRL!” Orlando announced suddenly, his first and last show of interest in the new Royal Baby, and talk of baby names occupied us for the duration of our shopping trip. Oh, the shops. One seemed to have a rather low bar for mercantile appeal.
We all tried to imagine what this empty shop might once have offered.
This bakery seemed positively steeped in the past, with pastries named things like “Japs.”
This restaurant… not sure what to say about its menu.
We heard tell of a Farmer’s Market.
“We should go quickly, in case they sell out early,” Pauline advised, so we began what devolved into the Ilfracombe Market Death March, up one street and down another, searching in vain for a clue to the market’s location. Locals were quizzed, and their patent ignorance taken to be a bad sign. “How much of a market can it be if no one knows about it?” We entertained ourselves during this Quixotic trek with the shop names and often hand-painted signs. Finally we began walking up a hill so steep our noses were practically on the pavement, in search of the church allegedly containing the market.
In light of the new Royal Arrival, we felt this street sign to be fortuitous.
And there was the church! In we trooped, in hot anticipation, our eyes adjusting to a truly extraordinary gloom inside. I wish I had taken pictures, the scene was so odd, but we were already attracting such attention as obvious “Londoners” that I felt inhibited. Oh, the sad displays of a few scones. ‘I’ve sold out of most,” the seller assured us proudly. Hmm. One single sweater for sale, accompanied by a random pile of yarn that could possibly produce another. Under a sign saying, “Organic Meat,” a Styrofoam box containing three frozen lamb chops. And most bizarrely, a girl with a distinct American accent standing behind a table with four boxes of local eggs.
“I have to ask: where are you from and what are you doing here?” I wondered. “I’m from California, and I’m here on a sheep-farming internship.” She must have felt she had landed on Mars. All around in the air hung the silence of the sellers all scrutinizing us openly, while 1940s music played from an invisible Victrola. We left.
And then it was time to walk down the long, LONG steep hill again, to achieve the seaside.
We bought fudge and Ilfracombe rock, that unique and funny British seaside candy with the name of the locality built into the long stick.
We claimed two slightly sticky tables at a fishy pub, The Pier, that spoke clearly of sunny summer days full of tourists.
On our grey, windy, rather damp Saturday in May, it felt a bit out of place. But the fried cod was divine.
The local cider was not to be despised.
It was a lovely lunch.
We investigated the bizarre and massive sculpture, “Verity” by Damien Hirst, at the end of the pier. Unsurprisingly, it is reported that she’s divided the town. “She’s standing on a pile of law books,” Pauline reported in some astonishment.
Nothing, after all, says law and order like a pregnant naked lady holding scales with half the skin on her belly pulled off.
Sam and Orlando drove Rosie and Susan home, while Katie, Pauline and I decided to give the town a bit more time. We walked in a drizzly wind around the more touristy parts, near the sea (“NOT an ocean,” Orlando corrected me more than once. To a landlocked Midwesterner, all water is an ocean.) I was reminded that English is, in fact, a foreign language. I was happy to have translators. “What’s a knickerbocker glory?” I asked. “A huge ice cream,” Katie said. “How about a saveloy?” “A giant red sausage,” she explained. “With batter? Deep-fried?” Pauline wondered. We did not know.
“What’s the difference between a Cornish cream tea and a Devon cream tea?” we all wondered, and a lovely young couple, offering samples of just such treats, answered. “A Cornish cream tea has the jam first, then the cream. A Devon cream tea has the clotted cream spread on the scone first, then the jam. And that’s what you’ve got there.”
We walked home slowly, pausing in the graveyard of the church on our way. I came upon my first knitted poppies, a fine English tradition.
Did you know there is a British activist group who knits GRAFFITI? “Yarnbombing, or yarnstorming,” it is known as. What a typically clever, subversive, subtle, many-layered way that this country finds to express itself.
We approached the church.
“I emailed them to ask if I could ring with them,” I said, “but no one ever replied. Just then, as if summoned by my words, the bells began to ring!
As I was explaining “Devon call changes” to Pauline and Katie who probably had absolutely no interest, a bride and groom emerged from the church door!
The charm of this encounter got us up the incredibly stiff hill that awaited us at the end of the walk home. I tried to capture the steepness, but I can see now that I did not succeed. But it was a lovely path.
We were so glad to arrive home, panting!
We took a tour of the incredible, award-winning gardens that surround The Round House. Orlando and Rosie between them knew all the names of the plants and flowers.
Knowing less than nothing about growing things, I concentrated on the garden decorations.
Water features abounded.
What would an English garden be without a gnome?
The flowers WERE lovely.
But the people were lovelier.
We posed, elaborately and repetitively, for our annual photo. Sam turned on the timer and raced back to us. “I’ve cut my head off!”
Sam is the best little brother I never had.
As our pork belly cooked slowly on its bed of carrots, celery, garlic and rosemary, Jersey Royal potatoes boiled merrily, my beetroots cooking in their foil wrappings, and Pauline’s cumin-dusted cauliflower roasted, we sat up in the rotunda of The Round House and chatted, cocktails in hand.
Susan and Orlando discussed, from their various vantage points of a nursing stint and a growing-up spent there, the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, and home to a truly horrifying-sounding museum, the Jersey War Tunnels, chronicling the treatment of the Russian slaves by their German captors.
Rosie regaled us with stories of her teenage years spent working in retail at Harrods, back in the day when the store closed at noon on Saturdays for the duration of the weekend and store employees took pets home from the famed Pet Shop, to look after them during the off-hours. “Of course in those days,’ Rosie recounted dreamily, “you could order a lion, or a zebra, from the Pet Shop at Harrods.” And the employee who, upon retirement, simply moved himself and various items from the beautiful Harrods collections into the tunnels underground where inventory was stored! He was discovered years later, only because the puppy he’d “borrowed” from the Pet Shop was whining! We all think she should write down her memories and make a mint.
Dinner was superb, of course, fragrant with the sticky aroma of rosemary-scented pork and the little potatoes tossed with lashings of butter and chopped parsley. And cumin and cauliflower? A match made in heaven. What a festive evening.
In honor of the Royal Princess, Rosie served her Pink Marshmallow School Pudding, a favorite of her daughter’s from childhood. It was strangely wonderful.
The mammoth task of cleaning up the kitchen was enlivened by the window’s threat to come off its hinges. Thank goodness for two strong men.
To bed with visions of pork belly dancing in my head…
And of course first thing in the morning, Sam set the two little chickens to roasting, and a rich risotto of carrot to simmering. We watched the very limited but still addictive coverage of the Royal Princess’s arrival, and pored over the newspapers that Orlando had kindly brought back for “you females.”
“I have never in my LIFE heard such oohing and gurgling and blooey hooey [incomprehensible male imitations of female blithering] as is coming from you females at this moment!”
She is a very cute baby, now known to all of course as Charlotte Elizabeth Diana (surely the ultimate in clever compromises that ever a baby name was), Her Highness Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. How lovely.
Orlando and Sam concocted the risotto.
I was allowed to grate the cheese, to the accompaniment of Orlando’s experimenting with various Devon-ish pronunciations of “butterrrr” and “Parrrrmesan” in what we took to be the local accent, from our adventures in Ilfracombe the day before.
We sat down – I with scant appetite, since I’d already somehow eaten all four roasted chicken wings, but massive enthusiasm — for our chicken risotto lunch.
At this luncheon, further discussion ensued about the differences between English and American. “Why do you say ‘hotchpotch’ and we say “hodgepodge’?” I wondered. “And why do you say ‘titbit’ and we say “tidbit’? Probably because Americans can’t say anything to do with ‘tit’ without laughing.” Orlando scolded me several for – I think the term was – “nosing” the chocolate mousse. That is, I sliced off the corner of the loaf, to give myself the tiny portion I wanted, just a taste. “That is completely unacceptable, especially in France, to do to a cheese, especially. The proper treatment is to take a portion that leaves the original serving in the same SHAPE, just a smaller size.” I think I was similarly taken to task about this years ago by my friend Vincent, on exactly the subject of cheese, so I had better take note.
And it was time to go home. As usual far too soon, it was time to leave my glorious friends who never tire of talking about food, who match me in my endless enthusiasm for discussing recipes and methods, choices and menus. And above all, who strike such an unusual note of friendship: seven people who look forward all year long to just a few days together — warmth, honesty, inspiration, laughter, intelligence, and culinary delights.
I sat in the darling little train from Barnstaple, watching the gorgeous Devon countryside speed by, thinking of the fun we had had.
Until GNIM 2016…
You know how much I dislike change!
And yet I simply can’t seem to stop nearly every aspect of my life from undergoing just such.
When we moved into this house less than two years ago, we expected we’d be able to extend our lease right up until our eventual house — the massive project at Potters Fields! — would be finished. Of course that sort of stability, for our nomadish family, was far too much to ask. We found out straightaway that our landlord, buried in the sands of Bermuda, would want the house back as soon as our two-year lease was up. Which would have put moving date right during the month of Avery’s all-important final exams. Because, believe it or not, her seven years at the school we’ve all become so attached to are nearly finished.
We immediately asked to extend the lease beyond the June exams, and thankfully, the landlord agreed. “Stay until after the holidays, if that will make things easier.” Yes, it would.
And then on our doorstep over the weekend appeared said landlord, with his adorable child by the hand and his adorable dog tied to the gate. “Now, of course I’ll understand if you want to stay on as we planned, but it turns out that staying in temporary housing is being really disruptive for my family. Could you possibly be out by November?”
And so, we find ourselves looking around at our beautiful garden with a sense of impending loss. I hate change!
My beloved wall of bookshelves will not be coming with us, to this interim house.
We’ll take just what I can’t live without, for the two or so years we’ll spend in the November house. Avery will go off to university from one home and come home for Christmas to another. Luckily she is extremely adaptable and quite used to constant change.
Of course the eventual reason for all this peripatetic activity is our dream home, and plans are proceeding apace for that. This month I swallowed my fear and went along to a most exciting meeting: coming face to face with our famous architect for the first time. “Finally,” he said, bending over my handshake. Such a feeling!
The atmosphere of the meeting was something I’ve never experienced before: being The Client. I introduced myself as “The Wife,” but I was quickly corrected. “It’s lovely to meet our second client,” the English architect said with a warm smile. He showed me the model of our eventual home.
The excitement of being The Client made up for the slight anxiety over what our home will be like. “The architecture and the view will be our decor,” John said, but I had to butt in and speak up for our art and my books, which I sincerely hope will also find a place in our rooms. “I have a feeling that today you went from having one client to having two,” I apologised to the architects. They smiled. “When you’re dealing with a couple,” Andrew said, “two is the very smallest number of clients you have, and it’s usually more.” It will all work out.
Lost Property, that absorber of so much of my time, is coming to an end. One last display of colorful, stinky lacrosse boots and their attendant sticks.
I’ve cooked my last Lost Property lunch.
The ladies gathered on a beautiful, sunny, warm April afternoon in my garden, to enjoy our unique blend of friendship, a willingness to tackle messes, our supportive conversation right down the years at the school, from the little 11-year-olds of so long ago, to the 18-year-olds some of us have now. The joy of sharing one last meal with these lovely ladies.
The funny thing is everyone saying, “What will we do without you?” and my knowing quite well from experience that life will go on perfectly smoothly without me. It will be me who misses the old days.
Thankfully I will have one mainstay: good old Home-Start! Even when I move away from delicious, familiar Barnes where I’ve had such fun, Home-Start Southwark will await me, with plenty of local families who need a bit of support, a bit of play. Something tells me it will all be different, and yet the same, when I get there.
I have to decide if I am to give up my local bellringing fun for a new start in the new neighborhood, or if I’ll make the effort and the train journey to come back here to my merry band.
As if in reminder that while things change, some stay the same, we’ve have a visit from old, dear friends from the past. Kathleen and John, parents of Avery’s best childhood friend in New York, journeyed across the pond to spend a week in London, and some of it kindly with us! They were happy to take a tour of our eventual home. It all looks quite unbelievable!
After all the dreamy talk about balconies and roof terraces, views and ceiling heights, we came home to dinner with Avery and plenty of reminiscing about our family’s long friendship. Avery came out of retirement to take a lovely photo, for us to remember.
I’ve invented a lovely new supper dish! It’s a combination of so many of my favorite things: the consistency of a Thai “larb,” fine and delicate, the vegetables of a stir-fry, the sauce of a citrusy satay sauce, the mess of eating things in parcels! John has christened it:
Minced Asian Chicken Parcels
for the filling:
1 tbsp peanut oil
4 boneless chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
2 red bell peppers, diced
8 chestnut or button mushrooms, diced
1 small head broccoli, separated into small florets
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
a bunch spring onions/scallions, sliced, white and green parts
for the sauce:
2-inch knob ginger, peeled
100ml/1/3 cup dark soy sauce (the dark sort really makes a difference, if you can find it, but if you can’t, regular soy sauce is fine)
100 ml/1/3 cup Japanese mirin or dry sherry
100 ml/1/3 cup clear honey
juice of 1 lime, plus zest
12 tbsps/3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
50 ml/3 tbsps sesame oil
handful cilantro/coriander leaves and stalks
for the parcels:
Bibb/Boston/Little Gem lettuce heads, separated into leaves
chopped peanuts, pinenuts or cashews (optional)
Preparation couldn’t be simpler. Put the trimmed chicken breasts — cut into manageable chunks — through either a mincer/grinder or pulse in your food processor until the texture of minced/ground beef.
Heat the peanut oil in a frying pan and then fry together the chicken and vegetables until the chicken is just cooked through. Do not overcook. Set aside in a pretty serving bowl to cool slightly.
Place all the sauce ingredients into a small food processor or blender and blend until smooth. With nice clean hands, toss the chicken and vegetables with the sauce, in your pretty bowl.
Arrange the pancakes and lettuce leaves on several easily-reached platters. Everyone can pile the chicken mixture into these little containers and top with nuts, if using. Allow plenty of napkins per person as the parcels are messy!
This dish pleased us enormously! It felt good to make something new, while everything else around us is changing too.
Isn’t this a mysterious image? Every afternoon, slightly earlier every day now as the days get longer, this design floats across the wall in our front hallway, reflected from the stained glass window in the front door. A little bit of accidental magic, every day.
No one appreciates the spring sun more than Tacy.
Except perhaps for Keechie.
I have a confession to make, one which would make my daughter sever all ties with me if she knew: I really like exam season, hers, that is. And since this is our last one, I’ll explain why: she’s home all the time, which as flying-the-nest fast approaches, is a very luxurious thing. Although I’m really not meant to distract her, it’s frightfully easy when she’s sitting with her piles of books just to mention something I wanted to ask her, her opinion about something, what she’d like for dinner. And she’s right there. Very pleasant.
Mind you, not so much for her.
What she doesn’t know about you-know-what surely cannot be worth knowing. There are over 150 events that she’s determined to remember, spanning the years on the Emerald Isle between 1798 and 1921. And now her father and I are pretty close to knowing them too, absorbing them almost accidentally as she works through ideas out loud. Where she gets the capacity for compiling all this information, the attention span for memorizing it all, not to mention the energy for thinking deeply about it all, I can’t imagine. That part of my brain was taken over long, long ago by the contents of hundreds of picture books, and is now occupied with the fourteen different types of rice in my pantry and what they could be used for.
Easter has come and gone, our last with a kid at home to get an Easter basket, I suppose. All these milestones! She was perfectly happy this year to join in.
The ritual was comforting in its familiarity — I never think we have enough eggs, John thinks we have too many, we always wish we had some white eggs, but we never do. How to keep the shells from cracking? This year, John instituted a novel “steam, don’t boil” policy, and it was effective. “What is this weird ‘gloss,’ do you think?” John asks, waving a small plastic packet we’ve found in the Easter supplies John’s mother always brings us in the summer. “Any why would anyone want to tie-dye an egg?” Food coloring is good, too.
Some of the creations had a distinctly intellectual flair. Green for Ireland!
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with Home-Start lately, having volunteered to cater their 20th Anniversary/Easter party last week. When I was asked to volunteer at the party, to coax the 30 children and 40 parents attending to introduce themselves, play nicely, share, it was but the work of a moment to offer to cook the lunch. Why on earth should Home-Start spend a penny of their tiny budget (decreasing dramatically, no doubt, with an unfavorable — to my interests — General Election result next month) on rubbishy brought-in tuna sandwiches and crisps, when I could donate the food myself? I actually had fun, cooking for 70. I’ve never cooked so many chicken wings or devilled eggs (from our Easter eggs!) in my life, not to mention sandwiches. Don’t these look as good as a sandwich shop could offer?
The party itself was a delight (once I got over the stress of the satnav not getting the destination right and John rightfully annoyed with me for wasting his time at the wheel of the car). I saw lots of children from a playgroup I’d volunteered at years ago, and my, they’ve grown, and thrived, as have their parents. Whole families kept whole because one volunteer spent three hours a week with them, for a year. What an irreplaceable institution Home-Start is.
We got a huge boost last month when the quite-pregnant Duchess of Cambridge stopped by a children’s centre to hear what we do. How cool, to see her sitting under one of our logos! I think she needs a volunteer, don’t you? It’s stressful having two children under two, no matter who you are.
Finally, in the last few weeks, I’ve had the emotional wherewithal to start to think of cooking something new! I think the cookbook’s reality overwhelmed any creative instincts I might have had, for months and months. But inspired by a visit to a phenomenal restaurant, Rabbit, with my friend Sue, I succumbed to a long temptation.
Rabbit, Three Ways: Rillettes, Loins and Liver Parfait
(serves 3 as appetizers or a light lunch)
1 rabbit, jointed (I learned how at my butchers on the spot)
for the confit legs for rillettes:
1 cup white wine
1/s cup goose or duck fat
4 bay leaves
sea salt and fresh black pepper
for the loins:
2 tbsps butter
sea salt and fresh black pepper
for the liver parfait:
2 tbsps butter
1/2 small shallot, minced
2 tsps brandy
2 tbsps double/heavy cream, or to attain proper texture
sea salt and fresh black pepper
For the rillettes: In a frying pan, heat the wine and fat together until fat melts, then add the bay leaves and salt and pepper. Place the rabbit legs in this mixture and cook over a very low heat, the liquid just simmering, for 3 hours. Remove the legs and allow to cool so you can handle them, then shred the meat off the bones and mix with just enough of the hot cooking liquid to attain a nice juicy texture. Set aside and season if necessary.
For the loins: Just before you want to eat, melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the loins until just cooked, perhaps 4–5 minutes, turning frequently. Season and set aside to rest for a minute before serving.
For the parfait: In the frying pan from the loins, melt the additional butter and add the rabbit liver, seasoning generously. Cook until just pink, perhaps 3 minutes, turning twice. Place the liver in a small food processor and pour in the cooking butter. Add the shallot, brandy, Tabasco and cream and process until very smooth. Season to taste and serve either at room temperature or chilled.
This was a stunning platter of food. Delicate, juicy, savoury, and with such delightfully different textures in each dish. My only concern was that the rabbit available here in London is nearly exclusively farmed rabbit, which eliminates the main reasons to eat rabbit: it’s a pest, and there are far too many of them, and they’re free (or at least very cheap). My rabbit cost £12, about $18, and while that’s not too bad for a meaty meal for three, it’s not a bargain by any means. But delicious? Yes.
And because Avery’s increasingly interested in eating less meat and more vegetables, last week I experimented with an old-fashioned choice, to wonderfully tasty results.
2 lbs chestnut, baby Portobello or white mushrooms
3 tbsps butter
1 white onion, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
sprinkling of paprika
8 stems fresh thyme, leaves only picked
3 tbsps Madeira or Marsala
1 cup/250 ml sour cream
noodles or steamed rice to serve
Quarter or otherwise cut the mushrooms into bite-size pieces.
Melt the butter and add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, paprika and thyme. Saute until the mushrooms are softened, then add the wine and sizzle for 30 seconds. Add the sour cream and warm through. Serve with noodles or rice as you like.
Such a treat! We grilled chicken breasts and served them in thick-cut slices alongside, but they were certainly not necessary to provide a rich, satisfying, savoury dish.
I’ve needed as much energy as possible because there’s been a lot of bell-ringing. I wish I could convey to you the intense camaraderie, the community spirit, the sheer FUN we all have together. The silly ringing jokes that wouldn’t make sense to a normal person, the acknowledgement of the scaryness of the sport/musical instrument we all love so much.
There is also a beautiful spirituality –whether we’re religious or not — in the churchly nature of our surroundings: the baptismal font at Chiswick, and its mausolea in our ringing chamber, the lovely leaded glass windows at Barnes, the putto framed by our ropes.
And on Good Friday, I rang for the first time at St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake, just up the street from our house. What an unexpected gem, nestled just on the High Street.
The doorway of the church — which was moved stone by stone from the banks of the Thames during flooding in Victorian times! — is guarded by this solemn fellow.
This lovely window greeted us in the foyer.
We rang half-muffled, as befits a funeral service. How warmly we visitors from Barnes were welcomed! And we made their five ringers into eight, which is an immensely satisfying feeling. It wouldn’t have been an octave without us.
Our own Sunday service ringing at St Mary’s, Barnes, was greatly enhanced by the Easter bunny’s delivery of some choice chocolate eggs. Bell-ringing joke alert: “That was a very nice Plain Egg Hunt.”
No Easter would be complete without a visit from Henrietta, the ceremonial donkey who travels in each year from her farm in the countryside, to underscore the completely charming and daft approach of the English to religious affairs and animals. Dear Richard the Vicar takes his responsibilities very seriously.
Spring on the Thames, in our part of the world, means The Boat Race, of course, that classic competition between Oxford and Cambridge. It’s often the scene of high drama, as in several years ago when a man protesting the poshness of life in general dived in, to the consternation and danger of everyone involved. This year there was no such drama, just the fun of being at Elizabeth’s house on the banks of the river, eating her special roasted baby courgettes and butternut squash, sipping Prosecco, feeling our special affinity this year for Oxford — who won both their men’s and women’s races.
For the first time ever, the women shared the race day with the men, and the same stretch of river. Feminism prevailed!
At the end of the day, with the crowds dispersed and the sun setting, the kids went out to sit on the river wall and enjoy a few more moment’s respite from their studies. We grownups watched from the window upstairs, feeling a combination of pride and melancholy that we’re all too familiar with, these days. How different life will be in a year’s time for us all. Scattered to the winds, without the comforts of old friends, of home, of traditions. I know that new traditions and circles will be set in place. They always are. But for that Saturday afternoon, we revelled in the familiar, Spring in London, and all was right with the world.
What a funny week it’s been! A sort of glimpse into the future when Avery’s not living here anymore, in fact. I’ll explain.
We’ve been to Zurich, just the two of us, John and I, for a whirlwind, exhausting, exciting, expensive, delicious two days and two nights. What a thrill just to hop on a plane, and 90 minutes later land in Switzerland, a night flight, so that our walk to the hotel from the airport was a glorious tour of the darkened, but glittery, great city.
I can’t remember the last time I was in a proper hotel — a desperately awful motel at JFK the night before a flight does not count! This one, the Hotel Helmhaus in the very centre of the city, was quite, quite perfect, with gorgeous white sheets and a chocolately soft throw, a gorgeous bathroom and fantastically helpful staff. A total luxury, a birthday gift from my mother. What an escape.
In the morning, we headed out to explore our neighborhood, dominated by the massive Grossmunster church.
The doors are decorated in a kind of 20th century reference to the Baroque doors by Ghiberti in Florence, these distinctively childlike depictions by the great Otto Munch.
And the views from the top of the tower? (We puffed.) Simply glorious.
John looked so happy, sitting by a little interior window, catching his breath.
Then we meandered over to the intensely beautiful Fraumunster Church, home to a collection of the most sublime stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. How I wish I could have taken pictures of these glowing, lively, celebratory windows, but such is not allowed. You must look online at how stunning they are, impossibly colorful and happy, despite the obviously complex messages within.
Nothing was ordinary.
What a joy to see something new.
A gurgle of water, but extraordinary.
And everywhere messages that I could not read. How frustrating to be such a failure at German, as it happens.
And can I just tell you how obsessed Zurich is with Easter? A veritable riot of chocolate, bunnies, and chocolate bunnies, this one from the famous chocolatier Sprungli (we may have done a bit of work for the Easter Bunny here).
Everywhere were displays, and not just candy or flowers, but whole installations, this one of tiny, delicate tin animals, out for a day in the country.
I couldn’t help myself: I went inside and found a tiny Steiff hedghog for Avery, and an unexpected display of Christmas ornaments. My choices are packed away carefully for December, now, having been brought home in hand luggage.
There was a nunnery.
And then we arrived at our destination, the purpose of this whole Swiss adventure: a visit to the Tamedia building, a seemingly simple newspaper office in the centre of the city. Designed by the architect who’s going to be building our dream house, on our small plot of land. At first it was hard to imagine what this building could possibly have in common with a family home.
Inside, however, the magic was instantly visible.
What seemed at first glance to be merely a beautiful office building revealed, gradually, details of absolute genius. The supporting columns made of laminated spruce, the unexpected floor of polished Swiss river stones.
The lobby is furnished with chairs and tables using the recycled paper tubes that our architect is famous for: he’s built entire villages to benefit refugees of environmental disasters, using these tubes.
They are incredibly stylish. And such good, good things. Maybe he will build some for us.
I feel really excited, hopeful, for the first time, about our eventual house. With the warmth of the spruce, the inventiveness of the floors, the civic-mindedness and yet sheer beauty of the furnishings, I can really see this building translated into a proper home: gorgeous but welcoming, and a perfect backdrop for our books, and art, brought out of storage at long last. Our guide seemed very happy at our happiness.
And John was just absolutely thrilled.
Sigh of relief, and of expectation.
We said our goodbyes and went directly to a Vietnamese restaurant we had spied on our way to Tamedia, Saigon.
I ended up with a beautiful plate of green curried chicken with bamboo shoots, SUPER hot peppers and a creamy coconut milk sauce, heaven. John had noodles for which he was offered, mercifully, a bib, to protect his snowy white shirt. We ate ourselves silly, then meandered home to the hotel to put our feet up for just a bit. Except that of course I’d left my phone at the restaurant, so with misgivings John gave me his, pointed me to Google maps, and said goodbye as if he’d never see me again.
I had fun, taking more pictures.
I found the only bookshelf in the world I didn’t want to bring home.
Who lives down these little streets, in perfect Swiss style? I want to, someday.
When I returned, safe and sound, we went back out, into the slightly sprinkly, damp afternoon, to explore again.
I bought new shoes, gorgeous Thierry Rabotin classic laceups, and also a nice springy pair of loafers. Shoe shopping is always a winner. We passed the famous Cabaret Voltaire, unbelievably still in business just shy of 100 years after its formation as the home of Dadaism. Shades of my art historical youth!
After a most welcome cocktail back at the hotel, we headed out in the rain, by romantic tram, to dinner, at Stefs, a restaurant John had chosen because all the most glowing reviews online were… written in German. A present from John’s mom for his birthday, this was a much-awaited event because as you know, we NEVER go out for dinner. I go to lunch with friends, we occasionally go to lunch together, but dinner? Out? Just the two of us? Never. It was an epic meal.
Our maitre d’ explained the menu to us, pointing out in perfect, beautifully accented English that all the produce, most especially the meat, comes from their farm in the Swiss countryside. “We call the meat, how do you say, ‘lucky meat.’ This is why it tastes so very good. It has been a lucky life, for these meats.”
We began with a very modern (and lucky) steak tartare, served with the requisite hard-boiled, grated quail’s yolk, but then most fusion-y with a harissa cream and tiny leaves of baby chicory (I had to ask), and a spoonful of rich, caramelised onion relish. Perfectly textured steak in a portion that left us wanting more, shades of our Prague adventure last year. Then onto what was described to us as a curry soup, but was OH so much more than that. A gentle, delicate, subtly flavored creamy broth (more coconut milk, twice in one day!) with, floating demurely, tiny slivers of exotic mushrooms, carrots and celeriac. How I wish I could make such a thing. Again, we clamored for more.
And then a main course of pork fillet, with a smooth, tender texture we’d never quite experienced before, with quenelles of creamy mashed potato and two perfectly cooked stalks of asparagus, all with a morel mushroom sauce (our only complaint was that we wanted more sauce, but we could be simply greedy). Dessert was a more elegant version of something I might make: a mango yogurt with a surprise of chocolate ice cream buried inside, topped with a crumble. Simple and much homelier than the three savoury courses, leading me to suspect that the chef has about as much interest in posh desserts as I have: very little. A lovely end to a quite perfect meal.
But it wasn’t the end! Because I had asked so dag-nabbit many questions during the meal, the lovely maitre d’ , Meinrad Schlatter, fetched the chef! And I was able to shake the hand of the man who had provided us with such a magical parade of flavors. Stefan Wieser, a genius plain and simple.
What a cook. What a kitchen! “I see you cook with gas,” I said, with a sly glance toward my husband who aspires to more technological methods of applying heat to food. “Oh, yes, always with the gas,” Stef assured me. Thank you.
We talked about the meal all the way home — the ambience of the small restaurant (seating just 20 or so people, and we the only non-Swiss as far as we could tell), the simplicity of the menu. Perhaps I could have a small restaurant if I could limit the choices to just a few. We had the tasting menu, but there were only three more dishes on offer, plus Meinrad’s special cheese board (I was tempted, but even I have my limits).
What heaven to fall into the bed — made up perfectly by NOT ME — with a book and a digestif, looking around the elegant room, feeling a little bit of the me I was before I was a mother, creep back into my bones. Maybe, just maybe, there is life after the child flies the nest.
In the morning we had nothing special planned — and who needs anything more special than the day before had been ! — so after a spectacular scrambled egg breakfast at the Helmhaus (why are foreign cold cuts so much more splendid than anything you can get at home?), we ambled out and off on the tram to take a look at Lake Zurich. Most fascinating to me was this tiny, public water park. Can you imagine an American lake daring to offer such an array of unprotected, fantastically dangerous-looking water features, for anyone to use in ignorance and then sue someone for? Charming!
Every bit of this climbing structure stretches over concrete surfaces just begging to have a head crack upon them. And diving boards! Even private HOTELS in America have jettisoned them all, in fear of lawsuits. What a shame. These looked very inviting.
Well, perhaps not on that very day.
Fancy a slide?
The whole place seemed to me emblematic of the Zurich frame of mind: simple beauty everywhere and an effortless sense of style, as well as a calm, peaceful enjoyment of life. I could just imagine the scene on a hot summer day, perfect little Swiss children running sedately to and fro, while their gorgeously fashionable and eminently calm parents looked on. Munching on Swiss chocolate, no doubt, and congratulating themselves on their determined and peaceful neutrality. If there is something not to like about life in Switzerland, we didn’t see it on our trip to Zurich.
We popped on the tram again to try to find what was billed as the “Shoreditch of Zurich,” that is to say the sort of hipster neighborhood. We didn’t find it, but I did stumble across this gorgeous food shop, Bascher, causing literally the only moment of the entire trip when I wished I had a kitchen. Oh, the fresh meats and cheeses, the glorious profusion of pastas, dried mushrooms, preserved meats. I did bring home some preserved Swiss pastrami-like beef, but that only tormented me for more.
We whiled away the afternoon aimlessly, just enjoying each other’s company and the foreign sights to behold on every corner.
Finally it was time to go home. We slipped into the lounge at the airport to indulge in a little pile of brown bread sandwiches, featuring — again — the simplest of ingredients, but the best: Swiss cheeses, little pickles, little local salamis. And home to Avery.
Who promptly left for Dublin on a school trip! We barely overlapped, which means on top of our Zurich sojourn without her, we also had four days at home without her. I’m getting used to it. But I myself took off on Saturday morning on a quixotic journey by train to Bath, to have lunch with my friend Sam and then — the purpose of the adventure — to meet up with my beautiful friend Laurie’s handsome son Christian, here all the way from South Africa to… play hockey. I can’t make this stuff up. He gallantly risked embarrassment in front of his mates to pose for a photograph with me, which gave his mother, so far away, immense pleasure.
Christian and his mother had been our guests, you’ll remember, five years and one house ago, for a memorable, fun-filled visit. Now, so much older, more mature, and TALLER, Christian hasn’t really changed a bit. Still with gorgeous manners, a ready smile, and a zest for life. Laurie should be terribly proud. “I hear congratulations are in order,” he said with unbelievable poise. “Avery is off to Oxford, well done!” What a wonderful boy.
After all, the point of all this parenthood is to set them free, isn’t it — whether to Dublin or to Bath — to watch them pack up their suitcases and their experience and set off on their own. It’s a bit like that old story of bringing a pot of water to boil with a frog in it: the boiling process happens so gradually that he’s cooked before he knows it. Of course it seems like five minutes ago that Avery was 13, that Christian was 10, days when their flying off for their own adventures would have been unthinkable. But it happens. And if John’s and my life over the last week is any indication, the future looks bright for all of us.
Until today, I would have said that the English air held an unmistakable warmth of spring. Then I got onto my bike for yoga and positively froze this morning! But a beautiful, crisp day, reminiscent of Saturday’s “Women’s Head of the River Race” on the Thames. Fourth from the left in this photo is the divine Sarah Weaver, in from Cambridge, our houseguest from the evening before. We screamed ourselves silly when she went by. We felt very cool to know someone in the race, and sat with our coffee on the river’s edge, watching the spectacle.
It’s just lovely living so near to the Thames. Someday I will succeed in getting a photograph of the river rolling by outside my bedroom window. In the meantime, all I can do is assure you how hypnotic it is, with the lights glittering over the tidal movement.
Spring, however chilly, has been delicious. I could not have predicted how relaxing it would be to enjoy Life After Cookbook, picking up the threads of my social existence that had been put rather on hold in favor of things like acquiring ISBNs, import licences, writing an index, mailing hundreds of books. We’ve had time to enjoy the frequent visits of dear Cressie, the neighbor cat who defines “fluff.”
Cressie appears in the garden, meowing silently outside the glass door, desperate for some love. Of course, neighborhood opinion is divided between those of us who think of her as Cressie and those of us who think of her as Oscar. It’s not important.
Last week I meandered into Bloomsbury to meet my friend Jen at the phenomenally delicious Honey and Co., brainchild of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, Middle Eastern chefs extraordinaire. We sat down to the crunchiest cinnamon-flecked, sesame-covered falafel to start, and progressed to a sort of lamb and cauliflower shepherd’s pie with a yogurt and sesame crust. But the star of the lunch was the fresh, grilled sardines, my first ever. Stuffed with herbs and intensely lemony, these small fishes were a revelation. We ate every single bit.
Jen is the ultimate food-loving lunch companion, matching me for obsessiveness bite for bite. We take forever over every dish, analyzing ingredients, combinations of flavors, textures. It’s a great deal of fun, for us (and it means no one else has to put up with us).
I popped into this incredible bookstore on the way home. My theatre-loving friends and family would simply be in heaven, being able to do that.
Simply shelf after shelf of dear Shakespeare.
Why not come home with chocolate bars named for Shakespearean heroines? Truly clever to have the sea salt chocolate named for Miranda, don’t you think?
From that sublime afternoon, it was wonderful to get on the cosy local Southwest train the next day to visit my friend Catherine — in from Philadelphia again, just a month after she was here for my book launch! She was in town to look after her nephews, two of the sweetest boys on the planet. Together with Catherine’s daughter Mimi, we wore those little boys out building train tracks, running to the park. Mimi displayed her squirrel-like climbing skills.
Artie watched in adoring astonishment.
Catherine and I sat peaceably by, secure in the knowledge that we were no longer expected to climb, run, jump or slide. We wondered to each other if we had been able to appreciate our own children as effortlessly as we’re able to enjoy other people’s now, with relaxation and simple enjoyment. Why did we spend so much time in those days planning for what came next — the next nap, meal, activity — instead of revelling in the moment. At least now we’re able to enjoy each other unfettered.
When I succeed in making Catherine’s delectable dark chocolate coconut bars, I will let you know.
On the way home we took time to note the very strict neighborhood dog-walking strictures. Otis is indignant that anyone thinks four dogs are an appropriate limit.
I left their cosy, boyish household, feeling quite envious. The best thing to do was to distract myself with another girly lunch, this time with my boon companion Sue, recent Elf at my birthday bash. I met her in Sloane Square, surely one of the richest atmospheres in the world. For a brief moment, it was fun and luxurious to be surrounded with so many rich-looking people, such beautiful architecture, so many shops filled with beautiful things.
I bought some satin shorts for Avery and gorgeous leggings for myself at my new favorite shop, Club Monaco. Just a treat. What fun for someone who is a rubbish shopper, as a rule.
On to lunch! This time at Rabbit, a sister restaurant to the immensely popular Shed, with the same ethos of extreme seasonality — as in weekly! — and foraging. Three brothers run the vineyard, farm and kitchen of the restaurant, while the father wrote the text for their gorgeous cookbook. And how we ate! You can order little tiny dishes called, appropriately “mouthfuls,” for £1.50, and we took full advantage: endive with goats cheese and pomegranate jam, rabbit rillettes on tiny cheese crackers. Then we proceeded to duck liver tempura, beetroot-cured trout with caviar and shaved beets, veal “stogies,” which were a fabulous concoction of shredded confit meat wrapped in wontons and deep-fried. Heaven! So inspiring.
What fun to sit with a dear friend, savoring unlikely and inventive flavors, solving the world’s problems, then to come home to cook dinner myself, something intensely savory and comforting. This is a variation of the veal chops recipe in our cookbook. It’s also very good with chicken, and with even more mushrooms and a vegetable stock, could easily be a marvellous vegetarian dish.
Pork Tenderloin in a Creamy Mushroom and Madeira sauce
(serves 4 with leftovers)
2 tbsps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and fresh black pepper
2 small pork tenderloins, completely trimmed of fat and gristle
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 leaves sage, roughly chopped
1 shallot, finely minced
1 dozen mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 tbsp flour
more butter if needed
1 1/2 cup/375ml beef stock
good splash Madeira or Marsala
1/2 cup/ 118 ml creme fraiche or sour cream
Heat the butter and oil together in a large frying pan with the salt and pepper until they stop foaming, then fry the tenderloins about 2 minutes per side so they get nicely browned. Remove to a plate, then fry the garlic, sage, shallots and mushrooms until soft. Remove to the plate with the pork, taking care to leave as much of the butter and oil behind as possible. Sprinkle the flour onto this fat, adding more butter if needed to make a stiff paste. Whisk in the beef stock and Madeira until the sauce is thickened, then add the creme fraiche and whisk well. Put the pork and mushrooms, along with any juices left on the plate, back into the frying pan and simmer in the sauce until the pork is cooked through. This will take between 10–20 minutes depending on the thickness of the tenderloin. When cooked, turn off the heat and remove the pork from the frying pan and slice into thick slices, then return them to the sauce and heat through. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.
This dish is delightfully comforting. Perfect for winter, or for spring that is acting like winter a bit past its prime.
I spent a beautiful lunch with my friend Claire and her two boys, watching them devour my smoked and roasted salmon mousse, little slices of those French crispy toasts, radishes, butter and salt. Claire and I discussed whether or not I, as a foreigner, should begin using British words in order to fit in. Something in me balks — as if it would be fake — at using terms like “mate,” “bloke,” or “blimey.” “Oh, blimey’s one of my favorites,” Claire laughed, but then it can be, she’s got the most sublime Belfast accent. But me? I’d feel like a fake. When she uses words like “sarky,” which I thought meant “snarky” but turns out to be an abbreviation of “sarcastic,” I just wish, wish to be Northern Irish.
“What does ‘mardy’ mean?” I asked.
“Now that, I don’t know,” she said. It turns out to mean “grumpy” or “moody,” so it seems a very useful word to know, especially if I travel to the North where it is common usage.
Before I left, it seemed like a very good idea to put the babies into my bag. They seemed to enjoy it. Freddie first…
I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the babies or Claire and me. You simply cannot have a care in the world when these two boys are around!
March has been very good to me, here in our London lives. As much as Avery’s life, lately, is a combination of stressful and boring (exam preparations), I selfishly enjoy these weeks when she spends a lot of time at home, curled up on the sofa with piles of notes and books, entertaining things to read about Ireland and Phillip II aloud to us, questions to ask. It is terribly hard to believe that next year, her spot on the sofa will be empty. It’s important to enjoy every cosy moment, however incomprehensible are many of the things that she reads aloud. I finally do understand “Ulsterisation,” but it took awhile.
Next week will see us in Zurich for a short architectural tour, so watch this space. Will it be delicious? I will let you know.
I sit here on my sofa with the thin March sun at my back, nursing a cold, feeling a heavy, warm cat draped over my legs. The back garden sports its colorful expanse of spring flowers, the emergence of which took us by such surprise last year, our first spring in this house. As my American friends, especially my family in Indiana and Iowa, describe the constant snowfalls and frigid temperatures, I’m torn between gratitude at the mild beauty here, and a bit of envy of a real winter.
As always, the annoyance of being felled by a cold is assuaged by the beauty of a pot of chicken soup.
Just as medicinal as the ambrosial, golden soup is the relief of climbing into bed with a good book, in my cosy bedroom, from whose window I can see the Thames, feathery in the wind. Surrounded by books and lovely candlelight, I often wish bedtime could last for hours.
The fanfare of “Tonight at 7.30″ has evolved into a gentler, daily pleasure, of finding new reviews on Amazon, having friends ring me up to say they’ve seen a story about it in the darling London magazine “Angels and Urchins.” Then, too, the local bookshop rings up to say they’ve run out of copies and could I bring another stack? Most certainly. Every morning my email inbox and Facebook pages are full of reports of what’s been cooked and how it was received, and just the pleasure of leafing through the book almost as fiction, as in this lovely blog review. I love the idea of Avery and me being a “dream team.”
Now that the book is a reality, I’ve been able to turn my attention away from that constant responsibility and give some time to the other things I love, namely bell ringing. Or to be precise, what should be the annual — but is never such — job of Cleaning the Bell Tower. Hoovering dangerously under the bells in the belfry, the winding and perilous staircase, the carpet under our ringing feet, clearing out the deceptively small cupboard. Who would ever dream that it takes quite so much clobber to run a ringing chamber? Ringing instruction booklets, bandages for sore hands, thumbtacks for special notices, back issues of “The Ringing World,” which is, believe it or not, a weekly report on ringing doings. We made a good job of it, in the dust-motey sunshine in church.
What happy memories I have of this teaching tool, the colorful yarns tracing our methods.
There is something terribly touching about this weekly prayer, said every Sunday by someone in the Tower, so simple and sincere.
The boxes on which small ringers stand now and then were found to be housing quite a number of spiders. It was time for a brush-off in the fresh air, alongside the various signs we need to communicate with visitors to the bell chamber.
How lucky I felt to spend the day there, like a character in an Agatha Christie novel. Our fearless leader, the lovely tower captain Trisha, would be such a fantastic character.
I’ve also had time for some much-needed new cooking ideas! The cookbook is filled, of course, with our family favorites, and every time I cook one of them I feel a surge of pride that the book is really just what it says on the tin: recipes we use all the time, with such happy memories of dinner at 7.30. But at a certain point, even the most beloved and delicious list of favorite dishes needs an infusion of fresh flavors. And with Avery’s wish to eat more fish, we delved into something truly delectable last week. Keep in mind that these are my photographs, as Avery has accepted a well-deserved early retirement.
Baked English Trout with Lemon and Thyme
4 fillets English trout
zest of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
4 sprigs thyme, leaves only
splash white wine
drizzle olive oil
fresh black pepper and sea salt
Line a baking dish with foil and arrange the fish fillets in a single layer. If you can’t find English trout (if for example you live in America), you can substitute any delicate white fish, like sole.
Sprinkle evenly over each fillet all the remaining ingredients, then bake at 220C/425F for about 8 minutes, or slightly longer if the fillets are thick. Do not overcook.
This dish was delicious with a side offering of sauteed bright peppers and broccoli, tossed with bean sprouts and soy sauce.
And because we are only three, we had a fillet leftover next day for lunch. Inspired by my friend Camille, who reported making my crab cakes (pp. 108–9 in the cookbook) with roasted salmon instead of crab, I decided a trout cake was just the thing. Simply mixed by fork with minced red peppers, spring onions, Panko breadcrumbs and a spoonful of mayonnaise, then sauteed in olive oil. Simply heavenly, and RICH.
Then I was given a fantastic new idea by a re-read of one of my old favorites on the cookbook shelf, “Taste” by David Rosengarten. His prose simply makes you want to rush to the supermarket and fill your basket with a worldwide list of ingredients, and come home to cook all day. While I probably will never be brave enough to cut off the face of a soft-shell crab, I certainly was capable of preparing a version of his “Hacked Chicken,” a Szechuan speciality. “Hacked” is just a cheffy term for shredded, really. I added ginger and lots of it, because I love ginger, and I left out his suggested brown peppercorns because I didn’t have any, but the basic premise is David’s.
Hacked Chicken on a Lettuce Leaf
4 chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2-inch knob ginger, peeled
100ml/1/3 cup dark soy sauce (the dark sort really makes a difference, if you can find it, but if you can’t, regular soy sauce is fine)
100 ml/1/3 cup Japanese mirin or dry sherry
100 ml/1/3 cup clear honey
12 tbsps/3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 bunch spring onions, thinly sliced including green parts
2 heads butter/Little Gem lettuce, leaves separated and washed
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add the chicken breasts. Turn water down to a high simmer and cook the breasts until “just past pink” David says. This will take about 10–15 minutes. It won’t hurt the chicken a bit to cut into the middle to see if it’s cooked through. Drain the chicken in a colander and run cold water over it to stop it cooking. Set aside to cool.
Now place all the other ingredients except the spring onions and lettuce in a small food processor or blender and blend until smooth.
Shred the chicken fairly finely by tearing in long strips along the grain of the meat. Place in a bowl and pour the sauce over. Toss well, and serve topped by the spring onions, in lettuce leaves.
What makes this dish interesting, as David says, is that the chicken is not marinated in the sauce. The chicken is plain, simple and delicate. The sauce merely coats it, and since it’s not a cooked sauce, it’s terribly fresh and light. It’s nice to know that every once in awhile, I can cook something that doesn’t depend on butter! This would (and will) be the perfect dish for a Lost Property lunch, because it can easily be doubled or even tripled. Savoury, unusual, delicious.
It’s impossible to cook, or eat, these days without being incredibly grateful for the luxury of having enough. This viewpoint has been enhanced by my new volunteer job: spending cold Friday mornings in a shed at the local Food Bank!
What fun it is to bundle up and ride my bike to the shed and spend a few hours organising the different sorts of tinned and boxed fish, vegetables, waxy cartons of juice and milk, boxes of tea and coffee, bags of pasta and rice. Families turn up with vouchers from various neighborhood organisations and my friend Francesca and I frantically fill up bags and weigh them, then deliver them to the warm cafe where the clients are enjoying a cup of coffee and a chat with local volunteers.
“You’re the first volunteer I’ve had,” Francesca said laughing, “who reads the ingredients on all the food, not just the ‘best-by’ date.” I confess that I do obsess over the ingredients, and was pleasantly surprised to find that so much prepared food in England really contains no rubbish. And then there’s the inimitably British sense of design.
Life has been further enhanced by a visit from my young friend Sam, recipe tester and editor extraordinaire, who came for dinner and to spent the night.
We trooped off to church together in the morning so Sam could see and hear me ring. I like to think he was terribly impressed.
So life moseys along in these quiet weeks of late winter. More to be grateful for than I could ever wish. Happy spring, everyone!
We all know that life is a roller coaster. Sometimes on the downward bits of the ride, we’d like to get off, saying, “Actually, this sort of up and down experience doesn’t suit me. I’ll go for the bumper cars instead, as I’m quite able to handle hard knocks. It’s the ups and downs I can’t deal with.” But life doesn’t give us the option to change rides in the middle of the fair.
What life does do, however, is give us, every once in awhile, a massive upward trajectory, and a chance to hover at the top of the track, with a heady sense of oxygen and a clear view of everything below: where we’ve been, how high we had to climb to get where we are now.
The last few weeks have seen me all over the damn ride. But I’m on a definite high now, with my beloved “Tonight at 7.30″ getting glowing reviews on both Amazon US and Amazon UK. Life doesn’t get much happier than that.
But let’s go backwards, through this mad month of mine. You definitely need a bit of a glimpse of last week’s half-term “holiday.”
How long has it been since you were in a position to spend four days in a remote country district without internet, television or telephone, unless you got in a car and drove five miles? Before you answer that, how long has it been since you were in said situation, and then the car was driven away by your husband, leaving you and your offspring in the misty Devon countryside in a massive 18th century stone house? I give you: The Library.
Of course in this photo we’ve just arrived, with all the clobber we (I) seem to require to leave home: several thick sweaters, Wellies, candles and candlesticks, a popcorn maker, an immersion blender, my special salt. And John was there to settle us in, and to look quite Lord of the Manor as he did so.
The first day was lovely. The sky dawned unbelievably blue. Here is our view from the main house to the “Orangery” where Avery slept. Yes, Mom (my mother was totally disbelieving when I revealed this to her): we actually made Avery sleep in an outbuilding. An unheated outbuilding. Hey, we brought along an electric blanket! And under this bright blue sky, it seemed quite reasonable. Really. It was only after John left, and the skies opened and the temperature dropped right down, that we realised it had been a bit mad. Here was her “room.”
As befits an Orangery, there was an orange.
At least the original glass ceiling had long-since given way and be replaced with a normal roof. Can you imagine the temperature with a glass ceiling?
When we planned our Devon getaway a few weeks ago, we didn’t reckon with the arrival in London of our fabulous architect from Paris, who would want to spend the middle of the week with his beloved client, poring over drawings and large-scale models of our dream home. But we had made our plans, and so we went, agreeing that John would leave halfway through the week, and Avery and I would stay on, just the two of us for a couple of days, and relax.
It was a mind-boggling contrast to the multi-tasking-on-steroids way I usually live my life, the peaceful week in the wilds of Devon. I could tend my fire, or I could cook, or I could read. That’s all. We watched and listened to the native birds flying from one ancient tree to another, from the wide window seats, admiring the carved stone accoutrements on the facade.
We read aloud funny bits from whatever book had taken our fancy. Avery and I have had particular fun since she discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, as I’ve memorized nearly all of his adventures in detection.
She would begin reading aloud, and I chimed in with portions of dialogue. “Lord Saint George says that he gate-crashed your acquaintance, destroyed your property, and that you instantly concluded he must be a relation of mine.” “…bumblin’ away like a bumble-bee in a bottle…” John rolled his eyes.
Well, he did do, until he drove away leaving us utterly becalmed in that isolated place! I honestly felt a bit of a panic attacking doing my food shopping, knowing that for 48 hours I would have absolutely NO Plan B, short of calling 999, and even I recognize that running out of butter is probably not a real emergency.
Avery brought back her belongings from the quaint but cavernous and unheated “Orangery” and I devoted myself to keeping the fire up so she could stay warm.
The last two nights she slept in the equally cavernous but heated main room of the “Library,” with its cherry-red walls and crackling fire. There was a wild kitty sighting! A striped and curlicued creature with pointed and attentive ears, perched below the ha-ha. When he met our eyes, he ran like the wind, tearing around the ancient yew trees to a safe haven somewhere. The last morning, sitting in the window seat drying my hair, I saw him again, but limping this time. We put out roast chicken for him.
Said roast chicken embodied for me the thrift that always comes over me in those shivery, old-fashioned English country holidays in a Landmark Trust house. You roast the chicken for dinner one night, with rich potatoes dauphinoise. The next lunch, you shred the chicken and sauté the two dishes together for a rich sort of hash. Then, the next lunch, you pile juicy scraps on buttered toast along with thick slices of sweet onion. Then you put out the final shreds for the cat. All from a small, unpretentious kitchen containing everything you need. Naturally I travel with my own apron.
Oh, the stars! We were so far out in the countryside that the stars seemed to be a kind of quilt or blanket that we’d thrown over us to make a fort, like we used to do with dining room chairs. The stars were so close! And the longer we stood, shivering, pulling our sweaters around us, the more appeared. I feel sad that there cannot be a photograph of this experience, the sight of the stars mingling with the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of a thick cashmere cardigan.
But by the time Friday came, Avery and I were ready to leave behind rustic country charm. Modern women can exist only so long in a world where email can be checked only at unpredictable times under one particularly drippy tree, in the cold rain.
We came home, via taxi, two trains, a tube ride and another taxi. I found that while we were away, Facebook had simply exploded with everyone’s photos of the cookbook arriving in their homes, dishes they were cooking, their joy at finally having it in their hands, after so many months of anticipation. Kickstarter had made it all such fun, such a community project. All my friends and family, all over the world, such a unique support system, had got their rewards.
The last month has exceeded beyond my wildest dreams the sheer FUN of letting “Tonight at 7.30” loose on the world. Since I last updated you all on what was happening, EVERYTHING has happened. Seven years of patient labor, not to mention about six months of absolute flat-out devotion, paid off in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of when I first set out to “write a cookbook.”
The most important thing to remember is that without Avery, and her extraordinary photographic abilities, what had been my dream would likely have stayed just that, a dream. Until she picked up her camera and made my food beautiful, and made my rather lonely project a partnership, I could never find the focus I needed just to get the book DONE, not to matter out there in the world. She gave the project a shape, and a purpose. I can never say enough to thank her for that.
On the 22nd of January, the books arrived! Twenty-three beautiful cardboard cartons, all the way from China, emblazoned with “Tonight at 7.30” and some excitingly exotic characters which were eventually translated by a Chinese friend as “last box has seven copies.”
“Did you open them?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Oh, please can I have one, or maybe more?”
“Well, yes, but why on earth are you acting like this?” I put a copy of the book in her hands.
“Oh. I meant the potato snacks, you know, from Poland, the ones you ordered for me from Amazon?”
Now it all made sense.
The UPS guy really WAS excited, though, when he arrived, to put my cartons on his dolly and play his role in my little drama. “I’ll look after these babies for you!”
And then began the final stretch of Project Cookbook. Every day, Avery and I signed copies for the lovely people who had ordered them.
It probably didn’t occur to me when I blithely made that offer on Kickstarter – “a signed copy and an apron”! — that I’d have to mail them all myself.
John popped off to Paris for a couple of days to see his architect, leaving me slightly overwhelmed but quite happy to get down to the business of folding and packing.
By the time I was finished, I felt overqualified for a job at the Gap. Then I realized that I don’t drive. A lovely car service came to get me and my piles of books. I had a grubby little piece of paper on which was written the numbers of parcels going to America, to Europe, to South Africa, to Australia. I was the Post Office’s employee’s worst nightmare. “How much will this cost to send to Spain? Because I need five of whatever that is, and 22 to America, and…” The poor lady definitely would have benefited from working on commission, that day.
On the way home from the post office, I thought, “You need a treat. You need something just for YOU.” When Avery came in from school, I asked, “Do you want to share a treat with me, the thing I most wanted as a reward for a job well-done?” And I offered up a plate of crispy, salty roasted guinea fowl SKIN. Just the skin! We could eat the real meat another time, but that afternoon, we sat on the sofa together eating that skin and feeling quite, quite happy. That was a good day to remember.
John came home from Paris with drawings of our dream home, and I felt terribly emotional, sitting in our candlelit living room that night, empty of cookbooks, looking at the plans. So much of our hard work coming to fruition, all at the same time.
As I was sitting on my hands waiting for everyone to tell me that their books had arrived, I was happy to have my friend Catherine arrive from America to help me cook for the book launch! Oh, the fun we had.
We chopped endless heads of garlic, big red bell peppers, the insides of over 100 small mushrooms, sautéed, mixed, stirred, tasted. We chopped tarragon, dill, cilantro and parsley and roasted salmon, for mousse. We made a lot of food.
We got a lot of talking done. To think that we had met, actually met, only twice in person, two days in a row, some four years ago. But when you get two avid writers to begin corresponding over the pond, you get a great deal of virtual conversation. It’s magical to get emails from a novelist, I have found. And so we just picked up where we had left off, all those years ago. And… she likes Tacy.
The next day dawned bright and beautiful, as befitted a book launch. John drove me to Madeleine’s Cake Boutique under a cloudless blue sky.
My elves — Elizabeth, Fiona, Kim and Sue — arrived to help me build the wee salmon mousses on endive and baguette, to serve, pour bubbly, greet guests. Avery arrived to sign books. John arrived with the till and a ready smile for everyone, as always the glue that holds everything together.
Kim curated the apron display.
Elizabeth got artistic with the salmon on chicory, Fiona carried trays of mushrooms, Sue poured countless glasses of Prosecco, Lisa made batch after batch of, you guessed it, her very own madeleines. (She had wisely come to this decision after one tragi-comic afternoon spent leafing through my dessert recipes, laconic in the extreme, she felt. “What do you intend your readers to bake this apple and banana cake IN, Kristen? You don’t say in the recipe!” “Oh, a tea cup, or a wine glass?” I suggest frivolously.) Her madeleines were, everyone agreed, the best ever. Lisa is the best ever, really.
She was the perfect hostess, and I watched her gratefully, mindful of the hard work she put in for the launch itself, but also of the number of times she held my hand (and often my head) as I told her story after story of the birth of the book.
My darling sister sent flowers! Extravagant and beautiful, “all the way from America,” people kept marvelling.
Everyone under the sun came. Avery’s former skating teacher! My social work supervisors! The receptionist at Avery’s school, my fellow bellringers. Mike has long been a fan of my cheesy spinach, which he insists on calling “green goo.” Now his beloved Jill can make it for him.
I felt very pleased that after years of seeing me only as a bumbling, slow-learning ringer, my teacher Eddie could finally see me in a slightly more capable light. He brought his beautiful daughter.
There were friends I’ve sweated through weight-training with, and struggled through writing classes with!
My friend Colin was thrilled to meet so many beautiful ladies, but he had a moment just for me.
My elves slaved away. But I think they also had fun, if the smiles were anything to go by. I have the best friends in the world.
Oh, the madeleines!
Sue, doing what Sue does best: making people feel comfortable.
It was one of the best afternoons of my life. And it was my 50th birthday! What a perfect way to celebrate. Avery inscribed book after book, apron after apron flew from the boxes. I couldn’t really believe that something we had worked so hard for, for such a long time, had actually come to fruition. You know how it’s possible that such a moment, so hotly anticipated, will disappoint? It just didn’t. It was a wonderful, perfect day. The only thing that could have made it better would have been to have our families to help celebrate, since they had done so much to make the book happen.
Finally 5 o’clock came. We packed up the car with the rented wineglasses, birthday presents, the unsold books and aprons, and John drove them home. And I was taken to Elizabeth’s house in the cold dusk, to be given presents and to chat, and thence to one of the best meals of my life at “The Glasshouse,” a simply divine restaurant in Kew, where we indulged in such things as the Perfect Manhattan, foie gras wrapped in duck confit, roasted stuffed guinea fowl breast, celeriac fondant. And a passion-fruit tart with a candle in it. Simply perfection.
So begins my 51st year. How on earth will the second half-century compete? I vow to take much better care of my blog, since “Kristen in London” is where my cooking life was born and bred. Who knows? Perhaps it’s time for Volume II…
“Oh if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one–!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never you know had one.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Early January in London typically has very little to recommend it: in the first few days there is the dastardly combination of jetlag, unpacking, cleaning up the crunchy Christmas tree, more jetlag. Avery and I suffer particularly as nightowls. We stay up far too late, spanning those five hours’ difference we’ve lived with over the holiday, struggling to get up at a remotely decent hour.
John bravely carried on meeting at Potters Fields, I yawned through playing with my Home-Start babies, we even booked a fancy lunch at a swanky restaurant in the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. As you can see above, it was a spectacularly gloomy afternoon, even the fabulous view dimmed by rain. Somehow that greyness conveyed itself to all three of us as we sat at the table trying to have fun. Between courses, Avery’s head dropped slowly to the table.
We gave up and came home on the cosy little Southwest train to Barnes in the early twilight, feeling it would be better just to crawl into a burlap sack with the top tied shut until we got over jetlag.
Finally, we woke up. Avery got into Oxford, which was a good thing. And because life never runs on only one track, final work on getting “Tonight at 7.30″ out into the world has continued unabated. Getting to the end of this gargantuan task is like herding cats: because my book is most people’s first experience with crowd-funding, and also with electronic books, there have been hundreds of interactions with people coming to grips with which application runs the book on which device, how to download the book, how to login to Kickstarter to provide their addresses. Every day my inbox is full of anxious queries, easily answered, but a heck of a lot of work.
The poor thing, I left it in my bicycle basket overnight, in a rainstorm! Happily it survived intact, a good sign for when it’s opened up on people’s kitchen counters being splattered with olive oil and duck fat.
It’s all worth it when I can show the one advance copy I have left, to all my friends. What a complete thrill to take it to St Mary’s for ringing practice.
What a moment. My Home-Start family turned up to hear the bell practice, and the mum picked up the cookbook, exclaiming over its beauty. My ringing friends rejoiced with me over Avery’s news, offering their own anecdotes about Oxford. It was quite simply the perfect day, combining nearly all my London worlds — Avery, cookbook, ringing, Home-Start — in one place, under one audacious blue sky.
We celebrated everything with comfort food. Is there anything more wonderful than breakfast for dinner, eaten on laps in the living room, with candles and something on the telly? An omelet with Boursin (“European Velveeta,” I’ve heard it called), roasted ham, crisp “streaky” bacon, roasted tomatoes, a ripe avocado and buttered toast. Heaven.
Another unforgettable moment: the arrival of my beautiful cousin Katie Jane, with her parents Sarah and Steve, for an afternoon’s fun at the Olympic Cafe, trip to the bookshop, a walk down the Barnes High Street and Pond. Avery captured her perfectly.
It felt so funny, seeing childhood (in my cousin Steve, companion on countless family vacations when we were little), Sarah, his beautiful wife, and the future in little Katie Jane.
And this moment, yesterday afternoon with the wan winter sun coming through the living room windows. Napkins for our launch party! Because of course, we’re having one.
We admired them, last night, a brief relaxing image in the morass of decisions and work that is launch-planning. It will be on my 50th birthday, early next month. Watch this space.
For the books have landed at their UK port! They are safely on land, somewhere between Portsmouth and my house, to arrive “o/o/a” (cargo-speak for “on or around”) Thursday of this week. There was a momentary scare last week when I got a call saying, “Your EORI number is not activated.” I bet you didn’t even know I HAVE an EORI number. It’s a highly-coveted thing to possess, proving that I’m not a human trafficker, that my books are a legitimate import from China. After a flurry of emails, everything turned out all right. Another heart attack narrowly averted.
“If life were made of moments…” It’s important to remember them, because they all add up to Life.
We are ensconced in the most impersonal, red/black/grey/silver hotel room on earth, a breath away from JFK in preparation for our early-morning flight tomorrow, awaiting a Domino’s pizza delivery.
In short, nothing could be in starker contrast to our last two weeks’ holiday at Red Gate Farm. And yet it’s strangely relaxing to be in an environment where I can’t do anything to make the experience more…memorable. I just get to sit quietly and review the lovely, lovely time we had over our Christmas holiday.
We were so happy to pop round, the day after Christmas, to see Avery’s darling protegee Jessica, kitten of so many summers ago now, beloved cat daughter of our friends Mike and Lauren. Jessica always remembers Avery.
Mike remembered “just coming by to say hello, and meet a kitten, because Anne said you had one,” and he fell instantly in love. The rest is history, and now there are Mike, Lauren, their darling girl Abigail, and baby Gabriel, irresistible to me, of course.
We left them feeling, as always, that there is some magical star hovering over their lives, giving their family some incalculable lucky dip. What lovely, generous, happy people. I wish we had much more time to spend with them, and learn their secrets to happiness.
The next morning, without room to breathe, we hopped in our car, packed to the gills with everything I could bring from home for The Most Important Dinner Party Ever.
We were away to produce my first-ever paid dinner party, for our Kickstarter superstar-supporters Kathleen and her family. She’s only the mother of Avery’s first lifetime friend. No pressure there.
And there wasn’t. Any pressure, I mean, once I arrived and my nerves settled down. It was just our long, long friendship, and the fun of being together, and of looking at the cookbook that Kathleen and her family had helped be born.
I made Kathleen close her eyes one more time and we donned our aprons, for the first time. What a thrill! Very teary-making, I have to admit.
I cooked through the long, dusky afternoon and evening, and her family arrived and we sat down to eat. Creamy red pepper soup, roasted chicken with goat cheese under the skin, roasted salmon with Fox Point, roasted carrots, butternut squash and beets with plenty of olive oil, cannellini beans cooked with garlic, Parmesan and arugula, and finally chocolate mousse. An evening to remember.
I made a tiny speech, trying not to cry. For me, the evening encapsulated my teaching days when as a young professor, I met Kathleen, a beautiful and talented artist so close to my own age, so inspiring, and Avery’s childhood friendship with darling Cici, our experiences in the very space where we were having dinner, on September 11, 2001. Prompted by Kathleen’s speech, I thought back to our lives together on Jay Street in Tribeca, the Book Club I gave to the little kids in Avery’s childhood group, my gallery days, her shows with me. What a rich, beautiful history we have.
We ate, we chatted, we hugged and kissed. We drove away. How is it possible to have such relationships across an ocean that must be left behind? It’s this reality that makes our Christmas holidays “home” so very rich, and yet so hard to leave behind. How we can have the multiplicity of lives — London, New York City, Red Gate Farm — so full of people we love, each of which must be left behind in order to have the other.
Sigh. This is what I contemplate, sitting tucked up in my anonymous bed on the outskirts of JFK Airport.
Jill’s family arrived for one last brunch together: eggs brought by Joel from the hens he’s been looking after over the Christmas holiday! My hens clucked over them before they were scrambled.
We sat around the dining room table, discussing the girls’ various schools, our jobs, we signed the cookbook — yay! — we tucked into Jill’s “awesome blueberry muffins.” How incredible that after all the years of planning, the book is finished, and on page whatever, Jill’s muffins appear. It feels a bit exhausting even to write this down. In every interaction of our Christmas holiday, the cookbook loomed, happy, laden with memories, with pride, with disbelief.
We played “I’ll be your hands” games with darling Jane and Molly, giving fake high fives to each other, not wanting to admit it was time to say goodbye. There was a final measure. I find it terribly touching and a bit sad that there isn’t a single stretch of the measuring doorway that shows all three: Avery, Jane and Molly. Molly is too small.
We drove to the mall for a soul-destroying trip of “I don’t want to buy anything, all these people are awful” sort of emotion, and came home to our lighted, cosy house with two trees full of precious ornaments, and a pot of oyster stew, a plate of roasted ham. I ran across the road to deliver two of Avery’s outgrown sweaters to dear Kate. Oh, the fun of a few stolen moments at Anne and David’s house, unburdening myself about maternal anxiety. Their response is always, “We know this is coming for us… how quickly it all goes.” There is something about that family in the “house across the road” that is magically comforting, loving, encouraging and precious to me. I walked home across the vaguely foggy, Christmassy road, feeling unspeakably grateful.
That night, late, after Nonna had thought she was packed and had said goodnight, we, plus Avery, found ourselves in the Christmassy sitting room, candlelit and lovely, with Avery covering her face with a cushion, simply dreading the weeks to come and the news they will offer, and yet feeling excited about that news, too. The Christmas atmosphere helped, in a way. There is a lot to come, in the weeks and months ahead, the magnitude of which bears not thinking of.
We packed up the house. Each morning of this task,we awake in denial that this involves untold loads of laundry, unmaking, washing, drying and remaking three beds. Last showers and THAT laundry. Last meals, cleaning out the fridge, and THAT dishwasher load.
I left behind a clean, empty fridge, of course, with brilliant Anne and David carrying away turkey stock, chocolate mousse, potatoes, lemons and onions. “Can we have that for dessert?” little Kate asks, pointing in the twilight to the chocolate mousse. She and Taylor displayed their Christmas American Girl dolls, which brought back a lot of memories of Avery’s childhood, so recent and yet so seemingly remote.
Oh, the Red Gate Farm twilight. The last sunset.
So we sit, in our sterile and comforting hotel room, ready to fly home to London and whatever the New Year will bring. We have in our suitcase the one last “advance copy” of “Tonight at 7.30,” ready to show our friends who will be so thrilled to see it in the weeks before their own copies come. Most importantly, we have had a jolly, overwhelming, emotional, threads-tightening, family– and friends-packed Christmas that will give us something beautiful to think about in the grey, quiet weeks of winter to come. We are grateful.