Aren’t these food photographs lovely? They are the work of my friend Layla who has ambitions as a photographer, specifically of food, and the result of our collaboration the other evening. We had so much fun that we’re definitely up for another go, especially in natural light (although these days in London that gives us roughly 47 minutes with which to work).
Which brings me to the pressing topic of the day: I can scarcely believe that tomorrow is December 1. That means 18 more days of school for Avery, two more classes for me (yesterday’s class was just wonderful, more on that later), 20 days until we leave for Connecticut, and of course 25 until the day when all little girls must find the proper treats in their stockings and under the tree. I made a little dent in those responsibilities today, at Fortnum and Mason!
Now I’ve never been particularly devoted to Fortnum’s, not being a tea or coffee drinker or biscuit lover or whatever else would send my footsteps in that direction once…
And I’m not even the one sitting the exam! It’s all an enormous cultural divide for which I’m thoroughly unprepared. For one thing, where I come from you “take” an exam. Where Avery comes from “one sits” an exam. Luckily, she’s perfectly prepared. It’s I who needs a refresher course.
I sat down at my desk this morning knowing I had one more application to fill out for Avery’s exam schedule in January. The fifth choice among five, so I was not feeling particularly nervous, but nevertheless a deadline is a deadline, so I filled out the form. Until I got to the line, “Please indicate at which school your daughter will be sitting this exam.” Because you see, it would be too easy for the child just to turn up at each school for each exam. No, in the attempt to make things simpler (!) the North London Independent Girls’ Schools’ Consortium (got that?) divided all the schools into two groups, cleverly called Group 1 and Group 2, and the girls have to sit the exam for each group just once, and then all the schools in that group to which she’s applying look at those results. The schools all assure the parents that it makes NO DIFFERENCE where the child sits the exam, in terms of how the other schools where she didn’t sit it view her results. The fervor with which the schools express this makes me think perversely that a child has no chance of getting into a school if she didn’t sit the exam there.
Plus, of course, Avery’s applying to one school that doesn’t participate in either Group 1 or Group 2, so it has its OWN deadly exam. Anyway, there I was, filling the Undesirable School Form, and I suddenly couldn’t remember where I had said she would be sitting that exam. So up comes the phone and I call one of the other schools in the group that she’s applying to, to confirm that she’s sitting it there. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs Frederickson, but the paperwork for your daughter’s exam confirmation seems to have been lost in that postal strike in October. We have no record of her sitting the exam here.”
Major panic! But she could tell, because she kindly said, “Don’t panic, I will merely put another set of papers into the post this evening and you may turn them around as quickly as possible.” As kind as this was, however, it merely put me in a swivet of nerves about the state of her “paperwork” at the other schools. So I ended up spending the entire morning at my desk calling each school, stammering out my dumb question, getting people’s voice mail, leaving messages. Generally flummoxing myself! I feel certain that the administrators who took my calls have now ticked the box “loony incompetent mum” next to Avery’s name. Sorry, dear.
Other than school jitters, it has been quiet around here. Vague thoughts of Christmas shopping (surely I can’t give everyone only books, can I?), planning our return to Connecticut in just three weeks (can that be? where has this autumn gone?). Yesterday was greatly enlivened by the arrival of a belated (another casualty of the postal strike?) birthday present from Jill and Joel and Jane, quite the most elaborate and delightful pencil case known to man. Do you have a little pony-mad girl for whom you need a gift sure to please? Try luvponies, with the nicest staff you’ll ever speak to (if the present gets lost in the post), tons of choices and generally the magic language that I don’t speak but my horse-crazy daughter does.
Thanks, guys, for lifting the spirits of your niece who suffered mightily over not getting chosen to sing the solo of “Once in Royal David’s City” (warning! this link plays delightful music, so don’t click it at 3 a.m. with your sleeping baby next to you) at the Christmas carol concert next month. She was in terrible spirits at school pickup, and heaved a huge sigh over having to do her homework, so when I saw her slumped over my desk with horrible maths problems, it was but the work of a moment to present the exciting package and watch her light up! Homework is much more pleasant when done with a pink pencil drawn all over with ponies, manes flying in some dream landscape. Totally turned her mood around! And the next thing we knew she was singing the wretched Christmas song all over again, her pique forgotten. Would that we adults could spring back from disappointment with such aplomb! It’s probably worth noting: keep a potentially mind-blowing gift aside for just such an occasion.
Monday night was enlivened by the arrival my new friend Layla with her camera, intent on taking some photographs of food, both ingredients and cooking action. She’s Dalia’s sister, my dramatic and lively friend of writing classes past and present. So Dalia came along as well at dinner time, bringing her gorgeous, sweet and very Irish husband Kevin (he could say absolutely anything in that accent and I would be at his feet, very impractical in daily life but a lot of fun as a dinner guest). Layla is possibly the most easygoing person I have ever met: she meets life head-on with enthusiasm and energy, but refuses to let any annoying details get her down. Bullies at her childhood boarding school? Couldn’t be bothered to notice them too much. “Years later they wanted to be friends, and I could see that nothing had changed! They were still the same people, so I just got on with it.”
Avery was intrigued by this approach to school drama, and listened with rapt attention to all Layla’s and Dalia’s tales. As well as being fun to have around, I have to confess that those two girls are the most beautiful creatures! Long, dark, dramatic hair, eyelashes a mile long, the polar opposite of my vaguely Scandinavian aspect, so it was a pleasure just to look at them. And did they eat? My goodness, they were my best customers ever. And I made a variation on an old lasagne recipe, which is worth putting down here, I think, as everyone really enjoyed it. It seems that you can cook the noodles ahead or not, without a tremendous difference. If you do cook them ahead, however, be sure to cook your tomato sauce down plenty so there’s not too much juice, since the cooked noodles won’t absorb as much liquid.
(served 6! but you’ll serve more)
12 sheets lasagne noodles
1 1/2 pounds traditional English sausage
3 tbsps olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
3 soup-size cans whole tomatoes
2 tbsps Italian seasoning
250 grams each: mascarpone, ricotta, grated cheddar
3 balls mozzarella, grated
1 cup grated parmesan
In a large skillet, stir fry the garlic and onion in the olive oil until soft. Add the sausage and cook thoroughly. Then, holding each can over the skillet, lift out the tomatoes in your hands and crush into the skillet. Add the juice. Add the seasoning and stir thoroughly and cook down. Meanwhile, spray a 9x13 glass dish with nonstick spray (a must!) and cover the bottom with noodles. Mix the mascarpone with the ricotta and cheddar. Spread about a third of the mixture over the noodles, and then spread over a third of the tomato sauce and half the parmesan and half the cheddar. Keep layering noodles and sauce and cheese, ending with noodles. Top with the rest of the grated cheddar and parmesan and bake for 45 minutes in a slow-ish oven, perhaps 350 degrees.
Well, it’s a typical grey English day and my kitchen is filled with the smells of turkey soup, from the enormous Thanksgiving bird. Such a twice-a-year aroma, don’t you think? Do you ever cook turkey not on Thanksgiving or Christmas? Neither do I. It will make a perfect first course tonight at dinner. Then perhaps to watch an episode of latest English television obsession? A Bit of Fry and Laurie is side-splitting in a completely British way, and such a funny look back at 20 years ago in British comedy, somewhere between Monty Python and… what? I suppose there isn’t an equivalent now, but we do adore QI and “Have I Got News For You.” Last week QI had the contestants trying to identify a photograph of an island. One answer was “The Island of Inevitable but Reluctant Homosexuality: a school trip gone horribly wrong,” which led Stephen Fry to quip, “‘Lord of the Undone Flies,’ was it?” I’m hoping these jokes are too subtle to get me in trouble with any child-safety monitors!
We’re off to this lunch with, doubtless, a much savvier mum than me. I plan to listen and learn. And then collapse with turkey soup and a pony pencil case.
Well, as much fun as we had on Thanksgiving (more on that later), my digestion is objecting. So it’s back to the alkaline/acid awareness diet for me. Consequently, I had an amazingly varied lot of foods in the bag on my shoulder walking back from the farmer’s market this morning. I succumbed happily to the products of a new farm in the place, Facing Heaven, who make innovative and delicious salsas and pestos. Jeremy Green, the proprietor, has a running patter of knowledgeable and seductive information that makes it impossible not to take advantage of the 4-for-a-tenner offer. I came away with a beetroot and black bean salsa, rich with olive oil and lime juice, and a spicy harissa that Jeremy advised cutting with yogurt (which I happily did, with buffalo yogurt from Alham Wood Cheeses, simply delicious), as well as a red pepper pesto and a proper basil pesto made, he assured me, from really special basil and an English parmesan (!) from Sussex. Who knew? These choices spread in a nice organic Italian bread, along with a goats cheese with herbs and chillies from Rowan Tree Goat Farm, and a lovely cucumber from Sunnyfields, made a very nice lunch indeed.
Anyway. The run-up to Thanksgiving this year included a bizarre celebrity sighting (a double bill!) at Apostrophe in Grosvenor Street with my pal Dalia and her adorable sister Layla. First sighted: one of the blonde twins who so disappointingly didn’t win “The Restaurant” with Raymond Blanc, and then, distressingly, David Gest! Strangely he looked more interested in us than we were in him, and certainly his cologne was off-putting and enough to make me even more nauseated than I already was by my not-decaf latte. I just can’t do caffeine.
Well, Thanksgiving itself was lovely. I had everything completely under control until… I didn’t. Partly my chaotic situation was due to the fact that the school Book Fair took place the very afternoon. Thanksgiving gets no respect here, so I wasn’t surprised at the double booking, and nothing could make me miss the Book Fair. I love helping the little sprouts choose books and doling out secret pounds and pence to supplement the parental limit (strictly forbidden, that, but too bad). I had lunch in the cafeteria at school with the librarian, Mrs Palmer, and Adam (who I made fast friends with last year) and Nicola, the two book elves from Daunt Books who provide the merchandise. They are just about my favorite commercial (ish) establishment in London, completely quirky, unpredictable and justifiably proud of their shop.
Perfect slice of Thanksgiving conversation with English people: “So Kristen, is there any particular story that is associated with the first Thanksgiving?” “Well, of course, there’s the story of Miles Standish, who loved Priscilla Mullins only he was too uncertain of himself to tell her so. So he enlisted the help of his friend John Alden, who unfortunately for Miles also loved Priscilla. Halfway through his proxy proposal, John came to his senses and spoke for himself, and of course it turned out Priscilla loved him too, so John won the day,” I explained. Mrs Palmer laughed slightly and said, “What a typical American story.” “Why? What would an Englishman have done?” I asked in amusement. Adam said promptly, “He would have hemmed and hawed and walked away leaving the woman he loved for someone else. The sort of commitment and energy that made this country great.” We all laughed, but I did think it a funny commentary on the English perception of Americans: just barge in, cheat and come away with the prize. Unfortunate, but probably not so far off the mark as we’d like to think. Then there are those of us who are perfectly proud of that sort of reputation!
I also learned something, that afternoon, about the British spirit of friendship. Last year, my first with the Book Fair, Mrs Palmer and Adam were very nice to me. Very appreciative that I was there to take money, give advice, field multiplication queries from girls, etc. They were very polite, and said thank you, and I had a lovely time and came away very happy that I’d been there and that they were so pleasant and made me feel at home. However. Afternoon Number Two together had a very different feel. Adam actually said, “Can I be completely indiscreet and say how much nicer it is this year without that witchy English teacher?” I love it! That teacher was a beast to Avery, so I told him so. And Mrs Palmer was lovely and let me hide behind the desk when the one mother I cannot abide came in and clearly wanted to chat.
By the end of the afternoon, after we had dealt with all 200 girls and their needs, and I was ready to go, both Mrs Palmer and Adam said the very same thank you they’d said last year, but then they each added, “Really. Thank you.” And I recognised that there is a First Encounter British level of politeness and courtesy, and it can look to an outsider who wants to fit in as a gesture of friendship. But the Second Encounter is a different thing altogether. It’s as if by being there a second time, you’ve established yourself as a real person, like ordering chicken feet in a Chinese restaurant. It’s the beginning of a real friendship, not just perfect politeness. Like the French moving from “vous” to “tu,” only that takes even longer. It’s only Americans, I think, who have no such boundary, no line to cross before you are treated differently. I still have to process how I feel about it all. But mostly, at the Book Fair, I was flattered beyond belief.
Book Fair chaos over, I took up the four girls in my charge: Avery, Anna, Ellie and Sophia, and grabbed a taxi for home. They made a stab at setting up the pony jumps in the garden and playing for a bit, but this served only to make the sun set even faster than it normally does, and mostly what they accomplished was to track an enormous trail of muddy leaves through my bedroom and up the stairs. Then they did their homework while I supplied them with popcorn. “And apples!” Anna chortled. “That’s what we had on our very first playdate, and now it’s a tradition!” A fine one. Still, things seemed under control. I strained the turkey cooking juices and made a gorgeous gravy. I boiled the potatoes, set the table, counted out lovely linen napkins, moved the kitchen table to the living room for the children, began sauteeing the brussels sprouts in sesame oil with pine nuts and soy sauce. No problem. At 5 o’clock I panicked that there wasn’t enough food and sent John out for a nice gammon joint which was actually lovely and a nice addition to the turkey. But not enough food? Ha!
I even had poured a glass of wine and brushed my hair! Set the carrots to simmering in butter and brown sugar. Well done! Then, the doorbell rang and life was never the same. Becky had brought, bless her, at least as many dishes as I had going myself! And all everyone’s favorite things! Sweet potatoes with marshmallows, sweet potatoes with a crunchy pecan crust. Cheesey grated potatoes. A chocolate pie, a chess pie. And the most glorious cheese straws, just for me because I have no sweet tooth. The doorbell continued to ring as we searched frantically for horizontal real estate. Finding none, we started shoving things under tables and between bottles, just to get some space! Then we needed room for both our families’ cherished dressing recipes. And it was time to mash the potatoes! Drinks, anyone? The doorbell rang again. Our friend Laurie and his wife Linda, with gorgeous flowers and Armagnac. Our friend Andrew and his wife Laura who is a high-up at Burberry, bearing Burberry gifts! My friend Susan, Sophia’s mum, with wine, and gorgeous pumpkin pies requiring yet more flat surfaces. sob. John’s friend Stephanie who provided a refreshing single-person air of relaxation: no cooking, no children, no worries about “school nights,” etc.
But finally I just threw caution to the winds and insisted we all eat, if only to empty out the kitchen of all its lovely people. To sit happily for a couple of hours at the long dining room table with candles and the darling paper autumn leaves my mother in law sent me (all right, she sent them to Avery, but I appropriated them for my table). And just to eat and enjoy conversation! Andrew is an amazing raconteur, clever, witty, and Laura clearly grooves to her role as straight man, as well as source of a lot of appreciative laughter. Laurie and Linda, as the only English guests, seemed to get into the spirit of Competitive Eating,” and we all had to be rolled away from the table. The evening was late, but Avery tumbled into bed in time to get a decent-ish sleep for Friday practice exams at school. I made a resolution: the next big party I need someone to help me in the kitchen just to stay a step ahead of, or at least in step with, the constant flow of dirty dishes and cutlery. I just don’t have enough supplies to give everyone a fresh plate and fork, etc., for 15 people. Just don’t. So next year I’m picturing some happy kitchen elf. I’m taking all offers under advisement! Unlimited turkey of course.
As it was, it took me until this morning, Sunday, to have the kitchen fully back to normal and the dining room table all cleared again. Sigh! It’s the one holiday, too, that makes me homesick, because what you’re accustomed to on Thanksgiving is family, LOTS of family. What the day is here is basically a really nice dinner party, albeit with traditional foods, and also with a little thread of resentment that your child’s been in school all day and will have to go the next day too. But it was great to introduce new people to each other, and nobody got hurt. And to have had a second year with true friends, as well, is completely lovely.
Time to collect Avery at the barn this grey Sunday late afternoon. I’ll leave you with the simplest hors d’oeuvre idea in the world, and you will be popular beyond your wildest dreams with your guests. And when you drop the extra two pounds of them off with your school secretary the next morning, complete with a note that says, “For the staff,” you’ll make a whole other group of people very happy. Happy Thanksgiving!
Mixed Nuts with Rosemary and Brown Sugar
(serves a LOT)
1 kilo mixed roasted salted nuts (cashews a MUST)
a stick (or half a cup) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped very fine, or 1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
dash cayenne pepper, to taste
Melt the butter in a heavy large saucepan and add brown sugar. Stir until the brown sugar melts, but don’t expect it to emulsify with the butter, because it won’t. You’ll have a nice sludge of melted sugar in the center surrounded by a butter slick, like a sunken oil tanker of the finest variety.
Add the nuts and stir thoroughly, then sprinkle with the rosemary and cayenne and stir thoroughly again. Remove from heat and let sit for awhile to cool off. Just before serving, toss thoroughly again because some sugar will stick to the bottom. These can be kept in a ziplock bag for a few days, but my advice is: indulge the temptation only once! Then be a good girl and give them away.
Well, after a lovely cosy evening with the girls tucked up with hot water bottles, a chill air without and Calvados and Rebecca within, we all slept like babes and woke to a gorgeous, blue-sky day (at first, although later the winds swept up some clouds). I awoke to find all children and John off on a walk, so I followed suit and took the camera. Through the lovely old town of Stogursey (“Stoke de Courcy”, the church notes informed me, some old family of de Courcy having founded the village in 14-something). A changeable, typically English sky of grey, blinking blue, scudding clouds, this moment a terribly threatening black bank against the house, the next a cloudless expanse, promising a perfect day.
Home and I had no sooner brewed a cup of tea than the kitchen was overrun by a band of starving girls, even though they’d already had a first breakfast of waffles and maple syrup. By the next half hour they had all consumed their weight on fried eggs, toasted bagels, cream cheese, goats cheese, smoked trout, smoked salmon and strawberries. It must have been SOME early walk.
After that we were hot on the trail of the Holy Birthday Grail: Exmoor Ponies. Now if life has taught me anything, it has been to over-prepare. So I had researched the Exmoor Pony Centre, the rescue arm of these wild species, running about on the moors. This way, even if we ended up not tracking (I didn’t say “stalking”) ponies in the open, at least we’d see them in semi-captivity. And after some interesting adventures with the SatNav we’ve christened Davina (“wait, Davina, we can’t ALWAYS be one mile away from our destination!”) we arrived. A lovely young employee, far too shy to be questioned as to her name, showed us around and most importantly introduced us to the ponies themselves, having been laboriously gathered off the moor after their birth last summer. Unbelievably fluffy, cosy and curly, they stood eating their hay interminably while she described their living conditions. I could see that, as cold, damp and lonely as this girl appeared, any of our three children would have traded their lives for hers in an instant.
From there we repaired to the moor itself where we tried, unsuccessfully, to find some ponies in the wild, just on their own. I had found a message online earnestly asking people to stop leaving treats on a certain spot, as it was becoming a target for “overly aggressive ponies,” and had sheepishly earmarked this spot as our destination (really, the carrots in John’s pocket were for… us!). No go. As it transpired, the carrots WERE for us, as we saw nary a pony in the long windy walk we undertook. But it was LOVELY, the scrubby underbrush studded with yellow flowers and the occasional clearing where it was obvious a pony or two had cleared the grass. Darn. No ponies.
We stopped off in the really cute town of Dulverton for a lunch at the Courtyard Cafe, and then the girls were off to the local needlework shop to find a project to keep them occupied should the next day prove rainy (it was). I visited the local butcher for mince for spaghetti and meatballs, and then we were off home again, to read, play cards, and most importantly write in the Landmark Trust Logbook, where so many stories, true and tall, are written by all guests about every property they own. I confess to having produced some extremely unlikely tales in logs I have written (a secret passage under the Pineapple House in Scotland? don’t think so), so I was completely empathetic with the girls’ energetic project to produce “the best log entry ever.” Drawings of Fred and Ginger, of ponies, and a certain account of a passageway under the moat ensued. Everyone happy.
Sunday they did their homework like good girls and worked on their needlepoint, albeit creating rather more, shall we say, liberal? versions of the kits they had bought than the makers intended. “I have SO MUCH respect for Indiana Nona now!” Avery said, her room boasting a sampler made by my mother. Me too! The rain came and went, and at one point we took a walk to what turned out to be the largest known mud stream and they JUMPED. As you can imagine, they have never been muddier. Awash with mud, straight into their boots and all through their jeans. The perfect relaxation for hard-working ten and eleven year olds. Now and then the girls repaired to the castle keep to run pony games, feed the geese, whatever else took their fancy. Leftover macaroni and cheese for lunch, horrid packing, and then it was, sadly, time to take our leave of the glorious place.
Well, since then it’s been laundry, laundry, laundry.
And Thanksgiving prep! Lest it be feared that we expatriots have forgotten our roots, I must assure that I spent my entire late afternoon shredding brussels sprouts, peeling and slicing carrots, simmering mushrooms, garlic, fresh sage, onions and celery for stuffing. And cranberry sauce! And John tore out the insides of countless loaves of Italian bread for the stuffing. Tomorrow is the day. Gobble, gobble, everyone. We miss you terribly.
Well, the week before Avery’s birthday adventure was completely mad. We had no sooner seen off John’s sister Cathy than it was onto one of the busiest weeks I’ve ever had. Did I accomplish anything? Not really, but all my friendships are intact, not to mention my sampling nearly every place to get coffee or lunch within a mile of my house. Coffee with Dalia before writing class (she couldn’t even make class but drove across town for coffee together, a true friend), coffee and intense life conversation at the Royal Institute of British Architects across from school (an unexpectedly nice place to go on a frosty morning, with a superb bookshop) with Becky, then lunch at The Natural Kitchen with Susan (a few complaints: they simply cannot get their wait staff in line, neither of the two specials was actually available, but the orange cake alone was worth a visit), then early-morning tea with my dear friend Lara. It’s hard to believe that we have met only a couple of times, having encountered each other’s blogs last year. Somehow our friendship has blossomed in emails so that the few times we actually see each other, we feel as if a tremendous amount has been said. A lovely time, at Pain Quotidien in the high street, always a safe bet in the morning.
Finally, whew, lunch at Bibendum Oyster Bar with a new friend called Gigi, a lively New Yorker who left a comment on my blog saying that she too was a former professor living in London with a little daughter! It seemed fated for us to meet. A hilarious lunch with a lot of shared reminiscence of academic life: I forced her to explain her special subject of Platonic philosophy, just to dust off that dissertation, but she also regaled me with stories of her days writing copy for the JCrew catalogue (a natural choice of career when one is in possession of a PhD from Stanford). “I don’t know if he was ever aware of the subtext of what he was telling us to write,” she said, laughing about the founder, “but seriously: underwear in ‘stretchy cotton for when the action gets fast and furious?’ Did he really think that would sound like he was writing about… rowing action?” Lunch was delicious. I always forget between visits how much I love Bibendum. Superb seared tuna with a honey dressing and radishes. Lovely, and so nice to make a new friend.
Wednesday night, then, saw Avery and me with all of her Form Six at the Royal Albert Hall for an incredible evening of “Music for Youth.” Five thousand people squished into the Hall, most of them family members of the schoolchildren who gave the concert. Perhaps 20 orchestras, bands, chamber groups and other assorted musicians, from all over Great Britain, performing their hearts out. So inspiring, and to think it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as childish talent goes. Everything from classical strings to soul, to jazz and steel drums and acapalla singing. What an event to chaperone! It was a total pleasure to see the girls all in their “own clothes,” hair down, relaxed, as opposed to the level of stress and anxiety they’ve been living under with all this crazy exam prep. Definitely book your tickets for one of the three nights of MFY next year. At the end of the performance I had my first experience of “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Land of Hope and Glory” in the great British tradition: complete with the rather imperialistic text and everyone waving British flags. A bit of a culture shock to see my child singing at the top of her lungs; she certainly does not know the American national anthem! But this tune, yes. “God Save the Queen,” no problem.
Thursday we all rose, I know not how, to attend the Michaelmas Fair at school. Absolute pandemonium on all floors in both buildings: screaming children of every size and shape, the Toy Tombola, the Santa’s Grotto (“Santa is somebody’s grandfather,” Becky hissed to me, “and since we don’t really know him, there are two mothers just hanging out with him”), the Cake Room (Avery was in charge of teaching the little tiny children to decorate something or other), the Lucky Dip, you name it. Finally we repaired to the Assembly Hall, flung open the windows to get some much-needed fresh air, and underwent the Raffle. Mrs D absolutely bellowed the ticket numbers and prizes: “A Day With Mrs M’s Chauffeur For Christmas Shopping, Ticket 527…” I won a hideous handbag and happily swapped it with Analee’s mother for a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Whew. Home exhausted!
Finally we were at Friday, the long-awaited birthday trip day. I spent the morning making macaroni and cheese and a lemon birthday cake (the cake was not memorable, but it served the purpose). I organised little White Company party bags with tiny silver picture frames, sparklers (these were, mothers note, a HUGE hit for very little expense), a biscuit and apple juice, and a little clutch of white tulips, and it was up to school to pick them up in the rental car John got, a Mini Cooper not being quite up to the task of transporting three girls with all their STUFF.
There was a positive fever pitch of excitement. Jamie, Anna and Avery settled down in the backseat for the long drive, and we soon realised it would have been very wise to bring a book on tape. As it was, conversation soon dwindled to be replaced by an energetic rendition of EVERY SONG they know. And they know a lot of songs. At one point Jamie asked, “Does anyone else smell… cheese?” I toyed with the idea of just letting her think she was having some sort of olfactory hallucination, but I gave in and said, “There’s an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese sitting here at my feet.” For some reason Jamie’s question struck the other girls as completely hilarious and they spent a lot of the rest of the journey asking at intervals, “Does anyone smell… cheese?”
Really quite sweet, but we were all relieved when the three-hour-ish drive was over and we arrived in the dark in Stogursey, a tiny village near Bridgwater in Somerset. Since it was pitch dark we had no idea how to approach the castle where we were staying, and even the directions of the lovely housekeeper who gave us the keys weren’t much help. We inched along in the dark, and came to a body of water. “It’s the MOAT!” the girls shrieked, and John said, “I don’t know, is this it?” We stopped beside an ancient, square stone building with, as far as I could see, no windows. A bit taken aback, I demurred, “Ooh, I don’t think so,” then John said, “I think I have to brave this water and just cross over to that road,” which elicited another shriek, “We’re going to drown in the moat!” Another few feet, across the water (which turned out in daylight to be a very shallow stream), and suddenly ahead of us was a blaze of light: the guardhouse of the castle, our destination!
There was an actual working moat! And two enormous white birds appeared from the darkness. “We have swans!” John yelled. “Uh, John, those are geese,” the knowledgeable Anna corrected him. Sure enough, the castle geese. The girls promptly named them Fred and Ginger and were devoted to them for the duration of our stay.
We dragged our bags in and the girls opened every door, exclaiming in total delight over their cosy medieval bedroom, the enormous fireplace, the cross-shaped battlement windows. We tucked into the macaroni and cheese and red peppers, and then the birthday cake. This photograph isn’t even a good one, but I couldn’t resist because of the utter happiness of their expressions. It’s a cliche, but I did think: life is hard at times for everyone, and filled with pressure and challenges and disappointments and fear, and to be able to give three little girls such an experience of togetherness, adventure and fun was a very satisfying thing.
More on Somerset soon. I must buckle down now, though, to an enormous grocery shop. This lovely country may not observe Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean that twelve people aren’t coming to my house on Thursday for turkey. So I have my work cut out.
Much more tomorrow (or the next day, as something reminds me that I promised a friend to help her cater some enormous political event tomorrow?!). Since I wrote last I’ve had countless teas, coffees and lunches with blogworthy friends, we’ve been to an amazing concert at Royal Albert Hall, survived Michaelmas Fair, and of course…
We have had a fabulous birthday celebration weekend for Avery in Somerset (10th century castle ruins as our venue! guarded over by a 14th century house that we actually stayed in, guarding my first real… MOAT). The girls came, they unpacked with abandon, they saw Exmoor ponies as you see, and they jumped in sloshy mud to the extent that their boots had to be… poured out, upside down. I have never seen such mud.
I must collapse. We dropped off one girl, then Avery and me, I rushed to bake chicken, steam broccoli, soak some beets in balsamic vinegar, mash potatoes, and DINNER once Avery was scraped clean-ish in her bath. Now we’re all wilting. But what a weekend. I wish we could keep Anna and Jamie, her intrepid girlfriends, forever.
I do know now where the poppy reference comes from, thanks to you at this website, but I still do not know why we observe the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Can someone help? Is it the origins of the phrase “the eleventh hour,” as in, “the last possible hour one could have done something to help?” I think it must be.
What I know is that I buy a poppy, and always have done since living in England during our first sojourn here or during this, and I wear it, thinking that I never had a relative who sacrificed a life during a war, not for cowardice (far from it, I’m sure, thinking of some of my brave and hotheaded young ancestors!) but for birth dates and education and disability… but I do always think of it. Thank you. Not just for the British, but for the Americans and everyone else. Thank you, however complicated things after YOU things may become.
Just one of the wonderful questions our guide yesterday at the Globe Theatre tells us gets asked during his tours! Let’s see, what else? “Who painted the sky?” Reminds me of the American tourist at Windsor Castle who, watching yet another airplane cross the sky, asked a guide “why the Queen built the castle so close to Heathrow?” Dear me. One worries a bit.
It’s shameful that we’ve lived her for close to two years and it took an out-of-town visitor to get us to the Globe. But that’s often the way, isn’t it? I never visited Ellis Island until my parents came to visit, nor the Empire State Building or other New York attractions. Thank goodness for John’s sister Cathy who arrived yesterday for a quixotic, whirlwind 24-hour stay to gain, what else, frequent flyer miles! And to see her family, of course.
The evening before, I confess, I felt a bit down, not to say bored with what I had been up to all week, namely laundry, cooking, organising the house including dismantling piles of books from all the place and shoving them into bookshelves, getting a royal soaking on Thursday on the way to Avery’s riding lesson, watching her skate, the usual. Dull! Repetitive! Really boring. Finally, Friday saw a celebratory birthday lunch with my dear friend Becky and a couple of her friends (among them Kristin from the fabulous Maze birthday lunch!), which helped my mood tremendously. What would one do without girlfriends? Just to have people to talk to about children, husbands, travel, future plans, to bounce ideas off and learn from. We had a wonderful time, at L’Entrecote in Marylebone Lane. It’s such a funny restaurant (Becky’s all-time favorite): there is no choice on the menu, unless you include how well-cooked your steak is. It’s green salad with walnuts, rump steak, with a “secret sauce” (a bit of a curried mustardy vinaigrett?), and French fries. That’s it! Plus adorable little French waitresses in sort of French-farce black dresses with white ruffly aprons. Like lunch with girlfriends, the place is comfort itself. And they let us sit over the bill and chat, even though the place was quite full. Happy Birthday, Becky.
Somehow, then, I got down again between lunch and school pickup, a mood not noticeably enhanced by the whingey, moaning, overwhelmed lump of humanity that is my child by Friday afternoon. Nothing suits her! Hungry, cold, tired, and tired of being asked, “Where is your…” The evening before she had managed to misplace no fewer than the following items: eyeglasses, violin, winter coat. Grrr! In the mood she was in, nothing is good news. Even a skating lesson with her beloved friend Jamie is but a brief chink of blue in the cloudy sky of her existence. Rats.
But by Saturday morning, and John’s sister’s arrival, I was ready for a change of pace, big time. And far from being jetlagged and unenergetic, Cathy was raring to go. We bundled up and jumped in the Mini and top-down (November wind notwithstanding) we were off to the Globe.
First we needed lunch, and I was glad I had done a bit of research on where to go. There’s only one real choice: The Swan at the Globe, and it was lovely, lovely, lovely! Before it makes you as crazy as it made me, the music playing on their website is “Comptine d’un autre ete,” from the soundtrack of Amelie. How’s this for customer service: I was driven so crazy by this music that I emailed the restaurant, and someone amazing called Joanne in management actually replied and sent a file of the song. How crazy helpful is that? But I digress.
The food was so simple, and so good, that I want to go back and have more things immediately. Cathy is a strict vegetarian and we were very pleased to see that among the starters there was a vegetarian butternut squash soup, and a beetroot, cured salmon and fennel salad. But in the end she succumbed to goat’s cheese Wellington with fig puree, and loved it. I had duck terrine (with a glorious vein of pure foie gras running through it), and John, being a bigger boy, had a main course of halibut steak with a caper mousseline and one of those clever latticed stacks of chips so popular these days. Avery ordered a “young diners” portion (so respectful, that phrase!) of macaroni cheese and not only was it delicate, perfectly flavored and nicely browned, but HUGE! We all tucked in. All in all, a good enough reason to cross the river even if you’re not interested in Shakespeare. But we were.
The museum exhibition is very absorbing and could easily have provided food for though for over the amount of time we had before the tour, so allow at least 45 minutes. And our tour guide! Totally crush-worthy, was David. So many funny stories, gestures of his elegant actor’s hands (must be, we decided), evocative English schoolboy floppy hair and an immaculate trenchcoat, he owned the Globe with his stories and energy. We were all immediately inspired to see a play there, although the season is regrettably short (due to its open roof, hence the joke about “who painted the sky”), running only from May-October, and since our summers aren’t spent in London, we’re a bit limited. But it would be sublime. I think it’s a miracle that an American actor was motivated to reconstruct it, that the architects were wise enough to leave it simple, and beautifully pared-down.
From the Globe, John peeled off to take Avery to acting (newly motivated, of course!) and Cathy and I hit the underground for a visit to Charing Cross Road, since she’s a bibliophile after my own heart. Sadly, however, the extraordinarily crummy exchange rate was a deterrent although she did succumb to a nice volume of Joseph Conrad.
After a brief rest, we were off to dinner at one of our old, old favorite stomping grounds from our newlywed days in the early 90s, Star of India in South Kensington. Family-owned since 1954, it was wonderful 40 years later, but is even more wonderful now having been recently refurbished in a minimalist style (but retaining the beloved frescoed ceiling, thank you!) and the food has gone from family-homey to light and sophisticated. The saag paneer I always doted on is still pleasing, although Avery missed the old chunks of cheese (now floating tendrils), and I did miss comfortable chana masala, my favorite chickpea dish, but perhaps it’s not cool anymore. But the green-curry chicken dish (I cannot remember its name! but yogurty and with a slight kick) was divine, and Cathy had an aubergine dish that I did not sample, but which John said was good. I just dived in with my usual bossy nature in a restaurant where we’re sharing, and ordered lots of different things, and we were completely happy. Excellent cucumber raitha, really first-rate, and the best poppadums in London, I’m sure.
We had such a happy, comfortable time. Cathy is one of those people whose quality of listening makes you feel much more interesting than you know you are: she is completely focused on what you’re saying, completely sincere, and asks thought-provoking, concentrated questions, all overlaid with a bubbling laugh and warmth that makes her the perfect sister-in-law, and aunt. She treats Avery in that way that you’d think comes naturally to people but doesn’t that often: like a real person whose opinions are to be taken seriously. Not in an affected or precious way, but with genuine interest and respect. And she stayed awake through dinner! No jet lag gets in the way of her wholehearted appreciation of life.
This morning, sadly, she was off early to the airport. And our ordinary lives, infused briefly with energy and new things, settled back down to… normal. Safe travels, Cathy.
Ask a child what she wants to do for her birthday and you may well be surprised by the answer. Zoo? A big party with a gooey cake? No, my child wanted to go to York to visit the Viking archaeological dig. Hmm. So we did.
It’s a lovely historic town with somewhat less than its fair share of chains, meaning it’s retained more of its particular character than I would have expected, given its prominence as a tourist destination. I’m always thrilled at a paucity of Starbucks, so to find fewer of other seemingly universal stores as well (Monsoon, River Island, all the givens of a British high street) was a relief. Really beautiful old streets, the River Ouse a glorious sunspeckled shining ribbon, and raising a sort of protective paternal spire over all, the completely gorgeous York Minster Cathedral.
The train ride was just lovely, through the flattest countryside I have ever seen in England (since my experiences have typically taken me to hilly Devon, the Cotswolds and such), one picture-postcard farmhouse after another, on a day shot through with both sunshine and golden cloud. We played “Go Fish,” Avery taught Anna to play Solitaire, and I read a completely junk-food but entertaining book called “Me and Mr Darcy,” in which a New York bookshop-manager’s love life on a Jane Austen tour mimics Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship with Mr Darcy, but of course only the reader can see it until the end. I amused myself in a completely obnoxious way by flagging all the little instances where the narrator’s voice (meant to be American) gives herself away as reflecting her English author, Alexandra Potter. Only in the UK is it “the” menopause, with hot “flushes” instead of “flashes.” But you’ll love it. Clever, a really fast and charming read.
First stop was, believe it or not, Pizza Hut, for the worst lunch ever (the girls were in heaven) and then off to the Jorvik Centre, where a discovery of a Viking town underground from 966 has been made into a truly… disgusting display! Why on earth was this my daughter’s choice of a birthday treat? You and your fellow tourists are bundled into a room and sat down in front of a video display that, accompanied by lots of bench-shaking from where you sit, shows the way clothing changed from 966 to the present day, backwards. Does that make any sense at all? Then just as you’re feeling rather nauseated and dizzy, you’re herded into plastic cable cars, a bit like ski lifts only they move horizontally instead of up, and driven through a reconstructed town from the 10th century. Peopled by creepy bulky figures who occasionally raised a hand holding a tool or piece of crockery.
There were stuffed dead animals biting each other, simply gruesome and not at all child-friendly scenes of Taxidermy Mayhem: dogs ripping each other’s bloody feet off and other dogs with bared teeth about to capture a terrified cat. What about this edifies one as to life in the 10th century? I could not say. And, I am not making this up, it’s complete with SMELLS. All bad. First there’s the fishmonger, then the hide-tanner, then the metalworker, then, believe it or not, an outhouse complete with a current customer, and I will not, in the interests of delicacy, describe for you here the sound effects. Suffice to say, there ARE sound effects. Just awful.
There was one fascinating bit where the excavators had simply left the wall they found intact, and another complete skeleton left in the ground. Those bits made me wish the archaeologists (or more like the money-hungry attraction creators who came after them) had just excavated everything, covered it with plexiglas, and let visitors walk around in clean-aired silence. I know I can be a curmudgeon about what I feel are overly interfered-with artefacts from centuries gone by, and I nearly always feel that less, in this situations, is more. But in the case of Jorvik, I think I might advise that you skip the Time Machine and move directly, if the powers that be will let you, to the rooms of artefacts themselves which are really stunning in their simplicity.
The sight of tiny, perfectly preserved coins and jewelry is very affecting, and even the World’s Largest Preserved Piece of Poo didn’t bother me terribly, as it didn’t get up and dance, or give off little puffs of steam to imply smell, as the old London pavement signs used to: “Do Not Foul the Footpath,” complete with a picture of a really naughty-looking dog and a pile of feces with little wavy lines floating upwards. What ever happened to all those signs? They were here in 1992, but they seem to have disappeared. I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations is up, so I’ll tell you: my sister stole one in the dark of night to take back to America with her, she was that taken with them. But I digress.
The girls were completely thrilled with the gift shop, coming away with feather quills and bottles of ink and a set of playing cards with scenes of York on them. Off we went along the river to the Cathedral itself, and the bells were pealing the three-quarters hour when we got there, just stunning. The stained glass just as glorious as you’ve ever read about, and the decorated ceiling made accessible by a stand with a mirror on it, so you can, dizzyingly, look into the mirror and be transported hundreds of feet in the air. A man on an old upright piano outside the cathedral was playing various showtunes, ragtime, Christmas carols, you name it, and we had another lovely foray into the quasi-Cathedral gift shop across the way and bought Christmas ornaments and music. But I think the highlight of our little-girl shopping afternoon was a two-way tie: John Bull Confectioners (since 1911), and Stonegate Teddy Bears. The former is a truly charming old-fashioned candy and biscuit shop, where I bought what turned out to be the best Yorkshire biscuits I have ever had: not too sweet, crunchy, full-flavoured.
And the girls bought something called Yorkshire Rock, which solved a mystery for me. John recommended a book for me that’s turned out to be completely addictive bedtime reading. It’s Eating for England, by everyone’s favourite Nigel Slater, and is nothing more or less than a sequence of musing little paragraphs about typical, iconic, sometimes disappearing traditional English foods. And the cover shows piles of long hard candy with all different phrases on the bottoms, including in the centre, one saying “Eating for England.” It turns out, with a little assiduous googling, that one can order “rock” to say anything one would like! The mind boggles, doesn’t it?
Well, let’s see, has anything else interesting been going on besides a visit to York? Well, we came home to have Anna sleep over, and then in the morning it was, as you see, onto enjoying Avery’s birthday present from us: mini-jumps for the garden! They were dressed to go to the stable anyway, and it was a beautiful blue-sky day, so they jumped to their hearts’ content. Tacy consented to be taken over the jumps precisely ONCE, after which we were all throughly scratched and spat on and she disappeared with tail held high. And as I predicted, it was the passage of but a few hours before the poles were in the hands of our little neighbor boys and being used as swords. As far as I can see, anything longer than it is wide is, far from Sigmund Freud’s analysis, a sword.
Oh, I’ve been reading a lot, and it occurred to me that the season of frantic gift-giving is approaching, so I thought I’d give you a couple of very English recommendations. Remember “Two Fat Ladies”, the wonderful cooking programme that sort of ushered in all other wonderful (and not so) cooking programmes? Well, the surviving fat lady Clarissa Dickson Wright (and who knew the title comes from a bingo call indicating 88? I didn’t) has written her memoirs, and while it isn’t particularly felicitous in its writing style, the sheer fascination of her life makes it a worthwhile read. It’s called “Spilling the Beans,” and anyone who’s interested in British life over the last half-century or so will find something of interest, especially the history of British food production, and thorny issues of hunting and coursing. And surviving a childhood of abuse and an adulthood of alcoholism, if it comes to that (not so Christmas-cheery, that bit, but still fascinating).
Or how about the new biography of Agatha Christie? Agatha Christie, An English Mystery, by Laura Thompson, is a painstakingly researched and really beautifully written portrait of the author, with lots of attention to her famous disappearance. My only beef is (as a former historian myself) the author’s insistence on a one-to-one relationship between Christie’s life and the events in her novels. I’ve always been a little wary of that tendency among biographers or even tangential analysts (as I was of artists) of creative people. It always seemed to me a bit dangerous to imagine that the only fodder an artist of any kind had for creativity was his or her own life. But I quibble, it’s a really well-written and engaging book.
Then there’s the sublimely clever “new” Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, “A Presumption of Death,” written by Jill Paton Walsh from ideas left after death by his original creator, Dorothy L. Sayers. As you know, I am interested in (all right, obsessed with) Lord Peter and his portrayer Edward Petherbridge, so I was thrilled to get my hands on this World War II village mystery. How can a fresh new corpse in an outhouse also be someone who died weeks before in a far-off sea?
Anyone in the mood for cooking a really light dish that involves a fair amount of fiddling? This is the sort of recipe I invent when I’m in the mood for putting in a good book on tape (this time The Thanksgiving Day Murder by Lee Harris) and doing a lot of prep. I know this is an odd mood to get into, but I do. Avery and John both wanted more… sauce, or binding of some kind, but number one, I disagreed on lightness principles, and number two, it was so beautiful to look at it, just as it was. Give it a try and see what you think. The recipe involves several steps of cooking and setting aside, and at any of these stages you can help with homework, do laundry, blog, rinse a little girl’s hair, etc.
And you could actually do it all ahead of time, save boiling the spaghetti, and then assemble it in your large skillet just before serving, so it would be nice doubled for a small dinner party of people on diets? Just thinking.
Spaghetti with Chicken, Red Peppers and Asparagus with a Goats Cheese and Fried Sage Garnish
2 tbsps butter
20 sage leaves
4 chicken breast fillets, skinless and well trimmed
2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
1 bunch asparagus, cut into tips and same-size stalk bites
1/2 white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 small log goats cheese
1/2 pound spaghetti
1 cup fresh grated pecorino or parmesan
Now then. In a large heavy skillet, melt the butter and then arrange the sage leaves in as close to a single layer as you can manage. Fry over medium heat, watching fairly carefully that they don’t scorch, until they’re crispy, a few minutes. Remove carefully and place on paper towels. Now place the chicken breasts in the same skillet and saute, turning frequently. When they are NEARLY cooked through (still a bit of pink visible in the center, which is visible even without cutting into it), deglaze the skillet with the white wine and chicken stock and lemon juice, and bubble down a bit. Don’t let the chicken get tough, and remember the breasts will continue to cook slightly when you take them off the heat. Remove them to a carving platter with a groove around the edge to catch the juice and set aside, leaving the sauce in the skillet.
Put your pasta water on, and when it’s boiling, dump in your spaghetti. Then, in a fresh skillet, add the olive oil and stir fry the garlic, red peppers and asparagus. Sprinkle on the Italian seasoning and toss well.
Slice the chicken breasts thin-ish and throw them and their juice into the skillet with the sauce. Throw the peppers and asparagus into the skillet too, and turn the heat up fairly high. Drain your cooked spaghetti and throw it in the skillet too. Toss everything together with tongs until thoroughly mixed. Then just with your hands, crumble the goats cheese over all and toss lightly.
Place in a pretty, shallow serving bowl and slightly crumble the sage leaves over top. Don’t crumble them too small or you will miss the flavor and crunch which are DIVINE. Like sage-flavoured potato chips (my child adores them). Voila! This dish is just beautiful: green, red, yellow, white, and so GOOD for you.
Home from York for Avery’s 11th birthday. John stayed home with a nasty fever, the kind that makes you (him) run for a cab when he’s let us go off on our own, only to be glad later on that one didn’t come and he could stay in bed and sleep it off.
I’ve spent the late evening reading one of those things that if you knew what you were getting into you wouldn’t read on your child’s birthday, and yet something you admire so much you know you’ll be ordering many copies for everyone you know. Adam Gopnik knows way too much about the preciousness of a New York childhood (part of his book, A Home in New York: Through the Children’s Gate, being post September 11th). All I could do after sobbing a bit was to creep into Avery’s room and absolutely savor the sight of her sleeping soundly, shoulders humped away from her beloved best friend Anna, who was clutching a stuffed pony in her arms (a guest sleepover object, whatever she had brought being hidden under the covers), and echo Adam’s thoughts: just let them stay this age, let them stay little, in my house, under my wing. And knowing it’s so far from reality.
Happy Birthday, Avery.