My God, first, though I must offload about my day yesterday. Rain? Check. Sleet? Check. HAIL? In abundance. Child dragged to orthodontist who outlined a course of action that left both of us drained of color and slightly panicked. Child then dragged to stable and left there to work off her anxiety by leading crying children around the park on horses who kicked and spat. I walked home and got completely soaked for my pains.
But we accomplished, gradually, all that was needed: a long walk to East Chiswick or West Shepherd’s Bush or wherever you’d officially place the post offices where parcels go to die if you’re not home to receive them, to find the feathered wings and halo that will transform my daughter from a pre-teen bundle of nerves into an angel this evening. Then we went to the chemist for the perfect pink lipstick and nail varnish, and to make me happy, stopped at the Lyric Square farmer’s market for about a hundred samples of the Giggly Pig’s many sausages, finally to choose one modest package of…
So we got away. Right away. Everyone in my household was in some sort of state or other of anxiety, pressure, frantic-ness of some kind. So on Friday morning, when John appeared from his mysterious travels, we simply… left. We packed the Mini within an inch of its life, to the gills, and yet we didn’t take anything: Wellies, hot water bottles, books, but not really ANYTHING. And we just drove.
For the first 20 miles or so, we pretended to listen to a book on tape, but it was clearly putting John to sleep, so we turned it off and opened the windows. Avery asked what was up with the economy, and that took some explaining. Strangely it did not seem an upsetting task, to explain the disasters, so I let him go on. Finally we hit dead countryside and made a quick stop for supplies (but for future reference, anyone going to the Gothic Temple should bypass Bicester altogether and head straight to Buckingham, where there is a perfectly lovely butcher (more on that later), a Waitrose, and for emergencies, a tiny Tesco. But I digress.
We drove along according to our directions (I was in such a state of nerves that even my own unreliable sense of direction was seeming to take on penitentiary-bound proportions), and then… we entered the gates of Stowe School, landlords of the Gothic Temple, and as we passed folly after folly, a truly romantic stone bridge over a lake bordered by cows (all nicely variegated as the painting styles would dictate), we felt an unruly sort of calm descend: the sort of calm that says: this won’t be easy, you’ll have to struggle for it, but calm will prevail.
We passed a field of nettles and low-lying ancient trees and there, in the distance, was the place. Ridiculously majestic, windswept and seemingly abandoned, it was like a fictional building come to life, waiting for us. The very front door, as we pulled up, showed itself to be covered symmetrically with heads of gods: in bronze, patinaed, simply crazy.
We pushed our way in and carried our clobber up into the house and then couldn’t resist exploring: the lower floor, everything ROUND because the whole building is round, so a little round bathroom, a little round kitchen (a very bad, bad kitchen as it turned out), and a round living room in which to read old log books, guide books, Jane Austen, play solitaire or double solitaire as the fancy took one. But upwards into the round (!) gallery, lined with window seats set over variously performing radiators (John snagged, naturally, the one working most vociferously right away), and on either end of the circle, bedrooms: just two, both… you guessed it… round!
The domed ceiling of the house is mosaic and tile, with little hidden treasures, like the owl one can see only from one bedroom and the figure of Neptune visible only from another. Windows looked out onto fields and follies and trees shaped like florets of broccoli, so ancient and enormous were their trunks, for such small trees. We all armed ourselves with things to read and to write, but truth to tell we suffered what we will always call “The Brooks House Syndrome,” after a house we rented for several summers in Maine, where the porch view was so lovely as to prevent anyone’s being able to read ANYTHING without looking up every two minutes and saying something tiresome about the view.
Macaroni and cheese the first night! Of course. With fairly decent Wiltshire bacon and sauteed red peppers, although… the hob could not have been worse. Prepare yourself, should you go. You can easily rest the palm of your intrepid hand on the surface of the hob when it is at its finest. The peppers took some cooking, I can assure you. But it was worth it for a delicious, dare I say it, dinner that first night. It was all we could do to stay up until the sun had definitely set.
On Saturday we explored. A hugely long and muddy walk among the 23 (I think) follies set in the grounds of the property known as Stowe School, a real live working school which bought the extensive properties left when a seriously massively wealthy English family sort of went under (sorry, an ignorant American’s take on the situation that took several centuries to develop). In the interim between being massively wealthy and NOT (that must really suck), the family build a whole host of outbuildings to show their allegiance to British libertarianism. I wish I were making this up, but I’m not. That’s why they did it. AND the show gardens designed by Capability (“please tell me his parents did not name him that?” Avery begged) Brown, of course christened “Lancelot,” not all that much easier to swallow than “Capability,” but these are British people we’re talking about.
And very capable gardens they were. I could see a lot, if not all, of the strain John has been under melt away under the weight of the marbles, the down of the swans, a waterfall. Home for creamy mushroom soup, a nap for John, an afternoon of reading on the curving windowseats on the first floor for Avery and me. She is, typically, at a Landmark Trust house, obsessed with reading all the entries in all the green leather logbooks stacked in the bookshelves. To her delight last winter she found my entry from 1990 in the house we stayed in in Wales. I held a book and pretended to read while looking up constantly at the changing landscape. Bunnies in the distance hopping around an enormous warren, shifting clouds, setting sun, hordes of tourists walking the ground, pressing their faces against the windows of our Temple and reminding us to pull the shades in the bathroom before taking a bath! Roast chicken surrounded by carrots and parsnips, covered with good slabs of bacon… It was that sort of day.
On Sunday we walked again in the spitting rain until time for a spot of shopping, so into Buckingham we went. The first thing I noticed on leaving the car was the overwhelming sound of bells. Live, change-ringing bells. And if ever there was anything to make me love England, it is the sound of real live bells. Not for nothing did I name my cat Lord Peter Wimsey: what about those “Nine Tailors”. I made my family follow me through the drizzle toward the sound of them, kicking through fallen red and orange leaves, smelling woodsmoke from someone’s illicit fire… I was as happy as I could possibly be. We went into the church (of St Peter and St Paul) and looked for the bellchamber, but it was locked. But I got to hear actual Englishman calling out actual changes. I was HAPPY.
And then? Straight into the misery of a street fair. Seriously, bouncy castles, horrid high-flying acts, and mercifully a pair of miniature ponies to make Avery happy. We stopped in at Clays Family Butchers in the high street for a leg of indisputably high-quality lamb, a jar of goose fat. From there to the Buckingham Delicatessen where I looked longingly at the massive selection of cheeses and cured meats, forewent all the glorious ingredients because we had just the one dinner left… and that was to be Orlando’s seven-hour lamb. I cannot recommend this recipe highly enough: get the very best lamb you can, the very best vegetables, homemade chicken stock and good wine. Then let the dish cook itself. Kudos to John for pulling this recipe out of the air on his iPhone (I had forgotten the cookbook).
Orlando’s Seven-Hour Leg of Lamb
1 large leg of lamb, about 3 kg
4 onions, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
300 ml white wine
300 ml stock
2 tbsp Armagnac, to finish
Season the lamb and heat a braising pan on the hob. Brown the lamb on all sides thoroughly so it is nicely scorched — about ten minutes. It will not brown during braising, so this is your only chance. Lamb varies, so add a little oil if the pan seems dry, and pour away most of the fat if a lot has collected in the pan during the brownin.
Lift out the lamb and set aside. Add the onions and carrots and brown those — about 5 minutes — then add the garlic, lamb, wine and stock. Season and bring to the boil. Cut out a piece of baking paper [I had none and used aluminium foil, which was fine] and lay over the lamb to keep it moist.
Transfer to an oven heated to 120C (100C fan) and cook for seven hours, turning twice. After 5 hours the meat will be cooked; you can serve it now, or stick with tradition and give it a couple of hours more.
There is no need to rest the meat when it is cooked this way, but you need to finish the sauce. If you are planning to serve the meat on a dish, put it on the dish now. Use wide spatulas and arrange your serving dish in the most convenient spot before attempting to lift the extremely tender lamb out of its cooking pot. If you are planning to serve it in the cooking pot, drain all the cooking juices into a bowl.
Strain the juices — I discard the vegetables now but you can serve them — [we did and they were luscious, the carrots surprisingly holding their shape] and defat them (I use my gravy separator). Put the juices into a pot and boil quickly to a saucy consistency. Stir in the Armagnac, if you wish. Pour over the lamb or serve alongside.
Orlando tells us the lamb is often called “Lamb with a spoon” in France because it is so “meltingly tender,” and I can attest to this. I was sceptical about the sauce because it was very dull-looking and quite thin, for the simple reason that I could not adequately heat up my hob to boil it down in time. However, once poured over the lamb, it was a revelation: deeply flavored and almost instantly absorbed by the meat. A true delight.
We spent the afternoon on another massive walk, leaving the path in the Deer Park and thereby giving the sheep and cows a great deal to talk about. Avery was terrified of being trampled, although it was clear they were a lot more afraid of us than we were of them.
Monday morning dawned all too soon, and we were off home. Fully recovered from stress? Nearly so. It’s good to know that while you shouldn’t ever let your husband get that tied up in knots, if it happens off your watch in an office thousands of miles away, you can fix it all by a long weekend, some long walks, and a leg of lamb.
Well, it’s not gorgeous. It’s not flawless. But it’s a pastry shell, it smells gorgeous, and I never thought I’d see one of those coming out of my oven. It is from a recipe by my Totleigh tutor Tamasin Day-Lewis from her Tamasin’s Kitchen Classics, and the proof of the tart will be in the eating, as they say. I am no baker, but my food writing week made me ashamed of how I indulge this weakness. Avery and I approached the various unfamiliar things like vanilla pods, icing sugar and tart pan with trepidation, and I must say she went off to the stable for her afternoon ride quite covered with raspberry seeds, up and down her wrists. I only saw it in the bus, and then it was too late to scrape her off. We really made a mess. And blind baking? What the hell is that? I put the pastry in the oven only to have Avery say diffidently, “Uh, Mummy, why is she saying to remove the foil and beans? What foil and beans?” Oh dear.
I had to google blind baking. Pathetic. Serves me right for not reading the recipe all the way through before I began.
Last night may have been our best dinner ever: two dishes I would be very grateful to have, and pay for, in a restaurant. Two dishes from my dear tutor, Orlando Murrin, from his very touching and also very useful cookbook, A Table in the Tarn: Living, Eating and Cooking in South-West France. I am always slightly nervous cooking something for the first time, and a bit taken aback to see how messy my kitchen gets when I’m not familiar with what I’m doing. Utensils everywhere! With practice, I will get these two recipes down with ease, because they’re not difficult, they’re just unfamiliar. I’d happily eat each of them every night for a month, but I don’t think my cholesterol level could take it. Avery always orders her steak with no sauce whatever, so I was a bit nervy on that account as well, but she was intrigued enough by eating something invented by the great teacher she’s heard so much about that she came bravely to the table.
As frustrating as it is for this American to try to cook with European instructions, I am going to reproduce this recipe exactly as Orlando has written it, and let my readers deal with conversions. I myself was not tortured by precision because it was not baking. Just be relaxed and know that the result will be worth the effort.
Orlando’s Steak St Juery
50g unsalted butter, softened, plus 10g extra
50g Roquefort cheese (we substituted Welsh goats cheese, brilliant)
1 shallot, chopped finely
3 tbsp Marsala or port (we used Marsala)
150ml beef or chicken stock (we used chicken)
2 tbsp creme fraiche
6 fillet steaks
a little olive oil and butter
handful of chopped toasted walnuts, flaked almonds and pinenuts (I had no walnuts)
Mash the butter and cheese till smooth, or if you prefer, put in a small plastic bag and knead together through the plastic. Shape or press into 4 or 5 pieces, and refrigerate.
In the remaining butter in a small pan, fry the shallot for 3–4 minutes till transparent but not brown. Add the Marsala and reduce to a syrup, then the stock and reduce again to a syrupy consistency — it should be about 3 tbsp, bubbling with small tight bubbles. Set aside, still in the pan, and cover.
Season the steaks and fry for about 3 minutes per side in the oil and butter
Set aside to rest while you finished the sauce by bringing the reduced juices to the boil, then lowering the heat so the sauce stays warm but does not boil. Whisk in the butter-cheese mixture piece by piece to make a thickish, glossy sauce. Whisk in the creme fraiche.
Slice each steak on the diagonal into 3 thick slices and pour over the sauce. Sprinkle with the nuts and parsley and serve at once.
And that’s it. I was disorganized and let one reduction burn, and another separate into part oil, part something else. You must pay attention! But the third time was the charm. I am not used to making sauces and it takes concentration. But this dish was simply SUPERB. Luxurious, unusual, and it left the house smelling like a real French restaurant. I was incredibly pleased, and Avery pronounced the steak “insanely good.” But that was not all.
Orlando’s Straw Potato Cakes
(serves six, he says, but we two ate them ALL)
2 medium potatoes, shredded into tiny matchsticks, using a mandolin or julienne slicer
1 shallot, chopped very finely
duck or goose fat, olive oil or clarified butter.
Because [Orlando says] there is only me in the kitchen cooking dinner, dishes have to be practical and achievable. This potato dish is so quick that it can be made while the meat rests. A few hours in advance you can peel the potatoes and julienne them; keep them under water.
When ready to cook, drain the potatoes thoroughly and squeeze as dry as you can on a towel — twisting and wringing as much as possible. Mix with the shallots and plenty of seasoning.
Heat 2 tbsp fat in a large frying pan and put in 3 handfuls of potato, shaping as rough circles. Moderate the heat if necessary, but after 3–4 minutes they should have started to stick together and the underside to go brown. Flip them over using a palette knife or spatula and cook the other side the same way. They will not be very tidy or regular but they will taste delicious.
Keep warm on a baking sheet and repeat with the next 3, adding a little more fat to cook in if necessary (usually it isn’t). Serve as soon as possible.
I chortled a little over his use of the dreaded, forbidden word “delicious,” (Tamasin uses it as well in her raspberry curd tart that Avery and I are working on today, chuckle). It’s just a nice word.
These potato cakes are wickedly, sinfully, melt-in-your-mouth salty indulgence. And because I am obsessive-compulsive I didn’t even use a tool to make my matchsticks. So satisfying to slice the potato thinly, then take off the very edge away so you have a flat surface, and stack up the slices. Then you can slice them thinly again and slice the whole stack in two and voila: matchsticks. Now, I found that I wanted to fry these cakes a little longer than I expected, so be flexible.
Well, we were in heaven. Between mouthfuls I said, “Aren’t I clever,” and Avery would chew for awhile and say, “You are so clever,” then we both had to take a deep breath and say, “Actually, Orlando is very clever.”
I deserved a really rich dinner because I had a tennis lesson in the afternoon: not just A tennis lesson, but a real pounding by my new instructor, Rocco, a meticulously groomed Brazilian man of intense athletic ability. It must be said that he has, as well, an endless supply of off-colour stories to shout at me as I’m trying to lift my toe, or have decent follow-through, or anything else to do with actual tennis. My God, he’s strange. But then he would turn from these revelations to ask Avery what the title of her book was, and where did she go to school. The man simply appears to have no conversational governor! And since I could see I was improving my game by leaps and bounds, so I suppose my moral sanctity can take a little drubbing. But his cologne, good lord, the man must bathe in it, and it transferred itself inexorably via his helping hand on my racquet handle, and thence to my hand, where it remained indelibly through several hand washings. I reported this to John who said from some 3000 miles away, “As your husband, I so did not want to hear that.”
It was a glorious day of blue sky overhead, falling orange and yellow leaves, a crisp breeze to keep me cool as I fended off my instructor. Tonight is swimming and diving, in the marvellously old-fashioned school pool, glass-roofed and elegant.
And tomorrow, after nearly a week away, my beloved returns. And the three of us head off in the Mini, packed to the gills and with a dish of macaroni and cheese at my feet, for a long weekend at the Gothic Temple. As you know, we’re devoted to the Landmark Trust and this is a place we’ve been eyeing for many years, so it’s going to be an adventure. We all need some time as a threesome to regroup; it’s a funny dynamic being alone with a very companionable child for many days in a row. We get into our own conversational groove that then has to adjust when Father Comes Home. He’s going to need all the peace he can get, after a dreadful business week in blistering sun and urban squalor. Poor man.
Before I close, I want to recommend to you a new blog, Roast Pork and Apple Snow, a new venture written by my Totleigh Barton compatriot Edward. It’s a lovely combination of seasonal appreciation, recipes and Edward’s musings on food, cooking and the examined life. You’ll love it. We are all absurdly motivated and ambitious for our writing, after our week of intensive boot camp in Devon.
Well, the tart’s ready to be assembled, so fingers crossed. I’ll report results, if they’re fit to print. I have faith in Tamasin, just not so much in… me.
Goodness, we’re wiped out. Just a short trip to Bath, a little lunch, a little shopping, quite a LOT of walking, and a day full of conversation with my friend Sam from Totleigh… we’re drooping this evening! But it’s all good.
We set off in the morning and arrived at lunchtime, and what a lunch it was… Sam met us in the freezing cold wind (it was better in the sun) and we walked, talking sixteen to the dozen all the time, to Jamie’s Italian, open just two weeks, and abuzz with energy already. At the door (no bookings) we were told it would be 45 minutes and no leaving! No running around sight-seeing and then coming back. Well, there was no question: we stayed. Had a lovely cranberry juice spritzer (it really touched me to leave Avery and Sam while I went to the bar and look back to find them talking nonstop, and laughing: that’s the mark of a lovely, warm man, to be able to chat on his own with a little girl he’s known for five minutes).
But it was only 20 minutes, so we were really silly glad we stayed. This new Jamie Oliver venture, designed to bring really high quality Italian food to the masses, was a success from our point of view, anyway. Where else could Sam and I have a whole grilled sea bream for 15 quid? You could hardly buy it raw at the fishmonger for that, and I so far am not quite brave enough to cook a whole fish (although after today, I’m tempted). It was served with what was described as a salsa verde, but while tasty, Sam and I had to differ with the description: it was a lovely scattering of minced parsley, garlic and chillies, but NOT a salsa verde, and there wasn’t enough of it anyway. We were both disappointed to find, upon eating one side and flipping the fish over: no salsa on the other side. It needed a whole little ramekin of the stuff on the side.
But flavor: it packed a fresh, crunchy punch and the cooking of the fish could not be faulted. Creamy, tender, perfect. A rather phoned-in salad of shaved fennel and random field greens (really “an average pub salad,” Sam decreed, quite right). A side dish of I thought quite average French-style French fries, but my companions wolfed them down. Far better was the side dish of “flash-cooked seasonal greens,” which proved to be perfect, olive oily, chilli-scattered tenderstem broccoli which we ate with our fingers. Sam ate, Avery wants you to know, the fish eyeball. Granted he took a very large gulp of his water after and spitted out something rather… solid, but the point is, he tried it.
Avery had wild mushroom ravioli which I found a bit heavy, but there were nice whole sauteed sage leaves in the sauce and she ate nearly the whole dish. We all shared, I should say at the outset, the meat antipasti, and were in heaven: bresaola, parma ham, mortadella, salame, and then little slabs of the most piquant parmesan topped with a spoonful of the famous chilli jam. That jam lived up to its billing and if I could buy a jar of it to have with a cheese plate, I would do so. I cannot say there was anything earth-shattering about the presentation or anything unusual in the flavors, but the simplicity and high quality of the ingredients was enough. With the antipasti came a meltingly (literally) buffalo mozzarella sprinkled with chillies and basil oil. Just gorgeous. We were happy.
We talked endlessly about our Totleigh adventures, sharing stories of slightly drunken episodes and conversations, remembering everyone’s writing efforts, who read what, to what success. And dear readers, Sam shared with me his first childhood culinary effort: a snack for his mum. He calls it quite simply “Digestive Balls on Iceberg Lettuce,” and that pretty much sums it up. “All you do is line a nice glass bowl with some lettuce [“Iceberg?” I specify, remembering my own childhood — “absolutely Iceberg,” he affirms]. Then you scatter on some tomato slices, and THEN, you chew up as many digestive biscuits as you can, spit them out and roll them into balls with your hands [“unwashed,” I specify], and arrange them on the lettuce. It’s as simple as that.”
Compared to the kitchen exploits of my childhood, most of them involving canned mushroom soup, this sounds positively Lucullan.
We talked fast and furious over lunch and then staggered out to begin our round of tourist sights. Bless Sam: he took us everywhere: the gorgeous Crescent where “Persuasion” and so many other memorable movies were filmed, Pulteney Bridge, the Circus and finally the rather odd and occasionally spooky Jane Austen Centre, located on a hilly street in the centre of town. I would say that the most appealing bit of this museum is the bookshop, where had I had the cash, I could have bought an entire 19th-century edition of all Austen’s books for 625 pounds. Heavens. I settled for a new copy of “Persuasion” and we sat down for the sort of touching guided-tour speech, and then strolled through the museum looking at various costumes worn by very creepy mannequins with what seemed to be stockings pulled over their faces: everyone appeared to be in the throes of smothering! Very odd.
A quick but delicious stop in Paxton and Whitfield, a small but well stocked cheese shop where I asked for and didn’t get a gratte paille, my absolute most treasured runny, smelly triple creme cheese. I wasn’t too disappointed to come away with a cheese made by Neal’s Yard called “Finn,” heavy and creamy.
Finally we escaped to the Bath Sweet Shop in North Parade Passage, for Avery to buy some of her treasured “millions,” a truly horrible sort of candy that she discovered years ago on our school-finding trip. Sam joined her in a bag of something called “toasted tea cakes,” tiny little… toasted tea cakes, and we walked along in the late afternoon sun toward the Abbey and the Roman Baths. Steamy, green and suggestive of so many submerged delights, we all wondered how long we could wade in the pool before some CCTV-watching guide found us and chased us out.
Sam walked us to the train, but we stopped along Quiet Street to visit Kitchens, quite the most wonderful Aladdin’s Cave of kitchen shops I have ever seen. Sorry, my darling Matthew Macfadyen, I will always be loyal to our shared destination Divertimenti in Marylebone, but this shop was simply chock-a-block with treasures… it was all I could do not to buy the brushed-steel KitchenAid for Sam who drooled over it, and a complete set of new knives for myself. As it was, I restrained myself to a tiny saucepan for melting butter for popcorn (or poaching a single egg). What a fabulous spot.
Home exhausted! Thank you, Sam, for a perfect day.
Luckily there were leftovers to be had when we fell in the door around 8. Bolognese to be heated up, and the lovely remains of a new side dish I made from the divine Anna del Conte’s Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes. Go very easy on the salt, though, as the salame I found at Carluccio’s was quite salty enough to carry the dish. I spent a very frustrating morning trying to convert all the various measurements she uses into something coherent for you, dear readers. It’s difficult for an American to decipher some European recipes, especially when they’re written through an English experience. I asked an English friend, “How on earth do you convert ounces of butter into tablespoons?” and he replied in mystification, “Why on earth would you ever measure butter in tablespoons?” I had to laugh, in chagrin, and tell him how American butter was labeled. Two peoples separated by a common language, and it would appear, butter labelling. Sigh. So here goes, as best I can manage. At least it’s not baking, so specificity isn’t necessary. Just relax.
Baked Potato Puree with Salame and Mozzarella
(serves 4 easily)
1 1/2 lb floury potatoes
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tbsps butter
4 tbsps fresh grated Parmesan
fresh ground pepper to taste
7 ounces (a chunk about 3 inches thick) first-rate salame, cut into very small cubes
7 ounces (roughly a ball) mozzarella, cut into very small cubes
handful dry fresh breadcrumbs
Now, del Conte has you boiling the potatoes and then peeling them. I found peeling boiled potatoes to be sticky and disgusting, so next time I would peel then boil. Heat the milk as they boil, and then put the potatoes through a ricer and mash with the butter and milk, beating hard with a wooden spoon. As del Conte says, the longer you beat the puree, the lighter it becomes.
Mix together in a bowl the egg, Parmesan and pepper. Add mixture to the potato puree, then stir in salame and mozzarella and mix well.
Butter a souffle dish or any ovenproof dish and tip mixture in. Top with breadcrumbs and bake at 375 for 20 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Let rest for several minutes and serve warm. Gorgeous.
I am concentrating on this lovely photograph as proof that by the dinner hour, my household is always quite peaceful. I need this reassurance today because, frankly, things are quite mad here. I will try to describe.
As many of you know, to my intense chagrin and serious inconvenience, I am allergic to horses. This would not be a problem ordinarily since I can take horses or leave them, but as you also know, my child is quite addicted to the creatures and as a result, a fair amount of my time is spent getting her to the stable and getting her back, not to mention watching a lesson if it’s in the ring and not simply wandering around Hyde Park. The hours, the hours I have spent watching a little girl go around and around a ring, whether in the Bronx in the old days, the Cotswolds or Scotland on holiday, and then of course here in the park. Boredom vies with sneezing on these excursions.
Last night I went to collect her at the stable and we took the rare luxury of a cab home, because public transport was severely messed up. It was the first mistake: she was far too cold and wet for me to have the window open, so we spent the half hour journey completely cooped up and with the dreadful smell of barn suffocating me. Home to throw her in a bathtub and make my bolognese. I decided to ignore my sneezing because I cannot bear the super-intense thirst that comes with taking an antihistamine: like having a mouth full of paper towels. Not nice.
However, when at 11 o’clock or so I saw her filthy half-chaps and boots under my desk, I picked them up, dumped them in her rucksack and… rubbed my eyes. With horsey fingers. Instant misery. I could not see, struggled to breathe. I could feel my chest closing up and that is always scary. Rush to the cupboard, take TWO Benadryl, and… I functioned for awhile, and then it was like being hit by a truck. Simply dead to the world. When at 8 a.m. I awoke to the DOORBELL, I could see that I had slept without moving for the entire night: every pillow perfectly in place, as if I had been a medieval corpse with my hands folded over my chest. Who on earth could be ringing my doorbell at 8 a.m.?
“It’s Faux Frost, Mummy!” Avery was bouncing around looking sickeningly energetic, to a person with a Benadryl hangover. What an ignominious hangover that is, to be sure. No carousing, no hanging around a bar flirting with some investment banker over an Absolut Citron… no, I have to get MY hangovers from allergy medication. So not cool.
I staggered up. You may recall the tragi-comic episode from last summer, where our sofa and bench were held hostage for months by Mr Frost, at first merely a doesn’t-answer-his-phone upholsterer who became, in due time, a completely dead upholsterer who went to his reward without, apparently, telling anyone where our belongings were. Well, over the course of the summer the objects were located, ALLEGEDLY, although the fabric to do them up had disappeared (a winding sheet, perhaps?). Mr Frost’s successor, Faux Frost, assured us that all would be well… we chose fabric again, he came for a consultation, and when he left we held hands like children in a forest, thinking the story might have a happy ending after all.
Months passed, AGAIN. I became quite fond of the empty spots in our house where there should be places to sit… it was minimal, and sort of elegant.
Then last week Faux Frost turned up out of the blue and said he would be around on Monday (oh dear, today) with our stuff. “What percentage do you give that?” I asked my long-suffering husband, who said he thought about 20.
But here they were, first thing in the morning, disgustingly cheerful and chatty. And we have our furniture back. The sofa cushion is very, very odd, sort of enveloping the unwary sitting person in a crunchy and yet also feathery embrace. John will HATE it. Of this I am certain. But I didn’t have the heart to send it away. Maybe it will grow on us. I’m just afraid that the day will come when we can’t find one of the cats and it will be folded into the cushion, trapped and hungry. Or even Avery. She’s not that big.
For heaven’s sake. As the Faux Frost Helpers were carrying the sofa upstairs, Avery and I looked out the open front door to see a tiny little lady facedown on the pavement just outside our gate. Hmm. We decided to investigate. As we approached, asking, “Are you all right?” she slowly pulled herself to a sitting position and said, “I’ve broken off my toof.” And sure enough, six inches or so away from where she had been lying was a little white thing. How awful. She stood up and was not any taller than Avery, but clutching in her hand an even smaller scooter. “I nicked my son’s scooter to run an errand or two, and now… this. Does it look awful?” She grimaced at us, and then said disconsolately, “I can see from the look on your faces that I’m in a real pickle now.” She said she’d better go home and call the dentist, whereupon Avery volunteered, “I have to go to the dentist today too… just a checkup, though, sorry.” Apologising for not having broken her own tooth off. For heaven’s sake.
The Frosts have retreated, the cats are fascinating by the reappearance in their lives of a well-remembered napping spot, and I’m drinking everything in sight trying desperately to dispel this lame, tame, uninteresting hangover. The only thing cheering me up is lunch. You could even eat it without a toof, I think.
Mixed Bean Salad
(serves lots, and improves with time)
1 soup-size can each: borlotti, cannellini, black beans
1 cup edamame, steamed and podded
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 ears sweetcorn, cut off the cob
1 bunch scallions, sliced on the bias including green parts
1 red onion, diced
handful sugar snap peas, sliced as you like
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
juice of 2 lemons
good slug chilli-infused olive oil (I am loyal to Apulia)
sea salt to taste (it can take a lot, I find, with the mildness of the beans)
fresh black pepper to taste
Shake the dressing vigorously in a jar till thoroughly blended. Rinse beans well in a colander and then mix everything in a large bowl. Perfect with a couple of baguette bites and a fillet of smoked mackerel on the side.
Yes, John’s on an airplane, Avery’s at the stable, I’m at my desk: life has got back to normal in an unnecessarily decisive way. I’ve waded through the mound of paper staring me in the face and found all the responsibilities therein completely uncompelling: dental appointment for Avery who has already found endless ways to say, “Don’t make me go,” thank-you notes I’ve written but not bothered to send, parent-teacher conference appointment sheets that have not been filled in, reminders to get a flu jab. You can see why I’m in avoidance mode. But it’s either deal with all that admin, or get down to the business of writing my next cookbook chapter, and as a result, here I am, blogging. A friend of mine has just begun a new blog because, as he says, it’s a way to get oneself writing every day. True, but it’s also a massively convenient bolt-hole to save oneself from REAL writing, as in crafting, editing, choosing one’s words. But perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. And I DO have a load of laundry going, so the day has not been for naught.
We dropped Avery off this morning on what looked like a rainy day until we were about halfway to the stable, and suddenly it was all blue sky so we put the top down on the Mini and felt cheerful. Sadly she arrived too late for the first ride but JUST in time for the first scraping up of horse detritus in the Square. Poor child. At least she has really good chorizo in her lunchbox, which makes up for a lot.
What could be more normal than a good dish of bolognese? That’s on the menu for tonight and I’ll tell you why I did not make it last night even though Avery begged. I was in the mood for seafood, something light and really fast and easy. I can’t call it a recipe, exactly, but perhaps the description will inspire you to save the red meat for another night.
Fox Point Seafood
(serves three with leftovers for lunch)
2 cloves garlic
juice of 1/2 lemon
pinch sea salt
couple grinds black pepper
1/2 cup good readymade mayonnaise, or your own fresh
12 raw king prawns
12 raw scallops (roe off for me)
2 wild Alaskan salmon fillets
several shakes Penzeys Fox Point Seasoning
juice of 1/2 lime
sprinkle olive oil
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Now, something really interesting, chemically speaking, happens when you mince garlic together with lemon juice and sea salt. I think it must break down some essential building blocks of solid matter (oh dear, I think my art history PhD is showing), well, whatever it is I mean, the garlic is pulverized by the acid and salt in a very satisfying way. And the results are quite different to simply mincing the garlic and mixing it with the lemon and salt. Trust me on this point. I once made a mind-bendingly pungent vinaigrette for cole slaw that involved peeling and sectioning a lemon (nice obsessive compulsive job that was) and chopping the sections with salt and garlic. I loved it, but I have a memory of some of my guests crying. So this modified garlic rapture may be just the ticket for the faint of heart who nevertheless want some kick to their aioli.
Mix the minced garlic, lemon and salt mixture into the mayo and set aside.
Place all the seafood on a platter and sprinkle it all with Fox Point Seasoning. This miracle condiment is a classic example of a whole being more than the sum of its parts. Why should dried shallots, chives and scallions be such a perfect thing to accompany seafood, chicken, scrambled eggs and dare I suggest it, buttered popcorn? But it is. Magical. Drizzle the lime juice and olive oil over all the seafood.
In a very large skillet, heat the vegetable oil till nearly smoking and place the salmon fillets in skin side down. Resist the temptation to play with them: don’t poke at them, peek underneath as they cook, just sit for about 4 minutes. Now you may turn them. One hopes the skin will have cooked very nicely so that you can either enjoy it, or peel it off (I don’t do salmon skin). Cook on the flesh side for just another minute and remove the salmon to a warm plate. Turn back to the skillet and see if you need more oil, if so add it, but judiciously, as you want this to be a nice light dish. Place the scallops as quickly as you can in the hot oil on one side of the skillet and throw the prawns in at the other side. Toss the prawns with tongs and after about 2 minutes, turn the scallops over. Now remove from skillet and arrange nicely on the salmon plate. Serve with the aioli.
Avery’s back from the stable, weary, cold and filthy, but in her usual euphoria after several canters. “You just wouldn’t believe how gorgeous The Mile was, today, with all the fallen colored leaves underfoot, Mummy,” she sighed, “but Hobbs freaks out if a leaf falls on his nose. He has very sensitive skin.” To think until that moment, I hadn’t known it. She is becoming quite the writer herself these days, I think inspired by my tiresomely constant chatter about my week in Devon. Yesterday, as she was adding to a story she’s been working on all week, we had the following exchange, which for some reason filled me with joy.
“Mummy, you can’t really say that stone steps are ‘rickety,’ can you?“
“No, but you can say they are ‘well-worn.’”
“Oh, thank you so much.”
I’m off to produce spaghetti bolognese with plenty of white wine and whole milk and just a hint of nutmeg, plus wilted pea sprouts and fresh applesauce. It’s autumn.
Sometimes it’s good to have a day so unlike another day, except that they’re both called randomly “Friday,” that you really have to step back and ask yourself about continuity. Not to sound too precious (kick me if I do), but continuity of self is an odd thing, especially, to paraphrase the great short story writer Raymond Carver, if you have children. In fact, forget “children”: I don’t even need the plural to make my life feel occasionally quite schizophrenic. One child, plus everything else I want to do in this life, is quite sufficient to make me feel that my arms are being stretched in opposite directions. The person one is with a child and the person one is when said child is out of sight (and out of mind) are two very different people. Most of the time it’s possible not to notice this disconnect because the fleeting no-child moments don’t last very long. One has to learn to function on several levels at the same time (write all day, then it all ends at precisely 3:45 every day to be replaced with listening to tales of school inequities, etc, provide snack, find gym kit). One has to be ready to let go one’s own thoughts on command. And this severing can sometimes seem to test the notion of identity at all. As Carver also said, “One of the things I learned is that I had to bend or else break. And I also learned that is possible to bend and break at the same time.”
A bit chilling and dire sounding, I know. So not me! But at Totleigh I discovered what happens if the stretches of time one has to one’s pre-parent self last for, say, Five Days, it’s something a bit life-changing (my god, how British and deprecatory that sounds! “a bit life-changing” like “slightly pregnant”). But it is indeed a phenomenon to cherish and to try to bring back to real life. To try to reconcile the two selves. A tough assignment, I’m finding. And I think all of us at Totleigh would agree that the time there, while challenging intellectually and not easy to respond to, was also a sort of bubble out of real time, and by Day Five the bubble was quite sturdy.
For example. Last Friday, just a week and a day ago, I was in super-selfish mode: didn’t do a thing I didn’t want to do, did lots of things I did want to do, revelled in the sensation that we were living in a world apart, a world that wouldn’t last but another several hours, like a turning-point ripe fig. And it was all true. This Friday, yesterday in fact, I did lots of things I didn’t want to do, some things I did want to do, and mostly felt overwhelmed with the endless variety there is to be had in this life. There’s wildest, remotest Devon where one’s closest companions on a walk are suicidal pheasants. Then there’s Piccadilly, where I had to fight yesterday to put my feet down on the pavement, where I stopped off to see the Robert Irwin show at White Cube. As an aside I must tell anyone who is in London tomorrow to go to the last day of the show: born in the same year as Donald Judd, Irwin’s work is just as minimal, just as elegant, but more clever, funnier. Stunningly perfect installation.
But I digress. More on the schizophrenic nature of my Fridays.
The company? There are a bunch of brilliant writers to hang out with on a sunny day in said remote Devon, or a brilliant, stressed-out husband and his brilliant, endlessly optimistic business partner in SW1. Both of those choices work for me. There’s the life of the higher mind, where you spend part of a Friday discussing what words are acceptable to be included in food writing, and where in all seriousness a person can ask the following question: “I know this is a controversial subject, but where do we all stand on the word ‘morsel’?” And then there’s the life of homework supervision where “Bunsen Burners for Dummies” is a real subject, and one’s music homework can be done in limerick form. My mind is pretty much stretched on ANY of those subjects.
Last Friday I ate a meal that I cooked with three heartwarming friends, and last night I was fed very posh food by firelight, cooked by a lovely family who looked after my child while I was away selfishly cooking for myself. And the three-quarter moon we left behind in Devon was full last night, here in London.
So there you go. I realise completely that in all these compare-contrast high school homework sort of essay in the above, one thing stands out: I have absolutely no room ever to complain about anything. I err on the other side, actually: holding it all so close that I threaten to smother everyone and everything in my path! Learning to hang back and take it all for granted a bit more is probably a good idea for me. This afternoon I added a line to the piece I wrote at Totleigh about our beloved island in Maine, where I describe the children’s fairy forests, and they are words to live by: “The children do not mind that these fairy houses will be stepped on, will fall apart, will dissolve in the next rainstorm. It is enough for them to have made them. I know I should feel that way about the things I make.”
So, Day Five came. I knew from the outset I was in for a treat, for the simple reason that there’s no day I like better than one spent in the kitchen preparing a meal for guests. But normally that means a very solitary, if delightful day, listening to a book on tape, working at my own pace, queen of my domain. Not last Friday. I was put in the very amusing position of being significantly older than, and having cooked several million more ordinary meals than had the chef presiding in the kitchen (Edward) and yet being praised for my red onion dice. “Oh, I AM sorry,” he said, “I’m being condescending.” You think? But it has to be said: he ran a monumentally efficient kitchen that afternoon. The four of us: Edward, Charlie, Roger and I, gathered after lunch to discuss our roles, and we all quickly realised it was the better part of valor to let the only one of us professionally trained to take charge. Whereupon Roger disappeared on some mysterious spy errand, and Charlie was given an enormous bowl of egg whites and the slowest egg beater on earth, and I? I picked apples in the glorious mid-afternoon sunshine and felt grateful to be there. A beautiful, blinking golden blue afternoon… with nothing to do but cook.
Roger reappeared in time to pick the apples requiring a tall person, and we all began chopping, mixing, stirring, listening to Roger’s Swedish (or was it Norwegian?) girl singer music, all to the relentless whirring of Charlie’s egg beater! Tamasin came in several times and gaped in astonishment and sympathy at the continuing whir. I have never known a man so devoted to egg whites as Charlie was, that afternoon. “We’re looking for stiff peaks,” Edward advised, and of course the two of them were very mature, snickering in a way that is universal among men: American or British, cooks or not. That line is always a winner.
Edward went off for his Orlando tutorial and emerged whole, if not wholly unscathed (we would expect nothing less intense from our esteemed tutor), and the afternoon sort of dwindled away, full of tasks and pots to scrub, desultory conversation and lots of silence. Altogether, I cannot explain why, one of the gentlest and most pleasant afternoons of my life. I know, you are all thinking: that is simply pathetic! What about shopping in Paris, doing research in Moscow, setting up a gallery opening in New York, you name it? Surely afternoons get nicer than mine last Friday? No. They don’t.
We cooked, we served, we ate. Slow-roasted pork belly with thyme and olive oil, roast potato wedges with fresh rosemary and sea salt, braised red cabbage with Bramley apples and cloves, and Edward’s special pudding which he is keen to remind me I never EVEN TRIED, apple snow. I do not like English puddings, for which I am very sorry and undoubtedly misguided, but there you go. Then we cleaned up and headed over to the barn for the last evening’s readings.
But I’ve forgotten to tell you about the amazing transformation on Day Four of Rosie: into Foxie the Parody Writing Instructor! None of us can remember having laughed so much for so long… and yet I can’t pick out a single word of wisdom to show why it was so funny. All she did (all!) was to read aloud from a truly sick-making American (naturally) self-help manual for people who have writer’s block. And then she inserted her own inimitable, purely British, tongue-in-cheek bits to… help us understand the text. There is something so American (well, probably California, my New Yorker’s identity wants to believe) in the “come on, children, you can do it, put a little power to it!” cheerleader nonsense that the book revelled in. And Foxie’s delivery? I cannot describe it, but she had a hard time getting some of the words out, laughing till she was quite ill, too.
And I’ve forgotten the Interminable Dawn Death March that was my early-morning walk with Jenny and Louise! I had just come back from a walk all on my own, sensibly on DRY GROUND, when they scooped me up at the kitchen door and said, “Come on, we’ll take the long way around.” I stupidly forgot to ask, “Around what?” and went off amiably enough, in my absolute most favorite Varda boots from New York… and at first all was well. We went down the lane, up the lane, made a left where I normally carry on straight, were given directions by a wizened old man leaning out his picturesque cottage window, and were… promptly set down in a positive sea of mud. Jenny and Louise had on Wellingtons. I did not. For a mile or two it seemed like a fine challenge for an autumn morning: after all, mud dries, doesn’t it? Finally, however… “You two, how much longer can this go on?” And Jenny said, “It’s not so much how long as how DEEP.” And she was right. At one point I was up to my knees. I wanted to lie down and sob, but there was cow s*&^t as far as the eye could see. I know, typical American, unprepared for the elements.
It’s hard for me to be objective about that last evening’s readings because I read one of my favorite pieces, about vichyssoise and Avery’s birthday parties where we always served it. I don’t know if it’s a successful piece for anyone else, but as usual I found myself vastly too emotional about it to read aloud very well. How do newsreaders get through the stories that make listeners cry? I think I needed some distance. But that was a commodity thin on the ground on Day Five. Edward read from “The Little Prince,” a piece both naively simple and inclusive of vast and mysterious emotion. Everyone sat as if spellbound as he read; it’s one of those stories that lets each listener escape into a sort of secret room of individual emotion. Tamasin said to me later that he wove a Zen-like spell around us, and that is the fairest description I can muster. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…”
Thank goodness, Pauline followed with a foodie poem of her own design, which she’s given me permission to publish here. Its charms may fall under the category of “you had to be there,” but I don’t really think so. And then Orlando played the piano, we danced, we took one more long walk… And that, dear readers, was my week at Totleigh Barton. I need a parachute to come down. If I decide to.
Writing on Food
For Melissa the course proved less than enticing
The moment she found that it wasn’t on icing
She thought she’d be writing on pink birthday cake
Not laptop or paper, she felt such a fake
Tubes of colours and sprinkles crammed into a carton
Weighed down her suitcase at Totleigh Barton
She kept it locked shut, perceptively sensing
That e-numbers caused a visible tensing
In tutors who worried about unrefined sugar.
This was quickly becoming a right, royal bugger
But fast on the uptake she tried to fit in
And chatted ‘bout sausages with Tamasin
At lunch she leant over said “ketchup with that?”
Tamasin fainted flat out on the mat
Through lemons and food reviews things just got worse
Melissa’s writing got more and more terse
When asked to rate dinner the previous night
She wrote “If you’re asking, the salmon was shite”
Orlando’s gougeres didn’t impress her a lot, its
Reported she muttered she’d rather have Wotsits.
Then later that night after two crates of Becks
She and a fellow had credit-crunch sex
By eight in the morning she’d left without trace
Except for a message of dubious grace
Piped onto a chocolate cake left in the kitchen
(She told tutors both what to do with their pitchin’)
And everyone thought now that that was the end
Of Melissa and words that she’d caustically penned
There were some who imagined she’d end up in jail,
But no, she’s a columnist now on The Mail
She writes about food using words like ‘delicious’
And restaurant crits. that are always quite vicious
When asked where she learnt to tell pitta from naan
She always says Devon, with friends, in a barn.
I’ve suddenly realized: I have not described to you anything about Totleigh Barton itself! That must be rectified, because the atmosphere was really inextricable from the experience. No one can ever tell me that one can learn anything anywhere: well, maybe so, but one learns better in beautiful, historic places. That’s just the truth.
Totleigh Barton is, as all the literature told me solemnly, a “pre-Domesday thatched manor house.” I ingested this information without any real idea what that meant. Thatch, I understood, but pre-Domesday signified nothing, ignorant American that I am. So I’ll tell you: it’s to do with a book, as most good things are, I find. The Domesday book was commissioned by William the Conquerer in 1086 as the most comprehensive land survey in the world. A contemporary observer of the compilation remarked “there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out.” Pretty impressive, that.
But for our purposes, I have to aver that the house we stayed in, while very very old, is certainly not a medieval manor house. The important thing is that there has been a house, on that spot, since before the Domesday book was compiled. Presumably whoever lived there in 1086 is included in the book! I don’t know any more than that. But Totleigh Barton itself must be several hundred years old. The floors were made of GRANITE. Can you imagine? A glass dropped on the kitchen floor sent shattered shards into the adjacent counties, I am quite certain. The ceiling beams in the kitchen were so low that I am convinced Edward in particular lost a fair number of IQ points bumping relentlessly into them, poor man. We were an unusually tall bunch of food writers, it would seem, so care was taken.
Can I describe to you the complete unsuitability of the kitchen as a room for preparing food? I have to remember that food writing is but one topic covered at Totleigh Barton and presumably the rocket scientists who followed or preceded us did not care one whit that the only truly practical thing the kitchen was capable of emitting was fried mushrooms. There were two ovens, but only one worked. Well, the other might have worked, but the wailing, whining, thumping sound the internal fan made caused us to turn it off in heart-thumping dismay. The oven that did work, did so only under duress. Its door tried to remain open at all times, its temperature was quixotically independent of any measuring, ordering or predicting. The stove top was so inefficient that Tamasin’s carrot soup had to be put into three separate pots in order to achieve even the most modest simmer at a time even approaching past lunchtime.
And the lighting? Or lack thereof? My dears, it was like cooking in a cave, lit by a single torch hanging by a string in the center of the enclosure. There was one enormous dangling LAMP that suspended itself pugnaciously over the kitchen table (whose evidence of absolutely no proper hygienic scrubbing made me frantic all week: I kept promising myself I’d creep down at 2 a.m. someday and have at it with a bleachy sponge, but alas, it never happened). There was, unaccountably, a truly superb chopping knife, and my explanation for that is quite simple: no on in the history of Totleigh Barton before us had ever attempted to use it. Enough said.
The inadequate flat surfaces that we were meant to cook on were taken up almost entirely by teakettles as far as I could see. The British! Honestly, it’s the largest group of the creatures I’ve ever been exposed to in captivity, and the numbers of cups of tea that they require to function is staggering. How do Americans manage to get through a productive day without beginning to talk about a cup of tea at 11, frantically longing for it by noon? And again at 4, or 5? They would all all troop relentlessly into the kitchen and crowd around those *&^% kettles, making up odd pronouncements about which sorts of tea could receive milk and which for whom the addition of a dairy product is tantamount to treason.
And every day a new cake mysteriously arrived into the kitchen, to be fallen on by these dear people as if on a moose carcass by starving hunters. It was fascinating! Every time I think that some little fact about life in Britain is exaggerated (the rain, the bad food, the obsession with minor celebrities, the devotion to one’s football club, their TEA), I’m faced with the undeniable reality: a whole lot of them with their little mugs, every single day and you realise it’s all true. And, I might add, they will have their tea no matter WHAT ELSE is meant to be happening in the overcrowded kitchen to begin with! There I was, washing interminable pots at the tiny sink (I DID scrub that one), and one of my fellow writers would hang disconsolately over my shoulder, asking plaintively, “Could I get just a little cold water, Kristen? Thanks SO much.” Sigh.
But I am distracting myself.
One of the wicked things about being with a lot of other storytellers, yarnspinners, is that a fair amount of embellishment, dramatisation, not to say outright invention goes on. Which is what happened with… Day Four. For some reason, in the kitchen at breakfast (read, cup of ginger tea for me just to fit in, while everyone else was doing massive fryups and Tamasin and I were hard at work on a stock), I said, “You know, it’s Day Four.” “Yes, what difference does that make?” some innocent person asked, but Tamasin jumped right on it. “I’ve been on Day Fours on photoshoots that you would NOT BELIEVE.” “Exactly,” I said. “Day Four.”
By that afternoon, everyone was asking everyone else how “Day Four” was going: was it living up to expectations, had any “Day Four” things happened, etc. Sheer suggestive nonsense, but good fun. Edward and I walked into Sheepdip, I mean Sheepcurd or Sheepwash or whatever the nearby village was called, just to clear our heads. We ducked into the pub and were greeted with, “I’m just closing up now, mind,” whereupon Edward ordered a pint and I ordered… a pint of cold water WITH ICE. “I never saw anything like that barman’s face. Ice *&^% water? After he stayed open for us…” We sat out in the sun and discussed life, feeling we’d escaped school for a bit. Massively long walk back, somehow so much longer than the walk there, and UP and DOWN. Both of us felt it in our calf muscles the next day! But glorious weather, in a place where the saying is, “Welcome to sunny Devon, where it rains six days from seven.” Not for us, not for the food writers of Totleigh Barton. We were blessed.
Day Four. There was a palpable sadness, at least for me, that I couldn’t pretend it was only halfway finished. The fact was, it was the Next To The Last Day. I have written in my journal from the day, simply, “Fabulous.” And it was: chatting about our writing plans, our dreams of what we can accomplish, running the brilliant tutors’ ideas past each other for moral support, and as an underscoring of how HARD they are working to give us something… and to great results. At one point Orlando, with his seductive combination of hard criticism and self-deprecating identification with us, said, “I think it may be possible that what some of you have learned this week is that you do NOT want to be food writers…” The only point at which I felt this was during what I termed “recipe hell.” Have you any idea how bloody specific you have to be in writing a recipe? They set us a fascinating test: watch them go around the kitchen creating something unnamed (never mind that we practically all had to have individual torches, the lighting was so abysmal, and everyone hit heads on the beams, AGAIN), and were allowed to ask about what ingredients and quantities they were using, method and practice, and it turned out to be little choux pastries. Then it was off to the barn to turn our impressions into… a REAL recipe. Consistent with the methods, measuring standards, wording standards, of whatever publication we planned to submit to. My God, it was exhausting. In the way that something can be exhausting that doesn’t involve any physical effort whatsoever.
Tbsp, or tbsps if plural? Herbs measured before or after chopping? Water mentioned in recipe ingredients or no? Just the term “seasoning” or salt and pepper in the list of ingredients? And how to describe the finished dish? A list of words we are NEVER allowed to us: first and foremost among them “delicious.” Just not on, not allowed. As also, “crispy.” “Crisp” should be good enough for any red-blooded food writer, it was dictated. “Unctuous” is overused and a problem child. Immediately none of us could produce any piece of prose that did not involve these words. You try it! Take a word off the table and it’s the only word that will do. AT ALL.
Through it all, all morning long as we persevered and memorized and took notes and listened intently to all the wisdom being offered, COWS marched past the low windows of the barn and COWS stared in at us. I defy you to sit quietly and take notes about how to pitch a piece to the Guardian when an enormous COW has stopped, looked in the dusty window at you, mooed, and moved on. Simply priceless.
What came out of so much of our instruction was painfully simple, and yet surprisingly difficult to make happen: BE TRUTHFUL. Tell the truth. Tell a proper story with ACCURACY. In a restaurant review, pick out the ingredients and discuss them. If you can’t tell, ask a waiter. Get into the kitchen and see what’s happening. All through this, both Tamasin and Orlando talked fast and furious, giving me the definite sense that we could listen to them all day, every day, almost infinitely, and there would be still more they could impart. How they accomplished such a complex, varied, high-flying set of points for us to digest without having done this before together, I cannot fathom. It was lightning fast, not a wasted word, and we simply THOUGHT and worked.
One of my favorite bits: Orlando’s Magic Three Qualities in Writing: and each of us is good at only two, and has to slave at the third.
Go on, think about it. What is Jamie Oliver good at? Well, probably research and writing style? What is Simon Hopkinson good at? Writing style and storytelling. What is Martha Stewart good at? Research and storytelling. But we can’t do all three, naturally, well. Two come naturally and third is hard-won by sheer hard work. Fair enough. I know for certain that I can tell a story and my writing style, if not brilliant, is MINE. But research? Never stirred a heartbeat. Lovely.
Day Four. Intense.
You know what? The food got better. Lunches were a mystery to me, strange concoctions that were better left to one side for more mundane salads. The cooking at night got better as the friendships one depended on to produce the food got stronger. Each dinner prep had its own Zen. I will wait until tomorrow, Day Five, to describe to you the joys of cooking with Edward, Charlie and Roger. Me and the boys. It was a hoot.
Actually, while there was obviously a Day Three, we didn’t recognize it as such. I think that during the first two days, we were all so overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility we had for being there that there wasn’t much chance to count up the days. Does that make any kind of sense? It was fairly gruelling to get through the first two days, being willing to strip off the armor of pride, sensitivity, you name it: all the aspects of one’s writing personality that have to be the first things to go, if you’re going to learn anything.
So on the third day, we were faced with a tremendous challenge. The night before had been the first dinner we were responsible for: not I, but four of my mates. And our tutor Tamasin had scotched the planned mackerel (thank you, God, I don’t like mackerel) for salmon. Fair enough. Only the only available salmon was farmed, and let me tell you, Tamasin cannot say enough, strongly enough, about the evils of farmed salmon. I think it’s like veal that’s been raised in little lightless boxes and fed God knows what, so that the unhappiness of the little beasts is a central part of the flavor of the meat. So the salmon was fighting a losing battle to begin with, poor thing.
Then there was Jack. To give him credit, he was the only professional chef among us, and he had STANDARDS. And then there’s the complexity of ego in a kitchen: who is in charge, whose wishes are ultimately respected, who gives orders and who follows them. Solitary as I am in my kitchen 99 days out of 100, these are all issues that hold little weight with me. I have the dubious distinction of being completely in charge, but the only creatures around to give orders to would be the cats. So I have the honor of ordering the menu, doing the shopping, creating all over the place, serving, and clearing up. Not much ego fighting available in that scenario. I had no idea.
Chefs get sarky about their kitchens! And dare I say it, men are really silly about the drama and the hierarchy of cooking. The times I had a man in that kitchen come to the sink where I was invariably scrubbing out a pot, and casually throw a skillet or bowl in the sink (“my” sink? not really!), saying absolutely nothing but clearly expecting I’d wash up! I can’t count the number of times. Last night after dinner, John handed me a particularly vile skillet and said, “That needs to soak,” and I had to laugh. “That is the CLASSIC line to come from any man in any kitchen! ‘Soaking’ is a pure euphemism for ‘if I let it lie there long enough, some woman will scrub it for me’!” The look on his face was priceless: it was as if I had uncovered one of the great secrets of the battles between the sexes. I’m reminded of Grace Kelly’s saying to Celeste Holm in “High Society”, “Aren’t men wonderful?” And Celeste replies drily, “The little dears.”
But I digress. My point is that the salmon dinner was felt by Jack to be an unmitigated disaster. The salmon was overcooked, the potatoes not timed properly, the only good thing about the entire dinner was a dish of warm sauteed cucumbers with parsley and butter, and THAT had been Tamasin’s creation. So there was a lot of unhappy skulking about going on, a lot of mutterings. I myself was simply so happy to eat something someone else cooked for me that I could not bring myself to argue. Clearly I do not possess the killer chef gene.
So Day Three saw us in the barn, ready to write. And the assignment? Write a restaurant review of the previous night’s dinner. Oh dear. So we all got down to it. I became so involved in the elaborate fantasy I wove around the restaurant having been closed down for months only to reopen in a flurry of publicity and excitement that I frankly ran out of time before I could describe the food properly! Always one to weave a story rather than get down to the business of criticizing someone… Anyway, it came time for us to read out our pieces (mine was received in precisely the uninterested silence it deserved), and we went round the room hearing everyone’s reactions to the salmon, the potatoes, the cucumbers. Everyone was kind. Fair enough. We came to Jack himself, the chef in question, and for some reason he looked completely furious. He looked around and said, “Just for the record, I hope you listen to your tastebuds and don’t tell yourselves lies when you eat,” and then read out HIS review, which was unaccountably of a Thai place in Islington. Hmmm…
Of course it turned out later that he was out of the room when the brief was given, and didn’t know we had been assigned to write about HIS MEAL. Imagine his reaction when absolutely EVERYONE chose to write about HIS MEAL. He must have been apoplectic, poor man. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, he regained his sang froid. But can you imagine?
That afternoon I tried really hard to rewrite my two pieces that had been so thoroughly, let’s see, GONE OVER by our hard-working tutors. From my perspective as a former professor, I can assure that it is no picnic to have to read the various highly-charged outpourings of students’ pens. We each of us obviously feels deserving of the most thoughtful scrutiny! It can be tempting to say general things, to say supportive but ultimately meaningless things, just to get it over. Not these two. To a person, each of us felt we’d been well and truly read, analyzed, corrected, contextualized. To be sure, it’s not easy to be on the receiving end of so much high-powered attention. And it must be kept in mind while one is (well, all right, I am) trying to absorb the commentary: these people are hotly admired professional writers with extremely high standards. So a little quiet weeping into one’s jumper sleeve is only to be expected, isn’t it? After all, they know good writing, and they know rubbish, and they were only too ready to divide up one’s writing into those two categories. If one was lucky enough to have anything in the former, that is. Sigh.
One of my happiest memories of Day Three? Lounging around on the rather dodgy sofas in the barn, just before cocktail time, rewriting my pieces in a desultory sort of way, Edward reading, or perhaps not even reading, “In Defence of Food,” Roger propping up my camera on a roll of paper towel, taking endless (and endlessly boring) photographs of me to try to get the light metre right, Charlie across the room working on his bullet points for his tutorials with Tamasin and Orlando… pure peace. Day Three, late afternoon, when you know you’ve accomplished about all you will get done on that day, you’ve recovered from Days One and Two, you know you’re over halfway there, and the sense that you should hug it all close is beginning to steal over you. When I realized that I had wasted a huge amount of emotional energy dreading going! Only to have it all be quite wonderful. Then, as so often happens, the calm was made that much more so when Orlando came sweeping in and sat himself down at the massive grand piano in the corner of the room and began playing sort of 1970s Top 40 claptrap, all the beloved songs of my piano-playing childhood from music books with titles like “Music to Love By,” Bee-Gees, the Captain and Toni Tenille, but also Ivor Novello and NOel Coward…
The atmosphere was positively catlike in its restful luxury. Never to be repeated. And all the more interesting and precious for that.
Then in swept the the magnificent Simon Parkes from the Food Programme on Radio 4 swept in in all his 6 foot 4 splendor, to speak to us after dinner about his career in broadcasting. That voice! Like melted chocolate. He has the demeanor of a Stephen Fry, in a way: larger than life, but more dapper, and with an expansive gesture now and then to match his voice. He read aloud from his new book about India, The Calcutta Kitchen, mesmerising us all, under the ridiculous heaters suspended from the roof of the barn (we’ll all probably die precisely 1 hour and fifteen minutes earlier than we would have done without the hideous fug coming out of those things).
Isn’t it funny how I have had virtually nothing to say about food? That’s partly down to the rather pathetic nature of what we were offered to eat, but partly as well a result of the students’ identities being primarily writers, and secondarily as food writers. Which is as Tamasin assured us it should be: it’s about the quality of the writing.
Well, I’m off on this nasty rainy day to collect Avery. She’s had a major life triumph: last evening, at the school pool where we were splashing around before dinner, she learned to dive. After probably 8 long years of trying, being frightened, being annoyed with me because diving is one of my few true skills, suddenly last night it all came together. The little sprite is so proud of herself she could bust, and so we will be back at the pool on Thursday evening to make sure it wasn’t all a dream. Dear girl. And tomorrow… Day Four. Which had its own drama, to be sure.
But first, I’ve got to stop laughing and report that it’s happening again: the bizarre and wonderful world of customer service in my adopted land. I just now rang up the Olympia Horse Show ticket office to book for the Christmas Show, having tried to buy tickets online and being told they were sold out for the Friday. Not feeling defeatist I thought, “Hang on, I bet a real person can help me here,” and it was the work of a moment to get an agent on the line. And then the fun began:
“May I help you?” (rather lackadaisical male voice)
“Yes, I’d like to buy three tickets for the Friday evening, and I’m being told online that it’s sold out, so I thought I’d check with a real person. Can you help?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll check for you… What’s the name on your order?”
“But I don’t have an order, that’s why I’m ringing you.”
“Right. I’ll check to see if there are any available. Did you know what event you wanted?”
“YES! The Olympia Horse Show! Three tickets on the Friday night.”
“Yeah, there’s the first tier at 51 pounds, the second at 44…” (and so on)
“I’ll take the 51, please.”
“What day did you want that for?” (didn’t I say already?)
“The Friday, please.”
“And did you know how many tickets you wanted?” (hmmm…)
“Yes, please, three tickets.”
“That’s sold out, actually, if you wanted the Friday.”
“Yes, I did. Are there tickets at any other price?”
“Did you know how many you wanted?”
Grrr! At this point I felt I had been thrust all unknowing onto the stage of an amateur production of an Ionesco play.
The long and short of it is, Friday’s sold out full stop. I finally got tickets for Thursday, but I’m not at all sure they will turn out to be for the horse show. If I end up booked for the “Christmas Conference for the Lactose Intolerant and Vegan in the London Expat Community,” I will be not at all surprised.
Right, rant over. The point of my post today is simply to wax lyrical over last week’s experience at the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton. To think that eight days ago I could not really have lisped the tender syllables of the place because I was completely underwhelmed at the thought of going… and completely overwhelmed at the thought of leaving home. The whole thing just goes to show that getting right away, and having the courage to leave all the whole of your life details in the hands of other carefully chosen people, is a fantastic idea. Go, do.
Once I actually left home, it turned out, I was fine. Just the physical act of shutting the door behind me was therapeutic, really. I felt the weight of the world drop from my shoulders! Isn’t that pathetic. I really must get out more. A lovely trip through the misty countryside to arrive at Exeter St David’s train station and much covert scrutiny of my fellow arrivees to try to determine who might be a food writer. And wondering where the promised taxi might possibly be, and generally feeling extremely footloose and random, not at all my usual sense of being firmly planted in a situation where all the pieces are in place for normal life.
I caught the eye of a girl who struck me as having a suitcase full of recipes, so I approached and said, “Food writing?” and she laughed and said, “Yes, I’m Louise.” The first friend, very promising. A completely jolly man with a perfectly English shock of blond hair approached and said, like a line in a play, “Food writing?” We laughed. He was Charlie, and quite firmly the second friend. More and more people gathered round, a very young chap called Adam and a reserved, quietly observant man called Edward, an unassumingly friendly lady called Pauline… and there was the first taxi, so there was a rather gentlemanly skirmish to allot the first passengers since clearly we would need more than one conveyance.
Charlie, Edward and I were left peacefully behind to await the next taxi, and there was perhaps 25 seconds of hesitance before we began the relentless banter that became what Avery has described as (having heard thousands of stories by now) “The Kristen, Edward and Charlie Show.” We could not talk fast enough. Edward’s chuck-it-all, I’m-bloody-addicted-to-cooking three-month stint at Ballymaloe, a cookery school in County Cork, Ireland, Charlie’s devotion as a PR man to the fate of a Scottish regiment. I don’t remember if I contributed anything more intriguing to the general mayhem than confessing a hatred of tofu, but in any case we made fast friends in an instant, and then realized that no taxi was in sight to take us to our destination. Charlie rang up the company. “It’s broken down you say, and you’re sending another? In 45 minutes? And you think we should have a cup of tea and wait? Right…” He strode over to the taxi rank nearby and gestured thumbs-up to us, and we were off.
There followed an hour-ish of the most entertaining conversation I can ever remember. What did we talk about? Anything and everything, our words spilling over each other in reckless silliness. I think a lot of our instant bond came from sheer relief: the unspoken fear we had all harbored about our upcoming week, a jump into the unknown, an inescapable throwing together of strangers for an experience grounded in total isolation. What if there was no one of interest, I think we had all feared, what if everyone is a dire bore and one can’t get away? What if I’ve landed myself into a week of stilted conversations about nothing, punctuated by miserable, enforced togetherness at mealtimes? This had, I think, been in all our minds, and our joy at finding fascinating (well, I can speak only for my perception of Edward and Charlie), well-spoken people with intriguing stories to tell made us rather instantly the best of friends. “How bad can it be,” Charlie mused, “if we at least have each other to talk to?” Little did we know, the only problem over the coming week was going to be getting enough of the people around us. There was never a lack of conversation, all week.
Our taxi driver, sitting beside me, emerged from his silence to say, “We are about fifteen minutes away,” and I said, “What’s your name, anyway?” “I am Sedgkin, I am Turkish,” he said, “and I must ask you: are you all comedians? Because this is the best taxi ride I have ever had.”
At one point, twisting around in my seat as I had to, to chat, I heard Charlie say what I thought was, “Then I spent two years as Santa,” which struck me as amazing. “Do you know David Sedaris?” I asked, instantly thinking of his mind-bendingly hilarious stories of his days as a Macy’s Christmas elf in New York. “You’ve got to listen to it, with your experiences!” I went on, although taking in a bit the utter blankness on their faces. Typical British people, I thought, thinking Americans rave on about the stupidest things, I thought, feeling a surprising hurt that my two new best friends didn’t understand my enthusiasm. Then it dawned on me. “WHAT did you say you spent two years doing?” And of course that was it. He spent two years at SANDHURST, say that with a British accent. For God’s sake. If I could have crawled under the seat I would have. “You know, the place Prince William went,” Charlie added helpfully, “passing out and so on.” Passing out: if I could have done that, I would have.
We arrived in gravel-spitting splendor and got out of the car, to be confronted with the most dramatic of landscapes and architecture, as you see. Twilight was coming on, there were several smokers in the group casually lighting up outside what would turn out to be the kitchen window, a chap roared up on a motorcycle dressed in leather and I thought, “This could be very interesting.” A completely unfamiliar wave of glee came over me as it dawned on me that I was absolutely on my own, about to make what friends I would of these unknown people. I felt a part of me that had been sleeping wake up suddenly: that person that a person is when stripped of all the cozy bits that make up one’s identity: family, home, responsibilities, routine. Perhaps I’m alone in feeling so dependent on those cocooning strands of identity, I don’t know. I do think most people find it easier to let go of them than I do. But I did.
I can tell you right now that the food, from Day One to Day Five (as we all uniformly referred to the passage of time!) was nearly uniformly diabolically bad. Isn’t that ironic? Here we were, sixteen aspiring food writers gripped with varying degrees of obsession with what we eat, and… it was dire. We were faced with precisely the same menu and store of ingredients as, say, a group of poets or science fiction writers would be. Oven-baked Spanish Risotto? I don’t even know where to start in my list of objections to THAT notion. Where else do you bake something? Risotto is Italian, not Spanish, and is NEVER baked, even in an oven. For heaven’s sake. Fried Tomato and Haloumi Stacks? That’s just WRONG.
I can also tell you that you may expect an instant ratcheting-up of your tendency to swear, should you embark on an Arvon week. I never swear, honestly. Who can, with an 11-year-old as one’s constant companion? Well, I do now, or I did and now I’m having to rein in my appalling language in situations like a missed shot on the tennis court or an impossible conversation with a ticket agent on the telephone. For &^%$‘s sake.
We learned from Simon, our Arvon host, that part of the week’s activities would be cooking together, in groups of four, each night for dinner. At this, Edward, Charlie and I fell over each other racing to the sign-up sheet. “Spicy Roast Chicken With Spinach” seemed the least dire choice, although a bit laconic in its wording. Spinach how? Ah well, how bad could it be. And we’d have fun. We gathered up the only other American, a mysterious travel writer called Roger, for our foursome, the last night of the adventure. Little did we know what dramas would ensue in the kitchen, to the menu, to all our friendships, as the week progressed.
Another thing I can tell you is that spending five days having one’s every WORD scrutinized, analyzed, described alternately as “rubbish,” “riveting,” “just wrong,” “truthful but awkward,” etc., is one of the most life-changing experiences a writer can have. Can you imagine? Several of us discussed the phenomenon as the week went on. “Don’t you find yourself measuring your words to a degree you never have before?” the youngest member of our group, Sam, asked ingenuously one afternoon, as we sat keeping the smokers company in the sun outside the kitchen. “And not just in writing,” I agreed, “even speaking has become something I can’t do just naturally anymore!”
I’ll describe to you the sequence of our hours, and you can imagine how stunningly self-conscious, and intimately connected to one another it makes writers, as the days go by. First thing in the morning: a trek to the ancient barn adjacent to the house, with soaring ceilings fitted with the most hideously inefficient heaters ever devised. We all arranged ourselves on the several sort of stage-set-like draped sofas around the perimeter of the room (I kept imagining someone from an Alan Bennett play to leap out from behind one). Our tutors, Tamasin Day-Lewis and Orlando Murrin, would bark at us to get in and get started. They set us an exercise to write about that instant, twenty minutes’ time limit. Holding up a lemon, Orlando said on our first real day of work, “Describe this object to an alien. Twenty minutes.” Oh, no. But oh, yes. And twenty minutes later, we each read out our pieces to the whole group, at that point relative strangers, to the tutors’ (and eventually all our) rigorously truthful response. Painful! Scary!
Then lunch together, making tentative forays on that first day into friendship (although “The Kristen, Edward and Charlie Show” was full-on even on Day Two of our adventure, so at least there was always some banter, even initially. Personalities began to emerge: motherly and yet feisty Rosie, Roger the Spy (was he or wasn’t he? He could tell us but then he’d have to kill us), peaceful Katie, ambitious and very young Adam, laconic but intense Jack the motorcycle-riding professional chef… how would I be described? An interesting question!
After lunch we had our individual tutorials with Tamasin and Orlando, and dear readers, I don’t know if I was really practical, really brave, or really stupid to schedule mine both on the first day. Probably a bit of all three, really. My idea had been that I would get their responses and their criticism to the pieces I had submitted right at the start, and then have the whole week to work on them. Well, perhaps. But what I didn’t bargain on was the gut-wrenching shock of professional, no-holds-barred feedback (how I hate that word now) before I had properly learned what my strengths and weaknesses were. True, I had all week to work on what they said, but I also to my peril had all week to REMEMBER what they said, in all its black-and-white drama. Fairly shattering, I have to confess…
Then dinner (enough said), then more reading-aloud in the big barn at night. Thankfully, the atmosphere at night was quite definitively admiring, enjoying, supporting, as an antidote to the fiercely honest mood of the daytime readings. I don’t think any of us would have survived otherwise, quite simply. You emerge from a week of this treatment completely without fear of anything anyone will ever say again about your writing, I assure you. But it’s a week of trial by most eloquent fire.
Well, I must get back to actual living, as opposed to describing living. What a bore that is, sometimes, the regular living. Because yes, I’m back in the reality of supervising Latin homework, emptying the dishwasher, remembering people’s birthdays, filling out school forms. But I’ll be back, because I really need to put some of this extraordinary experience into words, if only for me…