I have, unsurprisingly, not much of a head for business. When John talks about subprime mortgages, TALF, TARPS and what not, I try hard to pay attention, not to retreat into making silent grocery lists or wondering how to fillet a sea bream.
So when my good friend Darina rang us up to see if we would like to join them at “Enron,” I quailed a bit. I know that it’s the hottest ticket in town. I even tried, with the best of intentions, to get tickets last autumn when the play was at the Royal Court. Wasn’t too devastated when it was sold-out. A theatrical rendition of the collapse of an oil and gas company in Texas?
But I couldn’t in good conscience not go, when tickets were being waved in my face. So we said yes, to go last night.
“It’s a musical, isn’t it?” John asked yesterday afternoon as yet another grey rainstorm swept by the study window. (At least the heat is back on.)
“It most certainly is NOT a musical,” I…
I have to tell you how silly we are, what silly things we buy when in a foreign land, to haul home in overstuffed suitcases: not Italian clothes, or Murano glass, oh no. We bring chocolates, biscotti, dried mushrooms, little red peppers stuffed with tuna, tiny crackers embedded with rosemary, and… heart-shaped salamis. And as for the last, I do not mean some lame effort like a long salami shaped into a heart. No, I mean that an actual Italian salami-maker has formed the salami mixture into the full-fledged shape of a heart: three-dimensional! I will take a photo when we eat it, but believe me, it’s an oddity. I imagine it will be a delicious one.
Today I am wishing we were back in Venice for many reasons, but first among them is that our home away from home in Venice had heat and hot water. Yesterday we were sitting around shivering, watching the Olympics and figuring it was the appearance of all that snow that was making us cold. No. The boiler has shot itself. Since yesterday, not one drop of hot water or breath of heat. And it’s COLD here. We put Avery to bed with five hot water bottles (each one requiring an entire kettle of nearly-boiling water, took forever) and two feather duvets, but she was still freezing in the middle of the night. British Gas sent a lovely man who spent all afternoon here only to tell us that there isn’t an available “team” for two weeks. We’re gutted. Something has to give.
So let’s go back to Venice, where nothing bad ever happens. Wednesday saw us in a little square, the Campo Erberia (Square of Herbs, which is delightful to imagine!) outside the Rialto market where it was too late to see the market stalls (that had to wait till Thursday), but there was an incredible shop called Casa del Parmigiano, which as the name implies is a House of Cheese. Every Italian cheese you can imagine, but also cured meats, fresh pasta, and in a little shop adjacent, all sorts of deli items that made me positively green with envy! This is where I acquired my porcini secchi and peperoncino alla tonno, and directly outside was the most beautiful dog Avery had ever seen, so each of us was happy. We looked up “caress” in my dictionary and asked permission of the owner to stroke him, as you see.
“I love this dog, I want this dog,” Avery murumured urgently. “How do you say ‘dog’?”
“Cane,” I said, “this is a cane tipicamente Veneziano. A typical Venetian dog.”
Avery repeated it spot-on perfectly, and thereafter, in the way that children (or teenagers) do, every dog we saw was a “cane tipicamente Veneziano,” and then there were other things “tipicamente Veneziani,” like cheeses, or bridges, or squares.
Dog caressed, snacks bought, we hopped on the vaporetto and headed to the cemetery island of San Michele. Yes, there really is an island that is nothing but the final resting place of many, many Venetians. Simply miles, as far as the eye can see, of marble walls, not deep enough to contain a coffin or even, in some cases, an urn of ashes, but all covered with carved epitaphs, the names and dates of the deceased, and messages from loved ones, along the lines of “as much as we loved you on earth, the angels will love you now.” There was an entire Recinto dei Bambini, an area reserved for dead babies and children, which we had to turn away from, presently, because the Italian tradition is to place a permanent photograph on the gravestone, somehow fused with the marble. The images of tiny faces in christening gowns, or even sadder somehow, playing in a garden or sitting on a parent’s lap, were too much.
As light comic relief from these sad memorials was one particular photograph, of a husband who died in the 1960s and his widow, buried with him in 2008. Clearly the photograph was fused, combining the 1960s image of the man, with the 2008 image of his wife. We stared for a moment. Then Avery intoned, “Together in life, Photoshopped in death.”
There were Italian contessas who clearly, from their first names, were English! We imagined them arriving in Venice for a summer abroad, as students, falling in love with a dissipated but charming nobleman, tipicamente Veneziano, and ending up living out their days here, eating Parmigiano and being interred on San Michele. Not a bad way to go.
At one point, another tourist approached us and asked in German,
“Have you seen the lady I was with?”
“No,” I answered, “and I don’t really speak much German.”
“Oh, I thought you were a German family, I’m sorry. Would you rather speak French or are you Italian? I just do not want to leave her here, without me.”
I would think NOT! Of all the places to choose! And in fact later in the day, we saw her get off the vaporetto without him, so perhaps the cemetery was a bad place for that first date.
From the cemetery island we journeyed over to Murano to see the glass factories, so famous, so storied. Avery chose a pendant (and this was NOT the place for her to perform her usual shopper’s technique of touching everything!), but we left empty-handed.
After a forgettable but energy-restoring pizza back in Venice proper, we headed to the Piazza San Marco to see the Basilica in the right manner, not just as the background to the masks of Carnevale. Oh, the Loggia dei Cavalli, those incredible copper horses, overlooking the Square. Much of the Square itself was scaffolded for repairs, which made us feel as if we were back in London (my father used to say he was going to buy stock in a London scaffolding concern). The views were impeccable, but we had to descend because Avery is sadly quite afraid of heights!
From there to the Campo Santa Stefano to see the Opera House, La Fenice, which figures so prominently in the first of the marvellous Donna Leon mysteries set in Venice, “Death At La Fenice.” I listened to the book on tape before we left, and it was great fun to see the lovely white marble facade in person, restored after a devastating fire. We searched in vain for shoes for Avery, who as she gets on in years is showing a fearful propensity for… high heels. Do you know the word for “kitten heels” in Italian? It’s kittenheels, just as the French word for “weekend” is weekend. Seriously. But no one had any shoes of any type in a size small enough for her, so we’re spared for the time being.
For dinner that night we fared better than adequate, though still not stellar. I was happier with my choices than I had been the night before, partly because I was completely charmed by the lovely, energetic, dramatic maestro of Osteria da Bepi. On our cold, rainy evening, it was hard to imagine people eating outside on a sunny day, enjoying the fresh air. Instead, we were trundled inside to an atmosphere of chaotic control, with the man in charge (I wish I knew his name, he was so patient with my Italian and so lovely and happy) rushing to and fro doing all the jobs: taking orders, cleaning tables, boning fish, serving tiramisu.
I had a wonderful starter that I would like very much to make at home: tiny sliced carciofini (baby artichokes) with scampi (crayfish tails) in a garlicky olive oil dressing, simply delicious and so unusual. Then fegato (tipicamente Veneziano, the menu said, which made Avery laugh), liver sauteed with onions. John had capa longa (razor clams) sauteed in garlic, and then seppie (cuttlefish), which I found… disgusting, sorry. Everything with polenta! Not my favorite side dish, it was appropriate to be served, so I could not complain. But when I make liver and onions at home, it will be with mashed potatoes! Avery was happy with an ENTIRE plate of prosciutto and tortelli a patate. We were full, which was enough.
We went home to open the balcony shutters and look out at the foggy streets across the darling little bridge, at one lone person (on what errand, so late at night?) passing by, at the green water and floating boats. Quite, quite perfect.
Languages, languages. Is there anything more satisfying than arriving in a foreign land, hearing familiar but strange words flowing all around, and reaching into your brain, back to the past when you could speak those words yourself, and finding a way to express yourself? I simply love it.
When I was 21 or so, I spent a summer in Florence trying to become an artist, learning to appreciate real food for the first time in my life, and beginning a lifelong love affair with the Italian language. Sadly, I was told in no uncertain terms by my various art teachers that I had absolutely no talent whatsoever at making anything. I tried sculpture, I tried printmaking, I tried drawing. My printing teacher was no less a luminary than Leonard Baskin, amazingly, and while he was very, very nice to me, I will never forget his disbelief at my lack of ability. “Until I met you, Kristen, I would have said that I could teach anyone to make a decent print.” Just awful. But I did turn out to have a talent for appreciating what other people made, and explaining it. My ambition to teach art history raised its tiny head, and many happy years were spent doing just that.
Even more lasting, though, were my new love of food — tortellini alla panna, millefoglie con cioccolato, you name it, I ate it — and my absorption of the Italian language. To be able to fit in, to produce whole sentences in a proper accent, to slide under the surface of a foreign culture, to bridge the gap between the local and the visitor… it’s addictive for me. If I weren’t so inherently lazy, I’d be a serious linguist and actually accomplish something with my tiny talent at picking up languages. As it is, I just get a kick out of arriving in Venice, reaching into the shadowy corners of my brain where all those words are sleeping, and waking them up, for three days.
We arrived on Tuesday afternoon at lunchtime, and jumped onto a vaporetto, a waterway bus, along with all the other visitors for the last day of Carnevale. We’d packed very lightly, so the short walk from the Ca’ d’Oro “bus stop” to our hotel was a total pleasure, and we were the Compleat Tourists, our heads cocked at that unmistakable tourist angle, looking up, up, and around. And the hotel! The Ca’ Vendramin, former palazzo home of a 16th century art collector, Gabriele Vendramin, whose artworks are now in the Accademia, the British Museum, all over the world.
We were completely silenced by our arrival at the hotel, across a tiny stone bridge from the main street of the neighborhood, the Strada Nuove. The magnificence of the ornate doorway, the vast stone winding staircase to the first floor, the marble terrazzo floors! Our room had a soaring trompe l’oeil ceiling, enormous windows opening out onto small balconies overlooking the tiny canal “street” below, gorgeous tapestry bed hangings. And not outrageously expensive! In fact, the price dropped on the second and third nights because Carnevale had ended. A lovely, lovely place. Avery and I fell in love particularly withe the green glass doorknobs, and the tiny but beautiful bathroom, forever toasty with its heated towel rack.
We unceremoniously dumped our bags, grabbed my Italian dictionary and the guidebook, and headed out. “Let’s buy some meat and cheese and bread and have a picnic lunch,” John suggested, which seemed brilliant. Why wander around looking for a restaurant when we could plop down by the Grand Canal with an assortment of mouthwatering Italian delicacies?
We dropped into the local, totally ordinary and therefore fascinating supermarket, and picked up salami alla erbe (salami with herbs), an amazing cheese, Camoscio d’oro, and a packet of all the components for a perfect carpaccio salad: slices of tender raw beef fillet, shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, and a scattering of incomparable Italian rucola: you know me and my obsession with rocket! And the Italian version, bought and eaten in Italy, puts to shame the imported bags we get in London.
With a little focaccia, some senape classico (just plain mustard, but it tasted better in Italian) and a bottle of olives, we were in business. “Posso accettare una forchetta?” I somehow managed to ask, thrilled at producing a whole sentence! But no, I could not buy a fork, they had sold all their forks. We crouched down on a pier by the Grand Canal, surrounded by other perfectly happy tourists (lots of teenagers in love), and had our picnic.
From there were wandered over to Piazza San Marco, to see all the Carnevale-goers, so many of them dressed up extravagantly! Full 18th century costumes, one group of four ladies not only dressed, but with their faces AND hair painted gold, sitting at a cafe table, inclining their gilded heads to all the gaping onlookers. “Complimenti, complimenti,” the Italians would say to them, and the ladies would say, “Grazie, grazie,” complacently.
We were virtually the only Americans in Venice, it seemed: almost everyone was Italian, although there was one Russian man shouting into his mobile phone in a particularly serene campo. Where were all our fellow countrymen? And very few English people. Which made for a very foreign atmosphere, and motivated me to produce my Italian for Avery and John, who were gratifyingly impressed. But as always happens to me, I’m much better at speaking than at hearing, so I found myself asking complex questions very adequately, and then standing there open-mouthed as a completely incomprehensible answer flowed toward me!
We wandered around San Marco, admiring the masks and finally buying one for Avery, covered with musical notes. How pretty she looked! We bought a bag of confetti and pelted her with it, as the sun set.
Back to the hotel for a cocktail and to put our feet up. The sound of boats, of waves splashing against the hotel, the shouts of Carnevale revellers — “va bene, ciao, ciao,” and terrible 1980s music from a nearby disco, “Y-M-C-A…” Lovely Federica behind the welcome desk had made a reservation for us at a local and perfectly forgettable restaurant, Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso, where Avery had spaghetti carbonara and French fries! I had a carpaccio of tuna and rucola, John had a nice veal chop. It was our first experience with what seems to be a universal phenomenon in Venice: adequate, but not memorable restaurant food. I hated to admit it: adequate. Now we’ve come home, everyone we know who’s been to Venice raves about all the things we loved too, and then we say, “The food? Not so much.” Catering to tourists means just that, I suppose. Next time perhaps we could find the hidden, local treasures.
A quite perfect first day in what’s now become one of our favorite cities in the world. Day Two? Even better. Watch this space.
I’ll have LOADS to tell you about Venice tomorrow (Carnevale, our amazing Palazzo of a hotel, the MARKETS, my new love affair with artichokes in every form, our nostalgic trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (guess who used to be an art historian?).
Right now I’m dropping. We got up early, went out in the rain, arrived at the vaporetto (water bus) stop in time to hit a STRIKE, walked half an hour in an evil downpour UP and DOWN the steps of bridges, John lugging all the baggage…
Home to mountains of laundry as everything got soaked through the luggage, believe it or not! Four loads so far and I’ve been home only five hours. A gorgeous supper of grilled beef fillets, red pepper soup with creme fraiche and a warm salad of cannellini beans with Parmesan (brought back in the soaked suitcases!) chilli oil, fresh breadcrumbs and rocket.
Tomorrow we drive Avery to the train station for her first journey alone (one stop and change of platform!) to visit a friend in the country. I’m getting perilously relaxed about this sort of thing. But I’ll have time to blog. And I’ll leave you with this image: Brangelina, handing their kids one by one out of a water taxi, right before our very eyes. I hate to say it: I was a bit starstruck.
But even more impressive… those ARTICHOKES…
How do you like a completely new vegetable? Seriously. As the Daily Mail puts it, the newly-minted “flowering sprouts” give children all over the UK another vegetable to hate. They’re a genetic mix of Brussels sprouts and kale. Well, I like sprouts, and I like kale. But when you mix the two together, give them to Marks and Spencer to sell exclusively, they take on a new cachet. The grower in Chipping Camden crowed, “Our other sprouts are green with envy.”
Here’s my best advice: Snip off their little bottom stems for freshness, then let the loose leaves detach themselves and cook them right along with the sprouts. Pour a little olive oil in a heavy skillet, then sprinkle with minced garlic and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Saute for a moment, turn over and saute again. Then add a bit of water, put a lid on the skillet and turn off the heat. There you go.
They’re intensely flavored, with a chewy, lovely bite, and of course anything mixed with olive oil and garlic has its charms. We ate them for lunch whilst our own little sprout was in school, because Avery, sadly, will not go near a sprout. Don’t even mention kale. I’m lucky that she regularly begs for broccoli, asparagus, and peppers. But sprouts? Not so much.
Second to this excitement is our departure tomorrow for VENICE! John and I went once, in 1986, and we were so completely besotted with each other that we had very litle time for oh, say, the sights of Venice. We could have been anywhere. So this time, with Avery in tow, many restaurant recommendations and a firm plan to visit a cemetery island and glass-bowing factory, not to mention a stay in a real palazzo, should be a slightly more appreciative experience. I have a pocket mini dictionary (for menus! I figure the rest will figure itself out, but I don’t want inadvertently to order calf’s nostrils), two novels by Donna Leon, set in the water paradise, and a page of notes with all my friends’ exhortations not to miss this, that, the other. Very exciting! We’ll be back Friday afternoon, full of stories, no doubt.
Can the food be any better than our lunch last week at Bibendum? Such a gorgeous spot, in the Fulham Road, above the famed Oyster Bar where, in our first turn in London twenty years ago, we bought a lobster every Saturday evening, to accompany our bottle of champagne. Young love! This time around, we went to the big kids’ restaurant, and sat contentedly in the warm sunshine, traveling through the stained-glass windows depicting the Michelin Man, casting colored shards of light on all the diners.
I started with rabbit rillettes, confit and rich with a marmalade quenelle and a salad of flat-leaf parsley, chopped hazelnuts and le Puy lentils, lightly dressed in olive oil and lemon zest. John revelled in chicken livers with sauteed spinach in puff pastry with a tomato marjoram sauce. Then we chatted, waiting for our main course, looking longingly at our neighbors’ fish and chips, the most gourmet imaginable! Then there was a loud crash far over John’s shoulder and I said with absolute certainty, “That was our main course.”
Sure enough, minutes later the maitre d’ came by, smiling wryly, carrying two plates. “That brouhaha, you may have guessed, was your meal. So here is a little gift from us, as we prepare fresh plates for you.” And there was the starter I reluctantly passed up in favor of the rabbit: escabeche of red mullet with an AMAZING and so simple accompaniment of steamed carrots, caramelized golden onions, blood orange segments, basil and creme fraiche. Simply delightful, so surprising and fresh, and we normally do not like “fruit and meat.” But the oranges with the fish were lovely. Intensely aromatic, bitingly tart, oily and LOVELY.
I could scarcely, after all that, eat my main course which was guinea hen, roasted with a basil pesto under the skin, swimming on a light broth with fennel, parsley, carrots and celery. John had kidneys with a panko-breadcrumb fried potato dauphinoise: total decadence!
So that was the end of our FT special lunch outings: full price for one, the second person for a fiver! If you can stop yourself ordering champagne, it’s an amazing deal. Lunch for two at a Michelin-starred restaurant for under 40 quid.
As if all this weren’t enough… drumroll please… I have made a big decision about my darling blog. I have come to terms with my admitted total intimidation and trial by admiration of a certain other blogger running a ranch with horses and cattle and four home-schooled children while cooking gourmet meals and photographing them all with a state of the art camera. John actually suggested that she’s the blogger version of “Christmas in Connecticut” and actually writes from a fourth-floor studio walkup in Harlem with a parsley plant dying on her windowsill: this made me howl with laughter during our very posh lunch.
As a result, however, I have made the acquaintance of a lovely, soft-spoken Austrian website designer, and over a pot of peppermint tea (and my gazing upon his 20-something youthful, self-deprecating charm) came to a number of conclusions about Kristen in London. Someday soon I will migrate to something called WordPress, and with a whole new look. Have no fear, however, of my turning the blog into an all-singing, all-dancing, advert-obsessed, slideshow-filled, dizzying show of splendor. No, my new friend likes Kristen in London just as it is, but thinks it could be improved in terms of what the reader (you!) sees on the screen at the very beginning, and could have more depth in terms of choices of things to look at. Most excitingly, there will be a RECIPE INDEX! I am cautiously thrilled. Watch this space!
Right, off we go. But not before I tell you about why it will be a long time before I go out again for fish and chips. It’s because — aside from the chips — I can make it myself now! Better fish than I’ve ever had out. The chips are next. And don’t forget the tartare sauce, adapted from a recipe in my new cookbook, given me by a friend at my birthday! Need a present for a newlywed? This cookbook is it. In the meantime, fry up some haddock and watch out for the new Kristen in London. You deserve them both.
Fried Haddock with Tartare Sauce
4 good fat fillets of skinless haddock
1/2 cup flavorless oil, like sunflower, safflower, soybean
1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup cornflour (cornstarch)
1/2 cup fresh homemade coarse breadcrumbs
2 tbsps Fox Point Seasoning or other dried shallot-garlic seasoning
1 cup milk
Make sure the fish fillets are completely dried. Heat the oil in a wide, shallow saucepan till nearly smoking (I know that sounds silly, but you will be able to tell).
Mix dry ingredients in a wide, shallow bowl. Mix eggs and milk in a bowl. Place all fish fillets in the egg mixture. Have a large plate nearby, ready to receive the fillets once battered.
When ready to fry, dip the fish fillets, one by one, into the flour-breadcrumb mixture, then dip quickly again into egg mixture and again into flour-breadcrumb. Place gently into hot oil in ONE layer. Have a large plate nearby again, topped with several layers of paper towel.
Fry the fish on one side for about 2 minutes, then turn carefully and fry on second side for about 2 minutes or until fillets are stiff. Lift carefully onto the paper towel.
Serve hot with:
4 tbsps mayonnaise
4 cornichons, drained and minced
1 tbsp capers, drained and minced
pinch chopped fresh tarragon
juice of 1/4 lemon or lime
fresh-ground black pepper
salt to taste
Be sure to plump for the highest-quality haddock for these. They should be bright white, firm, thick and odorless. The resulting fried fish is crisp, light, not oily in the slightest, and perfect with the tart (!) tartare sauce.
Now for the chips… next time.
I was going to lie and say it had been a whole week since I blogged because I Had Been So Busy.
And while it’s true, I have been running to and fro, watching Avery create ever-cooler new outfits as above, seeing plays, cooking, turning 45 (no need to expand on the number of years, that’s for sure), the reason I have not been blogging is…
Out of the goodness of her sharing heart, a dear friend of mine pointed me to a blog she enjoyed, saying, “Her tone is very different from yours, but I think you might find her inspiring.” I’m almost afraid to point YOU to this blog, because it is my sincere fear that anyone who sees this superior blog will have no time for me anymore.
She’s Pioneer Woman, and she is perfect in every way. She lives on a ranch with four unbelievably photogenic children, hordes of horses, acres of cows, and masses of sexy cowboys as far as the eye can see, including her husband. She gardens, she cooks splendidly (her COOKBOOK has just been published, which put me over the edge), she even home-schools. And she’s gorgeous. And nice.
I could spit.
Well, as you can see, the most that this state of severe negative self esteem has produced is a photo behind the banner of my blog, and a new description, and a new “About Me.” What has not transpired is a recipe index. Or the uber-expensive Nikon camera with which she takes her glorious photos, or the Photoshop software to alter them all to perfection.
Just a photo behind my banner, that’s all. But it’s a start. And since it was my birthday table after my sublime party, I’m posting it separately on this post. In reality: it’s the typical image of my life, my mother-in-law says, which makes me very happy.
Mostly I spent the seven days of my silence turning 45. Planning to turn 45, cooking for the lovely ladies who came to help me turn 45, cleaning up after us all, and generally dozing around analyzing whether or not I felt any older. It was a glorious birthday.
The first delightful thing that happened in my obsessive planning leading up to the party was a discovery in my basement (which could yield almost any surprise, it has to be said). This particular surprise was a Ziplock bag full of tarnished silver napkin rings. Back in the days when John and I spent a lot of time thinking up presents to give each other, one of our fallbacks was a napkin ring, to be brought out at the endless dinner parties we gave, pre-Avery. We bought them at antique shops and flea markets, people gave them to us for birthdays and anniversaries, and most celebratory of all, we commissioned them from our friend the jeweler, Linda Lee Johnson, our neighbor in our SoHo loft building and the maker of all the beautiful things we have ever owned.
And somehow, in the confusion of all our many movings of house, those gorgeous things were stuffed into a plastic bag and forgotten on a cellar shelf. Awful.
It was but the work of a moment to bring them up, cover them in silver polish and shine them up. Two are engraved with the date, month and year of our first date! And one says “John + Kristen,” and another is a giant silver flower shape, and one, a Victorian beauty, says “Ellen Bennett,” who one of my birthday guests joked was actually John’s first wife.
What a find.
I spent all of Saturday polishing champagne glasses, polishing forks and knives and spoons, and soaking beans for the cassoulet that would be my birthday supper, Sunday night. Because why buy an ordinary tin of haricot beans and pour off the water in about 26 seconds, when you can, instead, soak dry organic beans for 22 hours, changing the water three times? Always go the extra mile.
Saturday night found us on our way (and on, and ON) to a little-known Oscar Wilde play, “Lord Savile’s Crime,” in Bromley, of all places. Fifty-two minutes to drive there didn’t sound so unreasonable, on google maps. How they lied. It was at least an hour and a half, with impossible directions and terrible traffic. I could feel John fuming next to me, watching the minutes tick by, finally saying, “Of all the neighborhoods we’ve been through on the way to this b**dy play, there isn’t a single one I’m planning to visit again.” Ouch. Rain, finally, to cap it all off.
But the play was lovely! A crazy Victorian farce, with Lee Mead of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” fame, in the lead. He’s been told by a psychic that he’s going to commit a murder, and in order that he not murder his beloved fiance, he finds other relations and friends he thinks he can bump off instead. Great costumes, and a stage design and direction that was almost like another character, it was so clever.
And somehow finding our way home was even more Draconian than getting there. But we made it.
Sunday I… cooked. And cooked, and cooked some more. I shelled sweetcorn, chopped garlic, simmered duck, spun lettuce, sauteed lamb, baked sausages, sliced carrots and celery, wept over onions.
I filled candle holders with candles, folded old white vintage napkins into my polished napkin rings, chose soup bowls and wine glasses, and John hoovered the house to be ready, and lit the fire in the living room upstairs.
And they came. My friend JoAnn all the way from Oxford! My neighbors and friends from school, ready for fun, gossip, and the exchange of wisdom and emotion and silly anecdotes that makes up the great good fortune of having girlfriends. Heaven. Avery and John came in late from their own dinner party (cooked by the husband of one of my guests!), had a piece of lovely chocolate cake made by my friend Annie and decorated with a “K” in raspberries by her daughter. Finally everyone departed into the rainy night and JoAnn and I made a desultory attempt to handle the mess in the kitchen, getting only about halfway through before we simply had to stop, sit and chat a bit, and then fall into bed. A gorgeous, lovely night.
Many would find it silly, even incomprehensible, that my idea of a birthday party was to cook everything myself and then have to clean up. But it was heavenly. Eight girlfriends, some of whom knew each other but some did not, dressed up, bearing champagne and presents, with candlelight and the aroma of sweetcorn and rocket soup, cassoulet, the gorgeous purple hyacinths on the table and many different subtle perfumes.
And on Monday morning, perhaps the best gift of all: the window cleaner came! I’m ashamed to say we’ve lived here for nearly two years and not… had the windows cleaned. Kenny came, hung his frame outside and inside the windows, and after just a few hours our windows gleamed in unaccustomed sparkle! I almost felt we’d fall out of them if we got too close. Perfect birthday present for me. Then to lunch at La Trompette in Chiswick: foie gras and chicken liver parfait with fresh brioche, then I had cod with little gnocchi in a puree of cepes (how hard can THAT be to produce, and be so magical? just mushrooms, after all), and John had sea bass fillet with chick peas, aubergine and squid stuffed with diced red pepper… a cheese board and granite of grapefruit, and out into the slushy, slow-falling snow, staggering home in delight.
Home to be given my birthday presents, which SO represent who I am: a tiny spice grinder, a tart slicer, an olive oil decanter, and a gorgeous white shirt and black skirt from Theory. Plus a pair of “duvets for the feet”: feathery slippers, perfect for this cold, cold house.
And all over for another year. My feeling is this: if you have to get older, and come up against a milestone like 45 years, why not celebrate it with those you love, get out of your comfort zone a bit by inviting people who don’t know each other, cook something you haven’t cooked before, light the candles, pour the champagne, watch the snowflakes outside the windows (clean!), and…enjoy with a crisp, salty bite.
Spicy Parmesan crisps
1 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup flour
2 tsps black onion seeds
1 tsp cayenne
Mix everything thoroughly. On a greaseproof paper or a nonstick-sprayed surface, place a tablespoon of the mixture spaced 1/2 inch apart and bake at 425F/220C for about 2 minutes, watching carefully so they don’t burn. Transfer to a plate to cool, and the crisps can be stored in a closed tin for up to 3 days. Perfect with champagne.
When I was 16, I spent a summer in France. I know, it sounds like the beginning words to a very cheesy, or tragic, novel. No, it was simply the beginning of the rest of my life. I discovered perfume, pain au chocolat, advanced French grammar, the joys of a Deux Chevaux, and love. What more could anyone want from life?
And strangely, all these things have figured strongly in my adult life, albeit in different forms and at different times. The perfume I loved went defunct, but I found a new one (still French). Pain au chocolat is still my daughter’s favorite breakfast treat. Lovely friends in London years ago drove a Citroen, and love? I will never forget that particular Frenchman, but my lovely husband now listens to tales of him and my adventures with a raised eyebrow and total acceptance.
What France did not bring to me, until many years later, was a love of French food. Besides, that is, pain au chocolat, which I consider not so much a food as sanctioned candy, masquerading as breakfast.
No, French food escaped me for years, understandably since I lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, until I got married and moved to London, now 20 years ago. Then, because I was writing a dissertation on French art, I had to (had to!) spend time in Paris. And there… I found… cassoulet.
Now, make no mistake, I was no foodie. There weren’t foodies, as far as I know, besides Julia and James and Craig. There was just the world, who far from living to eat, ate to live (if they were lucky). But there were also French people, and French people have always understood the overriding importance of food in life, which I now believe in implicitly and explicitly and every other way. Food is life.
I remember very little of my months in Paris, mostly a fog of this or that bibliotheque, an indigestible mass of information about late 19th century French sculpture, and coming home to yet another rent-by-the-week apartment to eat a tin of tunafish, which in France comes flavored with things like tomato sauce, capers and olive oil. I might have had a cracker with this concoction, then fallen straight to sleep.
But when John came to visit me, we ate. Because he was a man, and therefore hungry. I stayed in many skeevy flats, in many horrid neighborhoods, but once I stayed in the guest room of a friend who lived opulently in the Seventh Arrondisement, and there we found Cafe Max. It was always only a simple out of the way French bistro, like hundreds of others in Paris, and even now it has almost no internet presence, no reputation, no visibility. I was treated kindly at Cafe Max because I spoke fluent French, one of my few skills in life. We sat down, out of the rain, I ate my first confit de canard, my first pate, my first EVERYTHING. And John ate his first cassoulet. And we never forgot a single mouthful.
Candles sputtering, everything brought to the table family-style, you simply helped yourself to whatever amount you wanted, and I don’t remember how it was billed. Red wine in non-labelled bottles, tap water in lovely blue-bottomed bottles, rain, always Parisian rain, spattering outside, the foreign French sirens blaring in and out. Mustardy salad, sometimes with soft-boiled egg on top, hard country breads, unsalted and tough outside, but fluffy and soft within, the room got darker and the smoke from everyone’s cigarettes got thicker. I’m no smoker, but I can’t imagine Cafe Max is the same, if the ban has reached that far.
Memories from another life, when I was young enough to find Paris frightening, yet determined to knock on every door to do my research, to meet all the people I needed to meet. And at night, I was alone, alone, alone. In whatever rented apartment I had managed to find for that three-week period of time, longing all the while for John, far away in London. Youthful adventures are wasted on the young! Silly me, not just to dive in and enjoy everything, even the scary solitude.
And yet I did dive in, as best I could. At least I went, and I was there, however frightened on the inside. And while in those days I was an anti-bean lady, I could see and smell the point of John’s cassoulet: predominantly GARLIC, and FAT, and breadcrumbs, crunchy on top.
I have given almost no thought in the intervening years to Paris (except when I went back) or to cassoulet, until John said last week:
“I’ve been wishing for… a casserole, only what on earth do I mean by that?”
“Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom?” I ask, referring to our ENTIRE childhood, which actually can be encapsulated in a can of soup.
‘No, something GOOD… I don’t know what I mean.”
But I did. Something in me returned to France, to my 20-something self, to goose fat and sausage and duck and baguettes and rainy nights. I went off to the grocery store, bought roughly everything in it, rolled up my sleeves, cancelled everything else I had to do for the day, and produced:
for the confit:
4 duck legs
coarse sea salt
4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 bay leaves, broken in half
1 cup white wine
for the cassoulet:
4 Toulouse sausages
350g/12oz belly pork, skinned and diced
350g/12oz lamb neck fillet or rolled breast, diced
1 large onion, chopped roughly
2 large carrots, chopped roughly
2 celery sticks, chopped roughly
400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
sea salt and pepper
290ml/½ pint dry white wine
2 cans haricot or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
850ml/1½pt chicken stock
for the topping:
1 large day-old baguette (or 1 cup fresh homemade breadcrumbs)
2 fat garlic cloves, halved
4 tbsp butter
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
Place the duck legs skin side down in a skillet with a lid, sprinkle with the salt, garlic and bay leaves and pour the white wine around. Place the lid on top and cook at the tiniest simmer possible, for two hours. Of course, for real confit you’d pour the winey fat over the duck and preserve it, but no need for that step here, as you’ll be using the duck straightaway.
Meanwhile, place the sausages in a 220C/425F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large stovetop– and ovenproof dish that will hold all the ingredients, place the belly pork and heat gently until fat begins to be released, then raise heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the fat has been released and the pork is crisp, but not dry. Lift the pork onto a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving all the fat behind.
Add the lamb to the pork fat and cook until colored on all sides, then lift out with slotted spoon and set aside with the pork.
Add the diced vegetables to the pork fat and cook till soft. Tip the ingredients from the plate back into the dish. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée and herbs, then season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Add the wine, haricot beans and chicken stock to the dish and bring to the boil. Stir, then lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering. Keep the mixture in the same dish to cook or transfer it to an earthenware dish.
When the duck has cooked for two hours, remove it from the wine and fat and cool to handle. Remove the skin from the duck, then tuck the duck legs into the cassoulet.
Peel off the sausage skins, slice the sausagemeat thickly on the diagonal and add to the dish.
Cover the dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring once. Stir, then cook uncovered for a further 1–1½ hours, stirring halfway, until the meat is really tender and the sauce is thickened. Take the dish out of the oven and remove the duck legs. Strip the meat from the bones (it will fall off easily) and return the meat to the dish. Stir and add a little water, if necessary. Season if necessary, then return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes until all the meat and beans are very tender.
For the topping, cut the crusts off the baguette, tear the bread into pieces and put in a food processor. Add the garlic and chop into coarse crumbs (you should have about a cup of garlicky bread crumbs).
Heat the butter in a large frying pan until sizzling, then stir fry the breadcrumbs and garlic over a moderate to high heat for 7–8 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the heat, toss in the herbs and stir to mix, then season well with salt and pepper.
Ladle the cassoulet in generous servings into warm bowls, sprinkle on a bit of topping, and serve.
Be warned: this is a labor-intensive recipe, with many steps, lots of cooking time and attention. It’s not difficult, because each task is simple in itself. But you must be in the mood to potter about the kitchen for the better part of the day.
Here’s a tip that worked for my family: Avery does not like beans, and so I knew that the entire cassoulet would not be to her liking. So I simply made an extra duck leg confit, and when the others went into the cassoulet, hers waited until just 20 minutes before dinner and then roasted in a hot oven, skin side up. Perfect.
Once the cassoulet is thoroughly cooked, it can sit in the refrigerator for up to a day, wanting only to be reheated at a low temperature before serving, so it’s perfect for those days when you’re out until an hour or so before you want to eat.
Your reward for all that dicing and stirring and simmering will be the richest aroma stealing through your house, your family asking if we can eat early, and all you need besides the cassoulet is a traditional green salad with a very mustardy dressing, and a warm baguette, torn into pieces that fit in the hand.
Pure France, in a soup bowl, topped with buttery, garlicky breadcrumbs. You really can’t ask for more than that on a shivery February evening.