Eight days ago we woke up in our old house to welcome — if that’s the word — a team of four hardy chaps who, over the course of the next three days, carried every single item we own out, into a waiting truck, then drove across a bridge (not our pretty green one; it is advertised as “weak” and cannot accommodate such weight, a worrying thought) and up our driveway, carried every item into the house and followed our harried and chaotic instructions as to where things should go.
Lucky Avery and the cats, who were occupied at school and kennel life respectively. Each afternoon John brought Avery over to the new house to see our progress, and then we went rather reluctantly back “home” to order a pizza, eat it off the plates I had miraculously remembered…
Sometimes people ask me how life in London is different from life in New York. I usually answer that life in London is what happens when you press “play,” and life in New York is when you press “fast forward.”
But life in London lately is what happens when you press that “double arrow” and everything speeds up so that you have to run just to stay in the same place.
Actually that’s the problem. If we were staying in the same place, we’d be all set. It’s moving house that has us all crazed, running to and fro carrying piles of books, clothes, CDs, and kitchen utensils, waving them about and saying, “Where should these go?” We have filled the car with boxes of Christmas ornaments that I don’t trust to the movers, and have installed them in the shed. We have been given a completely impossible set of keys — it could take the rest of my life to figure out what they all go to.
And in an attempt to cut down on the amount of room I will take up in the new house, I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century: I actually succumbed to John’s long-suffering suggestion that he convert all my precious books on tape to digital files. Goodbye, beloved boxes.
Our theory has been that the pain we suffer on this end, organising every aspect of our lives completely, giving away everything we don’t absolutely love, will be worth it when all our belongings simply float effortlessly into place in the new house.
Or something like that.
At least it is spring, and the weather has cooperated, producing our garden full of irises, the park full of cherry trees in bloom…
The garden of the new house is full of bamboo, camellias, some sort of bushy red-rose type flower that’s leaving its soft petals in piles on the ground, a mysterious purple-sprouting tree outside the front door, and other living things we cannot identify. Or at least, my friends have identified this one as a wild sumac.
It seems that Avery has been off school half her life! She has had three weeks’ holiday this month, so she has been dragged into the house project full speed ahead, going through all her childhood books, making piles to go into storage (for the mythical grandchild she insists she is never giving us):
Actually, we have had a marvellous time, in some ways. It has been fun to have a joint project, all three of us, to review our past lives through the medium of our belongings, to really look at art hanging invisible on the walls and say, “Should that go over the fireplace, or over the sofa?” Avery and I have taken the time to walk through the park, stopping to get her an ice cream cone on the warmest afternoon of the year.
I never get tired of walking over the bridge to the new house, really the prettiest little bridge in all of London, I think.
Through it all I’ve managed to feed us well, approaching my ingredients with a view to using things up and not having to move them! To this end I created a really lovely dish that will be hard to recreate, as I almost never see these gorgeous round courgettes/zucchini, do you? But stuff them, with whatever you have in your fridge. So delicious.
2 round courgettes
1 pork sausage
1 tsp butter
1 shallot, minced
1 large or 2 medium mushrooms (baby portabella or chestnut are nice)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, minced
handful fresh breadcrumbs
1 tbsp soft goats cheese
sea salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to drizzle
Cut the tops off each courgette, then chop up the tops finely.
Slip the sausage out of its casing and saute gently, breaking up into very small pieces. Add the butter and saute the courgette tops, shallot, mushrooms, garlic and pepper until soft. Tip everything into a medium bowl and add the breadcrumbs and goats cheese, mix well. Season to taste.
Stuff each courgette with the mixture and drizzle generously with olive oil. Bake at 425F/220C for 30 minutes. GORGEOUS.
And to prove without a doubt that we are in England in the springtime, I spent five glorious evenings watching… “Lambing Live”! Yes, the BBC actually set up shop in a remote Cumbrian village, following one family and its farm through a week of lambing, filming and broadcasting, just as it says on the tin, lambing live. Actual lambs appearing from their mothers, then 20 minutes later staggering to their feet, and barely a week later, bouncing across the fields.
Just what the doctor ordered. In the midst of our frantic urban adventure, it was pure bliss to sit for an hour each evening and watch the antics of the woolly little darlings.
And then for something completely different, I had a visitor. Thirty years ago, I spent an other-worldly eight weeks of summer in Brittany, as an honors student, 16 years old, living as a daughter in a French family and promising to speak and hear NO English. It was a magical introduction to Europe, to independence, to baguettes and pain au chocolat, making my own salad dressing from scratch, and the first friends I ever made outside my familiar childhood surroundings.
One of these friends was Katherine, a girl with an irrepressible puckish grin, a scattering of perfect freckles across her nose, eyes that crinkled when she laughed, and a total willingness to go along with and invent madcap schemes with me. We were sixteen together that summer, in love with our grammar teacher of course, learning to make eclairs au chocolat with a friend’s grandmother, memorizing the argot, slang, that was taught to us by my French brothers, sharing our first taste of champagne in a Paris hotel! Pure magic.
Katherine and I have seen each other twice in the intervening 30 years, once when I visited her glamorous Washington, D.C. apartment when she was working as an aide to a Senator, and once when she visited me shortly after Avery was born, in New York. But being separated has never interfered with our friendship, and each time we see each other it is as if we are teenagers again, shouting with laughter, slipping in and out of French (nothing can ever top that method of learning a foreign tongue: total, annihilating immersion!).
So last week brought my Katherine to me here in London, fresh from her triumph at the Paris Marathon the day before!
We met up at Selfridges, hugging and chortling, and she was JUST THE SAME. I introduced her to Avery, and she said, “Wow, you have the same lips you had when you were a baby! I can see both your mom and dad in you,” which every parent wants to hear, of course.
And a milestone: Avery went shopping alone and then hopped on the Tube by herself and got herself home to Hammersmith! Well done, to navigate the transport system of one of the busiest cities in the world! I was happy to get a text from John, “She’s here.”
Katherine and I went off on an open-top bus tour of London, but really, it wouldn’t have mattered where we were. We actually went off on an open-top tour of the last 15 years, talking over and over each other, discussing families, careers, plans for the second half of our lives. It went by far too quickly, and then another bone-crushing hug, “a la prochaine, cherie,” and she was off.
Old friends. There is nothing like that warmth.
I needed the break, because the last few days have been entirely occupied with BOOKS. It’s the price we’re all paying for what’s essentially our home’s greatest decorating scheme, Avery’s entire home education, my childhood on paper…
John, Avery and I simply killed ourselves that day. It was a matter of bad timing: the shelving people could come dismantle the shelves on one day, and one day ONLY, but the movers could not come until a week later, so we had no choice but to pack up all the books ourselves. At least they’re in some semblance of alphabetical order, the boxes numbered in sequence. It should make the whole reverse process on the other end bearable. Except, of course, that the shelving people can’t come re-install the shelves until a week after we have moved in! Oy veh.
Keechie is skeptical about the whole process.
Buttery Potatoes with Fresh Sage
6 medium potatoes, King Edward are a good choice
1/3 cup/80 grams melted butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt and pepper
1 tbsp grated parmesan
6 sage leaves
This is a good recipe for a borderline OCD girl like me. Of course you could use a mandoline, but I like to do my potatoes by hand. Peel them, then slice them very very thin, as uniformly thin as possible. Place the potatoes in an overlapping single layer in a round pie plate, then pour over a bit of the melted butter. Scatter the garlic over, then dust with salt and pepper. Repeat with layers of potato and drizzled butter until you run out of each. Sprinkle with the parmesan and arrange the sage leaves in a flower shape in the center.
Bake at 375F/180C for about 35–40 minutes, until potatoes are soft.
I had to cook these potatoes three times to get the method and proportions exactly right. It may seem like too much butter, but I made one version with far less, and there just wasn’t the magic. If you feel you must use less butter, cook the potatoes as directed with the amount I suggest, then as soon as you take the dish from the oven, pour off as much butter as you can (save it for another savoury purpose). But really, how often will you have these lovely little guys? Enjoy.
Today will be the last visit to the new house — taking the dining room rug to see if it will really fit — before the movers come on Tuesday. Last week Avery and I walked across the bridge with a sushi lunch to meet John and the surveyor there, and on the way we saw Samantha Bond walking into a pub! I simply had to stalk her and tell her how much we loved “Outnumbered” and how close Avery had come to getting the part of her stepdaughter! “Oh, that is so sweet!” she cried. What a nice person. Avery had remained on the pavement, maintaining a dignified silence, but she was impressed, too. Then as we walked down the high street, familiarising ourselves with the shops, there was Patricia Hodge! Goodness, we shall be living in exalted circles.
Enough “me” time, now. The next time I see you it will be from somewhere in the new house. Such exciting times ahead, planning where I shall sit when I blog!
Oh, the memories these horsey rosettes bring back. How many weekends spent driving up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with little Avery in the backseat, hair in ribboned plaits, little monogrammed shirt and jacket, jodphurs and gloves. The hours we spent simply watching her go round and round on a pony, and at the end of the day, her little hands were filled with the silky, brightly colored proof of her achievements.
Since New York, these rosettes have been strung up around her room, added to as each show went by, symbols of her horse-obsessed childhood.
And now, in advance of our move next week, they have all been taken down and packed away into a robin’s-egg-blue hat box, which in turn was placed in her old stable trunk, which in the old days was filled with pony treats, dirty boots, hair ribbons…
From the heart-wrenching goodbye to the ribbons, we moved on to the toy box. No one really wanted to discard any of these old friends, so they made a brief foray into fresh air, then settled back to sleep in their wicker home, to be moved lock, stock and barrel to the new house next week.
And no new bedroom would be complete without the assortment of fuzzy llamas from Peru, bought over a period of many snowy, windy weeks outside Avery’s ballet class in Greenwich Village. “Will the llama salesman be there again, Mommy, because I really liked the kneeling one he had last week…”
Life just seems to be moving awfully quickly, and trading in an old, happy home, for a new, unknown home at the same time I seem to be trading in my old, familiar child for a new, older, more sophisticated version is a bit overwhelming, to be honest. Why is it all happening at the same time?
I’ll tell you why. Because something funny happens when you assess your belongings with an eye toward leaving things behind, giving them away. You ask yourself, “How much of myself is in this stack of books, this moth-eaten sweater, this pile of Christmas cards, this collection of horsey ribbons?” And when you ask yourself those questions, and get down to the answers, you find that your teenager is really quite ready to leave behind the parts of her childhood she’s outgrown. It’s me who has a hard time with the doll’s dress her beloved grandmother made for her American Girl doll, to match her London school uniform at age nine. Actually, she got a bit sentimental over the doll’s dress too, truth be told.
So we are all analyzing our lives and identities through the pragmatic process of moving. And somehow, on the other side of the river, we’ll take those chosen items out of the boxes, reposition them in new places, and we hope our lives and souls will re-emerge too, in a different pattern, but just as sweet.
Meanwhile, what on earth happened the last time we moved? Where was all the paring-down then? Our system three years ago seems to have been something along the lines of:
“Let’s just take bloody everything with us.”
We are finding crazy things like Avery’s homework from Year Five, now five years ago, and clothes for a person surely half the size she is now, not to mention six different sorts of razors, but somehow six OTHER SORTS of blades, none of which fit the razors we have? Prescriptions for face cream guaranteed to stop me being pink, but dated 2005? Why?
The Winner of Least Desirable Object emerged over the weekend, however, as we decided to clean out the dreaded two condiments shelves in the fridge. This process reminded me of the conversation I had with John three summers ago at Red Gate Farm.
“I’m going to the grocery, don’t let me forget to buy pickles.“
“But you have pickles,” he said.
“No, I don’t, I’m sure we’re out.”
Whereupon he went silently into the kitchen and came back out to the terrace with no fewer than eight jars of pickles in his arms. Gherkins, dill, half-sour, sweet crinkle-cut, you name it.
This time here in London we found at least five jars of half-portions of anchovies — since my only two recipes involving anchovies always require half a jar and I am never organized enough to cook them two nights in a row. And there were three half-empty jars of prepared horseradish, three tubes of Wasabi paste, and some spectacularly furry lime chutney.
But the piece de resistance was the bottle of molasses.
“My God,” I said, “the price tag on top is from Jin Market. That’s a whole country and five apartments ago! This molasses has come with us from two apartments ago in Tribeca, across the ocean.”
All this frantic moving activity is thoroughly routing the lovely, relaxed feeling we built up last week. On the Saturday, John and I put Avery on a school coach bound for the Eurotunnel, Belgium, France, and a detailed, emotional tour of the battlefields of World War I. Knowing she was accounted for for the weekend gave me an extraordinary sense of well-being, added to by knowing that my sister and her darling daughter were visiting my family in Indiana, so all those people were accounted for and happy too. Bliss! Plus, we had signed our lease, at LONG last, and so we piled into the convertible and headed out for a weekend of unheard-of luxury at the country house hotel presided over by my friend Orlando Murrin, cookery writer, my adored writing tutor during my Devon adventure years ago. And the most superb hotelier, along with his partner Peter.
Langford Fivehead. How the name rolls trippingly off the tongue, resonating with medieval charm and modern cookery, perfect bed linens and a bath deep as a river, flickering fires and pleasing fellow guests. Most of all, the unexpected beauty of being looked after. Being “not in charge.”
I think most wives and mothers (how old fashioned of me! probably all spouses and parents feel this way) will identify with the slightly burdensome feeling of responsibility that comes upon one after months and even years of unrelieved “being in charge.” Responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, laundry, bed-making, homework supervision and the subtle job of being a nice wife, and fitting in whatever life-fulfilling activities like writing, around those things when one gets a chance. I can’t even imagine the stress of people who do all this PLUS work outside the home. Banners and trophies there.
To be relieved of ALL these things for two days and nights was a dream come true. We drew up outside the front door.
We were welcomed by Peter and taken into the kitchen where I found not only Orlando presiding, but my darling Arvon friend Sam! What a dream, the kitchen smelling of cheesey gougeres, twilight deepening outside the windows, time for a bath and a relaxing glass of champagne.
And my dears, the food! I had never eaten smoked eel before and was a bit wary, but Sam assured me it was his own creation, this salad, and the fish tasted quite similar to smoked trout or smoked haddock. Gently smoked, from the Brown and Forrest Smokery, a 29-year family business which we visited on our way home later that weekend. Gracefully arranged with baby spinach, toasted hazelnuts, hard-boiled bantam eggs. Dressed in a delicate olive oil-lemon juice and honey concoction, perfectly light.
After the salad was roast hoggat, which is nothing more or less than an animal older than a lamb but younger than mutton. Very finely flavored, more highly tasty than lamb. This was served with a perfect wedge of creamy potatoes Dauphinoise, and a bed of buttered baby leeks, which I had never considered as a vegetable, but now I will.
Our dinner companions, family style around a massive oak table, were two elderly couples who had been one another’s best men and bridesmaids 51 years ago! Lovely people, a food writer, a wine writer, and two people who follow horses through country events! And late in the evening, a lovely young couple delayed in London traffic. Gorgeously relaxed and friendly. And to sleep. Here was my view of our ceiling, if you can believe it.
In the morning we took an hour-long up-and-down walk and then came back to be served a ridiculously, perfectly sumptuous brunch. Twice-baked cheesy potatoes, a kedgeree with smoked trout and salmon, peas and scrambled herby eggs, Bramley apple sausages, fresh pineapple. And then off we went to visit local places of interest.
Top down in the glorious spring weather, we drove to Barrington Court, a most fascinating Tudor House that was owned and restored by Sir Arthur Lyle, of sugar-baron Tate and Lyle fame. What makes this house worth visiting? Two things: Sir Arthur was obsessed with panelling, believe it or not, AND the fact that the National Trust which owns the house decided to show it completely empty. Now, the first consideration means that you walk through the house petting the walls, each of which stands out as the most beautiful piece of wood you’ve ever seen.
Can you imagine this carving? Like little scrolls of parchment, each one slightly different from the last. And then, marquetry inlays in the attics, if you please, where the little boys who were evacuated there during the war played cricket. Was it lost on them? You could easily miss it yourself if you don’t look closely.
What joy it is to see an empty stately home. Much more exciting to tour it as if you were with an estate agent and planning where to put your furniture, I think, than to see it filled with period pieces and making you feel nervous. And the grounds? Just gorgeous, daffodils as far as the eye can see, and pollarded fruit trees of some sort. Ah, the English countryside. Narrow paths were mowed so we had a place to walk, but the rest of the grass just grew and grew.
Then, for something completely different, we were on to Montacute, a Renaissance and Elizabethan house.
The house was, sadly, lived in by many generations of the same family until they were made destitute by death duties and the loss of income, until finally one lone daughter was left who took it upon herself to gather and save all the family papers. Diaries and photographs of her coming-out year… records of the sale of silver, and land, in order to pay for that debutante year… very touching.
For me, the house was filled with too much precious furniture and far too many (for this former art historian) English portraits. Something in me gets itchy and sleepy when I am faced with too many paintings all featuring people with ruffs. I’m not sure I would have been able to identify this feeling so exactly, but for the experience of the proud and empty house we saw before.
But the grounds! How on earth to explain this shrubbery?
Altogether worth a visit just to have a wander on a beautiful English day. Traffic sounds roared in the distance and John asked, deadpan, “Why on earth did they build this house so close to the motorway?” That’s one of the reasons I love him. Believe it or not, American tourists have been known to ask guides at Windsor Castle why the queen built it so close to Heathrow. I wish I were making that up.
Back to Orlando’s hotel, where John took a nap and I curled up in the sitting room with my computer, entering recipe contests and meeting the new guests for the evening, a very cool couple both of whom turned out to be rather famous and impressive in the field of journalism, but who were completely down to earth and friendly, looking the place over as a potential site for their upcoming wedding.
Dinner that evening was another complete triumph for Orlando and Sam: a tomato and potato frittata (would love to learn to make that) followed by a chou farcie, a whole cabbage stuffed with sausage and other savoury things, sitting on a bed of roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Gorgeous. And even I ate dessert: a mocha souffle and homemade mint ice cream. Afterwards we all repaired to the sitting room and talked over our lives, we two probably fifteen years down the road from the lovely young couple who revealed they were expecting their first baby, and perhaps ten years on from the couple planning their wedding. They were kind and let us witter on about Avery, who had ignored all our texts asking, “Safely there?” No reply!
Before bed I had a chance for a natter with Orlando about the cabbage recipe — to add pinenuts perhaps? — exchanging ideas in the glow of candlelight, standing on the flagged floor of the entryway. Alongside us stood the sideboard covered with notes of congratulations at the launch of the hotel, thanks for the welcomes they had given. One note from a Countess!
In the morning we were ushered into the kitchen where Orlando scrambled goose eggs for us, piled onto homemade wholemeal toast. Then it was goodbyes all round, so grateful for that break from hectic everyday life. It is a real gift to be able to offer the sort of effortless, generous, elegant but hilarious hospitality that Orlando is able to give. You feel you’re his friend and his guest, but then he disappears from view and works behind the scenes with all his energy to provide you with everything your heart desires, and you’re not allowed to help! A glimpse into pure relaxation.
Which promptly disappeared upon our return home, when we picked up Avery off the coach at school, all the girls tumbling out, dirty, exhausted and excited as always after one of their magnificent school trips. And she took such beautiful, haunting photographs.
We unpacked her, did laundry and repacked her, and in the morning, with the traditional dish of macaroni and cheese for our countryside adventures at my feet, headed off in the convertible once again westward, to Wales for our Easter-ish holiday.
It was a good thing I had had my pampering break, because upon arrival at the very starkly modern house John had rented I was faced with one of those newfangled induction hobs, the complexity and non-intuitiveness of which make me want to scream. No flame! Just a flat ceramic surface that I had to bow down and murmur incantations to in order to get it to heat. I can tell you that cooking three meals a day on that thing was enough to do my head in.
The house itself was not my style, but John was in heaven. All modern materials and hugely high ceilings, glass everywhere.
We had stopped on the way at the Welsh Venison Centre, a lovely farm shop near Blwch (gotta love Welsh names) with deer (ouch) running in the grounds, and I picked up a ham hock for the pot au feu I was planning to make next day, as well as a lovely piece of beef brisket. Gorgeous smoked Welsh salt, local butter, eggs with the most golden yolk in the world. In Brecon, the nearest town to the house, we visited — over the course of the next few days — every SINGLE food-purveying establishment on the streets. Such a joyous way to shop! If you find yourself in Brecon, march straight to the Market Arcade and visit S.J Matthews High Class Fruit and Veg, for the ultimate mushrooms, red peppers, rocket, and chives, and then head along to P.J Sweeney butchers for marrow bones and goose eggs, then out into the town to Morgan Family Butcher for a large chicken to roast.
Have you ever cooked a goose egg? Neither had I, until this holiday. Very difficult and powdery to crack, just a hint, so when you do, crack it over a different bowl from the one you intend to put the egg into, and brush off the crack to get the dusty particles off. It’s worth it for the intensely creamy result. They’re huge! One will serve two people, scrambled.
And what did we do with our four days? Let’s see, we read, day and night, in that glorious living room…
We played solitaire (Avery ran a new scam where she charged John, rather briskly I thought, 35p to set up each game for him, and she had two games running so he never had to wait to play! We worked a laborious puzzle of Jane Austen quotes, we took walks in the countryside where we encountered the local flora and fauna… including the little-known Welsh bodyless dog.
I sincerely hope he was not stuck. He didn’t look distressed.
And everywhere we went, there were lambs!
We talked with Avery about her ambitions. This is an amazing age, a vantage point from which she can see the lives we have led, the accomplishments and achievements (“you mean you guys were ALIVE when the Beatles were a band??”) and disappointments, and she can foresee her own future, the paths she wants to open up for herself. A magical series of discussions: photojournalist, spy, forensic psychologist, Russian language interpreter for the UN? Anything seems possible. And right now, it’s all up for grabs. Sometimes you need a family holiday just to put you in the right frame of mind to see life with a long lens.
And through it all, I cooked. Red pepper soup, mushroom soup, roasted beets with fig balsamic vinegar, chicken roasted with mushrooms and Marsala and goat cheese tucked under the skin, potatoes sliced super thin and cooked layered with butter and cheese and garlic. The first new English asparagus! Just lightly sauteed with olive oil and salt.
But the standout dish was among the simplest: a perfect pork tenderloin.
1 pork tenderloin, all sinews and membranes removed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk rosemary, leaves only, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Simply lay the pork in a dish and rub all the ingredients over it, except the salt and pepper. Let sit out on the counter for an hour.
Saute in a frying pan until seared on all sides (stand back!), then lay the pork in the marinating dish again and roast in a hot oven, 220C/425F, for 25 minutes. The meat will be tender, pink and luscious. Let sit for five minutes, covered with foil, then slice thickly and season to taste.
And now I must love you and leave you. Today we visited the new house with tape measures and every object we own dancing in our heads, and decisions must be made. Watch this space for the newest adventure of our lives. Fingers crossed it’s a happy one.