As if the sheer fun of my mother-in-law’s visits weren’t enough, there’s the added fillip that her arrival means we DO things. Rather than taking yet another jar of tuna out of the pantry for an uninspired lunch, we actually got in the car last week and drove to Richmond, where we tucked into quite the most perfect lunch ever, at Petersham Nurseries. Brainchild of the outstanding Australian chef Skye Gyngell, this restaurant serves the simplest food ever to win a Michelin star. Every dish is a triumph of delicate, complex flavors and pared-down visuals, and every bite is precisely perfect and restrained, yet luscious. And in the most gorgeous of settings.
Before our lunch we wandered through the Nurseries themselves, and then the shop, an Aladdin’s cave filled with every horticultural delight you could imagine and many I couldn’t, plus china, glass, gardening tools, French wrapping paper, every gift you could ever want to give anyone. A glorious amalgam of stylish and stimulating feasts for the eye.
John’s mother is here for her annual springtime visit, which means we are dashing about to restaurants, plays, shopping and the like. And even before she arrived, life was full of adventures, the last week or so.
Uppermost in my mind, of course, is bell-ringing. I have had my fourth lesson, since Arnold has decided that once a week isn’t enough to get me up to speed. So for the foreseeable future, I will be tied to Bell Number Four on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings, pulling away at my rope.
In fact, truth be told, I am not “bell ringing” at all. I am merely “rope-pulling,” since my bell has been silenced, to protect the neighborhood from the incessant and meaningless clanging that would result from my early efforts.
I arrived and parked my beloved bike outside the bellringing chamber, stowed away my helmet in my new cool nylon basket, clipped to the front of my bike. Arnold was sweeping the inevitable pollen and leaves from the chamber floor and said, “We’ll have to be quiet today, Kristen, as there’s a practice for a wedding taking place.” The Rector came up in his robes, rubbing his hands together.
“Ah, I see another practice is underway. These things cannot be rushed. Bellringing takes a great deal of dedication, does it not, Arnold, a patient and kindly dedication.”
“Oh, are you a ringer, Rector?” I asked in interest (ringers seem to be everywhere).
“No.” Laughter. “I am merely talented at uttering commonplaces.”
So the lesson began, practicing what is called the “backstroke,” which is just the tail of the rope. Bellringing involves two strokes, one pulling the tail to make the bell swing, and one pulling the middle, “the sally,” to stop the bell in its swing. Each pull achieves a “ding.” But you’d be amazed at the difficulty — the sheer complication! — of aligning these two strokes, getting them to work in succession. And so the two strokes are separated in lessons. I pull the backstroke dozens and dozens of times, while Arnold takes care of the sally.
“Feet apart, hands pointing down, eyes straight ahead, don’t forget the little ‘flick’ at the end, arms up by your ears, STRETCH, don’t pull too hard, keep the tension…”
It’s maddening! You would not believe how difficult it is to remember all these elements.
The future bride and groom, accompanied by the Rector and the best man, arrived in the dim and cool nave, moving about as they rehearsed their big day. They all spoke very softly, as you do in a church, so I could not hear what they were saying. But as I took a break from my backstroke, sipping a bit of water, I looked at them and said to Arnold, “I think I’d rather be learning to ring bells, today, than starting over learning to be married.” He laughed and shook his head, as he does at most of what I say.
I thought of all the stages one goes through in learning to be married, if one does it in a traditional way: getting to know one another, deciding that this partnership will work, planning a wedding, setting up home, thinking about careers, thinking about having a baby.
“Now don’t pull too hard, just let the rope follow its own course, but guide it to the ground, hands down, don’t forget that ‘flick’ at the floor, just as if there were a twopence at your feet…”
As a grown adult, I think we all forget that EVERYTHING has to be learned in sequence, one step at a time. Nothing important is ever achieved by doing it all at once straightaway. Learning is slow.
“You need to achieve ‘muscle memory,” Arnold advises, “so that when it comes time for you to pull the sally as well, the backstroke will be memorized. And then, you’ll memorize the two strokes together, so that when it’s time to learn patterns of ringing, the movements will be automatic.” He smiled. “Just like riding your cycle. You do not have to think about pedalling anymore, your feet simply remember how to do it, so that you can use your mind to think of where you are going on your cycle, and then what method you are being asked to ring on your bell.”
Yes, there will be methods. I will begin with what is called “rounds,” where the bells are rung in order of their weight, smallest to largest, the smallest being the “Treble” bell, and the largest the “Tenor” bell. Probably it makes sense to all of you: the smallest bell makes the highest sound, and largest the lowest. The smallest bell weighs about 400 pounds, and the largest nearly 1000.
My bell, number 4, is right in the middle of the ring: she weighs 600 pounds. The significance of this weight should not be taken lightly, because if I had the rope wrapped around my hand and could not let go, and lost control of the bell, the pulling pressure of the up-swinging bell would take all my fingers off at the knuckle. It has been known to happen. By the same token, one must never EVER let a rope hang free onto the ground, because if a foot was to get caught, and the bell become down-swinging, at the very least the person would be carried upside down into the ceiling of the ringing chamber, and at the worst, an ankle broken or foot pulled off.
Learning to handle a bell reminds me of the way Avery has always described learning to ride a horse. For many, many hours, weeks, and months, one does the same boring thing over and over, being shouted at incessantly to remember the hundred minute details necessary to memorize these movements. And one must remember the power of the bell and the horse: each really does have a mind of its own, whether it is gravity, or momentum, or a horsely desire to go left instead of right. And although you can be told how to do what you want to learn, there will always be unpredictable aspects to the job that keep it from being entirely predictable.
Bells, like horses, are affected by weather, believe it or not! The rope can become longer or shorter depending on humidity or wind, so trying to memorize where to put my hands at any given moment is foolhardy.
“Treble’s going, treble’s gone…” the magical phrase when everyone girds loins, brings the bells to be ready to ring, and waits for the little Treble bell to begin the round. Here is how that sounds, with a tower of eight bells, on handbells.
I have a feeling that I will be able to learn to ring rounds, but possibly not any of the complex “methods” where the order of the bells is changed, hence the term “Change-ringing.” I think it’s sort of like being able to walk, trot and canter, but not necessarily jump, or memorize a course of jumps. I can accept that limitation, I think. We shall see. This probably more than ANY of you wanted to know about bell-ringing, but I didn’t want you to feel left out.
To try to thank Arnold for his patience and generous spirit, I took an apple and banana cake last week.
Tomorrow I will appear with a lemon-blueberry cake in hand.
I must expand my repertoire in cakes, since I feel it is the least I can do to show my appreciation. “I’m sorry that I don’t seem to be a natural bell-ringer, Arnold,” I apologised yesterday. “No, you aren’t, but you are determined, which is more important, in the end.”
Yesterday my bell-ringing lesson was capped by a walk home in which I was pelted and pounded by first cold COLD rain, and then hailstones, growing ever larger as the minutes passed by! Dreadful, and with thunder and lightning too. Of course the storm began just after I had left all the commercial buildings behind and there was nowhere to shelter. Awful!
For something completely different, if you have a chance to get to Southbank this weekend, go, do, to see the one-man play about WWI, “Private Peaceful.” For 90 minutes, one young man — actor Mark Quartley — on the frontlines of the war, takes us into the past, through his Devon childhood, his tragically killed father, his unrequited love affair, and finally his experiences in the war. You will be tremendously impressed, saddened, given food for thought. It’s only through Sunday.
In the wake of this magnificent play, I was off to South Kensington with my friend Nelly to gather with other Seven Sisters college graduates to hear a talk by the great detective novelist, P.D. James.
How inspiring! She is 90 years old. “I woke up one day, in the 1960s, and realized that there would never be a ‘convenient’ time to write my first novel. I also realized that I did not want to be an old woman — 90 now! — looking back and saying to myself, ‘Why did you never write that novel, see if you could do it?’ So I did.”
And just like that, the long and venerable series of 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels was born.
How unutterably marvellous it would be, wouldn’t it, to stand before a room full of well-educated women hanging on one’s every word, at age 90, having achieved everything she ever felt she should. “I feel so grateful that I was given this gift, to write intelligent words that make up a detective story, and I feel grateful that I have been able to exercise that gift, and give pleasure to you.”
The reading was held at the gorgeously elegant and sedate Polish Hearth Club. Lovely, lovely poached salmon with hollandaise, and a crunchy apple cake. We ate, surrounded by that ineffable sound of many well-educated American women’s voices, raised to chattering volume by sheer numbers!
And then I was off on my bicycle one evening this week, leaving John and Avery to fend for themselves to serve the dinner I had left, to turn up at Marylebone’s Daunt Bookshop to hear the incomparable Donna Leon speak! How I love her Inspector Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice. I queued up at the till, chatting with my old friend Adam who works there, buying two copies of the latest Brunetti. A hand clapped my shoulder.
“Now THAT’S what I like to see! Multiple purchases, multiple purchases…”
It was SHE!
“I am the least ambitious person you will ever meet,” Leon said. “I was merely at the opera in Venice one evening, at La Fenice with a friend, and we were both in agreement that we didn’t like the conductor. ‘How hard would it be to kill him off?’ we wondered, and I decided not that hard, so I went home and wrote a detective story about it. Then I put it in a drawer, where it stayed for a year until a friend convinced me to enter it into a contest. And it won. And it was published, and that was that.”
THAT WAS THAT. Twelve books later, she is just magnificent. And funny. And tiny!
I walked, Tubed and cycled home in the twilight, arriving home to find Avery and John in dismal darkness, having eaten their dinner, but looking a bit lonely. “We missed you!” Avery said at once, which from a very cool teenager is awfully nice to hear. It seems to require the lady of the house to flip on the right comforting lights, to make things cozy.
But woman cannot live by detective stories alone, and so I bought a whole mess of king prawns and created:
Roasted Spicy King Prawns
16 king prawns, raw, heads and shells on
1/4 cup each: soy sauce, hoisin (plum) sauce, sesame oil
juice of 1 lemon
a few shakings of Tabasco
Mix all these together, pour over king prawns which have been laid out in a single layer in a roasting dish, then place in the hot (220C/450F) oven of your Aga and roast for 8 minutes, turning once. Cool slightly then serve with a bowl for the shells.
And of course, being May, all England-dwellers’ thoughts turn to asparagus, and strawberries. Given this truth, I have been spending an awful lot of time at my local fruit and veg, the incomparable Two Peas in a Pod of Barnes Church Road.
There is simply nothing like a plate of new English asparagus, sauteed in butter and olive oil.
Tonight we are off to see “Lord of the Flies” in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and I think the operative words will be “Open Air.” It’s really chilly today! We’ll be well wrapped in blankets and rugs if need be. That’s May in England! We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just photos for you this time, to inspire you to get in there cooking… I bet you can tell what everything is! Thank you to my darling photographer daughter for the artichoke photograph… oops, gave it away.
We’re living JUST that too far away from the places we want to be to rely on walking everywhere, so it was but the work of a moment to pop into a Chiswick cycle shop and get… a cycle. That’s what they call it in England, “cycling,” and one “cycles” rather than “rides one’s bike.” And I’ve discovered a flaw in my personality that I never focused on until now. I DAYDREAM.
Daydreaming is a necessary skill when one lives in an urban environment and spends a lot of time on public transport, or in the passenger seat of a car. I can’t read in the car because I get carsick, and sometimes even the closest of husbands and wives simply can’t chat ANOTHER MINUTE. So my mind wanders to possible blog post topics, grocery lists, a new way to crisp chicken skin.
When on a bicycle, however, there can be no such lapses! I find myself several hundred yards from the last place I remember paying attention, and I’ve no idea what’s happened in the interim. And since, as Avery points out to me, the bicycle is not a horse and therefore can’t make judgments about safety, I could easily cause myself grievous bodily harm, not to mention to innocent pedestrians. No more grocery lists while cycling.
Last week I had a lunch date with my chum Antonella on the other side of the river, to deliver our verdict on the new posh fish and chip joint — we’re the first of all our friends to go! — in Shepherds Bush, Kerbisher and Malt. So I hopped on my bike, strapped on my helmet, firmly banished ALL non-transport-related thoughts from my mind, and pedaled off. Thinking of nothing, I promise you, but pedaling.
The verdict? Very fresh high-quality haddock, a choice of battered, grilled or with Matzoh crumbs. Terrible limp chips, but it was only their second day in business so one hopes that will improve. Nice light lemon mayonnaise and really shockingly delicious, unrubbery baby calamari. Not “crispy” as advertised, but again, that could improve. The fish was nicely crunchy, so obviously they know how.
Now, Antonella is Italian and not at all shy about expressing herself, which makes her the ideal companion for any sort of lark, including complaining about our perfect families. “Last night I made a chilli con carne for my children, when I could have simply given them something ready-made. But no, we cook fresh food for our children. And all they do was to complain that I had used the wrong sort of beans, and had probably not made enough rice! Aggh!” This last with a perfect Italian derisive snort. I had to counter with a tale of my own, from last week when I spent the evening receiving swimmers at Avery’s school pool. (One must do this once a term in order to have the privilege of using the pool.)
Now, a less vigilant, not to say obsessive food-providing parent might just tell her family to order a pizza. But no. I set a boneless chicken marinating in lemon, garlic, rosemary and olive oil for John to pop in the oven. I made asparagus soup with homemade chicken stock. I steamed tiny artichokes and made a dressing for them. And, piece de resistance, I set out some Marks & Spencer potato rosti to be baked.
“Ugh, there is a vein in my chicken,” Avery said immediately, “look. Right there.” “Well, it WAS a living thing, so some evidence of that is only to be expected,” I returned, whereupon John jumped onto the bandwagon saying he thought the soup was a little “stocky,” as in tasting too strongly of stock, and that while he was at it, he’d like me to know the artichokes were slightly… tired.
In short, the only acceptable part of the meal was the M&S potatoes. From a plastic bag. In the freezer section. “You said you want feedback!” they moan in self-pity. “Not that much,” I growl.
Antonella understood perfectly. “This after we have slaved to provide them with home-cooked food. I tell them sometime I will simply slap them up the side of their heads, Italian-style. They will not be expecting it.”
(The artichokes WERE a little tired, to be honest.)
From lunch we repaired to her gorgeous, serene house — she has an Aga! — for me to try on the jumpers she is knitting for me! Another first: I have never had a piece of clothing made for me, just me. We actually went together to choose the wool, and looked through pattern books and Antonella’s own collection of jumpers, for me to choose what style, what sleeve length, how wide the cables would be, whether the waist should nip in a bit. To me, being able to knit a jumper from scratch is akin to being able to fly a plane or perform an appendectomy. I just can’t imagine. It will be magical.
On Friday night I felt I owed it to us to produce decent artichokes, and since then I have heard from several foodie friends that they have never prepared one. So I shall tell you how, because they are so good, and so good for you: anti-toxins, so you can have a Scotch with them and it cancels everything out.
With a serrated knife (it’s faster), cut off the top of each artichoke about an inch down. Cut off the stem to leave about an inch. Pull off the lowest dry leaves and discard, stopping when you get to nice, fresh, tight leaves. With scissors, snip off the top 1/2 inch or so of every single leaf. Place artichokes stem-down in a saucepan in which they will fit tightly so they don’t roll around, and for which you have a lid. Pour water into the bottom of the saucepan and steam the artichokes for about 35 minutes or until leaves pull out easily. Check the pan frequently as I don’t think I have EVER steamed artichokes without burning the pan dry at least once. It can be hard to clean.
When the artichokes are cooked and can be handled, serve them with a bowl for the discarded leaves, and with either melted butter or a mustardy vinaigrette. To eat them, pull off each leaf, dip into whatever, and scrape the meat off with your teeth, just at the end where the leaf was attached. When you run out of leaves, you’ll be down to the “choke,” a thistly nasty thing at the center of the artichoke. Cut this off with a knife and you’re left with the meaty heart. which is heavenly dipped into the butter or dressing and eaten luxuriously.
And on Saturday, another first! My maiden voyage into bell-ringing, which is not to say “campanology” yet because what I actually did was too basic to implied I was studying anything.
I arrived at our local church. My heart pounding a bit, I walked in at the hour appointed for “learners,” to find my teacher Arnold ready for me. A reticent, dignified gentleman about 6’4″, he took me on a tour of the clock room (where the clock reposes, not surprisingly) and the bell-chamber, and showed me how to “mute my clapper,” a skill I’m sure John wishes HE had for me, at times. All it requires is a bit of inner tube, tied around the bell’s tongue to hold it in place.
The reason you mute a bell clapper for learners is to protect the neighbors from the clanging, repetitive, annoying sounds a bell would make as I pulled endlessly over and over! Just think: these bells are over 500 years old. Parts of the church are that old as well, but other parts were burned by an arsonist in the 1990s and have been restored. There are still black streaks in the ancient winding stone staircase, where the flames licked. “This stairwell was like a chimney,” Arnold explained.
I will have to learn in such tiny, tiny increments. The rope, for example, has two important parts: the lower bit, the tail, which you pull to bring the bell from where it’s resting to the up position, and then the middle bit, the sally, which you pull to bring the bell back down. Or something like that. And for the whole of my first lesson, I never even got to touch the sally. Arnold pulled the sally, since the beginning can handle only the tail to start with. A whole hour of just pulling the tail! That’s called the “back stroke” and it is much harder than it looks, with about a hundred instructions to remember for each go at pulling.
It may be several weeks before I’m allowed to touch the sally.
It’s a bit daunting, and a bit discouraging to be honest. But as Lord Peter Wimsey would say, “Faint heart never won so much as a bowl of cabbages,” so I shall persevere. Look at my book.
And someday, just think: these pages will make sense to me.
After my hour’s practice, during which Arnold told me several times to stop frowning, to relax and not to pull so hard, the real ringers turned up and could not have been more friendly. There are two 12-year-old girls! One was assigned to stand with me for a bit and “explain anything that needs explaining,” which she did with impossible poise. There is a special brand of supportiveness among bellringers, I find, different from the attitude of any other people I’ve ever met. John puts it down to the natural inclination of people with crazy, weirdo enthusiasms to stick together.
Then it was home to prepare for another first: our first dinner party in the new house! Oh, we’ve had the odd sleepover girl to be fed, but this was a real party with several courses and new friends, our lovely next-door neighbors James and Susan. He is a massively enthusiastic gardener, which I could tell by hearing his rake and clippers over the fence as the weeks have gone by, but then, too, these appeared last week over the fence.
Well! You know how I am about rocket. How on earth did James guess? He couldn’t stop smiling with generous happiness at my glee. So peppery, so crunchy, simply puts supermarket rocket to shame. Gorgeous.
John grilled an enormous pile of lamb chops, marinated in rosemary and garlic, and I gave them Avery’s specially-requested risotto with spring beans, inspired by her long-ago cookery course at Jamie Oliver’s. Just look how pretty the greens were.
We had a lovely time. James and Susan are the easiest possible conversationalists, full of anecdotes about their six grown children and several grandchildren, and advice about living “on the right side of the river,” with some neighborhood gossip thrown in, and a flattering, if bemused interest in my bellringing.
Avery and her two friends deigned to appear in time to eat, and the risotto did go down a treat.
Risotto with Broad Beans, Peas and Mint
(serves 8 with leftovers)
3 tbsps butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 small shallots, minced
600 grams/20 ounces arborio rice
950ml/4 cups chicken stock (approximately)
2 cups broad beans, shucked
1 cup little green peas
1 bunch spring onions
handful fresh mint
handful fresh grated Parmesan
fresh black pepper and sea salt to taste
dash cream, if desired
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan which has a lid. Saute the garlic and shallots briefly, then add the rice and stir to make sure all the grains are coated with butter. Add stock to cover the rice and stir, watching the liquid become absorbed by the rice. Continue to add stock, stirring all the while, until the rice is al dente, that is until it yield gently to the teeth but is not yet too soft. Add the beans, peas, spring onions and mint and stir thoroughly, heating the vegetables through. Add the cheese and season to taste. Add the cream if you like, and serve hot.
Very popular! While everything cooked, James took John on a horticultural tour of our lovely garden, showing off its delights we would never have noticed on our own. “This is possibly the largest bay tree in Great Britain,” he explained, “and while it’s not in your garden, its leaves are, so help yourself!”
A lovely evening. It felt so good to be sitting around the candlelit table, welcoming new friends. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t know how happy it would make me. I sat up late into the night after the sleepover girls had finally succumbed, and thought about friendship and the funny, lovely forms it takes. Handfuls of fresh rocket.
And finally, my first experiments with what I think will be an absolute staple in our house: arancini! Fried balls of leftover risotto, if you please.
(1 ball per person)
Take your leftover risotto from the fridge about an hour before you want to eat, and spread it in a layer on a cookie sheet or baking dish. The idea is to take the chill off so that the fried ball will not be cold on the inside, nor will you have to burn the crumbs in order to get the inner bites warm.
Place Japanese panko breadcrumbs in a shallow dish.
Heat whatever quantity of tasteless oil you feel comfortable with in a utensil you like. Since I wasn’t sure how my Aga would like getting oil to frying temperature, I took John’s advice and used a small saucepan so as not to tax the heating capabilities of my precious stove. My saucepan could accommodate one arancino at a time, which is fine because then each one can rest on paper towel until they are all fried.
Now with clean hands, roll a good portion of risotto into a ball about the size of lime, or if you’re feeling as if you’d like them more fork than finger food, a lemon. Roll in breadcrumbs till completely coated. When a pinch of breadcrumbs in the oil fries instantly, the oil is ready. Carefully place each ball in the hot oil and let cook until brown, turning frequently. The idea is to get the inside warmed through — of course you can’t tell, but you can imagine — without over-browning the outside. When you are happy with the coloration of your arancino, take it out and place it gently on a few folded paper towels.
Repeat this process with all your risotto. Then TUCK IN.
These little babies are heavenly! Creamy and savoury inside, with lovely crisp peas and broad beans, and crunchy on the outside so that biting into them is a taste and texture sensation.
Since telling some friends about these contradictory delights — so rich and yet they’re just leftovers! — I have heard some interesting things. Arancini are the Southern Italian word for them, where in Rome they are called suppli. And my friends Mary and Rebecca tell me what when you tuck a piece of mozzarella or fontina inside them, they are called suppli al telefono, because the melted cheese stretches like a telephone wire! And then you can serve them in a pool of garlicky, tomato sauce and you have basically re-invented the wheel.
Now I’m going to rest on my laurels. For the foreseeable future, I’m not going to do any new things. I’m just going to empty my mind, take a deep breath, and pedal off some of that rice.
For so long — really since January — life has been a bubbling cauldron of house-moving confusion. To move or not to move, what house would be best, where everything could go, when it would have to happen, then the actual insanity of making it all happen.
And now… peace.
I had forgotten that peaceful life meant I could sit quietly and mend a pile of broken clothing, make long-neglected doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, get up to date on my photo albums in advance of John’s mom’s visit — how she loves those albums! — experiment with recipes that had looked too challenging when all I wanted was a roast chicken. I had forgotten that all the mundane, repetitive chores that make up daily life could be quite wonderful and fulfilling, when they weren’t being accomplished against the backdrop of upheaval, change and chaos.
I could reward myself for finishing alphabetizing ALL the books by watching every second of the Royal Wedding! You can’t go wrong with Emma Bridgewater. We gave one of these bowls each to our mothers for Mother’s Day, just enjoying the pleasure of shopping and finding the perfect gift.
The most heartwarming development since taking our familial deep breath has been the rediscovery of my friends! They have emerged in all their glory, each one of them, to do just the thing I didn’t know I needed. Sally with her hand-planted pot of spring flowers to grace my new doorstep, Dalia giving me her afternoon for a spot of sushi gluttony, confiding all our life woes and joys to each other. Lille coming up with an extra ticket to “Phantom of the Opera” and thereby providing Avery with one of the great theatre experiences we all should have! I’ll never forget the fun of taking the late-night bus into Piccadilly to wait outside the glittering theatre for Avery and her friend, listening to them crooning, “The Phaaaaaa –ntom of the Opera is here… inside my mind,” in the crowded Tube all the way home!
And I’ve made a new friend! There is nothing like a great butcher, and in Tony Swatland of our local village of Sheen I have found a meaty gem.
I sauntered into his lovely, old-fashioned shop devoted to his father’s sausage recipe, intent on procuring the best pork shoulder, sausages and bacon I could, in advance of the Royal Wedding, since nothing says romance like pork, I always say. And Tony helped me choose all the best morsels, pointing to the MANY certificates on his walls proclaiming his “Old Henry’s Sausages” to be the recipients of nationwide awards. (I hadn’t really been aware of just how many sausage competitions there were, until then.) “I’ll cut you some lovely beef fillets, best in the world,” he answered my request, “how you plannin’ on cookin’ ‘em?” And then, face-burning embarrassment: John and I had no money. And Tony takes only cash.
“Take them along with you now, and just you come back when you get a chance. Today, tomorrow, just as you like,” he insisted, although I would have been perfectly happy to leave my wares with him until I could get to the bank machine. But no: nothing would do but for me to go home with my essentially stolen goods, on the honor system. What makes anyone that kind and trusting, in this day and age, in this enormous metropolis? It felt as if every generous impulse I had ever indulged had come back to me. Heartwarming.
And that pork shoulder, slow-cooked in the medium oven of my precious Aga, and the next day producing the most sublime leftovers? That was like making another friend, enjoying that sandwich.
Oh heavenly day, shredded rich pork, grated Cheddar, thin-sliced red onion, hot gravy, sourdough toast… nothing better in the world, and in fact — shh — better than the original slow-roasted shoulder itself. Sometimes humble leftovers are better than the fancy supper dish, and if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.
When John went back to pay Tony it was as if we had done him an enormous favor. “Just you tell your good wife that if she needs anything, any special outfit [butcher talk for special cuts, not a top and skirt], she just lets me know.”
Then there was the luxury of lunch at Sonny’s in our new High Street, with my beautiful friend Elspeth. Time to discuss all our important business. “First, Kristen, can I ask you where I might find an ice crusher for next week’s school event?” “But of course, I have an ice crusher!” I delighted in saying. Who would have thought I’d be glad one day that Avery, as a 10-year-old, had rather obscure birthday wishes? From ice we moved on to generally settling all the problems of our lives, while revelling in the ridiculously accomplished cooking: fresh ballotine of sea trout, covered with fresh chopped parsley and accompanied by a demure and deceptively perfect beetroot and caper salad. Tiny, perfect diced beetroot, tiny baby capers, topped with pea shoots and a light vinaigrette. Heaven to sit and be served with food I had not prepared! And to look in a clandestine fashion over our shoulders at Sara Stewart and Alastair McGowan at the next table — I love celebrity-sighting! Most of all, time to TALK, to appreciate each other, to ask and get advice. The joy of a girlfriend!
There was time to devote a morning to cooking for the Lost Property luncheon, both lamb meatballs and Lillian Hellman chicken, to take to my friend Sally’s house because she was kind enough to host the luncheon during our moving chaos. It’s the perfect party dish: one part Hellman’s mayonnaise (now you get the name!) to one part grated Parmesan, mixed with lemon juice and Fox Point seasoning, chicken fillets rolled in this mixture and then in breadcrumbs, and baked at 425F/220C for half an hour. Bliss.
How peaceful to take these offerings to Sally’s beautiful garden, sit with my fellow volunteers discussing our teenagers in varying states of sociability… And is there anything better than a roasting dish full of whole garlic cloves, bursting with olive oil and sea salt? I think not. As long as all your friends eat its buttery delights, all will be well.
And then, to top off all these happy activities, came “Take Your Daughter To Work” Day, a clever scheme at Avery’s school whose aim was to give the girls an inspiring, even thrilling day at the workplace of one of their parents.
You can see where I’m going with this.
“I am really NOT going to spend the day either watching you cook, take pictures of food and write about it, or watching Daddy work on our investments. Not that I don’t respect you both, I do. But NO.”
What on earth were we to do? It was but the work of a moment to air these concerns with my friend Fiona, who I am rapidly coming to think of as She Who Can Solve Anything And If She Can’t She Knows Someone Who Can.
“I have a friend,” said Fiona as we packed up all Avery’s American Girl dolls to give to Fiona’s girls, “who has a friend whose partner is a fashion designer. Perhaps Avery could go along to his studio, see what he does all day?”
And thus was sprouted the project that — after many emails to and from darling Fiona, her friend, HER friend, and his partner and me — put Avery and me on a crowded, stinky early-summer commuter Tube from our neighborhood of Southwest London to her destination… Northeast London. A true odyssey, ending in my handing Avery over to Stephane St Jaymes of London Fashion Week catwalk fame, for the day of her life.
I looked once or twice or a hundred times at my watch that day, wondering what they were talking about, how she was getting on, thanking Fiona a thousand times in my mind… and then off again to pick her up, making our way by car this time across the river, across town, down a romantic brick alleyway, really, through a suggestive and exciting series of doorways, to find Avery with Stephane and his two assistants, talking nineteen to the dozen about “mood boards” and the new Collection, the fun they’d had working together all day.
“I really want her to come and intern with me,” Stephane said in his elegant yet friendly way, “She knows so much about computers, blogs and Facebook and Twitter… and she’s so New York.”
How generous is that? For that matter how generous was Fiona to go to such lengths for Avery, to give her an exciting one-of-a-kind day, and a new ambition… “Forget everything I’ve ever said I wanted to do: THAT is what I want to do!” And really, isn’t that what being 14 should be about: waking up to a new day, meeting new people, giving it your all and then coming away feeling that another door has been opened to you?
I have my energy back now, after a week surrounded by the pals I love who — each in her own special way — has gone the extra mile to make life worth living. It’s never easy to know how to give all that back, but I am ready to begin trying.
I wish I could take you all on a tour of my local farmer’s market this rather drizzly, warm Saturday morning. It’s the sort of market where you have to take just a LITTLE bit of cash, or you’ll find yourself spending way more than you expected because everything is so tempting.
My cooking life is settled for the next few meals: asparagus soup with my fresh 36-hour Aga chicken stock (I know it sounds crazy, but the stock REALLY did cook for 36 hours in the slow oven and is the richest, darkest chicken stock I’ve ever tasted), Eton Mess for Avery’s sleepover party tonight, with those luscious strawberries, scallop and parsley pasta for us tonight after I’ve cooked the requested carbonara for the girls’ dinner. What better way than carbonara, to use these sadly-named but gorgeous-tasting little morsels?
And then there will be the pork loin roast tomorrow night… the only question being whether to cook it high and fast and have it a little pink, or low and slow and have it tender and falling apart?
Of course the triumph of any Saturday at the market is the ridiculously caloric, satisfyingly savoury sausage, egg and cheese burger… I’m really sorry I can’t share it with you…
It’s probably for the best that I had my cautious husband in charge of the wallet today! Also there’s the natural deterrent of a small English refrigerator… I just couldn’t buy any more food. And those scallops came in handy right away.
Scallops with Spaghetti and Parlsey
2 dozen scallops
1 lb spaghetti (I prefer De Cecco)
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 large handful curly parsley, chopped
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted lightly
The sauce will cook in just the time your spaghetti needs to boil, so bring the water to a boil and put in the pasta.
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and simmer the garlic, but don’t let it brown. Place the scallops in the oil and cook on high heat until they turn opaque (about two minutes), turning occasionally. Add the parsleys, the chilli flakes and salt and pepper, and toss gently Turn off the heat.
Drain the pasta and add to the scallops, then turn up the heat quite high and toss with the breadcrumbs. Delicious!
It was heavenly peaceful to come home, sit in the garden chair with a bowl of popcorn and a good mystery, share a cup of tea with the mother, then the father, of Avery’s sleepover guests, trading stories of school, moving house, recipes. The girls giggled uncontrollably in the background as they do, we had supper outside and watched them scuffle and laugh, capering under that mysterious tree — sumac? Japanese Ash? Never mind, it was a glorious evening.
And next week at the Market, I think I’ll be tempted by the fresh whole sea bass… watch this space.
Isn’t it hard to believe that two weeks ago we were still in the old house? We are now free of the final brown cardboard box — hip, hip, hooray! — every single object is in its new spot, and we have breathed a sigh of relief. This is the view at night, from the garden into the kitchen, complete with the crouching kitty at the end of the rug. All is peaceful.
It’s been a long, hard slog. The cats have done their best to settle in, in the quirky, dramatic way cats have of dealing with any new situation. Keechie, the crazy calico, disappeared for several hours the day the art installer came (with his noisy drills and clouds of dust). John and I were sitting in our study, trying to get some work done while the pictures went up, when our eyes swivelled toward the fireplace on the far wall. “What is that scratching sound?” I asked, just in time to see a patchy orange and black face appear from the chimney, shades of the last time we moved. Keechie seems to find the inside of a chimney the safest spot to repair to during moments of stress, forgetting each time that she will then be covered with soot which has to be licked up.
“Catch her, catch her, don’t let her get to the beige carpet upstairs, OR our bed!” John whispered loudly, but there was no catching her. She huddled behind the sofa for the duration, emerging only for sips of water from the bowls safely behind boxes of books. Poor dear. She’s white again now, where’s she’s supposed to be white.
On the bright side, we’ve discovered piles and piles of photos of Baby Avery which have found places to live in the new house.
And because just moving in wouldn’t be drama enough, John turned up with a low-grade fever, as he said feeling ill enough to feel ill, but not enough to stop unpacking boxes.
And Lord Peter Wimsey, the big white tabby, came home from the kennel with reports of teeth that needed urgently to be pulled, so we fitted in emergency visits to the vet to arrange for the unbelievably expensive and worrying procedure, poor little guy. But he’s recovered too, from his traumas. Here he is, confronting the new Visitor Kitty in the garden.
In my spare time, I have had my first Aga-stove disaster. It turns out that the oven doors are so tightly insulated that no cooking smells at ALL emerge unless you open the doors. So that “something’s cooking” aroma that serves to remind my addled brain that “something’s in the oven” didn’t happen. It turns out that a blueberry crumble left in even a rather low oven for three hours will be… well, not edible.
But I made up for it with a truly wonderful chicken dish.
Braised Chicken with Rosemary and Yogurt
(serves 4 with leftovers)
1 whole chicken, cut into quarters
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stems fresh rosemary, leaves only, minced
1 cup fat-free yogurt
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated in 1/2 cup boiling water
juice of 1/2 lemon
Remove the skin from the chicken parts.
In a heavy oven-proof casserole dish with a close-fitting lid, melt the butter and brown the chicken on all sides. Remove to a dish and set aside. In the same casserole, saute the garlic and rosemary, then place chicken back in dish. In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt and stock. Drain the rehydrating liquid from the mushrooms and whisk the liquid together with the yogurt and stock. Pour mixture over the chicken, add the mushrooms and place the lid on top. Cook in the medium oven of the Aga, or at 325F/170C for at least 1 1/2 hours. Serve with steamed basmati rice.
Avery was in heaven. “Can I just drink this sauce? Do you have a straw?” It’s buttery, savoury, fragrant and comforting. But as with so much of my food, not pretty, so no photo. That’s my big challenge of the cooking future: how to make savoury, lovely food PRETTIER. Or I could just survive on “good English grass,” steamed and tossed with melted butter. No tweaking necessary to make that plate look like a dream.
But the real story of the past week has been the books. All 57 brown cardboard boxes of them. In its own strange way, the job of unpacking and re-alphabetizing that collection of books is a heartwarming task. Like gong to a school reunion where you encounter all your old friends, remembering when you first met them, why you made friends to begin with, sometimes shaking your head, asking, “What on earth are you doing here, and why did I ever care?” But more often, cherishing the Agatha Christies, the Dorothy L. Sayers, the Salingers and Poes and Dickens.
And then, after the bookshelf man has departed, the real work begins. Even though the books were packed in alphabetized order and numbered, sometimes we had to unpack three or four boxes to get all of one letter, and pile them up on the table in order to get them shelved properly. Exhausting! And HOT, and dusty. The afternoon wore on and on, the sun shifting overhead.
We congratulated ourselves weakly, and poor feverish John collapsed with a bowl of chicken soup, while I puttered about, waiting for Avery to come home from the theatre… which she did, in the wee small hours, full of “Frankenstein” and empty of food. So I made a grilled cheese sandwich for her, sat with her while she ate, in the Room of Books, then took her up to her own study to pack up for the next school day.
What a strange morning to wake up to here in London, more than 3000 miles from where I was on just such a perfect blue-sky day nine years and seven months ago.
I can understand the jubilation of those people whose loved ones died that day, or whose jobs involved digging out the rubble or protecting all of us New Yorkers from future harm, those with loved ones in the brave armed forces. They must feel a real sense of justified revenge, a life taken in return for so much that was taken from them.
I myself would have predicted I’d be jubilant today. The wishes of that man meant the destruction of my neighborhood, the loss of my little daughter’s school, the removal of the sense of safety and a happy future that seemed to belong to most Americans on September 10, 2001.
But I am not jubilant. I feel instead a wish to turn my eyes and ears away from the news.
On the day, and for some months afterward, I had some sense of our government and particularly our President as a father figure: there to protect us, and if that failed, to hunt down the one who had harmed us and exact justice. The way you go home after someone’s bullied you at school, and your father picks up the phone, or walks down the street, holding your hand if you’re brave enough to go with him, and he confronts the bully and even his parents, and an apology is offered, punishment is promised, a lesson learned.
As the months and then years went by, I was as scared as anyone — more so. I love New York City with all my heart, and to see the gaping wound in our precious neighborhood caused a daily, hourly stab of pain that took a great deal of time to lessen. I was made of The Wrong Stuff, imagining that the terrorists had targeted me and my family, would follow us wherever we went. I spent far too much time worrying about whether I’d rather be blown up on a bridge or in a tunnel while making my way to New Jersey. Every day at school pickup I breathed a sigh of relief that another day of separation from my child was over and I could take her home and be the protector myself.
No father could help me with the bully. I was on my own.
And we all did confront the bully. We continued to go to work, to take our children to school, to go down the subway steps under the streets of New York, to start up new businesses and look to the future. We rebuilt our lives and came out on the other side having looked the worst in the eye and said, “You cannot ruin my life. I am still here.”
Now the bully is dead. A different father from the one we expected has exacted revenge, I suppose. But we have come so far, to recover on our own, that I am not prepared to go back to who I was nearly ten years ago and feel satisfaction at the death of a person I’ve worked so hard to thwart. It took me a long time to rejoice in a perfect blue-sky day again, and that is exactly what I am going to do, today, holding all my fellow New Yorkers in my heart.