What a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday afternoon I had just returned, hot and sweaty from the bike ride home from Avery’s school and the Lost Property sale preparations. I was HOT. Almost unbearably so! And the moment I parked my bike at the door, I realized my lock was gone from my basket.
“But I tucked it in especially tightly so it wouldn’t bounce out!” I wailed to John.
“Apparently not tightly enough,” he said, and back out I went.
Under a blazing blue midday sky, not a cloud in sight, my hair smashed wetly to my head under the helmet, I pedaled off, retracing my steps, annoying all the oncoming auto drivers who did not want me on their side of the road, but I couldn’t look for my lock unless I was right in their faces. “Perhaps it will be just along the road to home,” I thought hopefully. “Or just coming off the bridge.”
Alas, it was practically directly in front of Avery’s school. Wearily I picked it up, burning hot under the sun,…
Such pleasant London days as these are, I really have all I could possibly wish for. Exam results are trickling in — 95% in Russian! so thrilling -, the sun is shining enough to make it possible for us to bike to the tennis courts, play as best we can (having Wimbledon coverage to come home to is a bit demoralizing), then bike home. Bellringing has reached a new milestone: I have learned all the physical skills I need to do anything I ever want to do. Now, as my tireless teacher Arnold says, “do that about four thousand more times and you’ll be beginning to know what you’re about.”
Life is good.
One morning my friend Antonella, knitter extraordinaire, stopped by to bring my new jumper: a fine rollneck in the most beautiful shade of blue. We sat for a long time, discussing — as women our age are wont to do — what we are planning to do with the last third of our lives. Children flying the coop, husbands occupied with banking or barristering or Brutalist architecture, depending on the husband, and where shall life take us? So many mothers who threw themselves wholeheartedly into their educations, their careers, and then put them on hold to provide three meals a day plus snacks, moral support and homework supervision. Now what?
Now if I were Antonella, I’d be knitting up a storm. Why should I be her first client? I had better not be her last. She has even, as you see, given me a pair of fluffy cabled handwarmers, knitted from the leftover wool of my rollneck. “Doesn’t it amaze you that you can DO this?” I bleat. “Not really,” she smiles, completely taking her genius in stride. Don’t you love the label? Antonella, too, is a one-off.
More likely than knitting, she will become a school counselor. “It’s one of the few professions where it is actually an advantage to be our age, and to have had children,” she explains. Yes, indeed, how much better to have a wise, compassionate counselor with a few smile lines and a history of guiding her own children through life’s trials, than a fresh-faced youth who’s much closer to BEING a child than raising one.
As for me, Antonella thinks I should be teaching people to cook. There is something in that idea, as I love teaching anyone how to do anything I know, and my own child has so surpassed me in skills that I have nothing left to offer! But I could teach someone to make pizza.
Homemade Pizza With Dolcelatte, Black Olives and Bacon
(dough makes 4 pizzas, toppings make 1 which will serve 2 people)
The first thing to learn about making pizza is that you have to start about four hours before you want to eat, in order to give the dough time to rise, twice. This means that making more dough than you need is a very good idea, because then the second time you want pizza, you have the dough already and can merely pile things upon it.
Making dough could not be easier. This recipe will make enough dough for 4 pizzas.
500 grams/18 ounces plain flour
1 packet dried yeast granules
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
250 grams/9 ounces warm water
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp milk
250 grams/1/2 pound-ish Dolcelatte or mild Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
6 strips streaky (American) smoked bacon
handful black oil-cured olives, pitted
handful grated Parmesan
drizzle good olive oil
In a very large bowl, mix together with a fork all the dry ingredients, then mix the water, oil and milk and pour it onto the dry stuff. Mix with a fork and then your hands, bringing together all the bits of flour. If you need a bit more water, just add it in sprinkles. When the dough hangs together and has incorporated all the flour, knead it gently with the ball of your hand, this way and that, turning and squishing, until it is a fine smooth blob. Oil the inside of your bowl completely, put the dough in it and cover the bowl tightly with cling film. Put in a warm place (the back of the top of an Aga is very good, or your laundry room when the dryer is going) for about 2–3 hours until the dough has doubled in size. Uncover and punch the dough down. Cover again and let rise slightly again, for perhaps 1 more hour. It will not rise as much this time.
Brown your bacon in a heavy skillet until crisp, and drain on paper towels. Crumble when cool.
Place your pizza stone in your very hot (220C/425F) oven for at least half an hour before the dough is ready. Now pinch off about 1/4 of the dough and cover your clean countertop with flour, as well as your hands, and the ball of dough, and your rolling pin. Roll the dough out, flouring liberally on top and underneath, until it is the size of your pizza stone. Take the stone from the oven, place the dough on it and bake for about 10 minutes or until thoroughly dry and a bit crisp.
Pile on your toppings as evenly as possible. Drizzle the olive oil over all and bake again until cheese is a bit melty, perhaps another 8–10 minutes.
I actually offered a day of making pizza to my daughter’s school raffle at Christmas, but the student who won it… never took me up on it. It would have been such fun! Make the dough, and meanwhile teach them to make pesto, and tomato sauce, how to prepare vegetables for pizza, and then pile on the toppings and let them eat it when finished! I still might do that, sometime.
Mostly it is a great comfort to me to know that all my intelligent, kind-hearted girlfriends are feeling much the same way these days, about children flying the coop. I actually feel that there is a syndrome, little-acknowledged, that happens slightly before the famous “Empty Nest.” My nest isn’t empty yet, and I actually feel I’ll be ready for that when it is. What I find hard right now is “Slightly Empty Nest,” where my child is going off for ever longer periods of time to do ever more varied things without me, but she still needs a snack when she gets home and a fully listening ear and a hot water bottle in a chilly bed at night. And someone to watch the Hyde Park Show, no matter whether it is raining or not.
And just when I think life can’t surprise me anymore, as I’m preparing myself for a six-hour day watching Avery watch other people on ponies, a voice says, “Isn’t that Kristen?” and I look up to see my old friend Jennifer, a novelist I met some years ago and had somehow lost touch with! And so what might have been a rather long day of being sprinkled on became a catch-up with someone I really liked, thought of when I shelved her novel on moving day, but forgot to find again. And there she was, mother of the famous Callum, the ONLY boy at the stable, a source of much interest to the girls.
“If I had childhood to live over again, I’d be that only boy at the stable, with all those gorgeous girls!” John always says.
We talked nonstop about what had happened since we saw each other last. Various stages of writer’s block for both of us, uncertainty about what we wanted to do with our writing next, for both of us. “Have you never thought of turning your blog into a sort of book?” Jennifer asked. Another ambition for those Empty Nest years, I think, to plan over a bowl of:
Creamy Celeriac Soup
(serves at least 4)
1 head celeriac (celery root in America)
3 tbsps butter
1 shallot, chopped roughly
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
splash leftover white wine or champagne
chicken stock to cover celeriac
cream and milk, to taste
sea salt and pepper, to taste
handful chives, minced
Peel the celeriac carefully and cut into 1-inch cubes. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and add the celeriac, shallot, thyme and garlic. Cook until garlic and shallot are soft. Pour in splash of wine. Cover all with chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Blend thoroughly with a hand blender, adding cream and milk if it gets too thick, and until you have the consistency you want. This soup is VELVETY.
Season to taste and sprinkle chives over.
This soup was my reward for having put in a wet, slimy, stinky afternoon at the school Sports Field in order to gather up all the nasty unwanted PE kit we could find, to sort, wash, bleach, dry and iron in order to sell them to the incoming New Girls at their Welcome Tea. Why all we volunteers at Lost Property find this to be fun, I cannot really explain, but once the piles of mismatching boots, the wadded up “white” PE shirts, the grimy lacrosse sticks and wrinkled games skirts had all been cleaned and organised, the sense of satisfaction was tremendous! It was a lovely afternoon yesterday, watching the New Girls (and their parents, hard to tell who looked more scared!) mingle in the Main Hall drinking tea and eating cupcakes, then scurrying back to the tiny little maths room where my fellow volunteers were madly selling all the kit! Avery and her friends circled the Hall as well, chatting with teachers in an impossibly grownup way, stealing cupcakes, getting me to filch glasses of sparkly water for them. Heaven, just to be there and enjoy it all.
Now, as is my custom in June when everything happens far too quickly for me to warn you, I must tell you how much fun “Taste of London” was, once more! Put it in your calenders right now, mid-June in Regent’s Park. This is an incomparably delicious event where top London restaurants gather under tents (thank goodness, as it was pelting with rain!) to sell tiny “tastes” of their signature dishes. This year, everything seemed to be a BURGER! Shrimp and scallop burgers from Scott’s, hand-ground beef and marrow burgers from Corrigan’s, spit roasted suckling pig and black truffle burgers from Launceston Place, and the piece de resistance, the best food we have ever tasted in our LIVES, foie gras burgers from Club Gascon!
Quite simply, a SLAB of foie gras topped with slivers of truffle and a lightly mayo-ed pickle. We went back for seconds! Impossibly delicious, luxurious, dare I say it, unctuous. Sheer gluttony.
Then there was a salt cod brandade with crispy squid in a black ink batter, so unusual, from Roux at the Landau, oh oh OH! And braised pork cheeks with creamed potatoes and a clove sauce, from Petrus. The delight of “Taste of London” for people like us, who NEVER ever go out to dinner, is that we had nearly a dozen “tastes” of the best food London has to offer, for about £25 per person. What a treat, and such fun to share it with John, who’s never been before! And I must say it’s nice to go with the person you feel comfortable kissing, because that way you can share everything!
We came away with fresh ingredients as well: a special combo of strawberries…
From the Good Natured Fruit Company, quite simply the best of what these fruits are that you will ever taste. Strawberries as only the British can produce them, red right the way through. I’d show you, but we ate them all.
But it hasn’t all been about food, this June. We’ve also been to the theatre! Last week was “Antigone” at the Southwark Playhouse, with my cherished crush, Edward Petherbridge in the role of Tiresias. Now, I hate to tell you that this play is over, but take heart: we should all support the Southwark Playhouse with its mandate to showcase young talent. The play was so, so relevant, so timely, with lines like “A ruler cannot remain rigid. Only the trees that learn to bend can survive a storm. The rigid trees will be uprooted.” Is Syria listening?
And because it was the birthday of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey was portrayed so memorably by Edward on telly in the 1980s, he spoke afterward to the members of the Sayers Society who had come to the play. Was there ever anyone so poetically articulate as Edward, whose sentences are arranged with semi-colons and dashes, sprinkled with literary allusions and jokes from his theatrical past… simply magic. Avery was entranced. “What chance do people of my own age have when there is someone so brilliant as Edward?” Long may he have work in the London theatre where we can see him, and not be limited to my Wimsey DVDs.
But it’s NOT too late for you to see “Much Ado About Nothing”! With quite simply the greatest comic duo I can imagine playing the roles of Beatrice and Benedick: Catherine Tate and David Tennant! I know it is a cliche, but part of what is so stimulating about living in London is how PRESENT Shakespeare is here, how the director chose to place the place in the 1980s, complete with dreadful music, denim playsuits, big sunglasses, white plimsolls, and how these two actors were able to inject the dialogue with such contemporary meaning! When Benedick has become convinced that Beatrice loves him, and she comes sulkily to summon him to supper, he rejoices. “She comes to say, ‘I have been sent to tell you it is time for dinner.’… Double meaning?!?” You could hardly believe the words had been written 500 years ago.
It wouldn’t be an update on life without letting you know that bellringing is really going joyfully. I have found a tower in which to ring all summer long in America! Just once a week, about a 45-minute drive away from Red Gate Farm, with a very welcoming merry band of ringers who assure me with ABSOLUTELY no irony that they have a group of “11–13 year olds where you’ll fit in perfectly!”
Last week at my 8th-hour lesson with Arnold, I was allowed to ring the bell down, take the inner tube off the clapper, and then thrillingly, ring the bell UP with proper bellringing “ding dong” sounds emanating from the tower! This exciting milestone occurred precisely at 5 p.m. when the Tenor bell was chiming the hour. My own bell picked up right where it left off and the chiming sounds wafted out over the Village. “The neighbors will think there’s a fire,” Arnold joked mildly, but I was THRILLED beyond words. I successfully rang the bell up and, as they say, “set it at balance,” which means it’s up and ready to ring down again. Then in a fog of happiness I put on my jacket and went out, picking up my bicycle.
There I encountered a disheveled, harried-looking father minding two little boys in a carriage.
“What darling babies!” I said.
“Eighteen months,” he said wearily. “We come here every day at 5 o’clock to hear the five chimes of the bell. But for some reason, today it was 105 o’clock!”
I explained about my first time ringing the bell up with sound, and he emerged from his fatigue to rejoice with me. “That’s a real accomplishment, isn’t it, boys?”
I pedalled off into the June evening, feeling that everything was quite, quite right with the world. And to thank Arnold, on Saturday I took a plate of very nice lemon bars, if I do say so myself. It’s a recipe from allrecipes.com, although I altered it by adding lemon and orange zest, and a touch of lemon essence to the base.
(makes about 24)
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp lemon essence
2 lemons, juiced
zest of 1 lemon, 1 orange
These are delicious, even for me who doesn’t like sweet things. I found them nearly impossible to cut, which worried me, but they were no problem to chew.
I’ll leave you with an example of how funny it is to have Avery around. We’ve been catching up with the final rounds of our beloved “University Challenge,” the nerdiest and most spectacular quiz show in the world. A question is asked.
Avery: “Oh oh oh OH OH! It’s Pinter! For sure Pinter! Ha! I KNEW it!”
The announcer: “And yes, Shakespeare is the correct answer.”
Avery in tiny voice: “So… not Pinter, then?”
These are our June adventures.
Exams are over! Avery has put everything into her brain that she can. If you can imagine — I can’t, even though I watched her do it — this included Mathematics, Music, History, Religious Studies, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, English Comprehension, English Literature, French, Latin and Russian. It is quite a shock to realize that she and I have come to a point where the ONLY subject in which I know enough to help her is French. And even there, although I can perhaps converse more easily, she has a comprehensive understanding of grammar that I either never knew, or have forgotten!
But we did sit together and work on all three languages together. I was in absolute awe at her ability to conjugate Latin verbs while recognizing how they related to her work in French, and then in turn to switch to Russian. Did you know that if you’re counting 1 thing in Russian, the thing is spelled one way, but if you are talking about 2 or 3 of that thing, the thing is spelled COMPLETELY differently? But then between 4 and 21 of that thing are spelled AGAIN completely differently? Keeping in mind, of course, that this is all in Cyrillic to begin with. I was very impressed.
If you ever have time to waste, but in a sort of intellectual way, get yourself on Google Translate. Every once in awhile, she and I disagreed about some French tense, or rather I had forgotten the correct answer, and we went to Google as the Wimbledon umpires go to Hawkeye. “Past imperfect? What the heck is that?” I grumbled. But away we went to verify, and she was always correct, maddeningly so. Finally, in a state of sheer exhaustion, she began playing around, in the way that only a maddening little brain can.
“Let’s get Google to teach us to say, ‘I suspect you of being a KGB spy. Leave me alone.’”
So we did. THEN she typed those same sentences into Google Translate in Russian letters, spelling it phonetically. THEN she clicked on the button saying, “Listen,” where you can hear the way the words are supposed to sound. And if you type things in phonetically, and “listen” to it, you get a completely James Bondish, stereotypical Russian voice uttering your sentence. We laughed and laughed. The sentence didn’t sound nearly as funny in Armenian, or Arabic. It was a brief funny half hour in what was essentially a full week of nothing but work, for her.
And then all last week she had her exams, three and four every day, for hours at a time, interspersed by the occasional hours of MORE revision in between.
Sometimes we stopped to smell the roses.
Every day she came home to report the day’s insanity.
“During my French oral, the teacher asked, ‘What does your father do?’ and I went completely blank! ‘Lie,’ the teacher hissed, ‘just lie and say something,’ so I said, “Il est un avocat.”
“Daddy is an avocado!” we chortled. One of my favorite old French jokes, that “avocado” and “lawyer” are the same word.
“And then, in my Russian oral, she asked what color my wardrobe was, and all I could think of was ‘orange.’ ‘Really?!’ she asked. ‘How about what color is your bed?’ I panicked! ‘Red!’ I said. ‘What an interesting room… an orange wardrobe and a red bed.”
All I could do was to feed her. Her favorite pastas, her favorite protein-fest: pierrade. Each separate bite of duck and sirloin and halloumi cheese — our new favorite! - cooked on a hot stone, by each of us.
“Well, what could I cook that would put you in the mood for that?”
Since I felt I should at least pretend to have my own life while she was going through these trials and tribulations, I have been diligently pulling my rope. I was allowed to go up into the belfry to watch Arnold untie the mute for my clapper, and there was a tiny bell, suspended above the others.
“Oh, that’s the Angelus bell, the bell that calls to worship. The sanctuary bell, I call it. Don’t you have one in your church?”
“This is the closest to a church I have,” I confessed.
How wonderful that the name of my favorite restaurant should be a bell!
I’ve had three different ringing teachers so far, and their different styles, their approaches to my learning, have given me a lot to think about.
Andrew believes in letting me ring and ring and ring until something goes wrong and I say, “Take the bell, please!” Then he says, “Take a drink of water. Here’s what happened just then.” And once I feel confident again, I take up the rope.
Trinny, my second teacher, believes in just ringing perhaps twice, trying to get each one perfect, and then stopping before anything unexpected happens. “We don’t want you feeling out of control.”
Everett, the most senior of my teachers, believes in still another method. “I think you should get yourself ready to ring, and not stop for 45 minutes. You feel something going wrong, you fix it yourself, you understand what’s happening with your bell and you learn to handle anything that happens.”
I talked to John about the fear factor. “What’s the worst that can happen?” And truly, unless something really bizarre were to happen — like my foot getting caught in the loop at the end of the rope and my whole body being hoisted by the half-ton weight of the bell — mostly the risk is rope burn if I don’t let go in time. How bad can that be?
It’s the uncertainty that scares me. I think I have just got out of practice with not knowing what I need to know, in order to accomplish what I want to accomplish. I’ve forgotten that every new skill — riding a bike, driving, playing the piano — starts with endless repetitions of tiny skills, boring as can be imagined, perseverance with a seemingly pointless series of tasks. Until suddenly, one day, you turn a corner. You can DO the thing.
How brave of Avery to persevere with the dozen or so subjects she’s being asked to get under her belt! Starting with a new alphabet, endlessly memorizing, so that in the end, she’ll find herself in Moscow ordering dinner. Or at the very least, telling a spy to leave her alone.
Well, cooking comforts me. Somewhere along the line after numberless cloves of garlic mixed, endless experiments with what works and what does not, splatterings of hot oil and frying pans of burnt pinenuts, I can produce a plate of perfect deep-fried soft-shell crabs and king prawns, and there is nothing wrong with that achievement.
8 soft shell crabs, fresh or frozen (then thawed and WELL drained)
12 king prawns, raw with shells removed but tails on
1/2 cup cornflour/cornstarch
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp each: powdered ginger, powdered Sumac, powdered cayenne, garlic salt
rapeseed or canola oil, enough to submerge seafood
Dry seafood completely and set on a plate, having LOTS of paper towels ready, stacked up nearby.
Mix flour and breadcrumbs and all seasonings.
Dredge the seafood thoroughly in the mixture, squishing it in with your fingers. Not much sticks, but it is the flavor that counts.
When the oil is hot enough that a breadcrumb dropped in fries instantly, place seafood gently in the oil in a single layer, cooking for one minute, then turning and cooking for 30 seconds more. Drain on paper towel. Serve with a chilli mayo if you like (simply mayonnaise mixed with chilli sauce to your taste, with lemon juice).
If you have ever been disappointed in ordering any fried food delivered — I have had more such disappointments than in love — turn away and do these at home. So simple. Just stand back from the spitting oil!
During the week we took ourselves off for a wander round Barnes Cemetery, formed in 1855 and closed in 1950, inexplicably completely neglected and overgrown. This feature only adds to its creepy, touching, very English charm.
I need something to cheer me up today, as John’s mom has flown away home and left us alone. I am very lucky, I know, to have a mother-in-law who is a chum, a companion and a friend — not to mention a dab hand at mincing all the cloves of garlic our family seems to require every evening to keep going. I get used to having her here, listening to all the stories that make up my ordinary and tranquil life. Most wonderful, though, is having an extra person in the house to gaze at my daughter with all the admiration I feel she deserves! Having her here to appreciate Avery and to take always the best photograph of us, to capture a moment, is what I miss most when she goes away.
So a little cherry-picking outing in the garden seemed in order. What to make of them? I would say a crumble, but a strawberry version I made last week went wrong — rather watery and forgettable. I certainly don’t want to waste these little beauties, fresh from my own backyard. Maybe just pitted, with a little Demerara sugar.
Rosemary’s time here was a truly wonderful visit, full to the brim with activities, and yet also laced with plenty of hours of quiet as Avery revised for her exams. Sometimes we left her behind when we went on our adventures, but there were also times when it was just pleasant to sit down with a book, putter about in the kitchen, listen to a light rain on the conservatory windows, curl up with a cat, or indulge in that lovely pasttime: watching John’s mom look through the enormous pile of photo albums that await her visits.
But most of our time during her visit was filled with fun. There was dinner with our friends with four daughters — one of them Avery’s great friend Meggie, home on half-term from boarding school and so a treat to see — all of them starving, so it is always a pleasure to produce a platter of plump sausages and a massive dish of five-cheese macaroni and cheese and tuck in.
Unbelievably, until now I have not offered you this recipe! How cruel of me, as there is nothing more comforting, more all-pleasing, more savoury and satisfying than a big spoonful of cheesy goodness. Here are my basic guidelines, although the beauty of this dish is that you can use any and all cheeses you have lurking in your fridge, making a clean sweep of the bits and pieces and resulting always in a luscious treat. I have found that no matter the cheeses I use, provided that one of them is super-creamy like Dairylea or Philadelphia, the dish tastes the same. My recipe provides a lot more sauce than most macaroni and cheese recipes, and it is this detail that makes the dish so luxurious, and yet simple and inexpensive. Perfect.
Luxury Macaroni and Cheese
(serves about 8)
1 1/2 lb macaroni, or conchiglie, cooked and drained
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
1 liter whole milk
skim milk to thin if sauce is too thick
as many cheeses as you have available: Wensleydale, Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, sharp Cheddar, Emmenthal: total 1 1/2 lb, grated
1/2 cup cream cheese: Dairylea or Philadelphia or Laughing Cow
dash fresh-ground nutmeg
tiny dash cayenne pepper
sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tbsps melted butter
Have the cooked pasta available, spread into a large buttered dish, large enough to easily accommodate all the pasta and sauce.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and add the flour, cooking together for a bubbling minute or so. Whisk in the whole milk, whisking constantly and scraping the bottom to get all the floury butter incorporated. Cook this white sauce until thickened. If you feel it is too thick, add a bit of skim milk, whisking all the while.
Add all the cheeses together, whisking as they melt. Season with the nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper.
When the sauce is thoroughly melted and creamy, pour it over the cooked pasta and stir carefully so that all the holes in the pasta receive the sauce. Top with breadcrumbs and drizzle with melted butter. Bake at 350F/180C for about 45 minutes, or until the middle of the dish is hot through.
Such fun to see the girls all lapping up second helpings of this creamy delight, plus savoury pork sausages and piles of fine green beans, sauteed with butter and olive oil and garlic and lemon zest. Shouting with laughter over all our usual topics, especially John’s grief over my insistence on taking his Amazon.com suggestions of books I might like, and running with them to the very precious bookshop in the village. “Are you TRYING to bankrupt us?” “No, I just want the bookshop to stay in business!” “Even if WE don’t?!”
The next morning found us in Shoreditch, trying to help John find a plot of empty land to buy to develop. This is his passion these days, and he spends a lot of his time bicycling around the East End looking for an unappreciated spot to rescue. Clerkenwell, Spitalfields, Hackney, they are all on his radar. We sat down for a reward to have lunch at the Albion, a spot I normally adore, but I must tell you, the fish and chips were very disappointing: rather soggy and tasteless. Thankfully my greedy self also ordered duck livers on toast, and oh my, a savoury delight. I’m still loyal to the Albion.
And then, my dream adventure. A trip to St Matthews, Bethnal Green, for a tour of their bell tower! You all know of my love affair with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers — after all, I named my cat after her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey!
In 1897, this church, its ring of eight magnificent bells, and its merry band of ringers spent over nine hours ringing over 15,000 changes, to celebrate the New Year. And Dorothy L. Sayers heard of the feat, and memorialized it for us in “The Nine Tailors,” either her greatest detective novel or the most boring book ever written, depending on who you ask. You know where I stand. I adore that book.
Well, in September 1940, on the first night of the Blitz, the church was hit and everything destroyed.
The empty spot where the church had been was filled with a sad temporary church until 1961 when it was rebuilt and reconsecrated, and of course now the 50th anniversary of that rededication has come along. To celebrate, a restoration of the bells themselves, and their tower, has begun. And we contributed! (You can too.) So a tour was in order.
The dear Bellmaster and Tower Captain Leon was there to introduce me to Bell Number 7. John made the novel suggestion that the bells should be named after people and institutions who contribute to their renovation! “Here you are, Kristen, the Merrill Lynch Bell!” So far, though, just Number 7.
And he took us up into the roof where, for safekeeping, the peal boards are kept. These are boards that commemorate, in golden paint (under many layers of dirt going back 110 years!) the type of method rung on a given date, the ringers and the length of the peal. And THIS was, believe it or not, the actual board describing the 1897 peal that inspired Dorothy L. Sayers. Unbelievable!
John and Rosemary very sweetly smiled upon me and Leon as we babbled (I babbled, he was very coherent) about Stedmans — a method rung often in St Matthews, named for the man who really invented change-ringing, in the 17th century. They did not, however, follow along when Leon and I climbed precariously into the actual belfry, so I could see Bell 7, my friend.
But I could not glow for long because we were having guests for dinner: our old friends from Agate Road, the gorgeous Selva and Sara and Stephanie, our friends whose presence in our old neighborhood meant dinners and drinks, parties and thank-you notes flying through letterboxes, friends who were willing to try a new recipe, take a parcel from the postman, keep our spare key, let our cats through their windows. How I miss them all.
Our slow-cooked boneless ducks, stuffed with rosemary, garlic, lemon and butter and rolled and tied by Tony, had been cooking all day in the slow Aga oven while I was ringing bells, and while they were gorgeous to eat, they were ugly, so I shall not share a photo. But the courgettes, peppers and mushrooms, stuffed with sauteed minced bits of themselves, plus pinenuts and goats cheese, were beautiful.
Now, normally when in a foreign place, John and Avery and I are keen to blend in, to look as if we belong. But there are times when this sort of discretion is just silly and means that you wander around looking like you belong, but not actually learning anything. So we booked a guide through Oxbridge Tours, and if you can possibly get Sarah Weaver, DO. She is brilliant: a friendly American graduate student getting her PhD in English, specializing in Tennyson. Oh, the things she knew!
Did you know that Cambridge was founded in a specific year, 1209, in order to flee Oxford! That brave fact alone makes me feel fondly toward Cambridge. I suppose it’s the American rebellious pilgrim in me coming out, rooting for the underdog rather than the authority figure. It’s a village-feeling place, rather than the city feel of Oxford. I’ll leave you with some images, to inspire you to take your own tour.
Finally, the tiny little 11th century St Bene’t’s (short for St Benedict’s) Church.
This church would have been a pleasure to see in any case: its bell tower dates from 1033: IMAGINE! Thirty three years before the Norman Conquest! It is the oldest building in Cambridge. We went inside and there were its bell ropes, its peal boards, and THEN, most incredible to me, a plaque honoring the 300th birthday of none other than Fabian Stedman, father of change-ringing. He was a ringer there, right in St Bene’t’s. I couldn’t believe my luck.
We jumped onto a train just in time and sat in exhausted awe, back towards Kings Cross, then onto the tube, then into the car in wretched traffic homeward, and to a much-needed super-nutritious dinner. A clean-out-the-fridge stirfry, and I can just tell you that it revived EVERYONE.
Everything Stir-Fry with Fried Rice
(serves 4 very hungry people)
4 chicken breast fillets
2 fillet steaks
3 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp Mirin (Japanese rice wine)
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 bunch spring onions, sliced thin, put into two equal piles
6 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
1 tsp Chinese five-spice
2 orange or red bell peppers, cut in mostly chunks, but one handful minced and set aside
2 bunches asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces
handful frozen peas, thawed
1 cup basmati rice
3 eggs, beaten
2 tbsps peanut oil
sprinkle of sesame oil and soy sauce
Cut the chicken and beef into bite-sized pieces and add the soy, sesame, mirin and stir well. Set aside.
Pour the first tablespoon of peanut oil in a heated wok and cook the pepper chunks and asparagus, and peas, plus one pile of spring onion slices, till they are softened to your liking. Set aside in a bowl large enough to eventually hold all the ingredients for this dish.
Steam the basmati rice. Meanwhile, pour the chicken and beef plus their liquids, and the garlic and ginger and Chinese 5-spice, into the hot wok and cook JUST until done. Do not overcook! Place in the large bowl with the vegetables.
Pour the remaining two tablespoons of peanut oil into the wok and saute the second pile of spring onions, plus the handful minced pepper. Add the eggs and scramble until done. Add the steamed rice and sprinkle on a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce, then toss all together. Pour in the chicken, beef and vegetables and toss until well-mixed.
Saturday morning I had a thrill that harkened back to my various bellish adventures of the week… Tricia, my secondary teacher at church, let me pull a rope with the clapper free! And what’s more, I rang proper rounds with all the other ringers, for the first time. Thrilling.
Sunday we left Avery to revise, poor girl, and repaired to Angelus in Bayswater for their classic, unforgettable foie gras creme brulee, surely our favorite food on earth. And the usual Angelus conversations, remembering times there in the past (the day Avery received that amazing pile of school acceptances for her 11+!). The joy of being together, enjoying ridiculously good food that I could never make at home: duck four ways… confit of shoulder, perfectly pink roast breast, faggots and a liver sauce. Crazy! Duck, duck… duck.
Once home, we rescued Avery and headed off for her reward, a shopping trip to Westfield. Never my favorite thing, shopping, it was nevertheless lovely just to be with my two ladies, watching Avery try on dozens of outfits, finally choosing just a couple of things, plus some makeup she couldn’t live without. The mall closed at 6 and simply kicked us out, into a massive rainstorm! Oh how COLD it was! Walking without umbrellas around and around outside, trying to find a taxi! Shoes squelching, clothes dripping. “Look at my fringe!” Avery wailed, lifting up the offending bang, and letting it fall, splashing miserably into her eyes. Finally we ordered a private cab and stood shivering, waiting for it to arrive, feeling martyred.
Nothing ever felt so good as the Aga when we got home! And nothing ever tasted so good as the scrambled eggs, rich with double cream, and the bacon — both English and streaky! — with crisp rye toast and potato pancakes.
What a wonderful time we had, with Rosemary. Now we can start counting the days until she comes to us, this summer, at Red Gate Farm.