We are back from the unforgettable delights of Paris, and I’m even now finding it a bit difficult to adjust to normal life! Seemingly dozens of loads of laundry have, however, helped me come down to earth.
There is no way to convey the magic of Paris in photos, or words. Even the simplest things are rather other worldly, like this view from our rented apartment, near to the Louvre.
It’s tempting to try to describe the extraordinary charms of everything about Paris: the architectural details around every corner, the charming blue street signs, the stylish girls and boys on mind-bogglingly speedy scooters, the perfectly fashionable small French children speaking in high piping voices, “Papa! Maman! Je voudrais du pain au chocolat!” Even the florist displays have a foreign, glossy poetry.
I’m busy in the kitchen this sunny London morning, preparing for a little dinner party tonight — my father’s first cousin is visiting! — at which I’ll serve the nation’s favorite dish. Curry! Next week will see Hindus celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, and for that reason all the telly chefs seem to be coming forward with their various versions of the classic Indian treat. What Americans may find funny is that British “curry” often does not feature… curry powder! Curry powder itself is, of course, an amalgam of many spices including turmeric, coriander, cumin and cinnamon. British curries, including the one I’m making tonight, feature a paste of lemon grass, chilli, ginger, garlic and oil. I’ll start with that and then add spices as I go along.
If you can imagine, Avery is on school holiday this week and next! How on earth, we might well be tempted to ask, can a school system be ready for a holiday just six weeks after the beginning of term? Until I became the mother of essentially a British teenager you could never have convinced me that anyone could need a break in October. But we all do! This particular year, when Avery and her mates are buckling down to what are called GCSEs (the first really important exams that will occur next year, after which children can legally leave school). Homework levels have spiked and there is real pressure to produce serious work in several languages, three sciences and (toughest of all, to my mind) mathematics that I can no longer even pretend to understand.
Added to this onslaught of work are the rehearsals for “Sweet Charity,” the musical Avery will be in next month. As the days grow shorter and colder, Avery seems to come home later and later, laden with books and files, starving to death, and with a huge workload before we can hope to sit down to dinner. It was a nice break last week to head over to Kingston to hear the Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes talk about his career, the stratospheric success of DA, his future plans — a series about the Titanic next year!
He was simply adorable! For all the accusations that he is a snob, that “Downton Abbey” is a snobbish programme, I have to admit that I love it all. I do think it’s a funny contradiction, Americans’ attitude toward anything resembling the British aristocracy. We may well have fled England ourselves all those years ago seeking greater equality and freedom, but we love nothing more than Hello! magazine, the Royal Wedding, and anyone addressed as Countess or Lady. So I enjoyed greatly sitting on the dusty floor of the Rose Theatre in the round, and listening to the plummy tones of Mr Fellowes describing his life as a drama student, some 40 years ago. “We found ourselves between the brilliance of John Cleese and Monty Python before us, and Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry who came after us. In short, we were the bread between the jam, as it were.”
“Acting is like playing tennis,” he pontificated. “You should always pursue each activity with people who are better at it than YOU.”
Oh, speaking of tennis, we have had to admit that very shortly, the courts will be too damp, leafy and dangerous for us to play. And so we have taken up a new and totally crazy sport: SQUASH. One lesson at the Barnes Squash Club has convinced at least John that we should pursue this, so I’m going along with it.
I can understand that if I am going to continue to cook for us, we have to find ever more clever ways of burning off all the calories. But I have to admit I think I’ll always feel more comfortable with the sort of squash that takes butter and sage and gets pureed with a hand blender.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
1 large butternut squash
2 tbsps butter
6 leaves fresh sage
500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
drizzle single cream
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and dot with butter and sage leaves. Roast at 220C/425F for about half an hour or until fully cooked and soft. Scoop squash into a saucepan and cover with chicken stock. Simmer for five minutes, then puree with hand blender. Pour into warm bowls and drizzle with cream.
One of the biggest treats of this autumn has been our trip to Borough Market. It’s the way John gets me to accompany him on his real-estate forays into the East-ish End of London: the lure of every delicious foodstuff you can dream up, under one corrugated metal roof, high above our heads. Stalls of pumpkins (speaking of squash!)…
But perhaps my favorite stall of all is Gastronomica, that famed Italian seller of all things charcuterie (what’s Italian for “charcuterie,” anyway?), dairy, cheese… and the best butter on the face of the earth.
I brought home a head of cauliflower to roast whole, and WHAT a good idea that was. Simply drizzled with lots of olive oil and sprinkled with a good sea salt, roasted in a hot oven for 30 minutes.
Fortified by my cauliflower, I’ve been a good girl and done my “pool duty” at Avery’s school, a termly obligation which entails picking up the keys to the fabulous old structure at a house nearby, cycling through the autumn leaves over to school, opening up the box with its money to pay the lifeguard, asking members to sign in, then breathing in the steamy air for an hour and a half while swimmers trundle up and down. One man came in from the chilly outside to greet me and the lifeguard, who pummeled him with questions about the football match going on: Wales — vs– France. “I can’t believe you’re rooting for Wales, sir,” said the lifeguard. “Well, normally of course I wouldn’t. But they’re playing FRANCE.” The lesser of two evils, to the English mindset.
On Sunday we all awoke to a foggy day which I spent making every mistake in bellringing that it is possible to make. I led with the treble very badly, finally learning to follow the tenor. It’s a nice lesson in life: to be the leader, sometimes it’s necessary only to follow who seems to be last. Then it was onto Chiswick where when asked to “ring down” the treble bell, I accidentally pulled it down in two strokes. Was there ever a scarier moment? “You got away with that because it was the treble, a tiny bell,” Matt said. “If you’d had a heavy bell you’d be missing a hand right now.”
And this is my new hobby. How do I get myself into these situations?
The only way to recover was with a lovely plate of lemon sole, sauteed in olive oil and topped with a dusting of crispy Fox Point breadcrumbs. Terribly successful to taste, but not pretty enough to photograph. On the other hand, the side dish of julienned beetroot, shaped into a cake and fried in duck fat, was beautiful, with its dollop of sour cream.
It turns out that while julienned potatoes will form a cake, beetroot will not. And beetroot with duck fat is simply gilding the lily, as it were. Cooking is not always successful if you make experiments.
Avery’s been experimenting this break, but not with beetroot. First she spent a day in Tottenham with her fashion designer mentor Stephane St Jaymes, the brilliant man who offered her a “Take Your Daughter To Work” day last spring. I love the outfit she chose for her day with him this week.
So tomorrow, with her new haircut and ready for an adventure, we are off on the Eurostar to Paris for an early celebration of Avery’s birthday. More from there!
Autumn is here, my favorite time of year. ’ Tis the season, almost as much as Christmas, when all our activities get ratcheted up in intensity and it seems there is never a chance to take a deep breath. In just the last four days, we have been to the Royal Albert Hall to see Idina Menzel and Marvin Hamlisch in concert (beyond amazing, quite simply the best concert we’ve ever been to), hosted a dinner party for 14 (I was worrying it was going to be 13 until one family unexpectedly brought their German exchange student who spoke no English, so it was a bit difficult to tell good news from bad), and drove to Kingston to see Jane Asher in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” our favorite play of all time.
All simply lovely activities on their own, but squashed together into too few days has left me feeling a bit as if I’ve eaten too much foie gras over too short a period… and in need of a cup of tea.
In the midst of all this, Avery has had a milestone. Those wretched braces, her reluctant companions for the last two years, are GONE! She is very happy.
And I spent two lovely mornings with my super-volunteer friend Fiona, who last year was kind enough to invite me to take part in one of her elegant and yet homely projects: The Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild, which sees hundreds of volunteers gathering together in St James’s Palace in Piccadilly.
We spent the hours sorting through thousands of donated and purchased new garments for needy women and children. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the Palace, so I can only describe to you the GRANDEUR! We folded and sorted sweatsuits in a room with ceilings four times as high as my own house, looked down on by TWO Joshua Reynolds heroes of the aristocracy. The room next to us was entirely covered in TAPESTRY! The walls were hung with spiraling arrangements of weaponry and heraldry… and another room adjacent to ours was the setting for William’s and Kate’s engagement announcement! It was rumoured that the happy couple were IN the building as we worked, possibly even had entered through the same cobblestoned courtyard I had myself come through!
What an extraordinary privilege to be in such a setting, surrounded by lovely hard-working women, dragging enormous boxes of sheets and pillowcases from one room to another, buying up aprons emblazoned with the Guild’s logo as presents for various deserving friends at Christmas!
How amazing to take our lunch break and eat our sandwiches under a giant 25-feet-wide painting depicting Queen Victoria’s arrival in India! And get this: to find the ladies’ room, one had to pass through what is Prince Charles’ favorite room in which to read the paper! Red brocade wallpaper and all. Simply amazing.
If all that grandeur were not enough, last week saw us at the 502nd birthday party of Avery’s school, in the awe-inspiring environs of St Paul’s Cathedral. How wonderful to listen to the choir singing “Lord, graciously hear us,” in a descant written by Avery’s own music teacher, surrounded by the mosaic images of the Saints, with the girls and boys filing past in all their young, brilliant splendor. Sadly, another event at which was strictly enjoined against taking photos, but here is an official one.
And I have been laboring happily in the support of my beloved church, not only bellringing madly (and with some marginal success at ringing my first method, Plain Hunt on Five, of which I am ridiculously proud!) but also taking part in that MOST English of all possible activities: the church coffee morning. Here is the view of the little coffee shop, complete with crunchy autumnal leaves.
I called John up surreptitiously on the day to say that I felt EXACTLY as if I were in an Agatha Christie novel, just waiting for the body to turn up in the scullery! The story was this: one day in the year, on Saturday as it turns out, the coffee shop ladies who normally sell their wares to the general public took off their aprons and headed over to the Church Hall to run the Jumble Sale. We the bellringers stepped up to run the coffee shop in their absence!
I had been put in charge of asking everyone to donate a cake or “biscuits” or fairy cakes, and had gathered a goodly number. I myself took a lemon-blueberry cake with drizzle topping, and an apple-banana cake over which I liberally sprinkled icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar to us Yanks) in an attempt to make it look more professional. “Should these be priced at £1, or 50p?” we asked each other, slicing up orange-honey cake with a yogurt and pistachio icing, old-fashioned ginger cakes and Victoria Sponges, arranging coffee cups and tea bags and sugar bowls. This was the scene.
Between plating cakes and making signs and arranging flowers (Matthew came in with an offering of a posy from his garden: “These are chamomile…”), we took turns running over to the bellringing chamber to send our peals out over the village. How I adore that blue door, with our bicycles propped against the wall which so miraculously protected our beloved bells from the fire in the 1970s. What happy memories I have now of the six months I have been coming to the church to learn my art.
Of course, the giant excitement of our autumn season has been the Visit of Laurie and Christian, all the way from South Africa! Laurie is one of my closest friends ever, dating back to 1983 when we were excited, nervous, chatty, happy freshmen in college who lived in the same dormitory for the first year and happily joined the same sorority which meant sharing EVERYTHING for the whole four years of college. She hasn’t changed a BIT. Still the same gorgeous Texas girl of our youth!
Christian is her 11-year-old boy, a total joy to have around. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s drop-dead gorgeous.
From the moment of their arrival, our lives were just that much brighter than they had been before. Laurie is a tall girl, with arms that hug you with her whole being. She has never lost her Texas lilt of voice, her bubbling way of speaking, her bottomless enthusiasm for everything around her. Life just sparkles when she is around.
We spent the whole first evening catching up. “It’s different, though, catching up in the age of Facebook and email,” Laurie observed. “We know what each other’s houses and kids look like, we’ve had a chance to say we’ve moved house, or changed schools, so it’s a lot easier.” It was true: we got right down to the nitty gritty of appreciating each other, as we always have.
What is it about old friendships? I have moved house — and indeed country — so many times that I consider myself to be an expert at friendship. New friends from new schools, new neighborhoods, new jobs, new shops, a new church: I am a connoisseur of friends. They come in all shapes and sizes: the friend you see once a year to go to a food festival and stuff yourselves with gourmet food, the friend you meet for lunch to celebrate or commiserate, the friend who is your child’s best friend’s mother, the friend who teaches you to ring a bell. I cherish them all.
But there is something indescribably precious about an old, old friend. That person who knew you 25 pounds ago, who became part of your life when you weren’t old enough to drink but did it together anyway, who knew you before you knew your husband whom you feel you’ve known forever… that person who was at your wedding and met your baby when she was tiny, who knew your parents when they were the age we are now! That friend is one you keep, you hold onto, you appreciate with all your heart and history.
For me, the essence of an old friendship lies in the fact that she has seen you at your best, at your worst and everywhere in between, and still loves you anyway. New friendships are a bit more luxurious: you can choose to see them only when you’re at your best, or at least presentable. But when a friend has seen you flat out in tears — the teenage “I’ll never be happy again and ONLY YOU will ever understand” sort of tears, and also the adult tears of real heartbreak — or desperately hungover when you both wake up together in your dorm room, or after you’ve been up for 28 straight hours studying for that wretched German exam (Laurie always thought of my German teacher as HER German teacher, that’s how sympathetic she was)… well, then, that friend holds a special spot in your life.
What adventures we had! The very first day I had to love them and leave them, for my second day volunteering at the Queen’s Mother’s Clothing Guild (that is fun to type). So they went off to Greenwich to stand on the median line — boring but necessary for Christian’s geography homework! — and to take a boat down the Thames, while I folded scarves and counted t-shirts. Then we all met up at home where I was busily making chicken meatball soup for Avery’s ailing best friend, and chicken-asparagus carbonara for us.
How we talked and talked and talked.
And the tourist activities that I always get up to when visitors come… we marched poor Christian through THREE museums on Wednesday morning along! The Science Museum (where frankly the shop was our favorite exhibit, I think!), the Natural History Museum, and the V&A, where we sat outside in the spectacular Indian summer sunshine, beneath the impressive outdoor sculpture exhibit.
If you ever find yourself in that “Museum Row” in Knightsbridge, let me tell you a little secret: the cafe in the courtyard of the V&A is a spectacular spot: simple sandwiches and salads, lovely pastries and tea, and you can plop yourself down in the sunshine around the central fountain and watch the world go by — at least that portion of the world that wants to look at Victorian cast courts and then take a break for lunch. Oh, those cast courts! Replicas of ALL the great masterpieces of the medieval-Gothic-Renaissance times in Europe, made out of plaster but totally convincing as stone, marble and bronze. So impressive. Fiona had joined us for lunch, and she took us on a tour of those incredible replicas.
And when you’re ready to plunge into the South Kensington Tube, take a tiny detour and blow your cheese budget at La Cave a Fromage, simply my favorite cheese shop in London, I believe, partly because they give SAMPLES! And they carry what is to my mind the finest of all creamy cheeses: the three-milk Robiola (sheep, ewe and goat milk! amazing).
We came home, dumped all our parcels and headed over to the nearby school fields where I had got permission for us to watch a rugby practice! What a glorious way to spend a perfect mid-September late afternoon… sitting on a grassy hill, gossiping with my precious friends, watching young boys try to destroy each other! Christian found an abandoned ball and had a run around (I’m sure no one minded when one of his enthusiastic kicks sent the ball over the fence into the road!). Glorious day.
We all piled into our tiny convertible and headed over to Avery’s school to pick her up and make the transfer of soup to her ailing friend (I firmly believe that my chicken soup with meatballs should be patented for curing minor illnesses, and even major illnesses shouldn’t be ruled out). Laurie and I got permission to go on a quick tour of the school, and it was fun to see the pretty 100-year-old campus with new eyes: the fabulously impressive Main Hall with its enormous Victorian organ, the playing fields stretching out in the sun, the mosaics and engraved names of the “scholars” from 100 years of girls’ achievements in the hallway.
Home for that protein-fest dinner, pierrade, perfect in the slightly chilly dusk.
Thursday saw us shopping in Regent Street, finding Christmas presents for everyone on Laurie’s list. Then we had a picnic, thought of just that morning as we surveyed our treasures from “La Cave.” Robiola, Gorgonzola, Bresaola and Prosciuotto di Parma, all with a crunchy baguette, and pile of hard-boiled eggs, a clutch of tiny tomatoes. We sat on the grass in Hanover Square and watched all the young businesspeople in their suits and ties, scarfing down sandwiches. They went off to a matinee of “War Horse,” and came home blown away, teary and touched, as we all have been after seeing that magnificent play. I offered restorative fried haddock and fresh tartare sauce.
I spent Friday morning putting my beloved church back together after a busy evening the night before. “What happened HERE?” I asked when I came in, seeing overturned chairs, crumbs, empty wineglasses. “We had the hell of a fashion show!” answered one of my bellringing teachers, and we all put our heads down to hoover, take out recycling, rebuild the altar, replace kneelers and candles. I love everything I do in that place!
Then home for a HOT HOT afternoon, getting ready for our dinner party that evening. It was glorious fun to have everyone pitching in, putting napkins in silver rings, picking up on John’s brilliant idea to move the enormous dining table OUTSIDE in the garden! He mowed the lawn, I cooked — chicken meatballs in a sour cream-paprika sauce, green beans in garlic and lemon — Laurie set the table, filling candlesticks, choosing wine glasses, chatting all the time. That is just about my favorite time, getting ready for a fabulous evening, in our cozy home.
Our guests arrived and a wonderful evening began, finding out straightaway that one of our guests went to the school in South Africa where Laurie has put Christian down! They actually know people in common, in their little road outside Durban. I would say how unbelievable that is, but such things seem to happen in our lives all the time.
Conversations flowed as the teenagers at one end of the table ironed out the world’s worth of political issues facing them, Laurie and I regaled the adults with silly stories from our teenage years together, our friend James fell under Laurie’s spell…
Laurie said seriously, “You must visit a place with people you love who live there, else you will never see the stars in their sky.”
I could not rest on my hostessly laurels, however, because Saturday bellringing practice waits for no man. At the end of the practice, Laurie and Christian turned up for the promised beginning lesson I had arranged with my teachers!
And then they were off, given a ride by Laurie’s childhood friend who happens to live a mile from me! We promised to return the visit perhaps next fall! Wouldn’t that be exciting, to stay with real South Africans on a game farm? Watch this space.
Real life has settled down again, I suppose. How blue I felt for days after Laurie and Christian left, bulging suitcases showing the fruits of their shopping, bone-crushing hugs and endless silly jokes. The only consolation for missing them is knowing how lucky I was to have them here at all.
I will leave you with a recipe I just tried for the first time last night, taken from a cookbook, “Sumptuous,” that Laurie brought for me. Part of her remains here, after all. Thank you, friends, for an unforgettable time!
serves about 10 as a side dish)
2 medium aubergines/eggplants, whole
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 salad onions, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup/250 ml creme fraiche
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Prick the aubergines all over with a fork and rub olive oil onto them. Roast at 220C/400F for 30 minutes. Let cool, then cut in half and scoop the insides out into a medium bowl. Fold in all the other ingredients. Voila! Perfect with slow-roasted shoulder of lamb.