The Christmas season has wrought its usual miracle and we are safely out of the chaos of London and into the chaos of the mad rush toward A Red Gate Farm Christmas.
We arrived in the middle of the night on Friday, our jetlag routed a bit by a suicidal/homicidal driver from JKF. I was thisclose to shouting, “Pull over, you lunatic, and let my husband drive!” Finally we descended the exit ramp off the murderous highway and onto the quiet country road to the house and I have never been so relieved in my life. Thankfully Avery slept right through it, but the hand I had resting on her sweatered, sleeping back was sweaty as we emerged from the car into safety.
Rollie and Judy had, as always, visited in the afternoon to fill the fridge and turn on heat and lights, and to leave five fragrant balsam wreaths on the front step. Could we have any better neighbors? I also suspect Anne and David had done some elf work on that subject, so we had food to welcome us. And my dears, the relief of seeing all the house repairs we had worried…
Tis the season when every evening, the three of us convene to ask, “What do you have on for tomorrow?” There has been plenty to do, starting with a whole series of musical events at Avery’s school.
For these, I arm myself with a handful of tissues, since nothing brings witless tears to my eyes quite like the sound of girls’ voices, singing in heavenly imperfection. There was the “Singing Tea,” a phrase that makes my American relations laugh. What on earth? How does a tea sing? British people will understand that it means a concert of the girls who take singing lessons at school, preceded by a tea. That is, a period of standing around clutching cups of tea and watching the girls themselves wolf down untold pieces of cake, having skipped lunch in order to rehearse.
Sandwiched as she was between Hayden and Bach, Mozart and Brahms, Avery’s piece was more funny than even it normally is. “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” of course, by the incomparable American mathematician and songwriter Tom Lehrer. “My heart will be quickenin’, with each drop of strychnine…” Perfect for our intensely satirical daughter.
Then we were onto the Junior Choir singing “Cry Me a River” at the Soiree Musicale. They were heavenly. I needed my tissues.
And then there was the week-long adventure of the much-anticipated school musical, “Sweet Charity.”
The musical was sublime: the dancers professionally in time with one another, the lead charming, and the ensemble full of crazy energy. Granted, the plot which centers on “dance hall hostess” bemoaning the loss of their innocence while they solicit clients and drink and smoke, is not one I would naturally have chosen for a girls’ school whose cast runs the gamut from 12–18. But as a friend of mind pointed out, maybe it was just this sort of daring subject matter that grabbed the interest of the older girls. At one point Avery was singing and dancing right in front, practically in the laps of the audience, so we fatuously chose those seats every evening. It was such fun.
Finally there was the Christmas Carol Service in the Hall, a room of such elegant proportions that I always feel I’m in a Harry Potter movie.
My mother asked if the girls sang traditional carols, and I replied, “Yes, so traditional that they sing them in LATIN.” Simply heartbreakingly beautiful, all of them in their black concert clothes, shining faces illuminated by hand-held lights, every one of them gorgeous in her own way. On the brink of everything.
On top of all these events, we’ve been attending far more than our share of school Christmas Fairs, getting ideas for our own Fair in a year’s time, for which John is totally responsible! I think it is wonderful that a girls’ school is happy to have a father in charge. A good example to the girls for what a husband and dad can be. And naturally, we’ve been decorating our own house, too.
There is of course the tree itself.
It is lovely, but I am bemoaning a bit the new trend in trees: someone has bred one that doesn’t drop its needles but also doesn’t smell like a Christmas tree. This is our fate, this season. I have hopes for a smelly tree in Connecticut. The beauties of shopping for Christmas decorations in England far outweigh a non-fragrant tree, though. With our lovely friends Vincent and Peter we went strolling (or rather pushing our way through choking crowds) down Columbia Road in the East End. What an experience! We looked up at one point and saw this fellow.
I especially like this last one for the very expressive size of the font. It’s as though the writer begins by feeling terribly emphatic and annoyed with his neighbors, then begins to lose steam, and finally at the end seems to regret being so angry.
We repaired to Vincent and Peter’s cozy home where they plied us with various tarts and quiches, among them this beauty made with red onions, black olives and sardines (photo courtesy of Avery).
And then we came home with five gorgeous (if lethally prickly) wreaths made of real holly, as only the English can do. They adorn the back windows of the kitchen.
Avery has, of course, set up her annual ice-skating pond with its lead skaters and sledders, giving strict instructions to anyone who visits to wash hands after touching! This year saw the addition of some amazing “Insta-Snow”, which works by sprinkling water on a very tiny amount of powder, causing it to fluff up many times its original size!
To keep up our strength during all these festivities, on the advice of my cooking friend Caz, I made these:
Sophie Grigson’s Christmas Sprouts
(serves 6–8 as a side dish)
675 g brussels sprouts
100 g smoked duck breast or bacon, cut into strip
50 g toasted chopped hazelnuts
15 g butter
1 tbsp sunflower oil
300 ml double cream
2 tsp turmeric
dash of lemon juice
4 tbsp breadcrumbs
3 tbsp finely grated parmesan
3–4 tbsp chopped parsley
Trim the sprouts of their outer, tough leaves. Place the sprouts into a saucepan of simmering salted water and cook for 4–5 minutes, until almost, but not quite, cooked. Drain thoroughly, allow to cool slightly, then cut in half.
Place the butter and oil into a wide frying pan over a medium heat. Add the bacon lardons and almonds and sauté for 3–4 minutes, until lightly browned.
Add the sprouts and sauté for a further 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the cream and bring the mixture to the boil. Boil for 2–4 minutes, until the cream has reduced to a rich sauce. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and spoon into an ovenproof gratin dish.
Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese together in a bowl, then sprinkle evenly over the top of the sprout mixture.
Place into the oven and bake for 18–20 minutes, until the top is golden.
I am not a massive fan of sprouts but even I really liked these. Go easy on the breadcrumbs as you want the end result to be quite creamy.
One of John’s and my holiday outings was a nearly complete bust, so let me pass on my intelligence. “Taste of Christmas” sounded so wonderful! We have always loved “Taste of London,” a food fair at which lots of top restaurants turn up to serve tiny portions of their signature dishes. Lovely chance to wander through Regent’s Park — even in the rain, as it was in June! — and eat sumptuously, facing far too many choices, and walking away feeling stuffed and gluttonous.
I didn’t read the small print on “Taste of Christmas,” which turned out to be at the ExCel conference center — depressing! — over an hour’s drive to the Docklands, in short, the area far, FAR East where the Olympics are going to take place! You can imagine how far one must go to find land in London on which to build giant stadiums. That’s how far we drove. And upon arrival, we discovered only SIX restaurants were taking part and the rest was a mishmash of unattractive Christmas ornaments and mostly-useless kitchen implements. Once there, however, we tried to have fun, and sampled all the food there was, plus we found a very exciting silicon mat that one can place directly on the burner of an Aga stove and fry things! Like these peppers, stuffed with goat’s cheese.
The only other lasting good thing from the dismal fair in the middle of nowhere was this salmon dish from Rhodes W1, which I’ve replicated as best as my taste buds can accomplish.
Olive-oil-Poached and Smoked Salmon Terrine with Sweet Lemon Dressing and Microherbs
(serves 6 as a starter)
2 cups olive oil
300 g/10.5 ounces fresh salmon fillet
200g/7 ounces cream cheese
200g/7 ounces creme fraiche
1 tsp capers
handful baby cress
handful baby shiso (Japanese coriander)
handful fresh tarragon leaves
juice of 1/2 lemon
300g/10.5 ounces smoked salmon
1/4 extra-virgin olive oil
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp clear honey
fresh ground black pepper
Bring the cups of olive oil to what can only be called a “shimmer”. It’s short of the temperature for frying, but a piece of breadcrumb will move about if you drop it in. Carefully lower in the salmon fillets and cook at this temperature for three minutes, then carefully turn the fillets over and cook for another 3–4 minutes until JUST cooked through. Remove and drain on paper towels.
In a food processor, combine the poached salmon, the cream cheese, creme fraiche, capers, HALF the quantity of all the herbs (reserve the other half for garnishing), the lemon juice and seasonings. Pulse until well combined but not a total mush. Taste for seasonings and add salt if needed.
Combine dressing ingredients and set aside.
At this point, you may decide if you’d like to serve this dish as a sit-down starter or as a finger food. If as a starter, choose a platter on which you’d like to serve the terrine and place a piece of plastic wrap twice as big as the platter in the center of it. In as close as you can come to a rectangle that’s about half the size of a piece of typing paper, place a layer of smoked salmon slices on the plastic. Spread a layer of the poached salmon mixture on top. Cover with another layer of smoked salmon, another layer of mousse, and finish with a top layer of smoked salmon. Cover with the extra plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours, or overnight. Then unwrap the terrine and lay it on a cutting board. Carefully, with a serrated knife, saw the terrine into perfect strips about an inch wide. This recipe should yield 8 strips. Arrange on the serving platter. Sprinkle the reserved herbs over and drizzle with dressing.
If on the other hand you’d like to serve the dish as a finger food, simply spoon a bit of the mousse on a baguette slice, top with a bit of smoked salmon and a sprinkle of herbs, and drizzle dressing over each portion.
Our wonderful neighbors Suzanne and John came to share this with us, to investigate all the Christmas decorations, and most surprisingly, to offer to give our tree a second home when we leave next week! How wonderful to recycle our own tree, and not into pulp, but into a second family’s celebration.
Finally, as a glorious, hard-won Christmas gift to myself, today I managed to triumph over a so-far impossible bell-ringing challenge. You’ve heard me rant on about “Plain Hunt on Five” which simply means a method where all the bells change their order in a pre-ordained pattern. Until now I absolutely could not see the pattern! No matter how many different ways were offered to explain it, I could not see it.
Until this morning! I have had a week’s enforced absence from the Tower after pulling a muscle in my shoulder, and the challenges of ringing had assumed epic proportions, as any challenge does when one is not allowed to address it! But today all the pieces fell into place. My teacher handed me the rope to the heaviest bell, the Tenor, and said, “Right, cover on Plain Hunt. Backstroke/handstroke over the five, then the three, then the one, then the two, then the four, then all over again till we say stop.”
And it clicked! We were ringing for a special service involving the parish children, called “Christingle” service where the children all carry lighted candles tucked into oranges and walk up the central aisle. So we had an audience of parents, kneeling with their children, pointing to the ropes and to the computer monitor mounted on the wall, showing the bells in the belfry, swinging to and fro. “That’s what’s making the sounds!” parents explained. And I was able to keep my place, not perfectly mind you, but to keep it, and to take my place in the so-familiar tune of Plain Hunt. Onward and upward straight afterward, to another method called Grandsire Doubles, and I could keep my place there too.
“You’ll be really helpful to us now,” said one very advanced ringer who’s never spoken to me before. “Now we can ring a lot of methods we can’t ring if we don’t have 6 or 8 proper ringers.” Joy! I am a proper ringer now, or at least approaching one. A lovely Christmas gift for me. I hope very much your holiday preparations are including some happy-making moments for you, too.