This may look like just another Google Map to you, but every muscle in my body can assure you that it’s far more than that. This little screenshot of Southeast England represents the six villages and six churches that I visited on Saturday, spending about an hour at each one, ringing bells with my equally-crazy bellringing friends. Simply a perfectly English way to spend a cold, clear, frosty January day. I’ll take you on a tour.
The place-names will tell you straightaway that you’re not in Indiana anymore. We began in Harefield St Mary’s, Middlesex, with the winter sun low on the horizon.
We gathered in the churchyard, exchanged hushed greetings, some ringers sipping coffee or tea from thermoses they had brought against the chill of the morning.
The church itself was very cold, with that particular chill an empty, ancient stone building can contain. But it was filled with flowers from a recent funeral, and their fragrance filled the air and lit up the extravagant altar with color, providing a lively contrast with the carved, marble Eizabethan death monuments.<p style=“text-align:…
This is indeed a rare sight in my life: sunrise! As you know, I am no morning person. Quite the opposite; I am at my very best late at night when all the experiences of the day have filtered into my mind in all their variety. I tend to avoid early-morning activities whenever possible, as everything seems quite impossible to me at 7 a.m.
However, volunteering at Avery’s school waits for no woman, and this week saw me at an early meeting of the Tutor Group Representatives at a school mum’s house in Chelsea. So up I got, and my reward was this lovely London sky.
There has been so much volunteering lately! I always feel that since I don’t work full-time should donate all the time I can to school and elsewhere whenever I can, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve got in over my head. We Tutor Reps discussed having various social events for the class parents, and I had to stop myself offering up our house for drinks for 80. What if it rained and we couldn’t use the garden and were all stuck in the kitchen, as cozy as it is?
On Friday I shall host my termly luncheon of the Lost Property volunteers, which does mean stuffing 30 ladies into the kitchen-dining room. I do love the luncheon, and have been spending a lot of time in the middle of the night trying to decide what two main dishes to cook. A whole side of salmon, roasted in honey and soy sauce? A crab and goats cheese tart with scallions and fresh thyme? My current obsession: chicken meatballs in a creamy paprika sauce? Or the perennial favorite of Lillian Hellman chicken, breast fillets baked in cheese and breadcrumbs with fresh thyme?
6 boneless chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
1 1/2 cups each mayonnaise and Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, grated
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 stalks fresh thyme, leaves only
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1 tsp Fox Point Seasoning
handful rocket/arugula leaves
In a wide, shallow bowl or deep plate, mix the mayonnaise and cheese and lemon juice and thyme. In another shallow bowl or plate, mix the breadcrumbs and Fox Point Seasoning. Have a foil-lined cookie sheet ready.
Smear the chicken pieces each with the mayonnaise mixtures, then dredge in breadcrumbs on all surfaces. Bake at 425F/220C for 30 minutes. Serve sliced on the bias in thick slices and garnish with rocket leaves.
This recipe is a tremendous winner with men, women and children, and probably will win hands down for Friday because it is fool-proof, popular and easy. We will all gather around two long tables and discuss the various ideas we have for getting the girls to “find” more of their Property. I always feel there is something rather heroic about all of us with our various advanced degrees, reaching into dirty rubbish bags to bring out mud-encrusted lacrosse boots stuffed with mouthguards, hoping to find matching pairs.
Before that lovely event, though, tomorrow is my first training day for a new volunteering project, Home-Start. This effort is funded by the government and sends volunteers into “at-risk” households with small children, trying to catch traumatised, depressed or just needy mothers and offer them help and support, before the situation gets so desperate that the Social Services are called in. I am a bit intimidated by the idea of trying to help these families, but I reassure myself that many hours of training will take place before I end up on somebody’s sofa holding a crying baby.
And today I took on a new challenge: finding vendors for the Christmas Fair at my beloved church, home of my bell-ringing efforts.
I had such fun selling Christmas cards, setting up the Christmas tree, and tearing down and cleaning up after the fair that I’ve been tapped for a bit more responsibility this coming year. Isn’t it hard to believe anyone is even THINKING about Christmas yet? But we are. So if you find yourself with a company selling teenager-friendly bracelets, or cashmere throws, handmade baby clothes or organic soaps, let me know! How I’m going to fit this new job into also helping John who is heading up Avery’s school’s Christmas Fair remains to be seen.
To be honest, though, I’ve spent an embarrassing portion of the last week simply trying to get back into London time. The older I get, the harder I find it to come back East, especially after several weeks getting used to living five hours earlier. There have been a fair number of naps, and then the resulting fair number of sleepless middle-of-the-nights. I find myself coming down to the kitchen for a cup of tea, feeling slightly confused as to whether I’ll see the roaring woodstove fire of Red Gate Farm, or feeling the warm hum of the Aga of London.
Over the weekend we kept ourselves awake by another visit to Columbia Road, East End site of our holly-wreath shopping trip before Christmas. Avery is terribly keen to live there, right now, however unaffordable and inconvenient it may be to our West London lives. But I can see her point. Armed with her new camera, she captured the sights and sounds.
Finally, in need of sustenance, we ambled into Campania Gastronomia, a gorgeous Italian outpost of total deliciousness. I had lovely hefty meatballs in a garlicky tomato sauce, John had a pumpkin and belly pork risotto, and Avery opted for a deceptively simple panno of the freshest mozzarella, Parma ham, perfect artisan bread and fruity olive oil.
We had one evening over the weekend to feed ourselves whilst Avery was out on the town, so I invented a dish containing practically every ingredient she doesn’t like. But you will.
Roasted Salmon on Cannellini Bean Mash with Gorgonzola and Parsley
1 lb fresh salmon fillets
1 tbsp olive oil
sprinkle Fox Point Seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
2 soup-size cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
6 cloves garlic, minced
LOTS of fresh black pepper
sprinkle red chilli flakes
large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped roughly (leaves only)
1 tbsp light cream
Gorgonzola or other mild blue cheese, amount to your taste
1 tbsp tiny English cress
Place salmon fillets on a foil-lined dish and drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with Fox Point. Place in a hot oven, 425F/220C and roast for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the rest of the olive oil in a large frying pan. Add beans, garlic, black pepper, and red chilli flakes. Cook over medium heat until garlic is softened. Add parsley and cook for another minute, stirring occasionally. When salmon is ready to serve, stir cream into the beans and then sprinkle over as much Gorgonzola as you like. Place a serving of mash on each dinner plate and top with salmon fillet. Sprinkle with cress and serve hot or warm.
This bean dish is a REVELATION of complex flavors. The salmon is almost superfluous, although the combinations are lovely. But a vegetarian could make a meal of the beans. Intensely savoury, redolent of garlic, soft and comforting yet full of robust flavors, this dish is a real find.
I must love you and leave you. Avery’s breakfast tomorrow will be lemon-blueberry cake and right now, there are lemons. And blueberries. Must get them together. In the meantime, let me dedicate this blog post to a loyal and enthusiastic reader, my husband’s longtime family friend Anna, who died two days ago. She and our family shared a love of rescue animals. Why not take a look at Save a Mexican Mutt, a charity dear to her generous heart. We will miss you, Anna, and I am proud of every moment of enjoyment my writing brought to you.
To think that 72 hours ago, this was my view… of the increasingly dilapidated nature of our outbuildings at Red Gate Farm. We have our summer’s work cut out for us, repairing the chicken house and woodshed. We left in a flurry of laundry, scrubbing up the house so it will be welcoming to any guests who might want to use it as a retreat over the winter and spring. It always seems so hard to believe summer will ever come, when we leave behind a crunchy lawn, a frozen brook.
Before that brook thaws and fills with its summer family of tadpoles and minnows, we have six months of life in London to accomplish. We are back “home,” firmly ensconced once again in the familiar house, surrounded by friendly cats who missed us terribly. I am happily again cooking with my beloved Aga whose constant source of warmth is a massive kitty-magnet this winter season.
After two days of Recovery By Nap, Avery is back at school, however reluctantly, and I have spent two gruelling days at Lost Property, dealing with the dozen or so bags of girls’ belongings that the staff somehow unearthed over the holidays. Girls streamed in and out, exclaiming over beloved objects not seen for months, sighing in disappointment at the single shoe that has not turned up, the housekeys they are desperate not to confess they’ve lost, the Chemistry notes need “right now for a test!” They sign out the belongings they find, in a meaningless little folder designed to make them take their responsibilities a bit more seriously. I know I’m not in Connecticut anymore when I read their names: Arabella, Poppy, Flora, Astrid, Pippa. I love England, and I love Lost Property.
The suitcases are unpacked of all their Christmas treasures, the holiday feeling a million years away, a dream.
Our last days at Red Gate Farm WERE like a dream, filled with visits from friends, visits to friends, forays into puzzle-solving…
John’s mom, back home in Iowa, mirrored us with her puzzle, one of my presents to her this Christmas, a gift only a grandmother could love.
It is hard to imagine our last peaceful, beautiful week of holiday without picturing a camera, or two, in Avery’s hands. John gave her his old Leica for Christmas, then together they bought another camera and a macro lens to go with it. But since these cameras depend on actual FILM, I have to wait to show them to you until they are all developed. Who would have thought the world would go back to film? Still, I have the results of her experiments with my camera. She was in heaven, walking the property with her dad, finding magic in the details.
The hydrangea tree, always luscious and celebratory in summer, and draped in rare Christmas light during the holiday, became a sort of sculpture, with the barn as background.
There was one sunset I will never forget. The three of us walked all around the house, looking at the pink, vulnerable-looking sky with wonder.
Normally I race through my day without taking the time — at that moment — to appreciate what I have. For once, though, that sunset evening, I looked at my stalwart, generous husband teaching our beautiful daughter to share his passion, and felt happy. Right then. I know I’ll never get enough of them, but that evening, I tried.
The most wonderful part of the overwhelming, exhausting, exhilarating holiday was having so much time with Avery. I know the clock is ticking on her time in our house — we spend a lot of time talking about university these days — so it was a luxury like foie gras or a beach vacation, to have her around all the time.
We had one last lunch with dear Jill, Joel and the girls at their local diner (where the waitress says, “Hey, Jane and Molly! Happy New Year!”), and luckily Avery had her super camera with her.
It is impossible to believe that we will miss six months of my nieces’ lives before July rolls around. How they will have changed and grown! Jane will be the age Avery was when we bought Red Gate Farm.
Life goes by so quickly that I really can’t think about missing so much of Jane’s and Molly’s. Where did this little Avery go, anyway?
Anne, David and Kate came along for a brilliant bagel brunch — Kate’s first bagel! — and a nice long chat, for the first time during the holidays. Sometimes I think we are too ready to let our interactions with our beloved neighbors to be short and sweet, with the luxury of having them across the road.
It’s a completely different mood to sit in the sunshine — with dusty motes showing just how hard it is to keep that house clean! — and really discuss politics, life, Avery’s upcoming summer photography camp, child-raising, how much screen-time is too much for a three-year-old. No one has ever taken Avery more seriously as a real person, since she was seven years old, as Anne and David. Their special brand of respect for her is irreplaceable, and Kate’s total devotion not to be forgotten. We were having too much fun even to take a picture.
By this point, the last day of our holidays, I was in such a state of happy exhaustion that I almost skipped my last bellringing outing. “Don’t do it just to prove it can’t defeat you,” Avery advised, but I couldn’t help it. So often I do not want to go — it’s hard and scary and intimidating — but I am never sorry when I do. It was a brilliant afternoon of bellringing in Brewster, against the backdrop of another beautiful sunset.
That place has given me a great deal of happiness, as have the people within it. Are all bellringing enthusiasts as simply welcoming as I have found? Watching the really good ringers try a “London Minor” was completely intimidating. Never!
1 lb bison mince
sprinkle of Fox Point Seasoning
ripe tomatoes, sliced
red onions, sliced
dollops of blue or goats cheese
dollops of crema di carciofi e aglio (creamy artichoke and garlic dip)
handful rocket/arugula leaves
toasted whole wheat rolls
In a very hot skillet, fry the burgers to your desired level of doneness. At the end of cooking, place cheese on top of burgers. Pile everything onto the wheat roll, then fry eggs (again, to desired level of doneness) and top burgers with eggs. Supply vast numbers of napkins.
Of course this burger will benefit from the egg’s being plucked, as ours were, warm from under the hen owned by the couple who adopted little Jessica the kitten two summers ago and given to us with love. I can’t promise any other egg will taste the same.
Now it is time for me to concoct an Avery-less supper as she spends the evening with friends, this cold, grey January London night. Happy Friday the 13th!
Christmas — after all the planning, choosing, travelling, envelope-licking, parcel-wrapping, food-shopping and anticipation –finally arrived. ‘Twas the season of unexpected knocks on the door, visitors bringing presents on a rush of cold air, blue-flamed logs burning in the fireplace, dozens of candles flickering, cars pulling up into the driveway and letting out the people we’ve waited months to see. My beautiful mother, for example!
What a year she has had. There has been the sadness and anxiety over my father, her adjusting to being left alone to deal with the endless problems our childhood home has presented her with, and then, last month, a heart scare that brought unexpected surgery and recovery. My brother and sister have been there to support her through everything, but I have been able to see her only twice, worrying from afar and feeling that awful tug of being very, very far away. To be able to hug her and chat with her, gossip and eat together, made Christmas a real gift. And nothing says daughter love like… devilled eggs! Her very favorite.
(makes 2 dozen)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp curry powder
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
paprika for dusting
Place eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a rolling boil and then turn off heat, covering the pan. Leave eggs in boiled water for 15 minutes, then drain water and place eggs in a bowl and cover with running cold water for minute or two. Peel eggs and cut in half lengthwise, then remove yolks and place in a small bowl. Mash with a potato masher and mix in all over ingredients except paprika. Arrange egg whites on a platter and spoon the yolk mixture into each. Dust with paprika and serve.
Christmas Eve saw all of us gathered around in the toasty holiday-ish house, my mother admiring the Christmas tree with its mass of ornaments old and new, my mother in law taking loads of photos, John tormenting Jane (or was it the other way around)…
And I successfully lit the hydrangea tree candles, very lucky to have hit upon a nearly breezeless night.
Anne and David popped over to deliver Kate for a visit with her beloved chum Molly. Their piano duet added a lot to the Christmas Eve festivities.
Christmas Day dawned cold and fair — no sign of snow this whole holiday, as a direct result, I think, of John’s mom having given us all incredibly cool snowshoes for Christmas! We stare at them longingly. Under the tree were the perfect presents for and from everyone. Avery gave me this print. So, so Avery.
Me: “You don’t look thrilled. Don’t you want the car to have eyelashes?”
John: “Well, it feels slightly… emasculating.”
Avery: “Daddy, you drive a Cinquecento. That ship has already sailed.”
We packed ourselves up and jumped in the car to go to Jill and Joel’s. About five minutes into the drive, Avery let out a blood-curdling scream. “DON’T DO THAT WHEN I’M DRIVING!” John screeched in return. “I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m really sorry, but what just happened was totally scream-worthy. A MOUSE just jumped from the backseat ONTO MY COLLARBONE and ricocheted off onto the floor!”
Everyone screamed. We pulled off the road and jumped out of the car. “Open all the doors!” We stood around in the cold.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to get back in,” John said. “We have to go; it’s Christmas.”
So we climbed gingerly back in and pulled into the road again.
“Awkward silence,” Avery said.
About ten minutes later Rosemary screamed.
“I didn’t think I would!” she apologized. “I thought, ‘If it turns up again, there’s no element of surprise. We know he’s here. I won’t scream.’ But it appears to be a reflex!”
“How much longer is this drive?” Avery asked.
It was the longest 40 minutes of our lives.
We arrived and leaped out of the car, leaving all the doors open and revealing our story to our bewildered audience. “Put Snowball in the car and shut all the doors,” I suggested, referring to their homicidal cat. But it was determined that a better plan was just to leave the doors open as long as possible. John discovered a disgusting mouse nest in the first-aid kit area in the back and cleared it out. “I think these are our air bags,” he said, gesturing to the pile of shredded nest material.
The beauty of Jill’s decorations washed away all the mousiness, however. What a gorgeous house.
Christmas dinner was sublime, and many more presents exchanged. Among them my beautiful new mercury glass candlesticks from my sister, which graced our table on Boxing Day.
We ate ourselves silly — Joel’s perfect roasted turkey, my cheesy spinach and stuffing with fresh sage, sausage and cream, shredded potatoes baked with cream cheese. Then Jill brought out a pile of notes she’d found in her childhood closet, written when she was Avery’s age, and she read them aloud. Lists like “Things I hate about my life,” and then on the other side a much shorter list, “Things that are OK about my life,” and “Things to Do” which included goals like “Get Chris interested in me” — with a checkmark next to it! “Get super skinny,” “Be Valedictorian” — another checkmark. We laughed till we cried.
It has been the sort of time when we reap the benefits of all the relationships we sow during the year. Living so far away as we do, it sometimes feels daunting to stay close to all the people who “people” our life. The next few days brought visits from our friends Mark and Lilian, who adopted the kitty Jessica two summers ago, and Rollie and Judy who laughed till THEY cried over the story of the Car Ride With Santa Mouse. We visited Young Rolllie and Tricia to meet their baby goats, and to see how much Even Younger Rollie has grown.
We drove into nearby Ridgefield to Luc’s Cafe to devour piles of frites and exchange Christmas greetings with our friends Shelley and Erik, Cassandra and Rebecca. Just look what Cassandra made for us.
Through all the festivities, I looked from my mother to John’s mother, feeling terribly grateful that with all they have been through, they are still here with us to celebrate. Look at the gorgeous photograph John’s mom took of the three generations of my mom’s family.
Many beautiful images of our holiday came from Avery’s new camera! She has signed up for a photography camp this summer, although I cannot really see how she can learn much more. She captures so much.
Mom, Andy, Jill and I spent one afternoon together just hanging around their house with the two girls, watching highlights of the year in sports, playing board games the girls got for Christmas, preparing a huge tray of scalloped potatoes to go with the ham I had brought, roasting in the oven. John, his mom, Avery and Joel trooped off to the movies. The perfect way for all of us to spend the afternoon.
4 tbsps olive oil
2 large eggplants, peeled and diced
a large white onio, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 large cans whole plum tomatoes
large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups basmati rice, steamed
grated Parmesan to sprinkle
Simply saute the eggplant, onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft. Add tomatoes, squeezing them into pieces as you add them. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 1 hour. At this point the salsa can sit until you want to heat it up to eat it. The flavors improve over time. When you are ready to eat, add the chopped parsley and season to taste. Serve over steamed rice and top with cheese.
This is the perfect antidote to all that stuffing and turkey! And if you need another such idea, how about a massive pot of spinach soup?
(serves at least 6)
2 tbsps butter
6 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
1 white onion, chopped roughly
2 lbs spinach leaves, washed
pinch fresh nutmeg
4 cups chicken (or duck) stock, or enough to cover about 2/3 of spinach in pot
1/2 cup light cream
Heat butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Saute garlic and onion until soft, then add spinach and nutmeg and cover with stock. Simmer until spinach is soft, then blitz with a hand blender and add cream.
New Year’s Eve came, and so did Anne and David and Katie, for cassoulet and ice cream. And the morning brought an intense desire to turn the house from Christmas into New Year’s. We flew about, packing boxes, dragging trees and wreaths into the woods to join those from last year, and the year before that. John hoovered, John’s mom and I cleaned the silver and moved furniture! And all was tidy and fresh.
And so happy 2012 to all of you, dear readers. May we all look back on 2011 with understanding and compassion for its pitfalls and losses, its joys and sorrows. I hope the New Year brings you all you wish for.