You know how it is. Carrot cake, “Shake ‘n Bake” and tofu in my childhood in the 1970s, cold pasta salad and stuffed potato skins in the 1980s, “nouvelle cuisine” in the 1990s with every portion cut in half and every sauce reduced to a sticky spoonful, and anything fat-free in the noughties (appropriately enough!). These trends pop up everywhere, and overnight everyone is eating them and maybe even cooking them. Some of them even take up a permanent place in our diets, like arugula — my personal favorite.
Like everything else in the super-modern world, food fads are speeding up. Especially in a big international city like London, every year it seems something new takes the food world by storm. I’m not much of one for going out to restaurants as you know — preferring the comfort of my own kitchen. But it’s important to go out now and then just to see what innovative, mad trend has taken hold for the moment.
Two years ago, it was “sous-vide,” a French technique for cooking everything under the sun vacuum-packed in a hot-water bath. I’ll admit it: we bought a vacuum…
At King’s Cross Station on Monday, cold and damp from the persistent drizzle, we said goodbye to Avery and off she went for a week in Yorkshire at the Arvon Foundation writing course. Today we picked up a poet.
It was used well before, like a mould-mottle book
hastily written notes tasting of ink
bluish-green dye of a near forgotten Easter
recalling the stark white and red nurses’ uniforms
the coarse wool of a soldier’s coat
the flimsy paper of cigarettes and yellowed tobacco stains
a tumbler of whiskey, the weight of the glass
crescents of nails pressing into its palm
not quite an entity in itself,
not quite enough on its own,
content in its inferiority –
an understudy, unprepared.
I cannot extol enough the brilliance of the Arvon way of life. Several years ago I spent a week in the wilds of Devon on a course designed to teach us “food writing.” Mornings of workshops with fellow writers and tutors — published food writers — lunches spent discussing whose work had been the star that morning, then afternoons in private tutorials and massive editing after hearing what they had to say! Then dinners cooked in teams and evenings spent reading aloud. An intensity I can’t really describe, but now Avery understands.
Almost better than the writing are the friendships forged. I don’t want to think about life without the dear, dear friends I made during that week. We will have our annual reunion in May, bringing masses of ingredients together to spend endless hours in the kitchen cooking our favorite dishes, laughing and catching up. Oh, the pork crackling, the 15-ingredient leg of lamb, the celestial chocolate pudding… In the afternoons we will read aloud whatever we’ve been writing lately. A life-changing experience. I am thrilled for Avery that she has had the same joyous week, never to be forgotten.
How we missed her! But we were out in the countryside having our own adventures. Over 20 years ago John and I, together with his fabulous parents, discovered the cleverest of English organizations: The Landmark Trust. It calls itself a “building preservation charity,” but in reality it’s a completely quirky and quixotic group of people obsessed with saving the past and bringing it into the present.
They find abandoned barns, churches, mills, and that most eccentric of British buildings, the “folly.” (picture a giant stone pineapple with beds and bathrooms inside!) They chase away birds in residence, tear away plaster walls to reveal 18th century paintings, frescoed ceilings, ancient floors and doors.
Everything that can be preserved is preserved, and furnished with blue willow china, pristine white bedlinens, priceless oriental rugs and antique furniture, puzzles, books and oh… the views.
Since our early days living in England in the 1990s right through to this week, we’ve stayed in perhaps 20 Landmark Trust buildings — in England, Scotland, Florence, Vermont, Ireland… simply heavenly. And I can cook! This time it was the West Banqueting House in Chipping Campden, the Cotswolds. There is no more gorgeous place on earth, to my mind.
We visited another of our old favorite places from many years ago, Buckland Manor. Images of a long-ago visit with my parents filled my mind, my young and healthy dad emerging dripping from the swimming pool, looking forward to the hotel’s luxury cream tea and a walk in the beautiful gardens.
Of course, you can’t always have deadly serious graveyards. This particular specimen from our local churchyard had us shaking our heads. Either Alice Mabel was an awfully understanding wife, or there’s some strife in the afterlife.
We visited the lovely market town of Stow-on-the-Wold for a little cheese — Stowe Soft, a very nicely smelly goat cheese — and organic salmon, and the incomparably posh and stylish Daylesford Organic, where I picked up a head of celeriac and a bundle of wild garlic for the stunningly delicious:
Celeriac Puree with Wild Garlic and Sour Cream
small head celeriac, peeled and cut into cubes
skim milk nearly (but not quite) to cover
2 tbsps sour cream
2 tbsps butter
handful wild garlic leaves, chiffonade-chopped
salt and pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan, place the celeriac and pour on skim milk, perhaps 1 1/2 cups depending on the size of the celeriac head. Do not cover celeriac completely or you will end up with celeriac soup (still gorgeous but not this recipe!). Cook over medium heat, taking care not to burn on the bottom, until the celeriac is soft, perhaps 25 minutes. Puree with hand blender, then beat in sour cream and butter, then add wild garlic. Season to taste.
As always when we are without Avery, I cook madly a whole host of dishes she doesn’t like. Among them this week was roasted pork belly from Checketts butchers in Bourton-on-the-Water.
And the simplest of all possible side dishes, an onion with its center spooned out and filled with Robiola cheese, then sprinkled with Fox Point Seasoning and baked for 30 minutes.
I can’t believe it. It’s happened again. A whole month between posts.
I keep thinking life will slow down and that “tomorrow” will be quiet enough for me to sit down and relish all the activity. But every day brings more, more, more. So I have randomly chosen “today” so I can finally tell you what’s been going on in our busy lives.
Lots of writing! I am terribly excited to be the London correspondent for an up-and-coming foodie website, “Handpicked Nation.” This article is the result of what my family will report are many, many eggs being eaten in taste tests, much canvassing of my friends. Do you refrigerate your eggs? Why or why not? Do you buy free range, organic? Eggs everywhere, in a nutshell.
Next up is a piece on pork belly, a wonderful ingredient very popular here in England, and in Asia, and just making its way around American kitchens and restaurants.
And theatre! We’ve been to a marvellous production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, at the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith. I hate to tell you that it’s closed now, but if you ever get a chance to see the Filter Theatre Group do anything, RUN don’t walk. Avery’s been struggling to write what is ultimately a brilliant essay, analyzing the production. A play within a play within a play, etc. Fourth wall? Forget it.
And then it was “Being Shakespeare” with Avery and a school friend, and whilst it was impressive, I must warn you that you’ll have to go prepared to care a LOT about the Bard. I might not be quite enough of a devoted fan to have appreciated it as much as others might. A one-man show, almost no props! All about Will.
The most impressive thing about the play was — as is anything to do with Shakespeare here in England — is the alive-ness of the man himself. We feel he is quite here, with us, judging the production. “Wouldn’t he love that ‘Midsummer’?” we ask, and we all feel he has an opinion.
And Simon Callow is a national treasure, in the role or in any other role. Love that man. Once, 20 years ago, John and I were coming out of a London restaurant and John hid around the corner of the entrance, to jump out at me coming along behind him and shout BOO! Only somehow Simon Callow had got between him and me, so poor Simon got the shock!
And then we had American visitors, as we so often do, and I took them to see “Out of Sync,” a vastly impressive art installation at Somerset House.
As you all know, I struggle with the evolution from little-girl Avery to growing-up Avery. There are so many little milestones that somehow knock me sideways: the first trip home from school alone (no more fun hanging outside the school to walk home with her), of course no more reading aloud (she reads ten books now to my one, and my dears, the dystopia!). The first time she got herself home from seeing a play. Tomorrow in fact, she goes off with a school group to spend five days in Yorkshire, writing poetry. I have never in my life written a poem! She is growing up.
And so it has been an absolute joy for us to find something we like to do together, something that points out the utter wonderfulness of having a nearly grown person to share our lives. She can elevate the humblest dish to emerge from my kitchen, into a work of art. I give you: celeriac remoulade, inspired by my lunch with my friend Caz at La Fromagerie in Marylebone.
(serves lots of people at a picnic)
1 head celeriac (celery root), peeled
dressing: olive oil, mayonnaise, wholegrain mustard, lemon juice (in proportions to suit your taste)
Here is where any obsessive-compulsive tendencies will come in handy. Julienne the celeriac by cutting VERY thin slices and then cutting those slices into VERY thin slices. Toss with the dressing and serve straightaway.
You can see what I mean about her talent. She takes any dish and finds the most exciting presentation, the most unexpected and inspiring angle. Look at our Easter ham, our feast with Daisy and her family.
We have had such a good time together. We envision a cookbook in fact! A collaboration between the two of us. In July she will go off to Brooklyn for a two-week photography camp and after that I can only IMAGINE the brilliance. What can they possibly teach her? It has all been a tremendous comfort and compensation for the disappearance of a sticky little hand to hold, a toddler on my lap.
And the evening she popped her head round the bedroom door, around 11:30. “So, what’s your opinion on Nietzsche?” You don’t get that sort of discussion with a kindergartner. At least not one I’d want to live with. So we discuss.
More visitors arrived! John’s sister and her adorable family, fresh from Minnesota and on their way to Paris, spent four blissful days with us. The de rigeuer open-top bus tour!
And the ensuing boat ride back up the Thames. Home for a rich dish of macaroni and cheese and a huge casserole of spinach, and the first of many book talks between Avery and Cathy, the only person I know who reads even more than Avery does! The books piled up on the dining room table and they compared, “You HAVE to read this! WHAT? you haven’t read THIS?”
We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for what project he might be bringing to the Globe. We discussed this and many other issues of English life over a superb fish and chips lunch at the Swan Cafe, linked to the Globe. Twice-cooked chips, garlic mayonnaise… heaven. What fun to have family to eat with, laugh with, and be tourists with.
From the Globe we sauntered over to the Tate Modern where we all fell in love with Do Ho Suh’s superb installation, a metaphysical polyester stairway to heaven.
And the German artist we had encountered in the Bundestag in Berlin! The nail man, Gunther Uecker, whose work reminds me so much of Eva Hesse. Here is Uecker:
There is something to discover on every trip to the Tate, and thank goodness for our visitors who get us out of the house, away from our computers, and dashing about the city remembering how much fun it is to live here.
Then it was to see “Matilda: The Musical,” I think the best musical I have ever seen. Clever, accomplished, and anchored by a performance by Cleo Demetriou, one of the four little girls playing the title role. How does she manage to carry an entire cast and audience with her so masterfully? Go, if you get the chance.
Sunday found me nursing a miserable cold I had been trying to ignore, so after early bellringing I begged off going to the British Museum and curled up on the sofa, popping up only to prepare dinner for the returning tourists. Here is our lovely chicken dish, shredded the next day for “everything on a pancake.”
(serves about 6)
1 whole chicken, cut into legs and breasts
2 cups malt vinegar
2 sprigs each fresh rosemary and thyme
salt and pepper
1/2 cup flour
2 tsps each: dried basil, dried oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika
3 tbsps sunflower or other vegetable oil
Soak the chicken pieces in the vinegar and herbs, salt and pepper for at least four hours, refrigerated. Combine flour with spices in a sealable plastic bag and shake chicken pieces in the mixture. Lay chicken pieces skin-side down in an ovenproof dish in which you’ve poured the oil. Bake at 425F/220C for half an hour, then turn over skin-side up and bake another half hour. Tangy, crunchy and delicious! Many thanks to my old friend Jerry for this recipe.
And our visitors heartlessly abandoned us for their adventures in the City of Light. Our March madness was over, and what a wonderful adventure it was.
April has only been more insane, so far, with dinner dates (sushi!), a lunch date at the Corner Room in Bethnal Green (sea trout, squid, chorizo crumbs and venison in ash, anyone?), a concert and… did you all hear about the drama yesterday in the 158th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, passing down the Thames just across the road from our house?
“There’s a swimmer in the water!” we suddenly noticed. “He’ll be cut to ribbons by the motorboats, if he isn’t decapitated by an oar first!” And the race was stopped, right before our eyes, whilst the crazy guy — protesting the elite nature of the race! — was fished out and arrested.
Happy Easter to you all, and a huge thank you to my friend Lucy for this magnificent Easter dessert of a chocolate basket, filled with strawberries (photo courtesy of Avery, naturally). May your April be as sweet as ours has been, so far.
I promise not to leave it so long next time to keep you posted on our fun.