Oh, the memories these horsey rosettes bring back. How many weekends spent driving up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with little Avery in the backseat, hair in ribboned plaits, little monogrammed shirt and jacket, jodphurs and gloves. The hours we spent simply watching her go round and round on a pony, and at the end of the day, her little hands were filled with the silky, brightly colored proof of her achievements.
Since New York, these rosettes have been strung up around her room, added to as each show went by, symbols of her horse-obsessed childhood.
And now, in advance of our move next week, they have all been taken down and packed away into a robin’s-egg-blue hat box, which in turn was placed in her old stable trunk, which in the old days was filled with pony treats, dirty boots, hair ribbons…
From the heart-wrenching goodbye to the ribbons, we moved on to the toy box. No one really wanted to discard any of these old friends, so they made a brief foray into fresh air, then settled back to sleep in their wicker home, to be moved lock, stock and barrel to the new house next week.
And no new bedroom would be complete without the assortment of fuzzy llamas from Peru, bought over a period of many snowy, windy weeks outside Avery’s ballet class in Greenwich Village. “Will the llama salesman be there again, Mommy, because I really liked the kneeling one he had last week…”
Life just seems to be moving awfully quickly, and trading in an old, happy home, for a new, unknown home at the same time I seem to be trading in my old, familiar child for a new, older, more sophisticated version is a bit overwhelming, to be honest. Why is it all happening at the same time?
I’ll tell you why. Because something funny happens when you assess your belongings with an eye toward leaving things behind, giving them away. You ask yourself, “How much of myself is in this stack of books, this moth-eaten sweater, this pile of Christmas cards, this collection of horsey ribbons?” And when you ask yourself those questions, and get down to the answers, you find that your teenager is really quite ready to leave behind the parts of her childhood she’s outgrown. It’s me who has a hard time with the doll’s dress her beloved grandmother made for her American Girl doll, to match her London school uniform at age nine. Actually, she got a bit sentimental over the doll’s dress too, truth be told.
So we are all analyzing our lives and identities through the pragmatic process of moving. And somehow, on the other side of the river, we’ll take those chosen items out of the boxes, reposition them in new places, and we hope our lives and souls will re-emerge too, in a different pattern, but just as sweet.
Meanwhile, what on earth happened the last time we moved? Where was all the paring-down then? Our system three years ago seems to have been something along the lines of:
“Let’s just take bloody everything with us.”
We are finding crazy things like Avery’s homework from Year Five, now five years ago, and clothes for a person surely half the size she is now, not to mention six different sorts of razors, but somehow six OTHER SORTS of blades, none of which fit the razors we have? Prescriptions for face cream guaranteed to stop me being pink, but dated 2005? Why?
The Winner of Least Desirable Object emerged over the weekend, however, as we decided to clean out the dreaded two condiments shelves in the fridge. This process reminded me of the conversation I had with John three summers ago at Red Gate Farm.
“I’m going to the grocery, don’t let me forget to buy pickles.“
“But you have pickles,” he said.
“No, I don’t, I’m sure we’re out.”
Whereupon he went silently into the kitchen and came back out to the terrace with no fewer than eight jars of pickles in his arms. Gherkins, dill, half-sour, sweet crinkle-cut, you name it.
This time here in London we found at least five jars of half-portions of anchovies — since my only two recipes involving anchovies always require half a jar and I am never organized enough to cook them two nights in a row. And there were three half-empty jars of prepared horseradish, three tubes of Wasabi paste, and some spectacularly furry lime chutney.
But the piece de resistance was the bottle of molasses.
“My God,” I said, “the price tag on top is from Jin Market. That’s a whole country and five apartments ago! This molasses has come with us from two apartments ago in Tribeca, across the ocean.”
All this frantic moving activity is thoroughly routing the lovely, relaxed feeling we built up last week. On the Saturday, John and I put Avery on a school coach bound for the Eurotunnel, Belgium, France, and a detailed, emotional tour of the battlefields of World War I. Knowing she was accounted for for the weekend gave me an extraordinary sense of well-being, added to by knowing that my sister and her darling daughter were visiting my family in Indiana, so all those people were accounted for and happy too. Bliss! Plus, we had signed our lease, at LONG last, and so we piled into the convertible and headed out for a weekend of unheard-of luxury at the country house hotel presided over by my friend Orlando Murrin, cookery writer, my adored writing tutor during my Devon adventure years ago. And the most superb hotelier, along with his partner Peter.
Langford Fivehead. How the name rolls trippingly off the tongue, resonating with medieval charm and modern cookery, perfect bed linens and a bath deep as a river, flickering fires and pleasing fellow guests. Most of all, the unexpected beauty of being looked after. Being “not in charge.”
I think most wives and mothers (how old fashioned of me! probably all spouses and parents feel this way) will identify with the slightly burdensome feeling of responsibility that comes upon one after months and even years of unrelieved “being in charge.” Responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, laundry, bed-making, homework supervision and the subtle job of being a nice wife, and fitting in whatever life-fulfilling activities like writing, around those things when one gets a chance. I can’t even imagine the stress of people who do all this PLUS work outside the home. Banners and trophies there.
To be relieved of ALL these things for two days and nights was a dream come true. We drew up outside the front door.
We were welcomed by Peter and taken into the kitchen where I found not only Orlando presiding, but my darling Arvon friend Sam! What a dream, the kitchen smelling of cheesey gougeres, twilight deepening outside the windows, time for a bath and a relaxing glass of champagne.
And my dears, the food! I had never eaten smoked eel before and was a bit wary, but Sam assured me it was his own creation, this salad, and the fish tasted quite similar to smoked trout or smoked haddock. Gently smoked, from the Brown and Forrest Smokery, a 29-year family business which we visited on our way home later that weekend. Gracefully arranged with baby spinach, toasted hazelnuts, hard-boiled bantam eggs. Dressed in a delicate olive oil-lemon juice and honey concoction, perfectly light.
After the salad was roast hoggat, which is nothing more or less than an animal older than a lamb but younger than mutton. Very finely flavored, more highly tasty than lamb. This was served with a perfect wedge of creamy potatoes Dauphinoise, and a bed of buttered baby leeks, which I had never considered as a vegetable, but now I will.
Our dinner companions, family style around a massive oak table, were two elderly couples who had been one another’s best men and bridesmaids 51 years ago! Lovely people, a food writer, a wine writer, and two people who follow horses through country events! And late in the evening, a lovely young couple delayed in London traffic. Gorgeously relaxed and friendly. And to sleep. Here was my view of our ceiling, if you can believe it.
In the morning we took an hour-long up-and-down walk and then came back to be served a ridiculously, perfectly sumptuous brunch. Twice-baked cheesy potatoes, a kedgeree with smoked trout and salmon, peas and scrambled herby eggs, Bramley apple sausages, fresh pineapple. And then off we went to visit local places of interest.
Top down in the glorious spring weather, we drove to Barrington Court, a most fascinating Tudor House that was owned and restored by Sir Arthur Lyle, of sugar-baron Tate and Lyle fame. What makes this house worth visiting? Two things: Sir Arthur was obsessed with panelling, believe it or not, AND the fact that the National Trust which owns the house decided to show it completely empty. Now, the first consideration means that you walk through the house petting the walls, each of which stands out as the most beautiful piece of wood you’ve ever seen.
Can you imagine this carving? Like little scrolls of parchment, each one slightly different from the last. And then, marquetry inlays in the attics, if you please, where the little boys who were evacuated there during the war played cricket. Was it lost on them? You could easily miss it yourself if you don’t look closely.
What joy it is to see an empty stately home. Much more exciting to tour it as if you were with an estate agent and planning where to put your furniture, I think, than to see it filled with period pieces and making you feel nervous. And the grounds? Just gorgeous, daffodils as far as the eye can see, and pollarded fruit trees of some sort. Ah, the English countryside. Narrow paths were mowed so we had a place to walk, but the rest of the grass just grew and grew.
Then, for something completely different, we were on to Montacute, a Renaissance and Elizabethan house.
The house was, sadly, lived in by many generations of the same family until they were made destitute by death duties and the loss of income, until finally one lone daughter was left who took it upon herself to gather and save all the family papers. Diaries and photographs of her coming-out year… records of the sale of silver, and land, in order to pay for that debutante year… very touching.
For me, the house was filled with too much precious furniture and far too many (for this former art historian) English portraits. Something in me gets itchy and sleepy when I am faced with too many paintings all featuring people with ruffs. I’m not sure I would have been able to identify this feeling so exactly, but for the experience of the proud and empty house we saw before.
But the grounds! How on earth to explain this shrubbery?
Altogether worth a visit just to have a wander on a beautiful English day. Traffic sounds roared in the distance and John asked, deadpan, “Why on earth did they build this house so close to the motorway?” That’s one of the reasons I love him. Believe it or not, American tourists have been known to ask guides at Windsor Castle why the queen built it so close to Heathrow. I wish I were making that up.
Back to Orlando’s hotel, where John took a nap and I curled up in the sitting room with my computer, entering recipe contests and meeting the new guests for the evening, a very cool couple both of whom turned out to be rather famous and impressive in the field of journalism, but who were completely down to earth and friendly, looking the place over as a potential site for their upcoming wedding.
Dinner that evening was another complete triumph for Orlando and Sam: a tomato and potato frittata (would love to learn to make that) followed by a chou farcie, a whole cabbage stuffed with sausage and other savoury things, sitting on a bed of roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Gorgeous. And even I ate dessert: a mocha souffle and homemade mint ice cream. Afterwards we all repaired to the sitting room and talked over our lives, we two probably fifteen years down the road from the lovely young couple who revealed they were expecting their first baby, and perhaps ten years on from the couple planning their wedding. They were kind and let us witter on about Avery, who had ignored all our texts asking, “Safely there?” No reply!
Before bed I had a chance for a natter with Orlando about the cabbage recipe — to add pinenuts perhaps? — exchanging ideas in the glow of candlelight, standing on the flagged floor of the entryway. Alongside us stood the sideboard covered with notes of congratulations at the launch of the hotel, thanks for the welcomes they had given. One note from a Countess!
In the morning we were ushered into the kitchen where Orlando scrambled goose eggs for us, piled onto homemade wholemeal toast. Then it was goodbyes all round, so grateful for that break from hectic everyday life. It is a real gift to be able to offer the sort of effortless, generous, elegant but hilarious hospitality that Orlando is able to give. You feel you’re his friend and his guest, but then he disappears from view and works behind the scenes with all his energy to provide you with everything your heart desires, and you’re not allowed to help! A glimpse into pure relaxation.
Which promptly disappeared upon our return home, when we picked up Avery off the coach at school, all the girls tumbling out, dirty, exhausted and excited as always after one of their magnificent school trips. And she took such beautiful, haunting photographs.
We unpacked her, did laundry and repacked her, and in the morning, with the traditional dish of macaroni and cheese for our countryside adventures at my feet, headed off in the convertible once again westward, to Wales for our Easter-ish holiday.
It was a good thing I had had my pampering break, because upon arrival at the very starkly modern house John had rented I was faced with one of those newfangled induction hobs, the complexity and non-intuitiveness of which make me want to scream. No flame! Just a flat ceramic surface that I had to bow down and murmur incantations to in order to get it to heat. I can tell you that cooking three meals a day on that thing was enough to do my head in.
The house itself was not my style, but John was in heaven. All modern materials and hugely high ceilings, glass everywhere.
We had stopped on the way at the Welsh Venison Centre, a lovely farm shop near Blwch (gotta love Welsh names) with deer (ouch) running in the grounds, and I picked up a ham hock for the pot au feu I was planning to make next day, as well as a lovely piece of beef brisket. Gorgeous smoked Welsh salt, local butter, eggs with the most golden yolk in the world. In Brecon, the nearest town to the house, we visited — over the course of the next few days — every SINGLE food-purveying establishment on the streets. Such a joyous way to shop! If you find yourself in Brecon, march straight to the Market Arcade and visit S.J Matthews High Class Fruit and Veg, for the ultimate mushrooms, red peppers, rocket, and chives, and then head along to P.J Sweeney butchers for marrow bones and goose eggs, then out into the town to Morgan Family Butcher for a large chicken to roast.
Have you ever cooked a goose egg? Neither had I, until this holiday. Very difficult and powdery to crack, just a hint, so when you do, crack it over a different bowl from the one you intend to put the egg into, and brush off the crack to get the dusty particles off. It’s worth it for the intensely creamy result. They’re huge! One will serve two people, scrambled.
And what did we do with our four days? Let’s see, we read, day and night, in that glorious living room…
We played solitaire (Avery ran a new scam where she charged John, rather briskly I thought, 35p to set up each game for him, and she had two games running so he never had to wait to play! We worked a laborious puzzle of Jane Austen quotes, we took walks in the countryside where we encountered the local flora and fauna… including the little-known Welsh bodyless dog.
I sincerely hope he was not stuck. He didn’t look distressed.
And everywhere we went, there were lambs!
We talked with Avery about her ambitions. This is an amazing age, a vantage point from which she can see the lives we have led, the accomplishments and achievements (“you mean you guys were ALIVE when the Beatles were a band??”) and disappointments, and she can foresee her own future, the paths she wants to open up for herself. A magical series of discussions: photojournalist, spy, forensic psychologist, Russian language interpreter for the UN? Anything seems possible. And right now, it’s all up for grabs. Sometimes you need a family holiday just to put you in the right frame of mind to see life with a long lens.
And through it all, I cooked. Red pepper soup, mushroom soup, roasted beets with fig balsamic vinegar, chicken roasted with mushrooms and Marsala and goat cheese tucked under the skin, potatoes sliced super thin and cooked layered with butter and cheese and garlic. The first new English asparagus! Just lightly sauteed with olive oil and salt.
But the standout dish was among the simplest: a perfect pork tenderloin.
1 pork tenderloin, all sinews and membranes removed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk rosemary, leaves only, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Simply lay the pork in a dish and rub all the ingredients over it, except the salt and pepper. Let sit out on the counter for an hour.
Saute in a frying pan until seared on all sides (stand back!), then lay the pork in the marinating dish again and roast in a hot oven, 220C/425F, for 25 minutes. The meat will be tender, pink and luscious. Let sit for five minutes, covered with foil, then slice thickly and season to taste.
And now I must love you and leave you. Today we visited the new house with tape measures and every object we own dancing in our heads, and decisions must be made. Watch this space for the newest adventure of our lives. Fingers crossed it’s a happy one.Print This Post