Just look what a May and June full of rain will do for you! The beautiful sumac tree in our garden simply fell over from the weight of its wet branches and the soggy home of its roots. The tree surgeon has come to visit, clucking sadly over the situation. “Sumacs are notoriously shallow-rooted,” he said accusingly, although as far as “notorious” goes, shallow-rooted is pretty innocent. But with a touching faith in the future, the new buds of the sumac flower have adjusted to situation, and have grown to point again toward the sky, whatever the direction of their branches.
London life has assumed its usual June quality of watching the days fly off the calendar, packed full with plays and musicals to go to, houseguests to welcome, dinner parties to host, school volunteering to organize, social work, and of course bellringing. I gave a big, festive luncheon party for all my ringing friends, to celebrate my first anniversary ringing! A roasted side of salmon, stuffed chicken thighs in Moroccan-spiced yogurt, tomato-mozzarella salad with pine nuts and basil, a huge bowl of couscous with peppers, olives and grilled halloumi. Laura brought a huge chocolate cake! Much fun was had by all.
It was a bit of a premature celebration, as the very next day was a massive milestone which could have gone pear-shaped: my first Quarter Peal! Forty-one minutes of sweaty, exhausting, nerve-wracking concentration, in my beloved tower at St Mary’s. My friend Monica, part of the jolly band who rang with me on the day, made a beautiful card for me to commemorate the day.
You knew it was coming, I knew it was coming, but nothing could prepare me for the nerves on the day! I kept looking at the clock, all through ringing for two Sunday services, choking down an egg, folding laundry, thinking, “In four hours/three hours/one hour this will all be over.” We gathered in the bellchamber, took up our ropes, and in a moment of impossible tension, heard, “Treble’s going, she’s gone,” and we were off. There’s something about knowing you CANNOT STOP that makes you long to stop! I tried to bend my knees, to remember to breathe, but it was all too much compared with the sheer pressure of keeping on ringing, paying attention to the pattern, being the last “bong” on that Tenor bell every six blows.
And then it was over! Never were the words from Mike “That’s all” more music to my ears! And there were John and Avery, opening the bellchamber door, smiling with champagne and cameras and lots of laughter! I could hardly hold the glass someone brought from the coffee shop!
What a giddy feeling! To think that a year ago I hadn’t even been allowed to make a sound with my bell: all my practicing was silent, my bell’s clapper muted so as not to annoy the neighbors! And here I am today, the proud possessor of my first Quarter Peal with all its stresses and strains. “Now you’ll get your family life back,” and “Have you heard enough about bellringing to last you a lifetime?” was some of the teasing banter sent John’s way!
Whew. Sigh of relief. To think that there are regularly reports of ringers’ 1000th Quarter Peals, in the “Ringing World” magazine. Right now, just one is enough for me!
I’ve been very busy with my social work family, which is going simply brilliantly. Somehow, just the presence for a few hours once a week of a person NOT in the family, NOT a real social worker, NOT a doctor, but just a person who is delighted to sit on the floor and play, has been enough to bring some joy to a household under pressure.
All the feelings our training taught us to expect have come true. “But I’m not even DOING anything”, “Why would it make a difference to have a stranger there for just a few hours?” The answer to these is that you can’t quantify the presence of a supportive, cheerful person, and I was a stranger for about six minutes in that household. Home-Start, I am here to tell you, is a truly professional, valuable service and if you ever think you have time to do it, give them a ring.
And cooking? Of course I have been. Our new favorite (when Avery was away) is a spicy, Thai-inspired seafood treat.
Shrimp Larb in Lettuce
16 very large King prawns (Brit for shrimp)
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 two-inch length lemongrass stalk, minced tiny
2 cloves garlic, minced with lemon juice and sea salt until pulverized
1 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime
zest of 1 lemon
1 shallot, minced
6 mint leaves, cut in ribbons
handful cilantro leaves, chopped roughly
lots of fresh black pepper
sea salt to taste
about 8 Bibb or butter lettuce leaves (you could also use endive/chicory spears).
Pull the heads and legs off the raw shrimp. Heat the oil in a heavy pan and fry the shrimp, in their shells, for 1 minute on one side, then about 30 seconds on the second side or until the shrimp are stiff and pink all over, no longer gray.
Let shrimp cool while you prepare the other ingredients. Peel the shrimp and chop roughly, then mix with all the other ingredients and serve in lettuce leaves.
This dish is the lightest thing you will ever eat. You will want much, much more, so after you’ve made it once you’ll have to decide whether or not to be a glutton and double it next time! You can also add roasted chopped peanuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts, if you want a bit of… nut.
The long-awaited Lost Property Sale of Used PE Kit to the incoming girls came and went, one sweaty, loud, crowded and lucrative day in the Hall at Avery’s school. I find it incredibly heartwarming that a dozen ladies who must have better things to do with their time (not to mention law degrees, medical degrees, etc.; one is an actual Rocket Scientist) turn up with piles of kit they’ve washed and dried at home, patiently to hang them on racks, clustered appealingly, and stacks of lacrosse sticks and boots lovingly washed of their mud, and then the new girls come flooding in with their mothers and fathers, looking TINY. The girls, I mean, not the parents. Our elderly mid-teens look like well-worn giants by comparison with these 11-year-old miniature things, so earnest.
What a wonderful school it is… a combination of frighteningly accomplished staff, surpassingly ambitious girls, and yet all floating around in an atmosphere of mutual support, a crazy sense of humor and a great deal of FUN. We all just have FUN.
And then there was the Taste of London, an annual adventure in Regent’s Park where dozens and dozens of top restaurants get together under tents and offer tiny “tastes” of their best dishes. It’s the equivalent of eating out at ten of the city’s best places for about £50 each. Expensive yes, but considering how many elephants could go through pregnancy waiting for me to go out to dinner, it’s worth it. The best, by far? Nuno Mendes, the genius behind our favorite restaurant in London, the Corner Room, turned up with two of the most delicious dishes you will ever be lucky enough to taste: sea bream ceviche with fennel, and Iberico pork roast served (unusually) medium rare with seafood bread pudding. Yes, “seafood bread pudding”! The magical man took out time to speak with us.
How heavenly to be given such beautiful food — Mendes’s secret is to put together unexpected flavor and texture sensations without being flash, silly, or just wrong, as so many “daring” chefs end up being. His dishes simply WORK, no matter how outlandish some of the components may sound. Seafood bread pudding! Go to the Corner Room, do (I’ve said it before!).
Here’s what else we ate, and the restaurants and chefs. I would heartily recommend them ALL: Barbecoa (Jamie Oliver, pulled pork shoulder, BBQ sauce with cole slaw), Pollen Street Social (Jason Atherton, avocado, crab, sweetcorn parfait), Rhodes 24 (Gary Rhodes, white tomato soup), Whitechapel Gallery (Angela Hartnett, crispy salt and pepper squid with chilli and parsley oil), The Savoy Grill (shrimp, celeriac and cucumber salad with romaine and a Caesar dressing), Maze (black pepper squid), Asia de Cuba (Scottish salmon ceviche, with salted avocado helado, spicy coconut milk and bird’s eye chilli peppers), Coq d’Argent (Mikael Weiss, foie gras terrine with mushroom mousse, pear and ginger chutney), Le Gavroche (Michel Roux, Jr, smoked var salmon with cream cheese and chives and truffle dressing).
And then… I got a bad oyster. One bad oyster. It’s a lot worse than one bad apple, I can tell you that. We got home, and after raving some more about the amazing experience we had had, Avery came home from school to hear it all told again, and I suddenly realized I did not want to hear one more WORD about food. Several hours of misery, an unpleasant night. The oyster was the only thing John didn’t share, so it was the culprit. But I did not let it spoil my happy memories of Taste of London. It’s well worth planning your June so you can go.
As for our cultural lives, we’d highly recommend “Posh,” a rather shocking social-commentary play about a men’s social club at Oxford. It’s reputedly based on a club to which David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson belonged years ago. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s about 10 impossibly beautiful and privileged young men taking advantage of their privileges. The best line? “I started to go behind the velvet rope keeping people out of the dining room, and one of the National Trust ladies told me I couldn’t go back there, it was private. And I said, ‘This is MY HOUSE!’”
And one last dinner party before the summer is upon us. Our gorgeous friends John and Suzanne from next door, Avery’s friend Melanie and her beautiful mom Elizabeth, and our brilliant Sarah, Cambridge University tour guide of last year, now our firm friend… a wonderful time was had by all.
And for once in my life, I managed to make a homely, slow-cooked dish PRETTY. I tried so hard! Here’s slow-braised ox cheeks, cooked all afternoon in Stout and tomatoes and garlic and mushrooms… then all I had to do was strain the sauce and add pretty vegetables and luxurious mash. I was so pleased!
As the month winds down, we start thinking about “home.” Avery smiled when I said this. “You mean you think of it as ‘home’?” I guess I do. No matter that we live here for much more of the year, and that in any case my family are scattered all over Indiana, Iowa and Connecticut. Somehow our little farmhouse, protected by its white picket fence and towering maple trees, is “home.”
Red Gate Farm. It’s a place of blue skies and hot days (as opposed to the grey skies and sweater-requiring weather that is London “summer”). Of course I adore my adopted homeland and it has made me very welcome. But it’s beautiful to go “home.” It’s corn on the cob, crab salad, steamed lobsters, farmer’s market tomatoes, fresh warm peaches, new-laid eggs. It’s “home friends,” whose lives we peek in on during the school year, whose kids get impossibly huge in the intervening months, and yet with the comforting sameness of spirit we look forward to all winter.
It’s sprinklers and trampolines and tennis EVERY DAY and fried shrimp and lots of American flags and “Days of Our Lives” on the kitchen television while I cook. Records on the old-fashioned record player we’ll borrow from Anne and David, playing Simon and Garfunkel. It’s ringing in a convent tower in upstate New York, instead of my little English village church.
It’s change, I suppose. A chance to leave behind the particular joys and stresses of our London life for a few weeks, to take up the joys and stresses of Red Gate Farm.
Watch this space for tales of our American adventures.Print This Post