22 October, 2006

a good film, a fabulous high tea, and an insanely simple recipe

Well, we have not been idle since our return from Paris. Avery has spent the better part of every afternoon at Pony Club, at Ross Nye Stables. She, Ava and Anna have joined with whatever other stable gulls are available and have ridden, cleaned tack, mucked out stalls, fluffed hay and generally made themselves useful in the way of small slaves. And then there are the post-Club playdates, and the post-playdate sleepovers. So all in all, John (who found a week of leisure to his liking and so took another!) and I have been tooling around town, running errands, ferrying children to and fro, and generally having fun in a leisurely sort of way. We would recommend to you a new British film called "The History Boys," by Alan Bennett, directed by the brilliant Nicholas Hytner, creative Director of the National Theatre where he, SIGH, directed my crush actor Matthew Macfadyen and his idol Michael Gambon in "Henry V," just a few unfelicitous months before my arrival on these shores.

First "The History Boys" began as a wonderful book, then a huge success in London's West End and subsequently a huger hit on Broadway, it has been made into a film. The story follows the lives of a number of awkward but quirkily intelligent boys trying against all odds to get into Oxford University, with no panache, no charm, no polish, but an incredible grasp of history. Now, you ask, could there be a more British sort of project? This film clearly comes out of the same culture that spawned the wonderful television programme "QI" which you simply must see if it plays on BBC America. Here's what the official website says about "QI":

Quite Interesting - or 'QI' to its friends - could loosely be described as a comedy panel quiz. However, none of the stellar line-up of comedians is expected to be able to answer any questions, and if anyone ends up with a positive score, they can be very happy with their performance. Points are awarded for being interesting or funny (and, very occasionally, right) but points are deducted for answers which merely repeat common misconceptions and urban myth. (Alan Davies has turned this aspect of the game into somewhat of an artform.) It's okay to be wrong, but don't be obviously, boringly wrong. In this way, QI tries to rid the world of the flotsam of nonsense and old wives' tales that can build up in your mind. QI not only makes us look more closely at things, it encourages us to question all the received wisdom we have carried with us since childhood. Think of the program as a humorous cranial de-scaler.

It's so much fun, in the way that the crazy "Balderdash and Piffle" was last year (haven't seen if there's a new series this season). British television is perfect if you like to watch people exercise wits much sharper than your own. The humor is just what the doctor ordered for the increasingly fast-moving, mind-bendingly empty cultural world we live in. OK, one giant step off soapbox.

Anyway, we really enjoyed "The History Boys." There are some wonderful comedic scenes in schoolboy French, some gorgeous scenic shots of Oxford both interior and exterior. In my new screenwriting mode, it was interesting to see what is essentially an ensemble-cast film, and to try to decode who was even slightly the main character, what counted as plot and subplot. I'm about to watch "A Cock and Bull Story," which I think will be more of the same. As Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, "It's the kind of thing you'll like if you like that kind of thing," an expression that for some reason has always delighted Avery.

We ended up after the film at the St. Christopher's Place outpost of Carluccio's, a small chain of restaurant/deli/larder-ish shops that can be counted on for excellent housemade mozzarella and pesto, if you defy my instructions to make your own. I had a pretty good sage and spinach ravioli, but John had the real deal: pumpkin risotto. It didn't taste particularly like pumpkin, which to my generally anti-squash mindset is a good thing, but it was a beautiful color and topped with a generous spoonful of sauteed rosemary and garlic. On a cold night, wrapped up in my husband's enormous Shetland sweater, it was a great dish for the outdoor table.

Friday we spent the morning with Keechie at the vet. She's really off her rocker, so along we went with her in the soft-sided kitty prison slung over my shoulder so I could look in on her, pupils enormously dilated with fear, poor dear. I mean, the cat's afraid of the sound of the washing machine door shutting, so you can imagine the effect that London traffic and construction sites had on her. Actually, she's so insane that the stress levels were about the same with both experiences. She's now on Valium. Seriously. The vet explained quite solemnly that tortoiseshell cats are that sensitive, in proportion to the bright colors of their fur (I'm not making this up) and that at least she wasn't feral. Well, OK, that seems like an extreme version of looking on the bright side, but whatever. So after two attempts to stuff the pills down her throat by brute force, I have resorted to crushing them up and offering them to her in a spoonful of potted chicken. Yes, in England there is such a thing as potted chicken, and let me tell you it makes her REAL popular with her siblings. They're all now trying to look anxious so as to get in on the goodies.

My reward was to have tea with my friend Twiggy. Now, when I first met Twiggy she was introduced to me as Trupti, and we had our day at Wimbledon together. Her husband Ed and John work together at Reuters, and so what started out as a sort of business day out became the start of an email friendship between us, and several scotched attempts to get together in person. We finally achieved it, at a truly splendid place called The Wolseley. I got dressed up in my new Paris outfit and cute knee-length high-heeled boots and was driven in style by John, taking Avery and Anna ice-skating (I know, he's a saint). I was a bit early and so got to sit in the centre of the gorgeous room, ceiling towering over me, carved swirling wrought-iron scrollwork everywhere, people looking like they were famous seated all round. The people who didn't look famous looked either like they were about to sign on some dotted line or like they were worth a GREAT deal of money and had decided to invite three of their most beautiful friends out to lunch. Rachel Hunter was there! And a shaved-head Ralph Fiennes, which unfortunate hairdo choice took away some of the fun of seeing this erstwhile crush of mine. Note to Matthew: don't do it.

Twiggy arrived shortly and we ordered full-on afternoon tea. I have to go back sometime, however, when I don't have to eat anything sweet, because the savory menu looked fantastic: steak tartare (bet I could learn something there), rack of lamb, all the usual suspects. But our tea was lovely: fresh mint-leaf tea served in little filigreed silver and glass cups, perfect sandwiches of the usual variety (ham and cheese, egg mayonnaise, cucumber), but the added attraction of a finely chopped celery and soft cheese on a golden sundried-tomato bread. Then of course scones and Devonshire cream and strawberry jam (our waiter got very concerned that our scones had cooled as we chatted, so he marched them away and came back with fresh). Amazing. And Twiggy made a special request for her favorite cocktail, served to her once in Gloucestershire and never forgotten:

The Cowley Cooler

1 shot Amaretto
equal parts fresh orange juice and cranberry juice
a generous squeeze of lime juice

Serve over lots of ice in a tall glass, and garnish with a twist of lime peel.

It was so refreshing, and this from a girl who was taught nearly 25 years ago that a real drink consists of only two ingredients, and one of them is ice. We chatted and chatted, covering her travails with her new house, located under Tower Bridge, my two writing classes, her plans for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights and New Year, to be celebrated this weekend. "It's so nice in this day and age to have a festival, and in fact a religion, that isn't founded on conquering anyone or killing anyone or sacrificing or punishing anyone," she said earnestly. "It's all just a celebration." I can second that. She is such a calm, peaceful person obviously very comfortable with herself and her life, that is was a pleasure to sit in her company and talk over things happening in our lives and our families. Her soap box? Fresh juicing. I can tell I'm ripe for the picking on this subject, because while I get fully half my calories per day in one kind of juice or another, she has convinced me that all the nutrients flee the liquid within three minutes of being juiced. So I'm hot on the trail. As is usual with my food obsessions, while they don't always last long, in the meantime my family will be subjected doubtless to every known substance in liquid form. I'll try to stick to non-meat products, for their sake. Duck juice? I don't think so.

Among Twiggy's other contagious enthusiasms (she's that sort of person, in her tiny doll-like beauty) is the photography of Yann-Arthus Bertrand. Not being much of a photography fan, this man's amazing work had completely passed me by, and I'm not still sure if I would ever buy a piece, but I can see the appeal: he photographs the earth from the air. Both natural sites and cities come under the lens. I've posted this, one of his best-known images, of a heart-shaped crop occurring in nature. Quite interesting, and worth knowing more about, clearly.

I floated home past the Ritz, through Berkeley Square crammed with home-going busines people glued to their mobile phones, and felt very very lucky to have a friend as refreshing as Twiggy, not to mention cool enough to get the best table at the Wolseley. At home it transpired that Avery had achieved her Level 7 Skating Badge! It's amazing what just a few private lessons with Nicky have done for her skills. Good on you, Avery. So I diligently sewed it to her PE bag which is now beginning to look quite like an embroidery project. Anna had come home with her to spend the night and although I was full of tea sandwiches and amaretto I nevertheless managed to produce food for the hungry.

Yesterday found me at my "creating fiction" class, shaking in my boots and reading aloud. I'm happy to say it went well! I could have written the responses myself, because I knew it already and they all said essentially the same thing: entertaining, but where's the plot? I have a plot, actually, but everyone was unanimous in saying that it needs to rear its ugly head much sooner, because while they were all lulled happily into listening to all my dialogue and descriptions of places, people and things, at some point their protesting intelligence said, "Wait. Where's the plot?" So I can take that on board and improve it. What a relief to have it over! Today is a nasty, rainy day, which didn't stop me from hounding Avery and John into taking me to the farmer's market. I came home with ridiculously sweet and juicy British cherry tomatoes, gorgeous beetroot, a topside beef roast for tonight, a new kind of apple juice called "Worcester and Bramley", some unusually dark and dense little cucumbers, and a crusty ciabatta. Once at home I shook myself like a dog and made:

(serves four as an appetizer with toasted bread and crudites)

1 410-gram [soup size] can chick peas (also known as garbanzo beans)
1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste, in foreign or Middle Eastern section of shops)
3 whole cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste
1 cup olive oil, maybe more

Simply put all this in the Cuisinart and turn it on, pulsing occasionally and scraping the chick peas away from the sides. Then, if you want to, pour some more olive oil on the top and leave it. The flavors will improve. Go blog or give your cat a Valium or fold laundry. But you may not be able to resist dipping in right away. Can you imagine something so good for you could be so cheap and so quick to make? If you like it thick, use less olive oil, if you like it runnier, add more. Could it be easier?

Before I go watch my film, I have to tell you what we overheard in the restaurant at dinner last night, although to preserve whatever clientele the place has, I will withhold its name. Not good Indian food. Anyway, this fellow over my shoulder was bemoaning the character of the French people, I know not why, and this is what he said: "I'll tell you what's wrong with the Frogs: they don't even have a proper word for 'entrepreneur.'" Now THAT man will not be appearing on "QI" any time soon.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Hi Kristen!

Sad that I missed seeing you guys on Fire Island - darn that rain!

I've seen The History Boys on stage here in New York and it was excellent, I hope the movie makes it to America soon.

I'm impressed because your hummus recipe is just like the one I use - now I know I'm making the best possible hummus!

Say hello to Avery, John and the kitties for me! :-)