04 February, 2007

Quite the Royal Concert

Well, I can tell you that as a person for whom the sound of children singing is an instant tear-producer, yesterday was quite Over the Top, AND I had no tissue, what was I thinking. Our school had been invited to take part in the third annual fundraising concert at the Royal Academy of Music, an imposing structure in the Marylebone Road, in aid of a charity called The Children's Trust for Multiple Disabilities. I am sappy enough when it comes to happy news and healthy children, so add the perspective of children who have been through life-threatening disabilities, and I am the original basket case. But it was lovely. And a more deserving charity I cannot imagine.

The scene was this: perhaps a dozen schools from around London had been invited to participate in the concert, for which tickets were sold in aid of the charity. So we dispersed the Ava+Anna sleepover party of the night before; and I do mean night, they were up until all hours, putting on a play in which Avery was the hoity-toity older sister of a Victorian family whose parents had unaccountably disappeared, leaving her in charge. I must say, the costumes were lovely, having been culled from all Avery's pre-uniform obsession with old-fashioned garments. Those bits, and a couple of formal skirts that have migrated from my closet (worn once, at Glyndebourne, in perhaps ten years) completed the look. Anyway, we packed Avery off to the Royal Academy with her "immaculate winter uniform" as specified by Mrs D and a lunch, and we ourselves turned up in the afternoon for a pre-concert champagne reception featuring excellent gossip with other parents and possibly the worst canapes I have ever come across, but hey, it was for charity. There was chicken on skewers accompanied by a vat of what was clearly mayonnaise for, dare I say it, dipping? And simply awful soggy blinis with not-fresh smoked salmon, need I say more. Maybe I can cater it next year.

Anyway, we trooped upstairs and ended up in the balcony for photography's sake. Just look at these faces. So bored! And the posture. The boys above our group were just classic. It is hard to imagine, looking at adolescent chaps like these, that our girls will ever find, among them, fodder for romance, but then they'll be adolescents too, so perhaps it evens out. I can't see the gorgeous being that was my husband at 18, anywhere in these boys, just a couple of years younger. But I suppose I was drinking the kool-aid. In any case, it was a wonderful, wonderful afternoon. I do find the sight of so many earnest, dressed-up children and their devoted mentors incredibly sentimental. How hard they have worked! The Latin, the French, the pianissimos and vibratos, the girls' uniforms with knee socks at varying levels of knee-proximity, the boys with any number of cuff lengths to their ever-expanding arms, the slumping poses, but then the ethereal beauty of their voices. Our school did very well, but I have to say that the schools who obviously sacrifice a great deal for their music were a revelation. Fulham Prep, for example, have won all sorts of competitions, and it showed. The professionalism and maturity of their performance was incredible, plus I am a complete sucker for the sound of 20 voices simultaneously pronouncing the English version of "water". I sat there trying to think how to spell it, and it's something like "whoa-tuh." So pure and gorgeous.

And then a teenage boy got up and read what amounted to his life story: a little-boyhood of being the fastest and the best in his class at everything, then a tragic auto accident, and bang: all over. Or so the doctors said, until he reached The Children's Trust and was taken in hand by every sort of therapist you can imagine, and despite all the terrible predictions, in a year had learnt to walk, talk, feed himself, all over again. He is planning to run the London Marathon next year. Toward the end he could not finish reading, and when he sat down there was a moment of stunned silence and then the room simply erupted in applause, and a standing ovation. John and I are trying to think how we could volunteer for a place like The Children's Trust, which is located too far out of London to be practical. But I feel sure there must be something like it here in the city, where Avery and I could perhaps read aloud to children, or help in the kitchens, and John could lend a hand with their computer systems. We must find something.

All the parents, milling about after the concert, were overwhelmed. "Sort of puts trouble with homework in perspective, doesn't it?" Becky mused. "If I ever start complaining about anything, just kick me," I agreed. Our children finally emerged from the throng, and I have never seen Avery so tired. We spirited her home and into her second bath of the day, which she swam about in for about two hours, coming out only to swallow about two bites of dinner and then lay her head on the table. "Time for bed," I announced. "But my homework!" she wailed. "You can tell your teachers that your mother made you go to bed, and they can take the matter up with me." Wrapped in a fuzzy throw with about four hot water bottles and a tabby cat, she was good for a chapter of "All of a Kind Family," and then was down for the count, at about 7:30! Like having a baby in the house. I had forgotten, until I was looking for a comfort book, how wonderful "All of a Kind Family" is. It was her absolute staple read-aloud as perhaps a kindergartner, and I remember clearly that I had just been anxious about why she wasn't reading, somewhere around age 5, when I heard her little voice and realized she was reading full paragraphs of that book, to herself. Avery's way: learn in secret, emerge only when you know how. But get the book (here's a link for getting them in the UK even, that's how much I care about your reading list), do, and then get the sequels. A lovely story of five sisters growing up in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the 1920s. It's all there: sisterly affection of a Jane Austen sort, thrift, Jewish heritage and culture (plus mouth-watering descriptions of the food markets). You'll love them. Plus it's good to get back to reading aloud, I think. Just because she can read, doesn't mean she always has to.

Let's see, what else is going on? Oh! The Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl! My family back home are ecstatic, my parents and brother actually still living there and my sister and her family pretending they weren't in Connecticut at all, last night during the big triumph. Congratulations, everyone. Good on you, Colts.

Back on this side of the pond, we're making frantic plans for our half-term trip back to Connecticut, on Friday. There is so much to fit in. Must see Alyssa and her family, Avery's going to spend a day with Cici at her school (only if she speaks in an English accent ALL DAY, John specifies), must get our immigration papers at the British Consulate, must see my family who are coming to visit, must congratulate Jane in person on being two, and see Rollie and Judy and the new goat kids, and Anne and David across the road, and of course Avery must be reunited with her stable friends and her beloved Ladybug, for a nice one-off ride on Tuesday. As soon as they found out we were coming (guess how? I madly emailed everyone instantly), the barn mothers organised a dinner out at a reportedly fabulous Italian place: one table for the parents, and one for the girls. I can't wait. And some shopping, too, probably, since the exchange rate is simply horrific right now and we cannot buy anything here. It should be a great week, cold and frosty with our fires well-stoked and old friends nearby.

Then, believe it or not, we're planning a possible trip to Morocco for our friend Vincent's birthday, in April. That sound awfully exotic for me, but why not? I think it's during Avery's Easter break (do these schools do nothing but break up? it often feels that way). It certainly would be, as John points out, the way to do Morocco, since Vincent's father was a diplomat there in the 1970s, and we could find out a lot more with him than we ever would on our own. Something to think about!

But in the meantime, closer to home, let me give you a recipe for a truly comforting dish in case you have a cold night and three hungry little girls in your house. Or even two. Or just yourself. In fact, it's completely flexible, as few recipes are, in that you can make a little or a lot. This recipe was especially hard to write down, as I just made it up along pretty classic lines and according to what I had in my pantry, since all I bought fresh was the beef itself. And crucially: it's not only perfect as leftovers, the entire dish should be eaten ONLY on the second day. Alyssa has long told me this and I didn't believe her. On the first night, it's good, but it's a bit tough, because after all, it's about the cheapest thing you can buy that's still part of a cow. On the second night, it's ambrosial.

Classic Brisket
(this amount serves six)

4 tbsps oil (anything light-flavored)
2 lbs brisket (in London it is called "topside")
5 cups beef stock
2 soup-size cans tomatoes (either whole or chopped, as you like)
6 carrots, sliced
1 dozen pearl onions, peeled
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
4 bay leaves
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
several grinds fresh black pepper
salt to taste

In a heavy, large saucepan, heat the oil and put in the beef. Sizzle for two minutes then turn and sizzle on the other side. Add the garlic to the oil on either side of the beef and saute briefly: do not burn!. Pour over the beef stock and tomatoes, and toss the vegetables, wine and seasonings in. Stir and cover tightly. Simmer high for at least 2 hours, lifting the lid occasionally to stir the mixture and turn the beef. When tender, turn the beef onto a cutting board and slice short-wise in slices about 1/3 inch thick. Then replace in the suce, and ideally, cool with the lid off and leave over night, tightly covered once cool. You can, of course, eat it right away, but it's better having rested overnight. Serve the next evening, with noodles, rice or mashed potatoes, and a nice coleslaw of my own design:

Red Cabbage and Fennel Slaw with Tarragon Dressing
(make however much you like!)

red cabbage and fennel bulbs, in equal proportion, sliced thin
red onion, sliced thin
bottled Russian dressing
fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
fresh-squeezed lemon juice
salt and pepper

Combine all dressing ingredients thoroughly and toss with cabbage and fennel. The crunch and spice is perfect with brisket. Heaven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We do have Brisket here as well. You have to get it from a good butcher usually, although I know waitrose stock it. It is a different cut from topside and is only used in pot roasts as far as I know. Topside is easier to find in the cities and is therefore more often used for pot roasting. Country family butchers are where you will find brisket with no difficulty I'm sure. If they don't have at the time, they can get it for you quite easily. Love your blog and recipes. Keep up the great work.