31 March, 2007

of Surrey, scallops and Scotch


















We've been in rather a whirlwind lately, I must say. Thursday evening found us sans Avery as she celebrated Anna's birthday with a sleepover, so we immediately made plans with Twiggy and Ed to go out for dinner. They were keen for us to try their local (ha! one should be so lucky) Italian place, so we bundled into the car and headed to Bermondsey to try out Tentazione Restaurant. And oh, my it was delicious. First of all, I have to admit to a weakness for Twiggy in any case, with her doll-like proportions and bright black eyes, her total devotion to Ed, and her unexpected little temper spurts. Not that I've ever seen any, but she always has impressive stories of her encounters with repairmen, bus drivers, mean salespeople and anyone else who does not behave with the grace that Twiggy expects of life. The idea of such a small, elegant and delicate person have a temper explosion under any circumstances is outlandish, but she insists. It's nice to be with newlyweds who are still living in the blush of novelty. They really are a lot of fun. And the meltingly perfect little cheese puff pastry tart, the sauteed duck's foie gras with celeriac and porcini mushrooms, the fritto misto (I don't even normally love calamari, but it was terrifically light, and I discovered I love fried scallops), all very good. A lovely evening.

Then the momentous day of Avery's Pony Camp arrived on Friday, and we made our way (arguing all the way to the Putney Bridge about the best way to get there; nothing like a bad map or two to cause marital strife in my household), finally tooling successfully down the Portsmouth Road, arriving in the little village of Ripley where we found some gorgeous silver plate forks at a darling antique shop, and bought a big trug of yellow daffodils for Mrs Nye as a thank-you. Onward in the rather dismal spitting rain to Longfrey Farm where, as we approached the house, I was embarrassed to see THOUSANDS of yellow daffodils actually growing in the lawn. Ah well, coals to Newcastle, and Mrs Nye couldn't have been more gracious. "Oh, lovely. I never seem willing to pick daffodils until they've been blown over in a storm, so these are perfect." Now that's good manners. How To Accept A Completely Unnecessary Gift With Grace 101.

The place is beautiful, a series of redbrick attached houses with peaked gabled roofs, all cobbled together to make one house, climbing rather erratically up and down a sloping hill, surrounded by twittering birds and, in the distance, swans! And all the horses from the stable, dotting the landscape and looking strange without saddles. Dogs spilled out everywhere, cats climbed on the backs of furniture, Mr and Mrs Nye made cups of tea and offered shortbread. He is the most charismatic 80-year-old man I have ever met (and I have a real weakness for approaching-elderly gentlemen, as you know), completely at ease with himself, wearing layers of faded and tattered tattersall shirts, threadbare cardigans, worn denim jacket and topped with an ancient Barbour waxed cotton coat. Blue, blue eyes twinkling under a pure white version of the Hugh Grant-style English schoolboy forelock, a rough hand reaching out to Avery: "Now, my dear, I hope you know the barn handshake," and she did! The kitchen sink, where Mrs Nye was peeling carrots, looks through a picture window onto a walled garden with a series of birdfeeders, and much birdsong. "Shoo, sparrowhawk!" Mrs Nye called severely. "Find baby birds to eat in someone else's garden. Where are those cats?"

Avery and I took her clobber up to the bedroom she was going to share with Alexa, since the weather made it too damp to sleep in the Mongolian yurts we saw looming behind the house. But probably by now, since it's cleared beautifully, they've had their outdoor sleeping adventure. She unpacked, while Alexa opened her birthday presents and discussed who else would be arriving, and when. Avery had expressed some nervousness in the morning, but here in the actual place, she seemed perfectly at ease. Finally we took our leave, and while she did walk us to the door with Mr Nye, she didn't seem at all worried about her stay, so I kissed her quickly and left, feeling like I'd lost my handbag.

It didn't take long to feel not only completely reassured that she would have a marvelous time, but also rather gleeful to be on our own! While we've had the occasional day and night to ourselves since she was born, I've only ever spent one night without her, and we've never had three days in a row just as a couple. I must say, there is a lot to recommend a little break on one's own. Loyal readers of this blog will know how ridiculously devoted I am to that child, but it has been heavenly to be just the two of us. I think three days is just about right.

We repaired to the rather larger than I expected town of Guildford, where I had booked us a night at the Angel Posting House and Livery, parts of which date to the 15th century, and there is a 13th century crypt underneath. Amazing. It is a very elegant, classic but quirky hotel right in the center of the High Street; we're fearing a bit for the hotel's future because it was very, very quiet there. We settled in, had a lovely cocktail while we each caught up on duelling mobile phones with our respective fathers. It's shameful how often I catch up with my mother, because she tends to answer the phone, but don't get a chance to chat with my father, who was full of excellently entertaining stories about his life as a forensic psychologist, but the details of those stories I cannot divulge here for reasons of privacy. I guess. Something tells me the 400-pound serial killer he's been interviewing probably doesn't read this blog, but one never knows.

A perfectly acceptable French-ish dinner of crawfish and rack of lamb at a rather chainy place called Cafe de Paris, at the end of which we had quite an adventure getting the bill. John kept trying to make eye contact with any of the four or five people who had brought us various things to eat and drink, but no one seemed willing to notice. Finally he grabbed the attention of a young man about to go through the swinging doors behind our table. "Could we have the check, please?" "Possibly," the man said, laughing, "But I don't work here. I was just on my way to the loo." "Oh, my god," John said, blushing, "it's not like you LOOK like you work here, I was just..." "Flirting?" the young man suggested. "I met your eye only because I felt sorry for you, having a table by the loo." Too funny. When he went back to his table, he murmured something to the girl across from him and they both completely exploded laughing. Finally we paid, and on the way out, John leaned over to the guy and said, "Excellent service. We'll be back."

A quick visit to the Castle on our way out of town left us annoyed that such a gorgeous ruin has been, well, un-ruined. We have had so many wonderful visits to really ruined castles in the hills of Scotland, armed only with our copy of "Castles and Strongholds of Scotland" and a picnic, that we could hardly bear to see the new plaster walls, grilles over the windows, constant health-and-safety signs warning you about all the ways you could die during your visit and other annoying indications of modern life. The gardens are painfully formal, but still quite lovely in the early spring day. Home with the top down!

I spent the afternoon food shopping (oh, the glorious Ginger Pig butcher! be still my heart) for what I planned to be a "Masterchef" quality no-child meal. It was my sincere ambition to cook something really restaurant-quality, really beautifully presented, and using only ingredients that Avery doesn't like. And I think I succeeded! For the first time in living memory, I was actually nervous as I prepared dinner. But here were the results. Thank you, Vincent, for the scallops recipe. I hope you don't mind I added lime juice...

Scallops with Single-Malt Scotch and Creme Fraiche with Celeriac-Potato Mash
(serves 4)

16 King Scallops (the biggest you can get, roe on or off as you like)
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1 cup creme fraiche (or a mix of single and soured creams)
two shots good single malt scotch
juice of a quarter lime
salt, pepper
crusty toasted bread

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and simmer until it begins to brown, then lay the scallops in, clockwise so you remember which went in first. Cook until the edges begin to brown on the underside, and then turn the scallops over in the order in which you laid them in the skillet. Expect major splattering of butter. When the second side browns nicely, remove the scallops (again, in the proper order) to a waiting plate. This whole process should take about 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Put your baguette or whatever bread in the oven to toast, and turn back to the skillet. Lower the heat to medium and add the creme fraiche or creams. Simmer until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Add the scotch and cook down until no more smell of alcohol rises from the skillet. Taste and add lime juice, then salt and pepper until perfect. Remove the toasted bread from the oven and butter one side. Return the scallops to the skillet and toss in the sauce for a minute. Plate up with sauce on the bottom, a nice helping of celeriac-potato mash, top with scallops and serve with sauteed asparagus.


Celeriac and Charlotte Potato Mash
(serves 4 with scallops)

1/2 large head of celeriac, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
6 medium Charlotte potatoes, peeled
6 tbsps unsalted butter
1/2 cup single cream
salt and pepper

Place celeriac and potatoes in salted water and bring to the boil. Boil for at least 30 minutes of until all are soft to the touch of a fork. Push through a ricer and mash with butter and cream, then salt and pepper to taste.

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Do you know why you should buy unsalted butter? Because the salted varieties are able to get away with lesser quality cream, since the salt masks the flavour. Always buy unsalted, and then salt the finished dish yourself. But I digress.

It was delicious! And very pretty, although simply piling up the asparagus wasn't very special. I suppose I could have tried making them into a little teepee? Tortured, no, you're right. Then to follow we had something that in reality should have come first, but I could not think how I could eat the first course and then jump up from the table and produce the scallops, which really have to be cooked right then. So we reversed the courses. But both were sublime.

Carpaccio with Shaved Pecorino, Rocket and Chilli Oil Dressing
(serves 4 as a light starter)

1/2 lb fillet of beef, trimmed of all fat and sinews
3 handfuls fresh rocket, soaked in ice water and spun dry
16 shavings of strong aged pecorino or parmesan

About an hour and a half before you want to eat, place the beef in the freezer. This will solidify it sufficiently to make it shave-able, but you'll have to work fast. The warmer your hands make the beef, the more difficult it becomes to slice extremely thin.

Wash and spin the rocket and mound on each plate, in the center. Slice the beef paper thin with a very sharp knife, and arrange the slices around the rocket. Pile the shaved cheese on top of the rocket, and drizzle generously with:

All-purpose Spicy Chilli Dressing

3 parts chilli-infused olive oil
1 part aged balsamic vinegar
1 part lemon or lime juice
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 clove garlic, finely minced
generous pinches of salt and freshly-ground pepper

The chilli oil you want is by Danilo Manco, and you can get it, as I did, at the little Saturday market at the top of the Marylebone High Street, or you can order it like this. Try the truffle oil, too. I'm going to make a risotto this week and drizzle some on top.

Place all ingredients in a sealable jar and shake until emulsified. Shake again just before serving. This dressing is extremely versatile and is perfect with carpaccio, pan-seared duck salad, simple watercress and lamb's lettuce, a little avocado-tomato salad, anything. Try it on a really good tinned tuna, tossed with chickpeas and minced red onion, topped with lemon zest. Yum yum.

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So there you have it. It was very satisfying to make something new, something a little daring, something I'd loved in restaurants and had fun recreating at home. And served with candlelight and a little white wine to just one other person. A very nice evening.

But something tells me we'll be ready to get Avery back tomorrow...

1 comment:

Philip Hutchinson said...

Hello. I'm the senior custodian of Guildford Castle and it's probably me who served you. I guess it is each to their own, but your view on the restoration of the keep appears to be almost unique; only the third complaint I have found from over 20,000 people since we reopened. I guess you never saw what the keep was like as a full ruin. You would not have been impressed.