16 April, 2007

British drama at show jumping

Well, no one can accuse me of being a prima donna about my appearance, that's for sure. First of all, I managed to get a dress for about $80 in New York for the big VIP event at the British Show Jumping Championships. $80! For a formal event, not bad, I thought. Gosh, it's hard to believe it's been a year since we went to the Championships last spring, just Avery and me, while John was in a long trip to Asia. So much has changed! We feel pretty firmly English these days; Avery and I are inundated with friends, John's quit his job. But a lot remains the same: same flat (to our dismay, with no news on the real estate front, although we've put in an offer on a house in Hammersmith Grove, near to both of the schools we're looking at for Avery), same crazy cats, same beloved school.

But I digress. I started out with my bargain-basement dress, and we packed up all our duds to head to Birmingham. John found out last minute, calling to confirm our tickets, that it was not black tie, but merely "lounge suit." This phrase conjures up unfortunate images from my childhood of my father in a Nehru jacket (can that be true, or was it someone else's dad?), but in any case John happily donned his favorite dress trousers, dumped all our belongings from the hanging bag into a duffel, flung his jacket on the backseat of the car and we were off. Two hours later we arrived at the hotel to find that one crucial (or not) item had not made it in the transfer of bags: my toiletries. That's right, no contact lenses, no hairbrush, no makeup, and most ominously, no antihistamines. I took a deep breath, fielded Avery's anxious inquiries about "what about the lipstick you were going to let me wear?" and headed down to the hotel shop. This establishment had its priorities firmly in hand. Hairbrush, check. Antihistamines, check. Toothbrush and toothpaste, check. But makeup? Forget it. So there I was, all decked out with not a speck of eyeliner, concealer, nothing. Of course, I didn't need blush, since I produce that all on my own, every day. And I found a sorry little lipstick at the bottom of my handbag, which addition was all Avery required to be perfectly, incandescently beautiful. It didn't produce the same miracle for me, sorry to say. But we looked nice.

Over to the arena feeling like Cinderella, passing all the people in ordinary clothes, as we would be in the morning, but for the moment feeling as if we were going to the prom. It was a beautiful, gorgeous spring evening, everything under the sun blossoming and a lovely sunset on the manmade lake.

And onward to the Hospitality Suite, right at the business end of the arena, where all the horses come out, and up to our elegant row of tables, and bowing waiters, and a little sign with the show logo, saying our last name. Very cool! Avery had her first taste of champagne, and I'm pretty sure she prefers ginger ale. Then it was onto some pretty average mushroom soup with croutons and creme fraiche (I will not abandon this post without giving you my own recipe for mushroom soup and you will not be disappointed), followed by some really sub-par roast lamb and vegetables, then a creme brulee of a really most strange bubbly consistency. I diagnosed gelatin of some kind, which should never breathe the same air as creme brulee. But it didn't matter, the food wasn't the point (well, it could have been, but it wasn't). The point was, we saw every rider close up, every horse entered the arena right under our chairs, and... we were invited to "walk the course." This is what the riders all do after the jumps have been set up. They appear on the course in either their full regalia of whites, jackets, helmets and boots, or just jodphurs and shirts, and they... walk the course. Find out, by their strides, how to calculate the number of strides their horses will need between the jumps. So we were taken out by one of the arena stewards and walked the course that the riders would do for the famous "Puissance" jump at the end of the evening.

The Puissance wall got up to nearly 7 feet 3 inches before finally the adorable young Ben Maher and Robert Maguire were crowned co-winners. Amazingly, none of the splendid Whitaker Dynasty made it to the finals. We are finally sorting it out. John Whitaker is Robert's father, Steven is Ellen Whitaker's father, and now there's young William who is someone's cousin but we aren't sure yet whose. I'll sort it out. Ellen did not disgrace herself, but nor did she live up to the impossible billing the announcers always give the entire family. The pressure! But what fun to be those kinds of people, solidly at the top of their game, and it's the only game in town.

Practically my favorite thing to watch is "arena polo," whose steward and champion is the saucy Jack Kidd. Actually I love all polo, indoors or out. We must remember to get back to the Windsor Polo Club soon.

Finally, sadly, the evening came to an end near midnight, and we trooped back to the hotel, and up to our passage to our room. Just as we came to the door, the door opposite ours opened and out popped... Jack Kidd himself! A quick look into the room he was occupying revealed more than a couple of young English roses, so I'm thinking we got a glimpse of what has marred his private life. But the boy can certainly play polo!

After our very late night, we had to be dragged out of bed, but it was for a worthy English breakfast of everything you can imagine: freshly poached eggs all lined up on a steaming platter, omelets to order, bacon and sausage, juice and cereal, pastries and bagels. Three cheers for the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel! And onwards to the show.

Never having had front-row seats before (although no Hospitality Suite for us on day two, sadly), I didn't realize that there was a tradition of the showjumpers throwing their winning rosettes to the children in the crowd. But before she knew it almost, Avery was the proud owner of Mark Armstrong's rosette; we can't remember which place he got in the speed stakes, but it was exciting and fun to watch. Then there was the triumphant Tim Stockdale, for whom we felt all sorts of support and sympathy, thinking him to be sort of the elder statesman of the competition: then John said, "Wait a minute, he's 42!" Allegiances threatened to shift, but his performance was incredible. Not an old man, though, John, not at all. The biggest excitement of the day happened at the very end, in the showjumping finals, when just as favorite Markus Fuchs was approaching the last jump, two unwary jump stewards realised they were about to be run over and leaped to the side, frightening the horse and causing him to bring down the jump. The crowd went crazy: everyone was abuzz with the unfairness, the need for Fuchs to have a "do-over," and even he approached the jury table and protested. But to no avail. The jumps were brought down, and the trophy plate presented to the lovely (but we're not so sure deserving) Jessica Kurten of Ireland. Plenty of fodder for a family discussion on the way home. "I think she should have protested that she didn't really win, and offered to share the prize money," Avery felt. I thought there should have been a do-over. But John, typically, said, "He was a good sport, and that's what counts. But good on you, Avery, for not thinking you'd take the money and run." And what a shame for poor Jessica to go home not necessarily thinking she really won.

Well, we made our way home listening to "Unnatural Death" by Dorothy L. Sayers, a new favorite by an old master. How I have missed it all these years I do not know. Another far-too-late night for all of us, and so it was a challenge to get to the skating rink this morning. But go we did, and thank goodness, because the coveted Bronze Badge was Avery's by the end of the lesson. Another sewing job for me. That PE bag is absolutely covered by now.

We recovered somewhat from our travels with a nice comforting bowl of Cream of Mushroom Soup. Homemade, that is. And school starts tomorrow. Whether that's good news or bad, remains to be seen. Summer Term, here we come.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
(serves four as a starter)

4 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound baby portabella mushrooms, roughly chopped, with 4 reserved and sliced
3 tbsps Marsala wine
1 cup light cream
truffle oil to garnish
chopped parsley to garnish

(baguette slices on the side)

Melt 3 tbsps butter in a heavy stockpot and saute the garlic briefly. Cover with chicken stock and add chopped mushrooms, keeping 4 sliced mushrooms aside. Add Marsala wine and simmer for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt last tbsp butter in a small skillet and slowly saute mushroom slices. Puree soup with a hand blender and add cream. Keep warm, then put in warmed bowls. Pile sliced sauteed mushrooms in center of each bowl, drizzle with truffle oil, sprinkle with parsley and serve with baguette. Simple and heavenly.

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