29 May, 2007

a visit from the Midwest (and the best meatballs ever)

How many of your college roommates do you keep up with? I have to confess honestly to only about... four. It isn't that I didn't appreciate them while I was in school, and in fact I remember quite panicking on the last day of college in 1987 when I realised that, for the first time in four years, I was going to have to make new friends. All that history, in the hothouse environment that is (or was, in the much more innocent days 20 years ago) a sorority at a very small university in the remote-ish wilds of central Indiana. We all made very fast friends.

But then I moved away, and it was as if a curtain came down between 1987 and the rest of my life. All new people, all new places, shortly to cross the pond to live in London the first time around in 1990 and REALLY start over. And through the years the number of girls I kept in touch with dwindled, down to just a few whose name on an email or Christmas card gladdens my heart and takes me back to such a different time and place. And one of them is Cynthia. Would you believe she married my husband's college roommate? What are the odds. And a couple of months ago she got in touch to say she would be in London with her family and could we get together? I realised that the last time I saw her was at our tenth college reunion and my last photograph of her was with six-month-old Avery on her shoulder.

It was wonderful to get together. There is something about a Midwestern girl, and her family, that is unchanging: a sense of forthrightness, total honesty, patient affection, good-humoured generosity and cheerful optimism. I almost forget about those qualities, or at least forget that I miss them, until I'm back with one of my own and I realise what a lovely profile that is. A very steadying feeling in a life that still at times feels foreign, where nearly all my friends were strangers a year and a half ago. Someone who remembers me at age 18! She brought pictures of John and me 24 years ago: scary indeed. Why did I ever think a red polyester dress with enormous shoulder pads was a good look for me? Impossibly young and innocent looking, we were.

Our children got on famously. We had a nice dinner, and one thing took me back to my childhood: Cynthia helped me in the kitchen! In both New York and London, I have found (but never thought of it until Cynthia was here), dinner guests are just guests. Every once in awhile there's a token offer of help, quickly dismissed, but most of the time no one offers. It just isn't done, and you wouldn't offer at someone else's house either. You're company. You know that you're there to be given something delicious for which you aren't allowed to make any effort, and when your hosts come to you, they'll be able to lean back and do nothing as well. And it's a perfectly nice custom.

But something about Cynthia's carrying dishes from the kitchen to the dining room, and helping clear up afterward, was a total throwback to my early life when it was always all hands on deck in everyone's house. More of a family feeling, less of a performance. Any transplanted Midwesterner will know what I mean. We had a lovely time. I hope it isn't another ten years before I see them all again.

The day before their visit was... meatball heaven. While you'll have to make a bit of an effort to find the spices, it's so worth it. Follow the links in this post, and you'll be all set. It was our Morocco trip reunion of sorts, with Vincent, Peter, Mike, his boyfriend Jean-Jacques, and Boyd sitting around the table tucking in. If you're lucky enough to have a Moroccan or Lebanese grocery near you, as I have in Green Valley in Upper Berkeley Street, ask for "mince for kefta" and you will be given a ready-mixed blend of lamb, parsley, tiny grains of rice and some mysterious herbs. If not, plain lamb mince is just fine too. And all the spice quantities can be adjusted to suit your palate. Ours is a fairly spicy blend, down to the cayenne, which we liked and even went over a treat with three little girls.

Lamb Kefta with Poached Eggs
(served ten but just barely)

1 1/2 kilos lamb kefta mince, rolled into little 1-inch meatballs

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 white onion, finely minced
10 soup-size cans peeled plum tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced, if using plain lamb mince
1 tbsp ras el hanout
1 1/2 tbsps ground cumin
1 tbsp lemon-ginger powder
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
5 tbsps fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley

In a very large, heavy-bottomed deep saucepan, saute the onion in the oil and add tomatoes and all the flavorings except 3 tbsps of the parsley, which should be set aside. Stir occasionally over a medium heat, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. In my humble opinion, there is no place in this life for tinned chopped tomatoes. Don't you wonder what sort of tomatoes they use when they know they can get away with them not looking like a tomato? Just buy whole and break them up during the cooking process, I say.

This sauce must simmer for at least two hours, but it can sit almost indefinitely. I bet it is even better the second day, but... there was no second day. We ate it all.

About an hour before you want to serve the dish, drop the meatballs into the sauce, in one even layer, as many as you can fit (we ended up with 50 meatballs and about half fit the first time around). Then cover the pan and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Lift the lid and the meatballs will be cooked enough to be quite hardy, so you can stir them about to make room for the other half of the meatballs. Cover again and cook until done, about 30 minutes. Again, these can sit almost indefinitely with no risk of becoming tough.

When the meatballs are thoroughly cooked and you are about 10 minutes away from serving, break eggs, one at a time, into a soup ladle and lower into the sauce, as many as you can fit (we managed about 8). Cover and cook until the eggs are poached, about 8 minutes. Throw the remaining parsley on top. Resist the temptation to play with the eggs until they are cooked through! I didn't manage to make the eggs look perfect, but hey, it was the first time and they tasted lovely anyway. A bite of egg yolk and a bite of meatball smothered in the sauce was... divine.

This dish smells like nothing in this world. Your guests will feel they have died and gone to heaven, and you will be a star. I served this with steamed potatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parsley, and a salad made of cucumbers and dill in sour cream. Oooh, I wish I had some now.


We're headed out to Richmond-on-Thames to see a play, so I will have to wait until later to tell you about our... house? Maybe! Fingers crossed.

27 May, 2007

drum roll... my first beautiful pud

Would any of you, many of whom have been given fairly scary (or simply boring) puddings at my house, BELIEVE that I cooked this myself? And it tasted good, too. I honestly cannot tell you the howls of glee that emanated from me when this lovely dessert was finally plated up in my kitchen on Sunday afternoon. Let me tell you more.

I have been in a positive marathon of cooking lately, due to the piggybacking of two very important dinner parties in my life, on Sunday and Monday. I have lain awake many hours trying to think what starter, what main course, what salad, and finally, agonisingly, what pud. Not to mention did I have enough truly proper forks for three courses for 10 people? It turns out I did, but did I have enough napkins for two parties in a row? Yep, I did. But these thorny questions and decisions took up a lot of time. As a result, however, I have two fabulous party menus to give you, both of which are easy and requiring no special expertise. What the fabulous pud does require, however, is a kitchen implement new to my kitchen, but for which I have been longing for some months now: a steel ring, for presentation.

I know, it sounds unbearably pretentious. But it's indispensable. Here's how it works.

It's like a tall-ish tuna-fish can with no top and no bottom, and made of a heavier material. But what you do is make your cheesecake (or indeed your risotto, your parfait of crab, guacamole and oven-roasted tomatoes, or your scalloped potatoes), and you press your metal ring down onto the surface, lift it up, or pile the ingredients inside and lift it up, and there is... a perfect circular serving. I have tried it only with cheesecake, mind you, but I feel cautiously optimistic that the same method will work with anything that isn't desperately wobbly or liquidy. I am so excited, needless to say. Because while I am fairly confident family-feeding cook, I have long known that my food suffers from bad presentation. I tend to take a big spoon, scoop up a serving of whatever, and plop it on a plate, and then plop another thing down next to it, lay some asparagus spears next to that, and bob's your uncle.

But watching lots of cooking shows and eating at some very chi-chi restaurants in my fair city and abroad have taught me that... it's just not enough. Ugly food isn't as yummy. So I read a recipe for the raspberry cheesecake while on our holiday in Burgh Island, made a few changes (and would make even more changes next time, which I shall incorporate in the recipe here), and thought, "If only I had a little metal ring." So while in Islington last week I daringly acquired a set of rings (some tall and rather wide, and some shorter and not so wide), and had a go. I simply cannot tell you of my mood when this glorious thing appeared on the plate. You give it a try, now, do.

It's funny: this recipe is one of those examples of how English and American are NOT the same language, nor the same culture. Everything in it seems to need a translation! Including the measuring methods: I am going to give you the United Kingdom's (and most of the rest of the civilised world's) method of noting quantities in weight, not volume. When I make it next, I'll translate everything into cups instead of grams, because I am foolish enough to prefer the way I've always done things to learning something new. When it involves maths, that is.

The recipe calls for "curd cheese," which is a sort of combination of cream cheese and cottage cheese, and is as far as I know not available in the States. I did my shopping at a Lebanese food market, and so there was no curd cheese there, so I substituted cream cheese. John says he would prefer the cheesecake to have a lighter heft, so probably curd cheese would achieve that. I'll obviously be making this again, so I'll play around and let you know if anything here should be altered.

Raspberry Cheesecake with Fresh Raspberry Glaze
(serves ten, in pretty rings, with some scraps left over)

75 grams butter, melted
400 grams digestive biscuits (you could use graham crackers in America), whizzed till fine crumbs in your Magimix (that's Cuisinart to you across the pond)
750 grams cream cheese
220 grams double cream (whipping cream in the States)
175 grams icing sugar (confectioner's sugar back home), plus some to dust
36 grams cornflour (cornstarch in the States)
4 eggs and 1 egg white, beaten
2 tsps vanilla extract
zest and juice of 1 lime
400 grams grams fresh raspberries
2 tbsps Amaretto
1/2 cup caster sugar (in America, ordinary white sugar will do)

Preheat (I actually hate that word, I take it back). Heat your oven to 170 degrees celsius or about 325 fahrenheit. Spray a 9 x 13 inch pan with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, mix the whizzed cookies with the melted butter and press the mixture into the pan.

In a large mixing bowl, mix cream cheese and cream with icing sugar and cornflour. Then add eggs and vanilla and lime juice and zest and mix till smooth. Fold about half the raspberries and pour onto the cookie base. Bake for 35 minutes or until firmly set but not browned. Let cool on counter and then refrigerate overnight.

Half an hour before serving, count out five raspberries per serving of cheesecake and set aside. The rest, put in a small saucepan with Amaretto and caster sugar and cook over medium heat until berries disintegrate completely. Press through a fine sieve.

Now, the RING! Run the ring under hot water and press onto the cheesecake at the outer edge (so as to make as many rings as possible). Press until you feel the bottom of the pan, then lift up. Magic! Press it with your hand on the top of the cheesecake ring onto a plate, very gingerly and gradually so as not to dent the cheesecake and to get it out evenly. Place five raspberries on the top, drizzle with the glaze and dust with icing sugar. Voila!

I felt like The Queen. You will too. More recipes for your two super dinner parties tomorrow. I have three children and a husband due back from Wicked! any moment and I must get sleepover bed cosy for their return...

24 May, 2007

the one constant in life: ponies

Well, I must confess that I am in one of my favorite moods right now: still clearing up in a mild sort of way from one dinner party, and already planning my menu for... tomorrow's dinner party. I know that sounds like the Seventh Circle of HE-Double Hockey Sticks for some of you, but I love it. Tomorrow I'll tell you how tonight's dinner went in more detail than merely SUBLIME, but right now, I am waxing all nostalgic. We just heard, via John's mother's eagle eye to the national (yea, international for us) press, of the closing of Claremont Riding Academy after 115 years. I have mixed feelings about this, since while Avery began her love affair with ponies there (look how TINY she was! four years ago! and how big she has gotten now), it wasn't a great stable, the horses weren't in great condition, she didn't learn much. However.

It was in central Manhattan! Forget that, it was in just plain Manhattan, the last of its kind. And now, poof. There have been suggestions that the closure is due to the unbelievable real estate value of the building. Fair enough. But when I look at this dear little face and body, and how dear and tall she has become, I have to give credit where credit is due: Claremont began in tall. Rest in peace, 89th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus (since all addresses in New York include the specifications of between what and what).

Anyway, tomorrow I await the arrival of one of my oldest friends, who I have not seen in 10 years. Cynthia was one of my treasured college roommates, lo these 20 years ago, and her husband Mark was one of John's roommates. I think they're bringing two children I have never met. That is, I have never met their two children and I think they're bringing them. It will be a marathon of... beyond "catching up," more like, "Who did you become?" I can't wait. So back to planning the menu... And Happy Memorial Day. I wonder how the Indy 500 went?

Step Away From the Stove

At least, that's what my friend Amy is trying to tell me. Enough recipe testing, dinner parties, luncheon parties. Get your mind around something... intellectual, they say. (Isn't this a gorgeous photograph? It's by an artist called Frank Tschakert, really talented.) Anyway, I made a good stab at using my brain at the school Book Fair on Tuesday, I must say. It was a funny coincidence: Avery and I had run over to the wonderful Daunt Bookshop on Saturday, just for a good browse, always a good thing. Somehow we ended up at the till with a stack of books, several for her, two for me (new facsimile reprints of Agatha Christie classics, in replicas of the original dust jackets, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Hercule Poirot's emergence on the mystery scene, what fun), and several for sweet Baby Jane at home in Connecticut (sadly, not a baby anymore). The fellow behind the till was not at all covertly monitoring our conversation, which went something like this. "How are we going to explain this to Daddy? We always end up with such a... stack." "Well, some are for you, some are for me, and some are gifts, and anyway, it's always good to spend money on books." "That's right, it's not as if it were fashion things that will be SO 2007 in about a week, or some fancy roast that will just disappear. It's BOOKS." The fellow laughed, and said, "That's the spirit. And I'll throw in a nice canvas Daunt bag, too, to make your purchases even more justifiable."

It was such a nice mother-daughter moment, a real shopping spree and a real conversation, with an actual person, not a little child to be taken care of (as lovely as they are). We walked out, feeling pleased with ourselves and a little naughty. Avery remarked, "It's nice to be helped by someone who really likes his job." So when I turned up at school to help with the Book Fair, the two staff members from Daunt explained the different tables of books for different ages, and listened to Mrs D and me chatting about the PGL trip, and the complaints about school lunch. They were two lovely people, the girl, Trina, heavily pregnant and the fellow, Adam, kind and observant. It wasn't until mid-afternoon that I realised the fellow was our friend from the weekend shopping trip! I told him what fun we had had, and he said, "Now I remember you! I thought at the time how nice it was to see a parent inculcating proper values in her child." "Spending money, you mean?" "Precisely! On books, that is."

So the afternoon progressed as all Book Fairs do, with mystified Form Three gulls trying to get their minds around the prices of books and the relationship between that information and the money they held in their hot little hands. "Mrs Curran, I have 4 pounds and 3 pence. Can I buy this book?" "Yes, it's only 3.99, Libby, you have enough money." "But I have 4 pounds 3 pence," she said, clearly not happy with the unmatching nature of the two amounts. "You'll get a penny back, and then you will have four pence." "But I want to spend it ALL." And then so happy to give her change to a classmate, never mind that it didn't make any difference. It reminded me so clearly of the last Book Fair at PS 234 in New York, when little Isabella was quite desperate to spend her last dime. "But, sweetheart, there isn't anything you can buy for a dime. Look at your lovely pile of books, though. You can take your dime home." "No, I want to spend EVERYTHING!" she wailed. She must have come back to the till four or five times, imploring us to find something she could buy for her dime. Finally I had a brainwave. "I thought of something you can buy with your dime, Isabella," I said, and gave her two nickels. Her sigh of relief was so wonderful. "At last! I spent it all."

Then the Form Fives came, a little more sophisticated about their money but still needing supplementary pounds here and there. "You can find Avery tomorrow and give the money to her," I assured them. And they needed help deciding between Joan Aiken and Philippa Pearce, between Anthony Horowitz and Eva Ibbotson. I had no idea that Anthony Horowitz wrote, in addition to all the children's novels and the television series "Foyles War," the first episode of Midsomer Murders, and a dozen Poirot screenplays, including "Evil Under the Sun," filmed on Burgh Island where we just had our romantic holiday! What would it be like to be that talented?

Then the super-sophisticated Form Sixes sauntered in, secure in the knowledge that they have passed their senior schools exams, their futures are set, and they can devote the remainder of the school year to finding new and cool ways to tie their PE sweaters around their waists and shoulders. Maximum bargaining, borrowing, lending, and a polite disregard for anything we adults, including the English teacher might recommend. So funny to be 11 and so, so clever.

Well, other than that day of intellect, I haven't made much headway in being smart. Emily and I think we will make a trip to a gallery in Great Titchfield Street to see some curated student art, which from the description online includes some sculpture made from Hoover fluff, a real must-see, I have to say. I can't be too snooty, however, once having shown a quilt made of human hair in my own gallery. I don't feel much like being intellectual. Maybe it's spring fever, or maybe it's the endless house-hunting getting me down, or feeling like I'm just sort of good at lots of things, but not really, really good at anything in particular. I'm feeling a bit lackadaisical. Yesterday's school Spring Festival of Thanksgiving at All Souls church was a lovely event, very uplifting and sweet, and so hard to believe it's been a year already since Avery's first King's College Festival. Where does the time go, she asks originally. I really am dull today!

Well, John has gone off to look at yet another house. Tomorrow, Islington beckons, although I really do think it's too far away. When I say that, everyone suggests helpfully that we look at an entirely new set of schools for Avery, all in the northeast corner of London, instead of the southwest corner I had got my mind sort of comfortably around. Maybe that's what's getting me down. The constant aura of uncertainty! At least today I'm having lunch with Becky, always a calming, cheering influence. Maybe she can get me out of my funk. And keep me away from the stove for one more afternoon! But in the meantime, do try the side dish we had last night. Then, I promise to stop cooking, at least until our... luncheon party on Sunday.

Scalloped Potatoes
(serves four generously)

6 medium potatoes, a waxy variety like Charlotte, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup light cream, plus 1/2 cup skim milk, mixed
salt and pepper

Spray a square glass baking dish generously with nonstick spray and cover the bottom with sliced potatoes, fanned out so they overlap slightly. Pour over the cream mixture just to cover, and add salt and pepper. Layer more potatoes and pour over cream until the potatoes are finished. Salt and pepper the top and bake at 400 for about an hour, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes on top do not dry out, but taking care not to break the potatoes up. In the last 15 minutes, all the top to brown nicely. You may also add garlic in between two of the potato layers or add breadcrumbs and butter, or cheese to the top at the last 15 minutes (I may not because my daughter is a scalloped potato purist). Delicious with braised pork chops and sauteed red pepper strips.

19 May, 2007

new food in Marylebone, and in my kitchen

At least my hopes are high. I have had only one visit to the new Natural Kitchen in the Marylebone High Street, and that one accompanied (not to say hampered) by my 10-year-old daughter whose interest in food shopping is, say, one tenth of her interest in book shopping. But I had cleverly fitted in a book trip right before we came upon the new food shop, so I think I got the most out of her that could be got. In any case... Natural Kitchen is the new "it" shop in Marylebone. And only half of it is open so far. Let me tell you more.

It takes up a huge amount of square footage in the block beginning at Devonshire Street, on three floors. Surprisingly, I can find almost nothing about it on the internet except vague suggestions that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is involved in some way, he of the River Cottage restaurant fame. I've also read rumours that the people behind Natural Kitchen plan an assault on the Whole Foods domination of central London organic food sources. The Kensington High Street store is slated to open June 6, and they've already taken over "Fresh and Wild," but if Natural Kitchen has its way, the dominance will be two-headed.

In any case, the place is hugely impressive as a piece of real estate, to begin with. Gorgeous renovation with high ceilings, lovely displays, very energetic staff. I don't know if they had opened just the day before (a so-called "soft opening"?), but there was a definite feel of a work in progress. The lower floor was not yet open and the shelves were somewhat sparsely filled, but the bakery section alone is enough to make you go in. A beautiful baguette came home with us, and the baker was giving away samples of patisserie goods that Avery said "are as good as anything I've had in London, but not as good as Paris." Fair enough. A very appealing produce section, and a dairy case boasting many fancy yogurts and creams. But the butcher counter? I thought I was beyond sticker shock, living here, but some numbers get me even now. Suffice to say I will not be purchasing any of the fillet of beef for, get ready for it, 54 pounds a kilo! Yes, $50 a pound. For something to EAT. Not in our house. I do think the prices are absolutely outrageous and can't imagine that even with friendly staff and a lovely atmosphere of cleanliness and cheer, the neighborhood clientele will be ready to support them. I can see popping in for, say, mint, if Waitrose is out. Or a baguette on the way to school. But general shopping, no.

That being said, they do stock all the Windsor Farm Shop items, from luxurious rosemary and parmesan biscuits to specialty oils and pastas, and they looked wonderful. And fruit and veg from Sunnyfields, so I chose a huge handful of broad beans in the pod and ended up with... about a tablespoon of beans. Clearly I did not reckon on the packaging taking up most of the room, in a broad bean. Next time I'll know. And I'll have to try the prepared foods (salads and relishes) from taste matters (don't you love companies that shun all capital letters, like little commercial food-purveying e.e. cummingses). I just went on their website and it is quite stunningly precious about itself, in an earnest and defensible organic way, not so much twee as just... taking itself really, really seriously. "Taste, balance and seasonality are central to our beliefs about what constitutes healthy convenience food." Wow. I didn't know people HELD beliefs about convenience food (except that one should shun it). And in all the little categories of the website the print gets smaller and smaller as you go down, like an eye exam. Why am I mocking these people? No good reason.

Last night I slaved away cooking two items from the Gladys Taber Stillmeadow Kitchen cookbook, as befits the girl who's slated to re-issue the cookbook at some point. Gladys's granddaughter Anne, our beloved neighbor across the road in Connecticut, is going to announce the re-issue project next month, which makes it frighteningly real. I've got to buckle down. The first line of inquiry is to test these recipes. Of course, rootling around in the back (and sometimes front) of my mind is the commentary, the history, the stories around the re-issue, but I have to confront the fact that the recipes must be cooked. So last night was "Broiled Young Chicken" and "Scalloped Corn." I present them for your delight. No convenience foods, and no really strong beliefs either, but darn good food. I'm going to give you the recipes verbatim, and you can see what you think of Glady's expositional style. She assumes a fair expertise, I have to say. I warn you that with the chicken, the butter will splatter you, so beware. And I'm not sure what a "moderate" broiler means: mine has only one setting, and it cooked fast, but in the end I think these directions are fair.

Broiled Young Chicken
(serves four generously, with great bones for stock)

Split a plump young chicken down the back with a sharp knife. Lay it skin side up on a flat surface and flatten it out by pressing firmly on it. You may cut out the backbone if you wish. This makes it easier to handle at the table. Wipe dry. Brush both sides with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper, put skin side down in a shallow pan and place it 4 inches under a moderate broiler. After 20 minutes turn it over and continue to cook until well browned and tender, about 25 minutes. Baste several times with the drippings or with melted butter. Pour the drippings over the chicken before serving.


Now, I have to say that the drippings are SINFULLY rich, brown and succulent, and I resisted the temptation actually to pour them on the chicken. But the skin was beyond crisp, like nothing I've ever tasted before. It was messy to do, and a bit smokey, but a mind-bending improvement on a roasted chicken. So there you are. With it I served:

Scalloped Corn
(serves four generously)

Cut 2 cups of raw corn [about six ears] from the ear and add two beaten eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a tablespoon of diced or chopped green pepper, or both. Place 1/2 this mixture in a baking dish or casserole, cover with bread crumbs, dot with butter and pour in the rest of the mixture. Pour on 1/2 cup top milk or thin cream, then top with bread crumbs and butter. Bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes.


There are two things that tickle me about this recipe: one being the green pepper suggestion (so old-fashioned in these days obsessed with red pepper, especially roasted), and the reference to "top milk." This must be the top of the milk bottle (what my unrepentant mother reports drinking straight from the bottle as a little girl), or in fact cream. I still love to buy raw milk, whole milk, from the farmer's market and see the thick stuff at the top, unless you shake it.

So there you have it. I certainly welcome comments on these recipes, since they are the maiden voyage of Gladys Taber's work on this blog. I didn't change a thing, and I wouldn't. There are other recipes with which I could regale you in which this could hardly be possible: anything that calls for combining two cans of prepared soup, for example, or my all-time favorite, "Boiled Tongue With Raisin Sauce." Enough said.

I'm off to dinner with my friend Amy while Avery and her father have their favorite dinner, "noodles and butter." This is second only to "butter and noodles" in their lexicon of gourmet cooking. She deserves it: she just jumped her highest jump ever (bless that barn, what greaet people), on precious Amber: over two feet high. Show Jumping at Olympia cannot be far behind.

discovering Islington (or How Far is Too Far?)

First, I have to tell you where I found this lovely photograph. It's a really clever website dedicated to... I don't really know! Odd scientific facts? Little-known myths debunked? Give it a click.

Well, in our never-ending efforts to find a house, we have entered into negotiations with that part of our brains that governs reasonable behavior: how far is too far to live, from Avery's school? This question of course begs the larger one, which is where she will go to school in the first place. The halcyon days of King's College Prep will not last forever, sadly. A year from September will find her in quite some other location, and all indications so far put her in the southwest corner of London. So why, you might well ask, would we be looking for a home in... northeast London? Fair enough.

I'll tell you why. It's because we have many requirements for a house, a dream house, all of which taken together have ousted us from the more convenient areas we might look in. Here's the problem. John wants an interesting architectural exterior. He also wants a fair amount of space. I want period details left in place, and a truly great kitchen-entertaining space. He'd be happier than I would be with a dodgy-ish neighborhood, and I'd be happy with less square footage than he would be. So either one of us could be made happy within our budget, but not both of us. So Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush, chock-a-block as they are with lovely LITTLE houses, are out because they make John feel claustrophobic. And to be reasonable (as I'm trying to be), a man shouldn't have to duck in his own house. But then, say, we try for Notting Hill, or even North Kensington, where the ceilings are higher, the houses wider. Suddenly they become almost twice as expensive. Partly the size, partly the trendy neighborhood. Get this: on Thursday we saw a five-storey house in North Kensington (or was it West Kensington) filled to the BRIM with the belongings of not only one family, but the inherited belongings of three dead branches of the same family. Every wall covered with oil paintings of dead relations, sketches of remote country districts, bird studies, hounds with dead pheasants in their mouths, silhouettes of long-grown children. And carpets, and books, and mantelpiece sculptures and vases, and several dozen quilts in various stages of quilting. Four-poster beds with draperies, like a hotel in the Cotswolds.

Just as we were leaving, we visited the kitchen (dreadful) one more time, and the elderly, white-haired, blue-cardied owner lady was sitting at the table, arranging her bits and pieces in her elderly handbag, preparing to go out. We apologised for barging around and she was very gracious. As we left, the estate agent whispered, "She was the nanny for the royal family, you know." What? Apparently before the likes of Tiggy Legg-Bourke entered the scene.

But my point is, what's a family of three, spoiled rotten from New York loft living, to do?

Get thee to Islington, it would seem. At least we're giving it the old college try. Yes, it's a hike from the potential school neighborhoods. But Georgian houses on lovely rehabilitated squares, where you can see from the front pavement through the living room windows straight out the back windows onto a leafy, plush garden? It's hard to resist. So far all we've done is write down addresses of houses for sale, and drive up there to look around from the outside. We spent most of yesterday afternoon walking all over Barnsbury, Canonbury, Duncan Terrace, all sorts of lovely streets with all the flowers just blooming, the pavements filled with young families pushing pushchairs (all looking, no doubt, for a house). And the high street, Upper Street, is simply crowded with lovely little restaurants, antique shops and a surprising profusion of hair dressing establishments. And the inevitable presence of estate agents, of course. I'm convinced that estate agents are the new High Society. They seem to hold all our future plans in their hot little hands, gloating, "Yes, who can explain it? Prices seem to rise every week! It's horrible, isn't it?"

Anyway, the neighborhood looked lovely enough to warrant at least making some appointments with these estate agents to see the houses from the inside. And we found one absolutely gobsmacking antique shop called Castle Gibson Furniture where we wanted one of everything in the place. We're pretty sure that wherever we go we'll need wardrobes and chests of drawers, since built-in closet space is not, or should not be, a feature of a Georgian house. There were great painted Victorian chests, beat-up leather chairs, a really beautiful zinc-topped dining table, all sorts of things I wanted desperately. But while buying a carpet in Morocco for a house we don't have is one thing (at least it can be laid flat while you pretend it isn't on top of another carpet), stacking up dining tables and chairs is a little silly, even for me.

Then we found a great kitchen supply shop called Gill Wing, in Upper Street, that supplied to me two sets of those metal rings that every cook apparently must have these days, to allow us to build vertical stacks of perfectly round dishes. Say you have a big saucepan of risotto. My normal approach to serving would be to... plop a big ladle-ful on the plate and maybe lean a chicken breast up against it, then dig in. No, no, no. Not in 2007 you don't! No, after obsessively watching two seasons of Great British Menu, the fab cooking show where ego-mad chefs from various regions of Great Britain compete with a four-course meal to rule their regions, Avery has informed me that my presentation must get up to snuff. So as of today, anything I put on a plate will be in the shape of one of these little metal discs. Lamb's lettuce salad with chili vinaigrette? Check, round salad. Scrambled eggs with creme fraiche and chives? Check, round scrambled eggs. We'll see.

Then we had a lovely lunch at one of the Belgo industry's outposts, Bierodrome Islington. John had a pretty good kilo of steamed moules classiques, which while fresh and good, were accompanied by a rather more boring bath than they should have been. Try my mussel recipe instead. Don't be shy with the garlic, either. I had a gorgeous plate of king prawns with a really flavoursome red chilli and garlic butter sauce. Yum. John had the "Beer of the Month," a really very tasty brew called Brugge Zotblonde.

Well, at any rate, no house yet. What I most do not want to do is have John cave to the property-ladder pressure (as in "must own something so I can someday sell it at a profit, which I can't do if I don't own anything"). That would mean we buy a puny house just to have a house, move in, and watch John spend the rest of his life looking for the house he really wanted. But we have to draw the line at Grade I listed houses in Bedford Square. We really can't look at any more houses that we cannot afford. It's too depressing.

But hey: the good news is that Avery's home! Safe from her five-day school trip to the Isle of Wight. All the Form V mothers and fathers lined up in front of the school yesterday to see the coach pull up and disgorge 26 dirty, rumpled, sunburned, exhausted but blissful gulls, full of shaggy-dog stories and shared annoying camp songs, plus boasts of how high/far/deep or whatever they went on whatever challenge. We dragged her home, running a couple of errands in the high street on the way home and enjoining her not to tell either of us anything without the other there to hear. Home to a bath, and her favorite bolognese sauce, and a cosy time reading together. It was nice to be on our own, but it's nice to get her back. Even if we didn't find a house while she was away...

17 May, 2007

day one on a deserted island

I'm sitting here with my desk positively covered with the delicate flat stones that make up the beaches surrounding Burgh Island. Why are they all so flat? It must have something to do with the tidal movements. In any case, I could not resist putting (I thought) just a few in my pocket. And also some sea glass that is almost as beautiful as the pieces we collect in Maine. But now I'm home, the pile is rather... immense. Some are destined for a trip across the pond to Iowa, for my mother in law who collects rocks. Seriously.

At any rate, stone gathering occupied our time on Monday until we felt the strong need of a nap, and a nice read on the balcony outside our room. Then it was a bath, and getting dressed for dinner, which is black tie there every evening (on Wednesdays there's a dance, in case you like that kind of thing). It simply isn't fair. All men look stunning in black tie, but a woman has to make an effort. And I am just not the shopping kind, at least not for things I don't wear every day. However, I managed to squeeze into the same black skirt I wore last year to Glyndebourne, and that had to do. Out on the terrace outside the dining room we succumbed to a cocktail of what turned out to be a staggeringly disgusting combination of ingredients: the Burgh Island Breeze. And John had a Mintini. What ever made anyone, even in 1929, think that mint and vodka went together? Most odd. The canapes, however, more than made up for the cocktails: dates wrapped in prosciutto, asparagus wrapped in puff pastry, and the fattest tempura-battered oysters in the world. Divine.

Onto dinner, which was also lovely, in the period dining room complete with murals of dancing flappers: one of which is a portrait of the owner of the hotel, and her husband (we saw him later the next day, every bit as dashing in gardening clothes as in a two-dimensional tuxedo). We had the most sublime foie gras I think I have ever had, perfectly sauteed, then lamb and fillet steak with kumquat puree and Jerusalem artichokes.

To retire to our room with coffee, peppermint tea and a nice neat Scotch (no more six-ingredient colored things, no sir) was relaxation itself. The bed had been turned down, the lights lit, and altogether I was surprised not to feel the room sway with the waves, it was so much like being on a ship. Not that I ever have, but from what I've read! Radio 3 on the vintage radio (with stations marked by their cities of origin!), the curtains blowing in the sea breeze, the high tide splashing outside. Really wonderful. Day two beckoned...

there's no 'g' in Burgh Island

That's the first thing I learned upon approaching the Devon coast, looking for the "Sea Tractor" that would take us across the incoming tide to the Island. It's pronounced "Burr", I suppose sort of like "Edinburgh," Scotland. The real dummies like me start out pronouncing it "Edinburg," with a 'g', and then move onto the only slightly less dumb version, "Edinburrow." No, it's just "Burr Island."

But I'm skipping ahead. Having seen Avery off on her school trip, we hopped in the car and headed south. Well, south/southwest, through beautiful Wiltshire, where we stopped in a little town called Chilmark and had the requisite plate of Wiltshire ham and a "brace of eggs," very delicious. The ham is actually cured, instead of being smoked, and the flavor is very delicate and the perfect accompaniment to a plate of fried eggs. Get some, do, at the Black Dog pub in Chilmark.

Then through Somerset, which is just about the prettiest countryside you can imagine, the setting of one of my favorite mystery series by Janet Laurence. I must say, in an ignorant way it's hard to get really worked up about the depletion of our natural resources when you drive through hundreds of miles of seemingly endless landscapes, filled with sheep, cows, pigs, horses, as far as your eye can see. It does make me wonder why on earth we live in London, but then we have to admit we love it here, too. Yet another of life's aphorisms proved true: it's contrast that makes happiness. Right on through Devon, then, with its hills full of red cows. Not black and white, not brown, red. And all the miles of slightly drunken-looking right angles of hedgerow, so beautiful under the changeable grey-blue sky. Just as we got into Modbury, the little village that's the closest to the island, the sun came blazing out and we could put the top down on the car. Gorgeous!

We should have stopped in the little town of St. Anne's Chapel, as the hotel guide told us too, and phoned the hotel to get across the tide-swept expanse of Bigbury Bay between the mainland and the hotel island, because they were quite correct in saying mobile phone service was iffy (how lovely not to have a phone), but in the end it worked out just fine because as we were oohing and aahing over the view of the hotel from the other side, we saw the nutty "Sea Tractor" coming across and waved our arms at the driver. I ran down with our bags and the lovely guy (I wish I knew his name but I don't) went up in his Land Rover parked on our side of the water and showed John where to park, then they both came down and joined me on the Tractor. As you can see in the picture, it's a restored 1966 vehicle that reminds me of the thing they did space walks on: a sort of hayride wagon fitted with long spindly legs and enormous tyres, designed to drive right the way across the beach in two feet of water. Crazy, but a lot of fun. The Burgh Island Hotel staff ran out to let us into the hotel, which is like walking back into 1929. Every piece of furniture, work of art is a period piece, joined by lots of framed reviews of the hotel from 1929 to the present.

We dumped our bags in our room, called the "Cunard," (which felt just like the descriptions of ocean liner cabins I've read) and went on an exploring tour of the hotel first (a real billiard room!) and then the grounds. Rabbit warrens everywhere, and some glimpses of bunnies, until they saw us coming. It reminded me of the hours Avery and I spent in Scotland huddled outside rabbit doorways, waiting for a little face to peer out. I mentioned this to John and he said, "No way am I crouching on wet grass to wait for a rabbit." Well, that's why people have children, to have someone to do that with.

Enough tour guide from me today. I'm off for a mammoth grocery shop in preparation for our tired, dirty and no doubt starved child's return tomorrow. More on Devon presently!

14 May, 2007

Devon beckons

Well, strictly speaking, an island right off the coast of Devon beckons. Just the two of us. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The last few days have been insane. There was Friday spent looking at houses: one too small but in a perfect location (plus owned right now, I learned from the estate agent AND the painting of their "country house" over the fireplace which was a CASTLE, by a Duke and Duchess of quite peerless beauty), and then there's the sort of nasty one in an even more perfect location, but it was, I'm not kidding, upholstered. I mean the walls. Upholstered. And a truly evil kitchen. Sigh.

From there we picked up Avery and Jamie and quite ALL their belongings in the world from school and took them ice skating, where I hung around with Becky, and my new skate-mother friend Heidi who has the two most beautiful little girls in the world. Heidi is going, guess where, Marrakesh for the long half-term holiday, so we had a lot to talk about. From there to the most delicious dinner at Mandarin Kitchen where we ate everything in sight (I think my hands-down favorite dish ever there is the soft-shell crab liberally sprinkled with sliced red chilis, scallions and cilantro, quickly deep fried. Divine. Avery and Jamie are peas in a pod, talking over each other in an attempt to better each other's suggestions for their favorite word game, "You think of a word that starts with the last letter of my word," really cute. Off to home and movies (we had thought about popcorn but were too full to consider it once we arrived), and a suitably late bedtime.

In the morning we had to drag poor Jamie off to see house #3 with us, an old favorite in a yucky street, now on the market for longer than it should be: why? Jamie and Avery were full of perspicacious comments, and the house did not wear well for me on this the second visit. A scary reno internal staircase, ugly, ugly, ugly. But a gorgeous ground floor kitchen-eating space which, given my tendency to live in the kitchen, is a bad thing indeed. Will we ever find a house?

We dropped Jamie at home, dropped Avery at her acting class, raced home to do all the little household chores, then raced back to get Avery and head off to the Royal Windsor Horse Show! I'm sorry to say, however, that for all the fun it was last year, this year was a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, it rained. Not a drenching, but enough to make all the public thoroughfares a big, muddy, sucking-at-feet disaster. And for some reason there was much less seating for the hoi polloi (I admit I tried to get Members' Enclosure tickets, but they were sold out), and so we were pressed six-deep at the fence of the Arena trying to see what was going on. Finally, though, people at the front got tired of watching and we moved up to the gate and could see the show jumping and the tail end of the Shetland Pony races. By the time we'd had a pretty decent grilled chicken wrap for lunch, there were open seats in the bleachers and THEN we could relax. I went off to the Food Festival and what happened there? Daylesford Organic was missing, the Prince of Wales Duchy label was gone, there was only one produce stand with fruit and veg. I wonder if it turned out to be unprofitable last year, so people stayed away? I also think I've got spoiled with farmers' markets and food shops and so I'm harder to impress this year. In any case, I got some things for our Sunday dinner with Vincent, so that was good.

As always, the best events were the Accumulator and the Puissance wall, so we stayed for those and then headed back in the bloomy almost-dark to arrive home quite late. I accomplished some desultory packing for both Avery's trip this week and ours, and then Sunday dawned rainy and nasty, which put a bit of a damper on my Marylebone Farmers' Market trip, but I persevered. Poor John has a nasty, lingering cold, so he stayed home while I got Avery to the stable (icky to imagine riding and mucking out in the rain, but the girls don't seem to mind).

I came home and spent the afternoon cooking. And what did I learn? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. As in, if one's roast chicken is always good, don't be a sucker for the latest Angela Hartnett recipe that insists you steam the chicken part of the cooking time and then open the foil package for the last 15 minutes to "brown." Why not? Because it doesn't brown, and you find yourself turning the heat up super high for an extra ten minutes hoping the skin will crisp but... it doesn't. It tasted fine (why not, with tarragon, fresh thyme, lemon halves, butter and garlic slathered all over it?) but roasting in open air is better. Sorry, Angela. Maybe all Gordon Ramsay's bullying is taking its toll.

Then, too, if I always have success with nice mashed potatoes (this time a lovely bag of Clarets from the Potato Shop at the market), why mess about and add celeriac to the mash? Either I didn't add enough and so it was just a dull hint of celeriac, or I added too much and it overwhelmed the potatoes. Boring! And in my bid to be not just the cook but part of the party, I let the asparagus cook too long and it was too soft! What a disaster, in minor proportions. The best parts of the dinner party were the guests (Vincent, Pete and Vincent's two little girls, Estee and Ines, easily the most charming children I know). Oh, and the salad with spicy chili oil dressing. No, the best part was the...

Coquilles St. Jacques au gratin
(serves four as a starter)

1 dozen fresh scallops
1 cup white wine (or dry Vermouth)
1 tbsp Madeira wine
dash cayenne pepper
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
2 shallots, finely minced
1 handful curly parsley, finely minced
1 egg yolk, beaten slightly
salt and pepper
fresh soft breadcrumbs
grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

If you've got your scallops on the shell, as I did (first time! scary), carefully remove the red roe and the membrane that connects it to the scallop. Remove the tough muscle that clings to the outside of the scallop, too. Is it all nice and smooth and white and clean? Wash and rinse and lay the scallops on paper towels, then scrub out four of the shells and rub with butter.

Pour the wine and Madeira in a small saucepan, dust with cayenne and bring to a simmer. Place scallops in the saucepan and simmer (don't boil!) for five minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon to a cutting board and cut each scallop in half, and place six halves in each scallop shell. Add the flour, butter, shallot and parsley to the saucepan and whisk until mixed, then add the egg yolk. Pour this mixture over the scallops and top with breadcrumbs and cheese. You can do all this ahead of your dinner. Five minutes before you want to eat, place the scallop shells in a glass dish big enough to hold them all and put in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for five minutes. Serve hot, with a fork AND a spoon. You will want every bite.


My cheese board was good, at least: one good cheese from our Waitrose, a prince among supermarkets: an ash-covered goat's cheese. And from the Food Festival yesterday I brought back a lovely Cotswold Brie from Simon Weaver, a blue from the Cornish Cheese Company, and a cheddar from Wyke Farms.

Well, we're off! We've deposited Avery at school with her gargantuan bag, for her five days' away on the school trip... when we walked into school with the bag, her backpack, her lunch and her bottle of frozen water, the thought of climbing the six flights of stairs to her classroom was too much! Luckily the PE teacher (central casting: young New Zealander, always in a track suit with a bottle of water in her hand, calling Avery "sweethaaat") Miss Ellis said cheerily, "Just leave you bags in the library, and head on up," so with a minimum of goodbye, she was off. And we're headed to Burgh Island. I'll report on our adventure (no serial murders, though, one hopes?) when we return...

11 May, 2007

a savoury Moroccan stew

Now I have to realise that we've come back down to earth (London) and I have no reason to post any more photographs of Marrakech. Sob. This is it.

However. I have a recipe for you that justifies just this one more Morrocan post. I know, it's not so horrid coming back to reality when reality is the totally cool town of London. Pretty soon I will be back in the mode of appreciating all things English. In fact I did laugh in a recent conversation with my sworn interpreter, Avery, when we were watching something on television and I said, "Wait a minute: 'the dog's beans,' what does that mean?" Avery considered for a moment and then said, "It's a lot like 'the cat's pajamas.' Or 'the cat's whiskers.'"

Thank you, bilingual child.

So, dinner time in the real world beckoned last night. And although we left behind the actual tagine (the pottery dish so typical of Marrakech, with a wide flat base and a high, stocking-cap-like top) that the carpet guys offered me (and a good thing since I don't know how we would have fit one more item in our luggage), I decided I could try to reproduce the chicken dish we had on the birthday evening. Why not? I have to say that as much as one complains about Tesco, it's hard to criticise a boring, enormous supermarket that contains ingredients like preserved lemons and pitted oil-cured black olives. Who's buying this stuff? If it takes even me, no slouch at grocery shopping, a year and a half to want such things, who else is keeping them afloat at the Cromwell Road Tesco? Well, anyway, enough speculating. The point is, if you can find the proper ingredients (and I've given you proper links so you can order them online if you have to), a truly superb and exotic chicken dish is in your future. Granted, I was lucky enough to have the mysterious spice blend called ras el hanout fresh from Marrakech, but you can order it too. And here's the link for lemon grass powder, which I think is half of the "lemon ginger" I bought at the Moroccan spice shop. Powdered ginger should provide the rest. The recipe I'm giving you begins with cutting up a whole chicken. This is designed to provide you with the unwanted bones to pop into a stockpot with carrots, onions, parsley and salt, covered with water, and give you a very nice chicken stock at the end of the evening. When I'm lazy and shop at supermarkets where all the meat is packaged up and you can't choose the pieces you want, it's impossible to find a whole chicken cut up. If you can, more power to you. But then you lose the stock, which today is simmering on the stove with celeriac root, for soup for lunch. Anyway. I digress.

Djez Makalli (Moroccan Chicken Braised with Preserved Lemons and Olives)
(serves four)

5 cloves garlic
2 shallots or 1 onion
large handful flat parsley leaves
juice of 1 lemon
2 tsps salt
1 tbsp ras el hanout
1 tsp lemon-ginger powder
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
dash of brandy
1 large roasting chicken, cut into legs and breasts
2 tbsps sunflower or rapeseed oil
1 tbsp butter
3 large carrots, cut in disks
2 cups tiny new potatoes, scrubbed
2 small or 1 large preserved lemon, finely chopped
1 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
chicken stock to cover (about 600 ml, or 2 1/2 cups)
4 tbsps flour

Place first nine ingredients in blender or Magimix and whizz until it achieves a rough paste. Place chicken pieces in a large bowl and rub with the paste. Set aside while you melt the butter and oil together in a large, heavy pot with a close-fitting lid. Put chicken pieces and all the paste into the pot and stir over high heat until lightly browned on all sides. Throw in carrots and potatoes, preserved lemon and olives, and pour over stock until everything is covered, give it a good stir. Cover the pot as tightly as you can and turn heat down to a high simmer. Cook for at least 1 1/2 hours, stirring only very occasionally.

At the very end, ladle 1/2 cup or so of the broth into a cup and add the flour. Stir until completely mixed and then add the mixture to the broth in the cooking pot. Stir (with a whisk if necessary to break up any lumps) until the broth achieves a nice gravy-like consistency.

You could serve this dish with couscous, rice, or I suppose noodles. I found the potatoes to be just enough starch.


It was so good! And really quite close to the dish we had in Morocco, so if I had been able to add men in tuxedos, live Marrakech music, lots of wine flowing freely, and a holiday atmosphere, it would have been... perfect.

09 May, 2007

a birthday night to remember

Well, many have asked and so here it is: Vincent's birthday dinner, at last. I would not have said that our stay in Marrakech could get any better, right up to Saturday evening, but then... it did.

And let me tell you, I have tried in vain to find a decent blog post about the restaurant he found for us, the famous Dar Yacout, but aside from the most basic entries with address and phone number, and yawn-making descriptions like "it was just as wonderful as we expected," there is nothing helpful about the place online. I'm not one to complain about my fellow bloggers, but I do think the restaurant, and the sort of evening you will have there, deserves a really good go as a writer. So here it is: I'll do my best.

There is, first of all, something about men in black tie, or DJs (dinner jackets!) as both Mike and Boyd opted for, that brings out the olde-world gallantry so sadly lacking in our daily lives. For some reason, donning the old James Bond look makes gentlemen out of guys who normally would think nothing of shutting a taxi door right in their wives' faces or taking the best piece of tenderloin at dinner. So when we all appeared in the candlelit central courtyard of the riad, the ladies in flowing dresses, the sight of, let's see, six men in full regalia was most stimulating and sexy! They were divided, however, by their relative comfort level with ties: John caves to fear and wears one that's already tied, but hooks in the back, where Vincent and Peter appeared fully tied from the ground up, and Boyd sat looking disconsolate with his tie untied. Although he eventually got it all set, we agreed later in the evening that actually the coolest look of all is... untied. Looking like you don't care. But you're in a dinner jacket, so clearly you do. "I have had this dinner jacket since the 1970s," he said proudly (I think in part because most men are proud of never spending any money on clothes, and making things last forever, but he was thwarted in this because he looked incredibly dashing, with the perfect debonair physique to carry it off).

A strong wind had risen, blowing the flower petals all around the pool and making the candles flicker, and unbelievably we were only half an hour late getting started, with many flashbulbs and lots of laughter. Vincent had hired three horse-drawn caleches to carry us through the streets, and there were sleighbells! Astonishingly, our elegant procession got very little attention, probably because in general the activity on a typical Marrakech street is so varied, bizarre, colourful and exotic that the sight of a bunch of white people in tuxedos and a lot of jewelry isn't particularly interesting. We seemed to pass through the entire city, arriving finally at a completely nondescript alleyway, stepping down from our carriages and being led by a charmingly courtly man down a long passage until we reached the door of the ornate riad housing the restaurant, Dar Yacout. It's the most outrageously luxurious building you can imagine, fully tiled in the brightest blues, yellows and reds, mirrors everywhere, all the waiters wearing what I suppose to be traditional garb of long flowing red robes and matching hats, appropriately festively tasseled. We were led straight up to the rooftop terrace, commanding an unbelievable view of all Marrakech, lights glittering glamorously in the distance. Alas, it was too chilly and windy to stay very long (since stupidly I had not bought one of the millions of pashminas on offer at the souk! Pamela looked gorgeous in her bright orange shawl), so we descended again into a velvety lounge and sipped champagne.

I have to say, I know she's my child, but I was so proud of Avery for being, although the only child, able to fit in with adults she had just met a few days before, with little shared inside jokes with everyone and a total enjoyment of everyone's personality. Everyone made a huge effort to include her (I hold in my memory particularly the sight of Pam and Avery sitting by the flower-filled pool while Pam quite seriously listened intently to whatever story Avery was telling, secure in the knowledge that she was with someone who respected her). And Avery looked so pretty, too. All around us was the sound of traditional Moroccan music played live by a pair of musicians on the other side of a tiled wall. It seemed impossible that somewhere, people were mowing the lawn in Iowa, doing homework in London, answering the phones at investment banks in New York. Reality seemed to be entirely an evening of totally exotic luxury, bolstered up by the effortless generosity of our host. Vincent has a gift of being able to draw people together without being bossy, to organise activities without being overbearing, and to teach you things you didn't know without making you feel dumb. So I, control freak that I normally am, was perfectly content to sit back and bask in NOT being in charge, and know that delicious things were about to come my way.

And they did. We sat down to dinner, at an amazing table covered with patterns of mosaic tile and mother-of-pearl, all of us absolutely starved (aside from the hasty purchase by Mike of a handful of pastries and a bottle of water for us to share, we had gone all day without food!). And it was not for nothing. The waiters simply continued to bring dishes. We began with the array of vegetables that we had seen at lunch the day before, but much more elaborately presented. And with the expected carrots, aubergines, courgettes, picked cucumbers, and I can't even remember what else, there was a sweet relish of tomatoes with honey that I would love to be able to replicate. Then came enormous, and I mean enormous pottery platters piled high with fragrant djez makalli, the traditional slow-cooked chicken dish with preserved lemons and olives that I love so much. Right now I have an entirely invented version sitting on my stovetop (in the beautiful beanpot Vincent gave me for Christmas!), so if it turns out well I'll let you know.

I was lucky enough to be seated between Boyd and Pete, and across from my handsome husband who was seated next to Avery. Pete and I looked over, and he said something incredibly kind and moving about their relationship, how lucky they were to have each other, how having John in her life will make her a happy person. Mostly we sat quietly and discussed happiness. What does it require, how do you get it, how do you make relationships work with all the quirky personalities we all have, how the children we were became the adults we are. Pete is such a steady, trustworthy, yet gleefully irreverent person; he makes it perfectly possible to have a very deep and important conversation and yet at that same time be completely relaxed and happy. At some point someone clinked a wineglass and we sang "Happy Birthday" to Vincent, who tried to look annoyed and said, "You are all very, very bad." But he couldn't hide his smiles.

Finally, however, Avery began to flag (granted it was nearly midnight at the time, poor child), so she came and sat on my lap, trying to be comfortable. It didn't work. "Do you mind my being on your lap, Mummy?" "If you wiggle the whole time, yes!" I had to admit. John came over and said he would take her back and we'd meet up at the riad when dinner was finished (dessert had not even come! it was a truly gargantuan feast). So they headed out, and huge platters of... hmmm, what to call it? I must do some research. Basically it was giant, light, delicate, crunchy pastry covered with liquidy crystalline sugar. Like the pastry containing the chicken pie at lunch the day before, but just pastry. It crackled into triangular portions and I'm ashamed to say we all dug in, although we can't have been hungry by then. But it was sublime. Then coffees, and teas, and finally we all piled out of the restaurant and into several taxis and were sped home (much faster and less glamorous than horse-drawn carriages!).

Did I mention the riad doorbell? Would you believe me if I told you that when you press it, the sound of birds chirping rings inside? How does Brigitte tell the difference between the bell and the hundreds of real birds chirping in the bougainvillea in the courtyard? To amuse me Mike pressed it twice, and she came running, "on arrive, on arrive," and we all crowded into the dark vestibule. In the distance I could see... John, in Avery's lighted bedroom. At one a.m.? I confess that for a moment I had some "only a father would let the child get away with staying up any later!", when Avery came rushing out of her room. "We got lost! Nearly kidnapped! The taxi driver took us to El Dorado, and then when we finally got back, a drunk man tried to take us down a dark alleyway..." Poor John! And I could only imagine the state I would have been in if we got back and they weren't there. Oh dear. A fitting and dramatic end to quite the most sublimely decadent evening. Everyone called "good nights" and disappeared into the dark corners of the riad, John and I sang to Avery, and finally I curled up with a single-malt scotch and tried to read, but the dopey mystery I had chosen was totally eclipsed by all the images of the evening, images and flavours and songs and sleighbells. And friendship, old and new. Quite perfect.

the day of 43 cats

Did you know that one of the major tourist attractions in Marrakech is the cats? I didn't either, but Avery quickly corrected me on that point. During our entire visit she was on a one-girl mission to see, count and pet every cat in the city. I can assure that assiduous hand-washing was insisted on by her mother, but I have to admit I'm a sucker for a cat, too. We saw 43 in one day, Avery wants me to tell you.

Saturday saw us all fully battery-ed up and ready for another adventure, or several. Because he is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, Vincent had arranged for us to have access to a swimming pool at a nearby riad, so after another divine breakfast under the blazing sun and the ever-helpful eye of Brigitte, we all gathered in the center courtyard to negotiate who was going where: Pam wanted to go to the market, Boyd and Emmanuel wanted to stay and soak up some sun, and Avery and I were adamant that if there was a pool, we were going swimming. As we discussed all these possibilities, Vincent began dancing in the blinky sunlight to the Brazilian music that seemed to pour endlessly from the hotel stereos. Now there are people who can dance and look divinely sexy and elegant, and that's fine. But when he called over to me, "Kristen, come and dance with me," I had to decline. "Three strikes against me, Vincent: I'm too American, I'm too white, and I'm sober."

So Vincent, Pete, Mike, John and Avery and I headed through the labrynthine paths of the Medina behind a guide's back and followed him to another small hotel, in the center courtyard of which was... the smallest and COLDEST swimming pool we had ever encountered. How did they GET it so cold!! Pete dashed in, then Mike crept in up to his knees, laughing hysterically, then Avery and I approached the water, then he said, "All you can do is just take the plunge," and did so. "OHMIGOD!" So I ducked my head and just dived in. Yikes! Mike bravely averred, "After awhile, if you kick about, it gets better," but truth be told, if you stayed in and kicked about, you simply lost all feeling in your body and that made it seem better. After we felt we had shown sufficient chutzpah, we all slithered out under the gaze of nice dry Vincent and John (was it a derisive gaze, or an admiring one? not sure) onto white mats and towels, and soaked up the sun coming from the open roof of the courtyard. "This is the life," I said. "And I, who eats Rennies and Tums all day in London, have not had one scrap of indi-jaggers since we got here. I think the bacteria in the water of Morocco agrees with me." Vincent said, "It's called relaxation."

Off again then to change and head out with what turned out to be our long-suffering guide Abdul for a tour of some of the official sights. Poor guy. He was probably a very good guide, but between Mike's constant laughter, Avery's insistence on stopping to pet every kitten she saw, my obsession with the street food stalls, and Emmanuel's "shiny object syndrome," it was like herding cats to keep us together. At one point we got together with Jane and Peter at the gorgeous Palace Badii, home of the king, his four wives and 24 concubines (I briefly considered explaining this all to Avery and then decided to preserve a cowardly silence). Intricate painted wooden carving that for some reason reminded me of the Russian dachas we saw outside Moscow, and delicate stucco tracery, plus enormously complex and rich mosaic tiles. It really was worth the visit. From there we trailed around the Jewish quarter and the Kasbah, eluding our guide at crucial moments when he doubtless had the most important gem to share with us! I did feel sorry for him.

We were so fascinated by fig trees, orange trees, bread ovens, patisserie carts and little shops that to keep us on the straight and narrow was never going to happen. But he served one important purpose besides education (and we did learn a lot): we didn't get lost. Finally we ended up in the main public square and he was more than happy to leave us there, I think. We met up with everyone else at the souk and everyone accomplished last-minute shopping goals: sunglasses for Avery, one more flowing robe for Pete, and then John headed off with Pam to seal the deal on our carpets. We agreed to meet up outside the carpet passage, and Avery and I set out to score some Moroccan candy.

Several kidnap attempts later (well, I'm exaggerating), and finally tiring of the crowds, Mike, Avery and I waylaid our carpet guide of the day before and convinced him to remove the poster from the door, undo the padlocks, and lead us to John. "Keep hold of my hand, Avery!" Mike shouted. The corridors and squares that had been empty the day before were now crowded with shrouded women selling what appeared to be car-boot booty: used shoes, old fabrics, chipped dishes. It was a madhouse! "Make a right at the ostrich carcass!" Avery yelled to me, struggling to keep up behind her. Completely mad. Finally we reached John, who looked as though he had been dragged through the eye of a needle. "Go on to the hotel, I'm almost finished here," he said through gritted teeth. "Bargaining going well?" I asked, then we left and caught a taxi to the hotel. It was nearly time for the long-awaited birthday dinner at the top restaurant in Morocco, and we were... dirty.

08 May, 2007

flowers and saffron, Moroccan style

Friday dawned hot and fair, and Avery woke me up to drag me up the steep flights of stairs to the roof terrace, where everyone, including Pete who had just arrived before I awoke, had assembled for breakfast. Could there be a more idyllic setting? Everyone remarked on the beautiful ancient mosque adjacent to the riad (Moroccan for "home", but only if your idea of home is a small palace), and the morning prayers emanating from it at 4 a.m. I was smug in my possession of a very efficient white-noise-maker, and had not been awakened at all by the sounds (turns out "Amazon rainforest" trumps prayers as far as decibels go, or maybe I was just very tired).

I have to say that life is a little more glamorous, a little more edgy, and I in particular a little more self-conscious when one's breakfast companions include two professional photographers and one fashion designer! Not that he ever said anything about my admittedly lowbrow Gap and whatever else clothing, but Vincent's friend Emmanuel's impeccable style and running commentary on all things clothing-related was a definite kick to my laziness as far as fashion goes. He is one of those men on whom clothing hangs like on a hanger, broad-shouldered, tall and quite perfect looking, and I found myself wanting to hide behind Avery's cool sense of style. But at the same time, he exists in a sort of otherworldly state of innocence, floating through conversations, meals, shopping trips and parties in a sort of gentle kindness. Emmanuel is one of those people for whom John's and my invented phrase "shiny-object syndrome" was intended: his eye is constantly being caught by something that will then inspire his fashion designs, be it a rare plant in the Yves Saint Laurent garden, a length of fabric in the market, or Avery's hairstyle, and he flits from subject to subject with absolute spontaneity.

Then Mike was a source of constant laughter, as well as documenting our holiday with the devotion of a kindly paparazzo. He has the professional's ability to frame shots, find the perfect angle, and somehow turn quite an ordinary situation into an event to record. Avery admired his trick of holding his camera overhead as he walks, to capture the activity behind him with energy and simplicity. I guess practice makes perfect! He and John spent a lot of time talking cameras, and I'm certainly looking forward to his pictures of the weekend. But mostly Mike's contribution to any situation was his bubbling, conspiratorial, seductive laughter. What a gift to find most of life amusing!

And Boyd was... Boyd. Total iconoclast, refusing to pretend enthusiasm for the swarming market when all the rest of us were in a state of avarice and bargain-hunting, watching the activity with the indulgence of a favorite uncle, finding us all quite nutty. I have a feeling that there are still waters running deep with Boyd, because Vincent (who knows him very well) kept saying, "Where's Boyd?", and Boyd would protest that he did not always have to be outrageous, he could simply enjoy himself on holiday, couldn't he? Was he on good behavior for us? He said not, and we can only hope to get to know him better and see how his funny, ironic demeanor develops. Completely good company.

Pete was what I am now coming to think of as his typical self: unruffled, always calm, acting as the perfect foil for Vincent's changeable, mercurial charm. He can tell a story better than anyone I know, I think, one involving a farmhouse (could the story have been set in Morocco? perhaps) that was an absolute tip, a disaster of mess and filth, and when the owners invite guests in, they look around at the debris and moan, "Oh, no, someone's left the cow flap open!" Lounging in his traditional Moroccan long robe (must find the word for it, like an Arabic sari-ish), he radiated benevolent good humour all weekend.

Then there were Peter and Jane, the gallery owners from Notting Hill whose space had engendered in my such envy last fall, and who were part of such a festive evening at Vincent's house around the same time, as well. We're hoping to make it to their next show, "Paule Vezelay and her circle: Paris & the South of France," opening on Thursday. Check it out if you can; Peter and Jane have a very quirky and stimulating aesthetic and you'll be glad you put their gallery on your radar screen. I hope there's a special place in the afterlife for people who are nice to other people's children. Both Peter and Jane, and in fact everyone Vincent invited to share his birthday, treated Avery like an actual person, which was a relief since they could easily have seen the one small child invited as crashing bore. What nice people.

Breakfast was a triumph of simplicity: glorious fresh-squeezed orange juice, a frosted glass of mixed local fruit (peaches were very much in season) topped with unsweetened yogurt, rich cafe au lait, and every day a different little bread: Friday was a lemony corn bread in thick slices, Saturday little crepes, and Sunday rolls speckled with some native seed. Just delicious. After conferring in the sunny courtyard (while Avery amused herself with the flower petals strewn all over the floor, more falling from the bougainvillea as the minutes passed) we decided to head to the Jardin Majorelle, a glorious tangle of international plants originally designed by the painter Louis Majorelle in 1924 and recently restored by Yves Saint Laurent, amazingly. The garden is nearly as remarkable for the overwhelming blue (a sort of impossibly cobalt shade) of its pots and walls, as for its flowers, but it is worth a visit in any case. Both Emmanuel and Mike snapped innumerable photos as we wandered among the winding paths. Bamboo so old and tough that people have scratched graffiti into it! Cacti sprouting blossoms, strange spidery ferns growing perfectly horizontally, amazing. On a truly hot day it would be an oasis of calm and cool, and as it was on our perfect day it was a real pleasure.

From there we emerged into a sort of unofficial taxi rank and were immediately set upon by what might have been three brothers, or at least three very solid business partners, who assured us that they were absolutely necessary for our happiness. Vincent discussed with them various lunch possibilities, and we ended up in the opulent and oh so exotic Palais Chahramane in the Jewish quarter of Marrakech, eating until I thought we would have to be rolled out. A first course of seemingly endless dishes of vegetables to share, accompanied by typical Moroccan round bread: steamed carrots, courgettes, haricots verts, aubergines stewed with garlic and tomatoes, gorgeous lentilles with parsley, still al dente, marinated cucumbers, roasted beets. Then it was onto a Moroccan delicacy called a pastilla, which I can describe only as a sort of baklawa stuffed with roast chicken. Seriously. A crispy, delicate, sugared puff pastry crust, with chicken and cinnamon inside. Glorious! Then a tagine of chicken, scattered with oil-cured olives and scented with preserved lemons (although the lemons themselves were not part of the finished dish, as I have had before), slow-roasted lamb shank that had the consistency of a Peking duck, richly fatty and crispy, falling off the bone.

The best dish of all, though, to my mind was my platter of tiny little Moroccan meatballs, keftas, served in a tomato sauce with two perfectly poached eggs nestled among them. The flavor of egg yolk plus garlicky tomato plus lamb was ridiculously and unexpectedly delicious, and although it had sounded odd on the menu, I'm so glad I tried it. Not that I plan to drop an egg in my next skillet of spaghetti and meatballs, but still, it was a delicacy, and tasted very foreign and exotic, and after all, that's the point, isn't it?

Finally there was an enormous mound of couscous topped with roasted peppers and aubergines, and although I don't normally groove to couscous, I tried it in the spirit of the day (and also to keep up with Avery who was eating her weight in everything). It was a revelation: supremely fluffy and light, with real flavor. It must be a different variety altogether to what we get here, or in America. Just when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, along came a huge platter with a towering pile of oranges, their shiny green leaves still on the stems. Vincent asked for a little dish of cannelle, cinnamon, and showed us how to dip the peeled sections of orange into it. Now, I have always been a bit anti-oranges, not being a girl who adores pith, but I was glad I deviated this time, because the flavor of the oranges was beyond anything I have ever had before. Someone reminded me that the road to the airport was lined with orange groves, and certainly these were the freshest I have ever tasted.

It was such fun to sit back among the glittering cushions, look up at the walls and ceiling entirely covered with bright tiles, listen to the outrageous conversation, definitely not rated G, but since Avery didn't seem to mind, we didn't mind. I think it was a case of the bits of the conversation we wouldn't have wanted her to understand being so over her head that it didn't matter! For some reason, too, Pete got stuck humming the theme song to "I Dream of Jeannie," and by the end of the lunch we all were as well. And "Avery, if you had to be one of the Flintstones, would you be Fred or Wilma?" My French came back in leaps and bounds, reminding me as I was reminded in Paris last fall, use it or lose it.

Lord have mercy, we ate. Then we came out into the sun again and there were our taxi drivers, waiting to take us to the market, the souk Jemaa El Fnaa. Now, I am not much for bargaining. I like to know what something costs and just either do it or not. But bargaining was expected, and Avery took to it like the proverbial duck to water. It's a bit of a tragedy, though, because somehow since her purchases the little guys have gone missing: two little leather camels complete with bridles and halters. Can we have left them in the riad? Brigitte has not found them so far, but I haven't given up hope. Avery went in with a certain amount of money and great determination, and emerged totally triumphant, likewise with a silky bright blue top and trousers, and a little pair of slippers for Anna. To match her own pair, a gift from Vincent. Can you imagine, each of us found a pair of exquisite leather slippers, called baboushes, each a different color and everyone's the perfect size, by our beds on arrival at the riad. Vincent sets a very high bar for the role of host. Hey: it was his birthday; why was he giving presents? Because that's Vincent.

Everyone was shopping for textiles, silver, shoes, bags, and then John and I were introduced to Vincent's carpet source, Brahim Frifra, of the Bazar El Hamra, tucked away in the secret recesses of the market. Not for Vincent the easily accessible, open shops at which lesser mortals find their wares. No, we had to be led down a dark passage, to a padlocked door hidden by a poster of the sights of Marrakech, which was furtively moved to one side and the door opened by a silent little man, who led us through a filthy courtyard, past a tiny bakery set back in the wall, past an old marche des esclaves, slave market, up a crumbling staircase, down another passage through which dust motes danced in the light, and then... the most beautiful carpets you can imagine. John bargained, more and more were brought out to show us. "Special price just for you. Special special price, will not be any lower," and tattered books of business cards of "famous" and "important" customers reverently displayed for our admiration. Finally we settled on a large one, a medium-sized one, and a small one for Avery, just like Goldilocks.

I got my wish and visited one of the spice stalls, with towering pyramids of dusky cumin, paprika, coriander, every spice you can imagine, piled in cans outside, and inside a veritable shangri-la of spices, oils, pigments, medicaments, you name it. I bought a mixture called ras el hanout, a Moroccan sort of curry powder, smelling strongly of cumin, and a bag of lemon ginger powder, a small mound of Moroccan saffron which the proprietor assured me was miles better than Indian saffron. And a jar of something called argan oil, reputed to cure everything and make it taste better at the same time.

At last we made our way to the grand square in front of the market and, if you can believe it, hailed a caleche, a horse-drawn carriage to take us back to the hotel. So exotic, so foreign! Just wonderful, heavenly to sit down finally, even with Avery on my lap so we could all fit, and jounce along past all the donkey carts, the snake charmers, the covered-up women, feral cats, and drink it all in. I often feel that the world is becoming one enormous Starbucks, enlivened by Wal-Marts and McDonald's and dressed by the Gap, so to find myself in a place of such wild weirdness was truly a relief. I have to get out more, clearly.

Arriving at the hotel, sweet Mohammad asked if there was anything we needed, and it was but the work of a moment to ask for a couple of glasses of ice, and after running down a list of possibilities, a glass of jus de peche for Avery, and retire to our room. How cosy to hear a discreet "knock knock" on the wall outside our room, and Mohammad come in with a silver tray. What luxury! After we all relaxed for a bit, had a cocktail, and scraped the dust off ourselves and prettied up, it was time for a candlelit dinner around the shallow central pool. Lovely brochettes de viande and little parcels of pastry holding cheese, or spring-roll-like crunchy vegetables. I wish I knew what they were called, but they are a sort of Moroccan version of the Indian samosa.

Vincent's sister Pam arrived, stirring up for me a whole lifetime-ago memory of her holding week-old Baby Avery in our New York apartment. Isn't it hard to separate a real memory from a photograph? Would I remember that day without the picture of us all, Vincent, Pam and our friends Chris and Marla, all staring down at the baby in Pam's arms, me to the side and John behind the camera. A long time ago. I felt so lucky that we were still friends with these lovely people, ten years on.

And how cosy, too, to carry a very tired Avery to her own room adjacent to ours. I remember childhood evenings of being put to bed while a grownup party was still going on, and how peaceful it felt. A day and evening to remember...