30 November, 2007
getting in the spirit
Aren't these food photographs lovely? They are the work of my friend Layla who has ambitions as a photographer, specifically of food, and the result of our collaboration the other evening. We had so much fun that we're definitely up for another go, especially in natural light (although these days in London that gives us roughly 47 minutes with which to work).
Which brings me to the pressing topic of the day: I can scarcely believe that tomorrow is December 1. That means 18 more days of school for Avery, two more classes for me (yesterday's class was just wonderful, more on that later), 20 days until we leave for Connecticut, and of course 25 until the day when all little girls must find the proper treats in their stockings and under the tree. I made a little dent in those responsibilities today, at Fortnum and Mason!
Now I've never been particularly devoted to Fortnum's, not being a tea or coffee drinker or biscuit lover or whatever else would send my footsteps in that direction once a fortnight or whatever. But I am always thrilled when out of town visitors want to go, or when someone (yes, you, Becky!) sends me a hamper full of goodies at Christmas. Lovely! Clearly I just need a bit of a nudge forward. So today when our dear friends Anne and David in Connecticut posed a delicate request for the King's Blend coffee when we go home for Christmas, it was but the work of a moment to don a jacket, put the scruffy fake fur scarf known in our family as "Fake Frouchy" around my neck, and head tripping off through Mayfair in search of their gift.
And can I just encourage you all to drop whatever you're doing (unless it's a cat) and take the little journey I took this morning. Unless you spend a lot of money at Fortnum's, the walk itself is completely free and will definitely put you in the holiday mood. First of all, coming from the Marble Arch tube station, get yourself OFF Park Lane immediately and begin your jaunt through our posh neighborhood, which mostly we resent because of the unbelievable rent prices, but if you're just walking through you can certainly enjoy the gorgeous domestic architecture and fancy shops. So head across on North Row until you hit North Audley Street and make a right, and then keep walking south. Ignore the American Embassy if you can and walk right through Grosvenor Square which is lovely. Then continue on what's now South Audley Street and feast your eye on Purdeys, where you can buy a gun if you like, and all the glittery carpet, china and glassware shops. Keep going until you get to Curzon Street and make a left, and then a right at Shepherd Market. Here you begin to see all the Christmas decorations in the beautiful chocolate shops, jewelry stores, pubs and the like. Then you'll find yourself on winding little lanes headed to Piccadilly. If you take a moment and breathe deeply in these little lanes, a cold, damp aroma arises from the brick and wrought-iron buildings on either side and you could swear Tiny Tim was about to jump out at you. It's very atmospheric.
Once in Piccadilly, of course, turn left and you'll see the glorious Ritz! Austere and yet luxurious, timeless and, well, Ritzy, the name in light bulbs always lifts my spirits. I don't think I've ever been even in the door, but I love it anyway. It's London, full stop. Then you'll come to the Wolseley, which I adore. Don't stop to have tea, though, because you want to get to Fortnum's. But peek in as you pass and see if there's anyone famous in the window. Ralph Fiennes was there when I went, which was worth the whole price of admission for me.
Now look across the road at the glorious Royal Academy of Art, whose imposing sculpture by Baselitz is right now gracing its courtyard. What an institution. And somehow it always looks as though it's decorated for Christmas. Now you're at Fortnum's so go in, do, and soak up the atmosphere. I know, I know, some of you will carp at this and insist that the recent renovations to celebrate its 300th birthday have spoilt its charm. Well, I was not, as I said, a passionate fan of the original decor, can't say I even particularly noticed it, but I will go out on a limb and chuckle at those who claim the new look is "too modern." Nothing could be farther from the truth! The thick carpet, the old-fashioned wooden display cases, the piles of signature boxes and bottles and of course hampers, the shop helpers in frock coats... and the people! I venture to say that I was the only person in the shop who lives in London, but somehow it was a very English atmosphere nonetheless. Lots of foreign visitors, but all speaking in nice, respectful hushed tones (many Europeans with fabulous furs and bags and makeup and lovely shoes).
I came away with the King's Blend coffee for my friends, and then, dear readers, the gift-buying began. Naturally I cannot divulge these indulgences since many recipients may well be reading these pages as I speak, but I can enumerate tantalisingly: ginger and chili biscuits, rosy apple sweets, lavender sachets, French milled soaps, anchovy relish! And a tin of citrusy biscuits that promises to play "O Little Town of Bethlemen" when the bottom is wound up. What luxury! I didn't by any means break the bank, but you could. The hampers are unbelievable in their variety and over-the-top generosity. Makes you wish you were some Bank of America secretary with a really affection boss. Champagne, caviar (I don't even like champagne and caviar, but still), lemon and orange curd, shortbreads of every description, teas, pomegranates, crazy.
Well, once you've made your purchases, then you need to exit and head north through the Burlington Arcade. Who buys things here? Very wealthy visitors to London, I'm thinking, and they certainly lined the beautiful arched room, looking avidly at cashmere sweaters with golfing scenes knitted in, endless displays of estate jewelry, porcelain memory boxes, antique silver-backed brushes and mirrors, cufflinks of every description, handmade shoes and bags! The whole of the arcade is hung with lights and flowers and greenery, and it's carpeted! With a very thin sort of "red carpet" carpet, but not red. Blue, I think, and punctuated by very correct doormen in frock coats, dusting imaginary dust motes from the shop windows.
From here you'll emerge into Bond Street, and just ENJOY. Cartier's! Aspreys, art galleries, more impossibly opulent jewelry. I wanted to take a photograph, but number one I had no camera, and number two, a large part of the charm is, I think, the accumulated sense of luxury one gets from seeing it all together: lights hanging over the street, rich tourists with many bags over their arms, street sweepers gathering up the autumn leaves. Why? I would rather they were left to decorate the streets. When you come to Bruton Street, make a left and head for Berkeley Square so you can see the enormous Christmas tree in the centre of the square, then veer off to the northwest corner and make a left onto what I believe is Mount Street (see, I should have been taking notes). In any case in just a few steps you'll be able to see the sadly scaffolded and unrecognizable facade of the Connaught Hotel, which houses Angela Hartnett's glorious restaurant and is currently undergoing huge refurbishment to reopen, they say (!) on December 14th. Book lunch now, for your festive holiday jaunt through Mayfair.
Or you could saunter further along Mount Street and try the recently revamped Scott's of Mayfair, which I full intend to do someday. Or you could shop at Allen & Co. Butchers and cook at home (much more likely I'll do that). Their windows looked like something from 100 years ago: "Bronze Turkeys", "Red Pigeons," all sorts of sirloins and racks of lamb, all the price cards in handwriting and game birds hung in the window. Simply wonderful. Don't forget to drop in on the Grosvenor Chapel at the corner of Mount and South Audley Street and gaze at the stained glass.
Well, that's the holiday tour of Mayfair, or at least one of them (plus the excursion across Piccadilly). And if you don't feel like paying for any of the posh lunches available in my neighborhood, do as we did last week and head up Baker Street, past Marylebone Road, to Base Bistro at 195 Baker Street (20-minute walk from Marble Arch). It could not be more unprepossessing. Shabby exterior, nasty location directly opposite the Baker Street tube station, under what I thought was scaffolding but turned out to be a permanent icky awning of sorts. But once inside: it's sublime! Not to look at, although I'm sure it's nicer at night and they have live jazz on Saturdays). But a faintly Mediterranean menu of fish, pasta, salads and soups. I had a gorgeous tuna carpaccio with a sweet sesame dressing topped with really fresh fresh, crunchy rocket, and then a "crispy duck salad" featuring little nuggets of savoury duck on a lively mix of greens with a hoison dressing. Go for the main course portion, I'd advise, because it's a lot of leaves and not overwhelmed with duck (but generous). I would go back in a heartbeat and try the other tempting offers. And it's so inexpensive. From the set menu, 2 courses for 10 pounds.
This was our lunch spent with the savvy school mum advising us on Avery's senior school, and the whole experience was quite eye-opening. Not only is Beth a perfectly competent mother of three, which job description alone boggles the imagination of a mother of one, but she's also a consultant for Princeton University overseeing all the UK applicants to the school. Whew. She had extremely cogent advice and background information to offer and I must say, we both came away feeling that no matter where Avery goes to school, it's to be no doubt a happy experience for her. None of our choices met with Beth's disapproval, and she could offer some meaty inside information, more pleasantly known as gossip, on the staff and teachers at many of the schools. I feel much more relaxed than I did before we met her.
But also intimidated! John should have married a Princeton undergraduate with a Harvard business school degree, I suppose! With a formidable intellect and no-nonsense wisdom, too. And nice! Instead he has a slacker wife who feels that spending the evening reading aloud from "Daddy Long-Legs" is fine intellectual stimulation for her child. Ah well, variety is the spice of whatever, and I guess Avery gets plenty of push from other sources. Isn't a mother's job also to provide intervals of rest and relaxation, or is that just from the point of view of ME, who loves rest and relaxation?
Let's see, have I any bits of foodie wisdom to offer you this week? It was a week of eating only things we have already eaten before. I must say, it's a bit of a constant challenge to find new things to tell you about. How do real chefs do it? What do they feed their families when they're spending their days turning out monkfish on a bed of tapenade and topped with caviar and red chillies? I know, I'll give you one of my comfort menus. It's comforting to me because it cleans out the fridge, there's something for everyone, it's inexpensive and my favorite: it's lots of different things all at once. It's called:
Everything in a Pancake
(serves however many you want it to!)
Chinese pancakes (in the frozen section of Asian supermarkets)
leftover roast chicken, roast pork, flank steak, etc.
slivered spring onions
sliced pears or Asian pear-apples
sliced sauteed mushrooms, red peppers, asparagus, etc.
hoisin sauce (Chinese plum sauce)
chili garlic sauce
homemade basic fried rice (recipe follows)
Steam the pancakes in their package (cut a slit and microwave medium heat for 30 seconds) and pile up on a plate. Allow at least 4 pancakes per person.
Place ingredients on separate plates where everyone can reach them. It would be great to have a Lazy Susan for this. I must digress: in my childhood home this implement was called a Lazy Suzanne. Guess what my mother's name is? Naughty Dad.
Now, just pile up whatever you want and drizzle it with sauce, or not. Avery always starts with the fried rice, because she likes it best.
Basic Fried Rice
(serves four easily)
1 cup basmati rice
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 tbsps peanut oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp sesame oil
dash soy sauce (to taste)
Steam your rice until done (about 20 minutes) and set aside. Have a medium bowl ready. In a wok or medium skillet, heat the peanut oil until quite hot and QUICKLY whisk in the eggs. Scramble with with the whisk and immediately remove to the medium bowl. Now add the sesame oil to the wok and heat till nearly smoking. Throw in the rice, peas and eggs and stir thoroughly.
This is so much simpler and lighter than any fried rice you can buy, and so easy, that it will become a staple for dinner. Plus almost without exception, you always have all the ingredients to hand.
Not very exotic, I grant you. But the beauty is, everyone will eat some of the offerings, and some people will eat them all. And it's gloriously messy, so lay in the paper napkins, light some candles, and enjoy.