04 November, 2007

York (the old one, not the New)

Ask a child what she wants to do for her birthday and you may well be surprised by the answer. Zoo? A big party with a gooey cake? No, my child wanted to go to York to visit the Viking archaeological dig. Hmm. So we did.

It's a lovely historic town with somewhat less than its fair share of chains, meaning it's retained more of its particular character than I would have expected, given its prominence as a tourist destination. I'm always thrilled at a paucity of Starbucks, so to find fewer of other seemingly universal stores as well (Monsoon, River Island, all the givens of a British high street) was a relief. Really beautiful old streets, the River Ouse a glorious sunspeckled shining ribbon, and raising a sort of protective paternal spire over all, the completely gorgeous York Minster Cathedral.

The train ride was just lovely, through the flattest countryside I have ever seen in England (since my experiences have typically taken me to hilly Devon, the Cotswolds and such), one picture-postcard farmhouse after another, on a day shot through with both sunshine and golden cloud. We played "Go Fish," Avery taught Anna to play Solitaire, and I read a completely junk-food but entertaining book called "Me and Mr Darcy," in which a New York bookshop-manager's love life on a Jane Austen tour mimics Elizabeth Bennet's relationship with Mr Darcy, but of course only the reader can see it until the end. I amused myself in a completely obnoxious way by flagging all the little instances where the narrator's voice (meant to be American) gives herself away as reflecting her English author, Alexandra Potter. Only in the UK is it "the" menopause, with hot "flushes" instead of "flashes." But you'll love it. Clever, a really fast and charming read.

First stop was, believe it or not, Pizza Hut, for the worst lunch ever (the girls were in heaven) and then off to the Jorvik Centre, where a discovery of a Viking town underground from 966 has been made into a truly... disgusting display! Why on earth was this my daughter's choice of a birthday treat? You and your fellow tourists are bundled into a room and sat down in front of a video display that, accompanied by lots of bench-shaking from where you sit, shows the way clothing changed from 966 to the present day, backwards. Does that make any sense at all? Then just as you're feeling rather nauseated and dizzy, you're herded into plastic cable cars, a bit like ski lifts only they move horizontally instead of up, and driven through a reconstructed town from the 10th century. Peopled by creepy bulky figures who occasionally raised a hand holding a tool or piece of crockery.

There were stuffed dead animals biting each other, simply gruesome and not at all child-friendly scenes of Taxidermy Mayhem: dogs ripping each other's bloody feet off and other dogs with bared teeth about to capture a terrified cat. What about this edifies one as to life in the 10th century? I could not say. And, I am not making this up, it's complete with SMELLS. All bad. First there's the fishmonger, then the hide-tanner, then the metalworker, then, believe it or not, an outhouse complete with a current customer, and I will not, in the interests of delicacy, describe for you here the sound effects. Suffice to say, there ARE sound effects. Just awful.

There was one fascinating bit where the excavators had simply left the wall they found intact, and another complete skeleton left in the ground. Those bits made me wish the archaeologists (or more like the money-hungry attraction creators who came after them) had just excavated everything, covered it with plexiglas, and let visitors walk around in clean-aired silence. I know I can be a curmudgeon about what I feel are overly interfered-with artefacts from centuries gone by, and I nearly always feel that less, in this situations, is more. But in the case of Jorvik, I think I might advise that you skip the Time Machine and move directly, if the powers that be will let you, to the rooms of artefacts themselves which are really stunning in their simplicity.

The sight of tiny, perfectly preserved coins and jewelry is very affecting, and even the World's Largest Preserved Piece of Poo didn't bother me terribly, as it didn't get up and dance, or give off little puffs of steam to imply smell, as the old London pavement signs used to: "Do Not Foul the Footpath," complete with a picture of a really naughty-looking dog and a pile of feces with little wavy lines floating upwards. What ever happened to all those signs? They were here in 1992, but they seem to have disappeared. I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations is up, so I'll tell you: my sister stole one in the dark of night to take back to America with her, she was that taken with them. But I digress.

The girls were completely thrilled with the gift shop, coming away with feather quills and bottles of ink and a set of playing cards with scenes of York on them. Off we went along the river to the Cathedral itself, and the bells were pealing the three-quarters hour when we got there, just stunning. The stained glass just as glorious as you've ever read about, and the decorated ceiling made accessible by a stand with a mirror on it, so you can, dizzyingly, look into the mirror and be transported hundreds of feet in the air. A man on an old upright piano outside the cathedral was playing various showtunes, ragtime, Christmas carols, you name it, and we had another lovely foray into the quasi-Cathedral gift shop across the way and bought Christmas ornaments and music. But I think the highlight of our little-girl shopping afternoon was a two-way tie: John Bull Confectioners (since 1911), and Stonegate Teddy Bears. The former is a truly charming old-fashioned candy and biscuit shop, where I bought what turned out to be the best Yorkshire biscuits I have ever had: not too sweet, crunchy, full-flavoured.

And the girls bought something called Yorkshire Rock, which solved a mystery for me. John recommended a book for me that's turned out to be completely addictive bedtime reading. It's Eating for England, by everyone's favourite Nigel Slater, and is nothing more or less than a sequence of musing little paragraphs about typical, iconic, sometimes disappearing traditional English foods. And the cover shows piles of long hard candy with all different phrases on the bottoms, including in the centre, one saying "Eating for England." It turns out, with a little assiduous googling, that one can order "rock" to say anything one would like! The mind boggles, doesn't it?

Well, let's see, has anything else interesting been going on besides a visit to York? Well, we came home to have Anna sleep over, and then in the morning it was, as you see, onto enjoying Avery's birthday present from us: mini-jumps for the garden! They were dressed to go to the stable anyway, and it was a beautiful blue-sky day, so they jumped to their hearts' content. Tacy consented to be taken over the jumps precisely ONCE, after which we were all throughly scratched and spat on and she disappeared with tail held high. And as I predicted, it was the passage of but a few hours before the poles were in the hands of our little neighbor boys and being used as swords. As far as I can see, anything longer than it is wide is, far from Sigmund Freud's analysis, a sword.

Oh, I've been reading a lot, and it occurred to me that the season of frantic gift-giving is approaching, so I thought I'd give you a couple of very English recommendations. Remember "Two Fat Ladies", the wonderful cooking programme that sort of ushered in all other wonderful (and not so) cooking programmes? Well, the surviving fat lady Clarissa Dickson Wright (and who knew the title comes from a bingo call indicating 88? I didn't) has written her memoirs, and while it isn't particularly felicitous in its writing style, the sheer fascination of her life makes it a worthwhile read. It's called "Spilling the Beans," and anyone who's interested in British life over the last half-century or so will find something of interest, especially the history of British food production, and thorny issues of hunting and coursing. And surviving a childhood of abuse and an adulthood of alcoholism, if it comes to that (not so Christmas-cheery, that bit, but still fascinating).

Or how about the new biography of Agatha Christie? Agatha Christie, An English Mystery, by Laura Thompson, is a painstakingly researched and really beautifully written portrait of the author, with lots of attention to her famous disappearance. My only beef is (as a former historian myself) the author's insistence on a one-to-one relationship between Christie's life and the events in her novels. I've always been a little wary of that tendency among biographers or even tangential analysts (as I was of artists) of creative people. It always seemed to me a bit dangerous to imagine that the only fodder an artist of any kind had for creativity was his or her own life. But I quibble, it's a really well-written and engaging book.

Then there's the sublimely clever "new" Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, "A Presumption of Death," written by Jill Paton Walsh from ideas left after death by his original creator, Dorothy L. Sayers. As you know, I am interested in (all right, obsessed with) Lord Peter and his portrayer Edward Petherbridge, so I was thrilled to get my hands on this World War II village mystery. How can a fresh new corpse in an outhouse also be someone who died weeks before in a far-off sea?

Anyone in the mood for cooking a really light dish that involves a fair amount of fiddling? This is the sort of recipe I invent when I'm in the mood for putting in a good book on tape (this time The Thanksgiving Day Murder by Lee Harris) and doing a lot of prep. I know this is an odd mood to get into, but I do. Avery and John both wanted more... sauce, or binding of some kind, but number one, I disagreed on lightness principles, and number two, it was so beautiful to look at it, just as it was. Give it a try and see what you think. The recipe involves several steps of cooking and setting aside, and at any of these stages you can help with homework, do laundry, blog, rinse a little girl's hair, etc.

And you could actually do it all ahead of time, save boiling the spaghetti, and then assemble it in your large skillet just before serving, so it would be nice doubled for a small dinner party of people on diets? Just thinking.

Spaghetti with Chicken, Red Peppers and Asparagus with a Goats Cheese and Fried Sage Garnish
(served 4)

2 tbsps butter
20 sage leaves
4 chicken breast fillets, skinless and well trimmed
2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
1 bunch asparagus, cut into tips and same-size stalk bites
1/2 white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 small log goats cheese
1/2 pound spaghetti
1 cup fresh grated pecorino or parmesan

Now then. In a large heavy skillet, melt the butter and then arrange the sage leaves in as close to a single layer as you can manage. Fry over medium heat, watching fairly carefully that they don't scorch, until they're crispy, a few minutes. Remove carefully and place on paper towels. Now place the chicken breasts in the same skillet and saute, turning frequently. When they are NEARLY cooked through (still a bit of pink visible in the center, which is visible even without cutting into it), deglaze the skillet with the white wine and chicken stock and lemon juice, and bubble down a bit. Don't let the chicken get tough, and remember the breasts will continue to cook slightly when you take them off the heat. Remove them to a carving platter with a groove around the edge to catch the juice and set aside, leaving the sauce in the skillet.

Put your pasta water on, and when it's boiling, dump in your spaghetti. Then, in a fresh skillet, add the olive oil and stir fry the garlic, red peppers and asparagus. Sprinkle on the Italian seasoning and toss well.

Slice the chicken breasts thin-ish and throw them and their juice into the skillet with the sauce. Throw the peppers and asparagus into the skillet too, and turn the heat up fairly high. Drain your cooked spaghetti and throw it in the skillet too. Toss everything together with tongs until thoroughly mixed. Then just with your hands, crumble the goats cheese over all and toss lightly.

Place in a pretty, shallow serving bowl and slightly crumble the sage leaves over top. Don't crumble them too small or you will miss the flavor and crunch which are DIVINE. Like sage-flavoured potato chips (my child adores them). Voila! This dish is just beautiful: green, red, yellow, white, and so GOOD for you.

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