05 February, 2008


Whew. But WHEW. Last interview today for Avery, at the lovely South Hampstead High School, on a perfect blue-sky day. Ever since our first visit there, it's been one of our favourite school choices, and today's experience only underscored what a nice place it is. Beautiful old brick building, sweet-faced helpful gulls to help us find out way, the wonderfully exuberant Head Girl chatting with our little ones as they waited for their appointments, and the effervescent and charming Deputy Head for Academic Affairs, as always making us feel welcome. I really do like the place, and Avery had an excellent interview with intelligent questions and a person who really listened. Double Whew.

And no, I don't really nurse secret hopes for her to end up at Magdalen College, Oxford, as this photograph so evocatively illustrates, but I did want to follow up on my plea for information in my last post: Magdalen or Maudlin? Well, thanks to one alert reader I now know all, or nearly all. This reader kindly sent me the following comment:

Regarding Magdalen Oxford, I believe the founding statutes in the mid 15th century gave instructions that the pronunciation should be 'Maudlin'. However, the two colleges in question - Magdalen (Oxford) and Magdalene (Cambridge) are both historically pronounced ‘maudlin’. The word maudlin shares the same root as Magdalen(e): (from SOED)

maudlin n. [(O)Fr. Madeleine f. eccl.L Magdalena: see MAGDALEN. In branch II f. the adj.]
1 = MAGDALEN 1. MEL16.b A penitent resembling Mary Magdalen. Cf. MAGDALEN 2. EM17.
maudlin a.E16. [f. the n., w. allus. to pictures of the Magdalen weeping.]
1 Tearful and emotional as a result of drink.

Lovely! Now we all know. And in my search for even more information (I didn't really find any) I came across an absolutely side-splitting forum for a society called eGullet, wonderfully clever discussions about all things food-related. This discussion will really make you laugh, if the way language sounds happens to make you laugh. Increasingly hilarious requests by members for help on how to pronounce various culinary terms from other languages, but also plenty of attention on just plain boffo British pronunciations. Do click.

Well, yesterday I learned something about myself. When feeling rather (can't help myself) maudlin, sad and pointless, the best thing for me to do is gather up a bunch of ingredients, some instructions from my new favourite cookery writer Tamasin Day-Lewis (her Tamasin's Kitchen Classics is just mouth-watering), and get cooking. Truly, I spent the whole day trying to change my mood: I tried a game of solitaire, a spot of emailing, a look at the pre-Super Tuesday telly coverage, a nice long walk. Nothing could break my gloom. But dinner prep comes to all of us, and armed with Tamasin's advice, I entered the kitchen, not feeling in much of a mood to be creative, but needs must. And I must tell you: chopping and straining, grating and mixing, stirring and sauteeing, TOTALLY changed my outlook on life! Plus at the end we all had a delicious meal to enjoy. But beware: the two side dishes are NOT for the fat-faint of heart. Two words: goose fat. Two more words: double cream. Read on... you know you want to.

Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Mixed Herbs and Pepper
(serves 4 with good side dishes)

1 pork tenderloin, any sinews removed
olive oil to fill the cup of your hand
1 tbsp each: Aleppo pepper flakes, sea salt, fresh chopped rosemary, fresh chopped thyme, fresh chopped parsley, minced garlic

Lay the tenderloin on a cutting board or a piece of greaseproof paper, and rub all over with the olive oil. Then scatter your mixed herbs and whatnot on the surface, the length of the tenderloin, and roll the meat around until you've pressed as much as possible of the mixture into the meat surface. Roast at 425 degrees (220-ish celsius) for 25 minutes, if you like the pork pink in the middle, longer for more well-done. Remove to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes while you put the finishing touches on:

Tamasin's Potatoes Lyonnaises
(serves four)

1 lb potatoes, in their jackets, scrubbed
1 large white onion
4 ounces goose fat
sea salt to taste

Boil the potatoes until just cooked and set aside to cool slightly. Then slice the onion very thin and saute it in half the goose fat, till crispy and brown. Set aside in a little dish, and DO NOT clean the skillet. Cube the potatoes into nice shapes (Avery did turn up her presentation-obsessed nose at my imprecise angles) and saute in the other half of the goose fat, in the onion skillet, turning frequently to brown on all sides as much as possible. Throw in the onions and toss till mixed. HEAVEN. Especially with...

Tamasin's Spinach Gratin
(serves four)

1 pound (two large bags) baby spinach, washed and chopped (you can do this in batches in the Cuisinart, but not too fine)
1/2 cup double cream
1 medium egg
sprinkle black pepper
sprinkle sea salt
sprinkle ground nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan

Bring a stockpot of water to boil and JUST cook the spinach, stirring thoroughly, just for 30 seconds. Then press into a sieve or colander and get ALL the water out. Press into a gratin or small-ish baking dish. Whisk together all the rest of the ingredients but the cheese and pour over the spinach, lifting the spinach lightly here and there with a fork to mix the creamy bits in. Top with the cheese and bake in a 425 degree oven (with the pork, why not?) for 20 minutes.


Now doesn't that menu just make you want to sit up and beg like a dog? I would have, but hey, it was all in my kitchen, so I didn't have to. And I didn't even make Avery and John beg.

The beauty of this menu boggles the imagination on so many levels. The pork is lean, inexpensive and the herbs make it terribly flavoursome without any messing about with butter, wine, etc. Plus it cooks itself. The potatoes are cheap, succulent and evilly glossy with the goose fat (and how often do you have goose fat, anyway? not often enough to dwell on its doubtless artery-clogging nature). The spinach is virtuous in its brilliant green, but luxurious in its coat of creamy cheese.

Tamasin does not chop her spinach, but I do because both Avery and I object to whole cooked spinach leaves on sliminess principles. The key, too, is in timing. Get the potatoes boiled before you start anything else, and assemble the spinach. Then put the pork in, start sauteeing the potatoes and onions, and ten minutes before the pork is done, slide the spinach in the very same oven. Its last ten minutes are while the pork rests. It's the matter of two minutes to slice the pork and everything else will be ready.

I cannot blither on too much about how much the cosy, fragrant prep of this dinner cheered me up, not to mention the twin pleasures of gobbling it up and having my family be so happy with me! Totally changed my outlook on life, and if an activity can do that with just four ounces of goose fat, it goes on my list.

So after Avery's very happy time at SHHS, we drove quite the entire width of the city to take her to meet her class at the Ragged School Museum, just about as far away from Hampstead as you can get and still be in Central London. A lovely Victorian institution, the Ragged School was, and now the museum sits to teach our spoilt, indulged 21st century children what it was like to go to school only for the lentil stew at noon. Barefoot, and yes ragged, sad little creatures, lots of photographs lining the walls, and SUCH an attentive and enthusiastic volunteer, a little old man called Bryn, more than happy to show John and me around after we'd found her form and dropped her off. They're reputed to have activities during half-term, so we might have to give that a try.

From there it was across the river for lunch with Vincent and Peter, a never-fail pick-me-up should one's nerves be flagging after all these exams and interviews (I know, I know, I'm not even taking them, or doing anything, but you'd be surprised how stressful just getting her there has been).

Because Pete was feeling under the weather, we met them in their hood, the always-stimulating Bermondsey. It was our second visit to the delightful bistro Village East, and it did not disappoint. Except for the stifling temperature in the dining room, it was a wonderful lunch. Seared scallops and caramelised pork belly, with a carrot puree, so LIGHT and gorgeous, and then softshell crabs tempura, with a (I thought) rather watery and mysterious watermelon and wasabi sauce. The boys went for enormous things like burgers (with sauteed foie gras, can you imagine? my choice next time), lamb rump, and roasted halibut. Oh what a time we had. They are without a doubt two of my favorite people in the world, not the least because they play off each other so nicely: Vincent extravagant, authoritative, utterly at home in the world, and Pete gently mocking, wry, witty. I will never forget the first time I met him and I asked, "So how did you and Vincent meet?" and he replied without missing a beat, "I simply went into Starbucks and ordered a tall black Americano."

I put my conversational foot down and said that we were not going to spend the entire lunch talking about the boys' iPhones, so they sheepishly put them aside (not away, to be sure) and we moved on to our usual discussions of vacation possibilities, new recipes, discipline for daughters, and this time, how to turn my cookbook from just something I witter on about into REALITY. Everyone needs a friend like Vincent: he is absolutely convinced that I am better at everything than I really am, better-looking, more talented, more in demand, more... wonderful. One has to keep a tight grip on one's modesty and sense of proportion, because otherwise one could quite easily come away from a Vincent session with an enormously swelled head and visions of sugarplums dancing through publishers' offices. "You want the audience who are going for 'aspirational' cookbooks, darling," he avers, and I have to say, "But Vincent, darling, no one aspires to be me." Still, I did feel encouraged and rather excited at trying to make it all happen.

And apropos of our upcoming trip to Wales, Peter told a hilarious and complicated story about the cancellation of some Welsh cultural ministry, a so-called "Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation. "And the newspaper headline was," he finished up, "Last Qango in Powys." See, I'd like to be one of those people who can think of an appropriate, relevant and very funny story, and tell it accurately on the spur of the moment, but I never will be. This is one of the many reasons I must keep Pete in my life. Plus he let me nick a couple of his chips. I also asked Vincent if I could nick his gherkin, which sounded like I meant something else entirely.

Ah, well, it was soon school pickup time and went to get our Raggedy Little Girl who was full of excitement about the trip. We are all quite dropping with exhaustion so I foresee a quiet evening. Hope yours is, as well...


mm said...

I have enjoyed your blog enormously - not least because you are living life in the last few weeks as a mirror image of our own life (similar school applications etc), except with rather better cooking. We all stood in the same rain outside the same schools leaving our children for the same exams. All very strange, but somehow reassuring to read about it here. And ever interesting to hear Avery's take on the whole thing.

Good luck with it all ... and good luck to Avery who seems to have stood up to it valiantly.

Kristen In London said...

I'm so glad all the ridiculous details made someone besides my family happy! I thought it was nice to keep a record of the crazy process. I hope your little girl comes through with flying colours as well. Here's to two stress-free weeks and then the big day! Somehow we'll have to reveal ourselves to each other should our girls end up in the same school. I do plan to use a fake school name, however, when the final decision is made... I'm sure you'll be able to tell which one we go with, as I'll try to have a clever name substitute. Thanks for reading!

mm said...

Thank you - it's been fun! I am looking forward to the code - will it be up to a non-verbal reasoning test for eleven year olds ?

Kristen In London said...

Well, one can only hope. Perhaps I can hire my eleven year old as a consultant! Happy half term...