26 February, 2008

life after (and before) The Big News

Well, we've all taken a deep breath, the dust has settled, some of the euphoria has dissipated, but Avery's still pretty thrilled, pretty chuffed at her Big Achievement last week. The gulls have all congratulated each other with what looks like genuine support and pleasantry, the news has been extracted from each parent like crabmeat from the shell. You have to approach these things delicately. Parent Number One sidles over to Parent Number Two and there's a moment of awkward silence, then the sidler says to the sidlee, "I didn't want to appear as if I wasn't interested in Avery's 'choices' (the catch-all euphemism for 'where did she get in, anyway??"), so I didn't bother you." Then Parent Number Two says, "Oh, no, don't worry! And... what is...er, how did... have you made a decision yourselves?" It would be so much easier just to ask baldfaced, "So where's Little Whoever going to school next year?" But no, one must sidle, or be sidled.

I spent today writing nice little bread-and-butter letters to the schools we're turning down, and wrote a staggering cheque to the one we're accepting. In the interests of privacy (ha!), I've decided to call Avery's school for next year, "St Barnabas." Those who know, know, and those who don't, don't need to. Sound good to you?

And now we can all relax and think about other things. Like putting you in the picture with all the amazing adventures we had on our half-term Welsh odyssey! And all the adventures we had in London with my mother in law Rosemary, who was an absolute star about getting us off our desk chairs and out of our routine, and actually made us do things in London! Do you find that it takes a visitor to get you to appreciate your own home town? I certainly find this. Left to my own devices I would clean the litterbox, grocery shop, move Avery's belongings from one flat surface to another, and then be absolutely desperate because I haven't done anything blogworthy. But with Rosemary around, there was no question of being boring. She wouldn't stand for it!

So our Landmark Trust Welsh holiday was COMPLETELY successful, very heartwarming, just what the doctor ordered for all of us. A huge relief to get Rosemary all to ourselves, feed her, fill her hot water bottles, talk about important things or unimportant things as the whimsey took us. I had to post this photograph of the butcher shop because we spent SO much of our time hunting and gathering for things to eat! And did we eat. The best roast pork EVER (cooked in milk, white wine and rosemary, with quartered onions alongside), which then morphed into the best sandwiches ever, with Welsh goats cheese that was simply to die for. I love this website because not only does it extol the virtues of goats cheese, it does so by employing the priceless phrase, "goat management issues." I have always had such a lot of those issues. Then we had the best roast chicken ever which morphed into the perfect chicken stock for an innovation: cream of mushroom soup with rocket. Yes, I had a half a bag of baby rocket with nothing to be done with it and we were leaving the house: so, why not? It added a superb piquant flavour and who knows what nutrients. A definite score.

Creamy Mushroom Soup With Rocket
(serves four)

3 tbsps butter
1 white onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 lb mushrooms, any sort you like, roughly chopped
4 cups-ish fresh chicken stock
2 tbsps brandy
1 tbsp fresh chopped thyme leaves
fresh rocket, about a cup loosely packed
1/2 cup single cream
salt and pepper to taste

The rest couldn't be simpler. Saute the onions, garlic and mushrooms in the butter until slightly softened, then pour over the stock and brandy, simmer until mushrooms are soft. Add the thyme and rocket and cook just until rocket wilts, then whizz with your hand blender (I had to buy one in a nearby town!) and add the cream. Season to taste. Divine!


And did we WALK! Firstly we discovered a darling little village (not even, a town hall and a pub, a church and the local squire's magnificent pile, that was all) called Llanelidan, from which and around which we walked possibly five miles! Up the hill and down the hill, working off the magnificent picnic lunch we ate in the cemetery: pate and smoked trout sandwiches, cucumber, tomato and mozzarella salad, yum yum. We walked through sheep fields, over kissing stiles, up enormous hills (coming once on a very old and almost unidentifiable sheep's carcass, very dramatic), past babbling brooks and a gorgeous spring, springing into the air! Do take the time to go to Llanelidan if you get a chance and walk through the King George's Field.

And my favourite little town of all: Llangollen, streets lined with beautiful UNIQUE shops, like a place that time forgot and the Starbucks, Monsoons, and Tescos of the world have never discovered. Two butchers! Gorgeous delis, produce stands, bakeries, and a marvellous bookstore where I came away with a lovely copy of "Little Dorrit." I must read it before my darling Matthew Macfadyen appears in the upcoming BBC series! That's exciting news. It was such a pleasure to food-shop there that I'm afraid I dragged everyone to far too many little establishments. But they were all kind and said that if I was going to feed them three meals a day, they could put up with a little shopping. Now that's kind.

Want a breakfast idea for a little girl who's tired of eggs, and there are no precious Marks and Spencers apple turnovers to be had? How about goats cheese on toast? Avery devoured slice after slice as the week went on.

And castles! We visited four in the area: Denbigh (closed for the season, but that didn't stop us climbing over the wall and simply helping ourselves! scofflaws, we), Rhuddlan (pictured here), Caernarfon and Conwy. Each lovely in its own way: ruined, evocative of the 12th, 13th centuries. Now, it's a matter of taste, obviously, but while the Welsh Castles websites all seem to adore lots of commentary, wall text, silly films with actors playing warriors and gift shops, I myself prefer stark and lonely, with nothing to distract you from the feeling of ancient drama. You go on the links above and decide for yourselves which you want to visit.

Listen, I've loads more to tell you, but the dinner hour approaches and there's garlic and ginger to be chopped. Before I go, however, let me tell you about the world's nicest (well, one of them) chicken salads. Now, where Rosemary says she never met a chicken salad she didn't like, I must aver that most of them have to my taste far too much mayonnaise, and not enough contrast of textures. That's why this one is so nice. You should plan to have it when you have leftover roast chicken, but I am not above roasting one especially for it. You can even throw in a bit of the crispy skin for a special treat.

Roasted Chicken Salad With Pine Nuts
(serves four)

whole breast of roasted chicken, shredded by hand
bunch of salad onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 red onion, chopped fine
2 stalks celery, chopped quite small
handful baby rocket leaves
grated peel of 1 lemon
grated peel of 1 lime

spicy dressing:
3 tbsps spicy peperoncino olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
tiny dash chilli flakes
1 tbsp mayonnaise
salt and pepper
dash of dried thyme

Now, mix all the salad ingredients and shake up your dressing in a jar. Toss everything together carefully. You can easily pack up this salad and the dressing in its jar and have it on a picnic, whether at a castle or in a cemetery. It's LOVELY. The lemon and lime zest add such a fresh appeal that you could almost think it's spring in February!


More tomorrow, especially the best story of the entire holiday: what to do when you find your rental car perched on the edge of a precipice with its wheels stuck in the mud? Tune in and find out...


Anonymous said...

Just wanted you to know I found your blog when I did a google search for "name tapes"! Having just moved here from the US over Christmas/New Year, and having enrolled our daughter in a girls' prep school, I still have not figured out how to sew those things on. Well that's how I found you. I have now read all of it, and have made your pepper soup (made with vegetable stock as we were having vegetarian friends as guests; was not as rich as would probably have been with chicken stock, but still delicious) and your banana bread (daughter is now requesting it every weekend).

Enjoying the blog; looking forward to a recipe index!

And any tips on sewing on those blasted name tapes - what I need are detailed close-up photographs.

Kristen In London said...

What fun to get your comment! Here's what you need to do to sew on those name tapes. Just sew the corners. Little whip stitches for each corner should do it, does that makes sense? And if you liked the pepper soup, definitely make the mushroom. My husband's personal favorite is the celeriac. To me, anything simmered in chicken stock with garlic and whizzed together with some cream is good, so it's a very basic recipe. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Yes but you see, this is how pitiful I am: I don't know what a whip stitch is! I ended up sewing the 2 ends, so that my daughter has decided they are hanging loops, meaning that some, on the heavier items, have already come undone! And I couldn't ask any of the other moms, because when I tentatively raised it with one who had been relatively friendly, she told me a whole story about a previous American family where the mom had been so challenged by the British womanly art of sewing on name tapes that she had (horrors) sent out all the items to a seamstress to have them sewn on, to the amusement of all the moms as a group. Thus challenged to defend American womanhood, I felt I had to valiantly march forward with it, even though I was tempted to ask for the contact details of the seamstress that the other American woman used. I have clearly spent way too much time on this.

Thank you again for the great recipes. My husband loves mushrooms in any form, so I will definitely try that soup!

Kristen In London said...

Oh, how this made me laugh! My sewing is restricted to button replacement, hems coming out, repairing my daughter's beloved crib bumper (don't ask) and... name tapes. And in trying to solve your problem, I found out that my meagre attempts at these tasks are NOT whip stitches which look really difficult! I do what's called a buttonhole stitch, and you can see how to do it here: http://www.perestroika.ca/html2/vest/handstitching.php Good luck! And don't let those English yummy mummies get you down...