26 February, 2008

Wales redux

Well, my celeriac soup is on the cooker for lunch and I'm kicking up my heels for 15 minutes or so, so here I am. With an amazing story to tell, as it turns out. It starts out very sad, but ends up quite miraculous.

Yesterday was, sadly, the first anniversary of my darling father in law's diagnosis with cancer. I felt the day approaching and knew it would be a hard one for everyone, especially my mother in law who has abandoned us and gone back to Iowa. Would that she could have stayed forever! But during our week in Wales, one day she was preparing for bed and realized that her precious gold link bracelet, nearly a twin to mine and a gift from John's dad, had disappeared. We spent all the next day retracing our steps from shop to shop in Langollen and Corwen, and reporting the loss to the police. So sad! It seemed terribly hard to have it gone, and although it was insured and Rosemary had every plan to replace it, it would not have been the same as the original gift from Jack. Much distress.

Well, yesterday we were all feeling down and preoccupied and not quite ourselves, when the phone rang near bedtime. It was Rosemary. "You will not believe this, but I found the bracelet, in the bottom of my handbag. I had looked, of course, but there it was, under the pile of pens and pencils I seem to keep there." There was a wonderful lilt in her voice, such a sense of relief. On the anniversary. It's hard not to believe that someone somewhere decided the loss was just too much, and... put it back. Even my Original Skeptic Husband has succumbed to this feeling! How lovely.

Let's see, I myself reread my Wales post and it made me terribly homesick to go back. There was something quite magical about the week: so removed from all the cares of normal life like schedules and backpacks and exams. We stayed in a little 14th century house called Plas Uchaf, a place John and I had stayed many years ago as newlyweds with our adored cat Chelsea. We briefly contemplated taking Tacy, but decided that the possibility of her getting out and being lost was too much. So it was a catless week, but other than that there were no complaints. When I describe it to you it will sound like some exercise in self-denial: no significant sources of heat, no telephone, television, or computer obviously, and for several days no hot water in the kitchen tap so that all the washing-up water had to be carried from the bathtub (which itself did not yield any exciting quantities of the precious substance, I can tell you: hip-baths!). O Pioneer! But for all that, it was absolutely idyllic.

From the evening we arrived, fresh (or not) from a very long drive complicated by a wreck on the M1, we all breathed a sigh of relaxation. I had brought along an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese, shades of our Exmoor adventure for Avery's birthday. The perfect thing to pop in the oven upon arrival, unpack a bit of luggage, and there was dinner. There's nothing like the smell of bubbling cheese to make everyone feel at home! And what a home! Rosemary and Avery headed immediately upstairs to find their bedroom: a marvel of antique furniture and rugs, with two little vertical windows looking down into the Great Hall. John immediately commandeered the enormous fireplace and from then on was the Compleat Pyromaniac, obsessing over coals, starter sticks, logs of every shape and size. "This batch of logs is damp," he would say bitterly, brandishing a hapless chunk. "They shouldn't sell damp wood." All afternoon he would tend his fire, so that we could eat in the FREEZING Great Hall, watching our breath in little white gusts, and then immediately huddle around the fire before bedtime.

To sit in bed after a long day walking and shopping and cooking and exploring, and listen to the hum of Avery's and Rosemary's voices across the landing, chuckling and chatting, was indescribably cozy! After so many weeks and months of fretting that we could not take care of her, or just look her in the eye and see how she was doing, it was absolute heaven just to hear her laugh and peek in at them in their twin beds, tucked up with hot water bottles, reading the piles of Log Books that all Landmark Trust houses boast: everyone's accounts of their stays from past years! We even found my original log from 1991! Amazing.

Food shopping! I think we patronised every single food-purveying establishment in a 30-mile radius. If you find yourself in North Wales, hightail it to the Rhug Farm Shop just outside Corwen and get some of the miraculous lamb, garlic and rosemary pate from Cottage Delight. Lovely for a picnic sandwich! Or even at midnight on a piece of toast, truth be told.

The sweet little fruit and veg shop in Corwen became our local mecca: new owners, very anxious to please and, I think, slightly curious about these American visitors who seemed to do nothing but buy fruit and veg! Trying to branch out a bit from our constant round of broccoli, red peppers, beetroot, spinach and asparagus, I tried a nice courgette recipe that, while it didn't make Avery sit up and beg, she ate. Warning: you have to like garlic.

Baked Courgettes with Garlic and Cheese
(serves four)

3 nice skinny courgettes
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp single cream
1/2 cup grated Cheddar or other strong cheese

Slice the courgettes nice and thin and layer them in a small glass baking dish. Sprinkle with the garlic and drizzle with the oil and cream. Scatter the cheese across the top and bake in a medium oven for about 30 minutes or until cheese is nice and bubbly.


This is nice because the courgettes keep a little bit of a bite, and the olive oil is velvety.

Let's see, during the week we discovered that Avery has an irrational fear of walking DOWN hills. I've always known her to freak out slight at the top of very steep escalators, but this time, we were embarking on a huge hill just outside a gorgeous area called Horseshoe Pass, a valley filled with impossible mist, dotted with sheep and the occasional house. Avery got UP the hill with no problem, leaving us elderly adults puffing in her wake. But then we all reached the top and stopped to admire the view, and she absolutely lost it. Nearly in tears, poor gull. Rosemary taught her to walk diagonally, but even so, she was just terrified. Occasionally she left the path and clung to a scrubby little bush, trying not to cry. We felt so bad for her! Once we got to the bottom we discussed the nature of irrational fears (namely, they're irrational so people who don't share them should stop trying to talk you out of them). I thought some of my old fear-of-flying techniques might help, like continuing to do the thing and making yourself notice that nothing bad is happening. So the rest of the holiday we spent marching her up and down big hills, and I must say she got much better. Good old cognitive behavioral therapy at work.

But what really brought her out of her funk that particular day was the sight of a large and very dirty sheep, standing stockstill in the middle of the road. "It's escaped from its field!" Avery shouted. "We must save it!" So John drove ahead to try to block it, and we saw at the end of a field a gate and thought we might herd the thing toward the gate and let it in. Of course the sheep had other ideas and scuttled down a little lane, toward some compatriots in another field. "We should tell the farmer he's out," I said helpfully, so John drove down an even smaller lane toward a house we could see in the distance. As we did so, we noticed a cattle grid. "You know what," John said, "That sheep's not lost. All these sheep are MEANT to be over here. I can't believe we are such city idiots that we thought we needed to SAVE that sheep." So he began to back down the lane, until I suggested he turn around and go out straight. Sadly, my sense of where the back of the car was could not be trusted, and to Avery's dismay we nearly went through a very rickety fence and toppled off a precipice into oblivion. "We're going to die!" she shrieked, and "I'm getting out of this car." So she hopped out, and I hopped out to try to give some direction, but the back wheels were stuck in mud and the car was STRANDED.

Suddenly, from up another lane came not one, not two or three, but FOUR sturdy off-road Jeep-like trucks, and out popped four strapping young men, shouting, "Do you need help?" They just happened to be a Saturday club of off-road ramblers, and there they were in the nick of time, to save us. One of the men cleverly discovered a winchy thing in the front of the car, and produced a stout rope from his, and before we knew it, he was driving ahead and the protesting rental car was saved. We were clearly the biggest foreign idiots that the whole group had seen in some time, and the wives were not too subtly whipping out their mobile phones and taking pictures of us. "BRITAIN RESCUES AMERICA!" one man laughed, and his wife asked, "So how long have you been here?" and John, thinking she meant "here in Britain," answered, "Oh, about two years." Burst of laughter from all the ramblers, and another wife asked, "What, HERE, stranded, for two years?" Then we all laughed and I said we sometimes sent out for sandwiches and it hadn't been that bad.

And off they went! With a story to dine out on for weeks, no doubt.

That night we found ourselves with all food stores closed on our way home, and I had to think strategetically (my favourite Avery word of all time, along with "smallen") about what to produce from what I already had. What I came up with was a pretty good dish if you're on a diet. It contained, amazingly for me, no butter, no cream, no cheese. Give it a try if you're feeling virtuous.

Miso Marinated Chicken With Asparagus and Mushrooms
(serves four)

1 packet instant miso soup powder
juice of 1 lime
4 chicken breast fillets, cut in chunks
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces
1 lb button mushrooms, quartered

Mix the miso with the lime juice and stir to a paste. Pour over the chicken breasts chunks in a medium bowl and stir well to coat. Set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the asparagus and mushrooms until the asparagus is bright green and the mushrooms soft. Remove and set aside, leaving the oil behind as well as the mushroom liquid. Saute the chicken in the same skillet, and when it's done, toss in the vegetables, stirring until they are heated through again. Pretty good! Serve with steamed basmati rice.


I'll never forget the coziness of sitting by the fire chatting with John while Rosemary and Avery settled themselves in their room, and looking up to their lighted little windows to see them waving at us and making faces. Avery invented a crazy voice in which to say "Hello," and we all began using it, "Hello? Hello!" And we played endless, positively endless games of solitaire, and double solitaire, Avery and her grandmother playing for hours at the kitchen table while I cooked. And Avery recited the entirety of "The Lady of Shalott" for us in a completely absurd, fruity English accent: "On either side the river lie long fields of barley and of rye," making Rosemary and me laugh until we cried, rolling her Rs and her eyes and milking it for all she was worth. She made Lady Bracknell look relaxed and down to earth. Too, too funny. And one evening John went out to the back garden to throw coffee grounds over the fence, to find two sheep with tiny lambs! Avery and I pursued them in a gentle sort of way, but to no avail. That would have been too perfect.

Well, I think that was our Wales adventure. Oh, and a darling little village called Llanrwst, no idea how you pronounce that with no useful vowels, but possessing a wonderful shop called Berry, filled with old books. I bought beautiful copies of lots of classics that I've never had time to read, like "Mansfield Park" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," for Avery to have on our shelves, and the entire huge back of books was 12 pounds! If you find yourself there, do go in.

Sadly we had to come home, although frankly my mother in law makes London so much fun it wasn't a tragedy to have the holiday end. We went to the Tate Modern to see the magnificent Doris Salcedo installation: a long, long crack in the cement floor, wide enough in some places to lose a foot, narrow as a piece of yarn in others. Really impressive! And a Juan Munoz exhibition of figurative work that is not my cup of tea, but made Rosemary really happy. And we went to Portobello Road, and the National Portrait Gallery, and shopping for food at Selfridges and the farmer's market, and out to dinner at the glorious "Star of India," truly the best Indian food in London, I believe. A starter that you must try: light as a feather kadek jhinga, prawns in a saffron batter, with tamarind chutney. Gorgeous! And a chicken dish that made Avery's heart sing, she who eat mushrooms in any form, murg khumb bahar, a breast stuffed with chopped mushrooms and onions, marinated with yogurt cream and swimming in a sauce of wild mushrooms and cashews. Simply superb. And so nice to have a night off cooking!

Well, it's John's birthday today and I am succumbing to something I normally would rather walk across hot coals than produce: tuna casserole. The notion of tinned tuna served HOT is to me like heating up a can of cat food. Urgh. But every year on his birthday he asks, and every year I say no. The one year I actually agreed to make it, I turned out to discover I was expecting Avery: right on his birthday! Isn't that amazing. So I thought, oh, go all out and make that awful dish as well. But I was so distracted by being five minutes pregnant that I forgot to cook the noodles ahead of time, and just threw them in with the hideous tinned tuna and mushroom soup. The result was something with a, how shall I put it, unique consistency. Neither wet nor solid, with odd crunchy bits that threatened to break one's teeth off, and overall a pervasive odor of... cat food. Ah well, I've learned since then. Nothing on earth could make me actually eat it, but tonight's version will be made with gourmet yellowtail suspended in extra virgin olive oil, organic celery, homemade mushroom soup and the best Italian noodles. COOKED. Happy Birthday, John!


Anonymous said...

Oh, my dear, this post was spot on and it made me laugh and laugh again. Thank you.

John's Mom

bohemianbailie said...

I am now going to make Wales a top priority when I am back in England!

Kristen In London said...

Thanks, bohemianbailie, glad to stir your interest! And of course John's mom, making you laugh was precisely the object of the exercise!