01 April, 2008

Being Tourists





























































Well, first I must say again that this blog will migrate to "invitation only" in a few days (I'm happy to say that requests keep coming in so I want to give you all plenty of time to email me at kristen.blog.london@googlemail.com to request a spot on the invitation list). Just let me know! All will be revealed when we're on our own. Whew.

But we have been so incredibly busy lately being tourists, in these days of Avery's end of term break, that I thought I'd better let you know all the cool things there are to do within a tiny distance of central London, or even within it. Then you can plan your trip!

First, last week saw us at Osterley Park, a stately home just outside London proper, and an absolute mecca for fans of Robert Adam, which it turned out... Avery and I are not. John just revels in all the opulence, which is funny considering that his idea of proper real estate for himself would be a big Georgian house, completely empty. I too like the odd Victorian ceiling decoration and carved mantelpiece, but Osterley: crazy! The paintings, the tapestries, the secret-drawer tables built just for the room. Just too much! But lovely if you like that sort of thing. What I think will bring us back, at least according to my friend Victoria, is the gorgeous parkland surrounding the house where one is, apparently, welcome to bring a picnic! This was, sadly, not an option for us, since as we left the house it began to SNOW. Horrible! I love snow, but after Easter? No, thank you. I don't even have a photograph of the place to show you because it was simply too miserable to document our visit. But I think it's worth a second trip, when I'm able to be certain the climactic conditions don't drop a load of hail on us!

More to our liking was the Handel House Museum in Brook Street, where the great man wrote, I'm ashamed to say I had forgotten, "The Messiah." We sat primly in the little video room and watched a short programme full of intimidating opera singers assuring us of the "humanity, and the passion" of Handel (never thought of him that way), and we did find ourselves bursting occasionally into a stanza or two of the "Hallelujah Chorus," whose strains have been known to get me in trouble before now. I tend to get very giggly when I try to sing serious music. Imagine our consternation on leaving the video room for the museum, to find a sweet little volunteer camped out just beyond the door, no doubt listening in horror to our every note. Mortifying! But it's a lovely, tiny museum. Apparently Handel was, between operas, quite the bon vivant, and one of the most amusing bits of the displays was a pair of lithographs of him as a pig!

There was a darling musician perched at the spinet, or whatever it is, practicing away for an upcoming concert. They do concerts nearly every Thursday night, and it seems that everyone I know has been to one. I'm embarrassed to tell you that I can take only about as much opera and spinet music as the museum tour lasted: after that I start wanting to pull my fingernails out. I am really not very cultured. Here's how lame I am: my favorite part of the entire museum was the dress-up area where Avery found, to her intense happiness, a full boy's suit just her size! Velvet knickerbockers, a waistcoat and frogged velvet jacket, plus a tricorn hat! She looked absolutely adorable, of course we had no camera. It's a fascinating place, and there are snippets of music you can listen to over simply the BEST headphones I've ever experienced. Amazing!

From the sublime to the completely unbelievable, Monday found us in Greenwich, having taken the absolutely delightful ferry from Embankment Pier. What a ride! And the LONG walk up to the Observatory at the top of the hill. I don't know about you, but I find astronomy to be very giggle-inducing indeed. When the learned experts begin talking about millions of years and billions of something else, I just can't register the notions. I have a hard enough time with the London tube system, and remembering what happened last week, without trying to envision galaxies and how long light takes to travel from wherever, much less imagining what will happen when the intricate gravitational pull from something changes and we all go whirling off into the sunset. And I mean SUNSET. Avery and John lap all this information up, however, although Avery admitted to being a little "freaked" by the vastness. But what a fantastic museum, and it is always fun to stand on the meridian line and be first in the east, then in the west. I am always impressed by the knowledge that my beloved can trot out on these occasions, really understanding longitude and latitude and where we are, and time zones. And who knew there was such a political controversy around "Daylight Savings Time," nearly 100 years ago? And the VIEW. And possibly our favorite bit: the camera obscura. There we were, huddled in a round room surrounded by black velvet curtains, looking down on a projected image of the Christopher Wren hospital and the street below. I didn't believe it was a real live view until Avery pointed out a red bus making its way across the table. So impressive! One teenager dressed all in black breathed, "It's a bleeding video projected from the sky! Wicked!"

As we walked down the hill from the Observatory (it seemed a much longer walk UP! not for the faint of heart, be warned), Avery mused, "You could write a wonderful murder mystery about that, you know. A person is alone in the camera obscura, and witnesses a murder in the scene below, but by the time she gets to where she saw it happen, there's no sign of anything." Yes, that's an idea! I wonder if it's already been done.

While you're in Greenwich you must have lunch at the lovely, inexpensive and terribly friendly Italian bistro "La Cucina Di Soteri," in Nelson Road. We've discovered, after many pricey lunches out that left both Avery's and my meals half-eaten, that the secret to success is to share. She was craving steak frites, and I was skeptical about finding it, but would you believe the first restaurant we came up walking up from the ferry... steak frites! And lovely spaghetti carbonara for John, plus a very fresh insalate tricolore for me, with really nice mozzarella, tomatoes and avocado. And if you and your puny appetite share with your small daughter, let me tell you every bite gets eaten, which is very satisfying! Try this lovely little place, and you'll have the energy to get up that Observatory Hill!

The weekend found us hosting Avery's dear friend Jamie, after a wonderful skating lesson for the two of them. John and I actually put on our skates earlier in the week just to keep her company, and to get a little exercise, and boy are we BAD. It's even more apparent how good Avery has become when you're on her level on the ice! Mortifyingly bad. Well, we don't hold on to the rail, but it's not much better than that. John has "hockey skating," which means the only fun is going really fast and trying to knock down teenage girls, and I forbade it. But Jamie and Avery are superb. We brought her home and had fabulous Moroccan meatballs (with dilled cucumbers in yoghurt, and buttered noodles, it's the perfect dinner in my opinion), and watched, I'm ashamed to admit, "I'd Do Anything." Yes, it's true. We've become quite addicted to Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest casting scheme for the upcoming revival of Oliver! "YOU COULD BE NANCY!" The hysteria! But it's good clean fun. And the recent BBC version was out of this world! That and "Bleak House" have been keeping us out of trouble over the holiday, plus you can always tell yourself, "Hey, it's Charles Dickens, it's EDUCATIONAL."

We met up over the weekend with Jamie's family and they took us to their local Italian eatery, and it's well worth a visit if you're in Notting Hill. Osteria Basilico is very difficult to get into on a Saturday and they don't book, but if it's a nice day, put your name in and go shopping and come back. Lovely carpaccio di manzo (I drizzled it with rather too much chilli oil and was sweating!) and gorgeous pizzas.

Finally, yesterday we ambled up to Highgate and took in... the cemetery. You MUST do this. Not so much for the celebrity graves (odd phrase, that) but for the sheer atmosphere. The West Cemetery take only guided tours at 2 p.m. (get there 15 minutes early, because we didn't and they callously shut the gate in our faces), but the East Cemetery is just as much fun and totally open. Karl Marx is buried there! And Virginia Woolf's father Sir Leslie Stephen, and the man who invented the phrase "survival of the fittest," Herbert Spencer. Now why did I think Charles Darwin invented that phrase? And Avery was absolutely gobsmacked to see her current favourite author, Douglas Adams. She's deep into about her hundredth reading of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" right now, inspired by seeing his modest little tombstone. It certainly makes one think, reading all the encomiums, prayers and aphorisms people choose (or someone chooses) for their gravestones. I like the morbid ones about decay and bitterness, but Avery grooved to one particularly winsome notice: "To Mary, a Real Good Mother." Fair enough. We all wondered: is the place so rundown because of lack of funds, or because the powers that be recognise the atmosphere that overgrown ivy provides? Once in awhile you come upon an obelisk or angel wrapped in caution tape, and you know it's coming down in a matter of... minutes. Wonderful.

Well, I must run and sizzle up some lamb chops for dinner, but not before telling you about the latest incarnation of my ever-metamorphosing spinach casserole. Let me tell you, recipes have to evolve when you can't find the right ingredients, and then when you find better ingredients and think up better methods. I still love my original version, but since you can't get Monterey Jack jalapeno cheese here and I've yet to find something that tastes just like it, and since my oven was on the fritz last night and I had no frozen spinach, I have come up with what I think is an even better method. Because it's not baked, the spinach retains more of its nutrition, I'm sure, and it doesn't take but a nano-second to make. Get yourself a big bag of baby spinach, already washed, and read on:

Quick Cheesey Spinach
(serves four)


1 large bag (a pound, about) fresh washed baby spinach
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 medium white onion, minced fine
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
4 ounces evaporated milk
1 tbsp celery salt

Now here's all there is to it: put about half the spinach in your Magimix or Cuisinart and, pulsing carefully, chop till just chopped, but not smooshed. Take it out and put it in a bowl and put in the other half, same treatment. Now melt the butter and saute the garlic and onion till nice and soft. Throw in the cheese and milk and stir till melted and soft. Add the celery salt and remove from the heat.

Now take care of the rest of your dinner (my special baked chicken breasts are superb with this spinach) and just at the last minute, when everyone is seated and about to gnaw each other's hands off at the aromas, throw in the spinach and return to the heat. Warm just through. Done.

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Lillian Hellman Chicken
(serves four)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, nicely trimmed
3/4 cup each: mayonnaise (get it? Hellman's?), grated pecorino cheese
juice of 1 lemon
pinch garlic powder
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs

Simply mix the mayo and cheese and lemon juice and garlic powder and smear it all over the chicken breasts. Coat them thoroughly in breadcrumbs and baked on a foil-covered dish at 425 or so for 35 minutes. Simply delicious, and so SIMPLE.

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Right, I'm off to those lamb chops. Now don't forget to send me your email and I'll migrate this all away to Etherland very soon... hope to see you there!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi-- miss your posts. I am going to make the chicken recipe now.