20 March, 2008
nothing like the Cotswolds
We're back! All I can say is, three days in Chipping Campden, in our old familiar places, were not enough. Actually it wasn't even that long. We arrived around 4 in the afternoon on Monday and left first thing this morning. But it was long enough for us to remember everything we adore about that part of the world, and the East Banqueting House in particular. I know, it seems all I do is rave about the Landmark Trust, but if I get even one of you to cancel your trip to Mombasa or Lucerne or wherever, and decide to explore the British countryside from the vantage point of one of these irreplaceable houses, I will consider my time here well worth it. We must support these people! Trust me, you will find that the magic, the history, the majestic grandeur, and the coziness, well worth the lack of adequate hot water at times! Avery read gleefully in the logbook (all visitors are invited to write up an account of their stay) my 1991 entry, waxing lyrical about everything except... not enough hot water. But it's worth it!
Plus, it's been an absolute pleasure for us while we've lived in London to spend most of our holidays exploring our adopted land, whether it's the incredible green of Ireland, the endless fields of sheep in Wales, the wild ponies of Exmoor (guess who voted for THAT holiday) or the golden stone of the Cotswolds. Goodness, I sound like a tour guide. But I do love this country. And every pound you spend staying in these places goes toward rescuing more derelict and deserving buildings.
So on our little errand of giving (otherwise known as our holiday), we headed out of town on Monday afternoon with our tiny Mini COMPLETELY filled (Avery could not move, and we had to lift up a suitcase in order for her to buckle and unbuckle her seatbelt, poor child) with the clobber necessary for even a brief stay away from home: plenty of candles for the dining room table, a handblender (naturally, for the cream of mushroom soup), a very amusing variety of hot water bottles, a giant dish of macaroni and cheese, a huge (but as it turned out, insufficient) stack of books, Blunny boots for those endless hikes we seem to find ourselves on. Gosh that's a small car. Forget clothing! We just resign ourselves to looking the same every day, pretty much. Oh, and add to the list all the riding gear with which Avery must travel to nearly all destinations. Once we filled the car so full, she had to wear her riding helmet. There wasn't room anywhere but on her head for that last item.
Our approach to Chipping Campden and the East Banqueting House was filled with nostalgia. We have been coming to that village, to stay in that house, on and off since 1990, by ourselves, with John's parents, before and after Avery. And it's always the same. A simply magnificent building, one of two banqueting houses flanking the original manor house that was burned down sometime in the 17th century. And sheep grazing everywhere! To our chagrin we realised we were too early for lambing season (at least for OUR sheep, but we found some more who were on our schedule, but more on that later). We retrieved the two wheelbarrows from their shed at the driveway and trundled all our bits and pieces along the subtle little mowed path across the sheep field, up to the house, and to settle in. Macaroni and cheese in the oven, red peppers simmering on the hob, and bob's your uncle. It's worth posting the macaroni and cheese recipe again, because it's just that good, if I do say so myself. It's currently Avery's favorite meal, and it's got everything to recommend it: good British cheese so you get your calcium, breadcrumbs that you thriftily produced yourself with your stale baguette and Magimix, a hint of nutmeg: perfect. And don't worry that this doesn't match my previous mac and cheese recipes: I do it a little differently every time. You can too.
Macaroni and Cheese
(serves 8, and the leftovers are superb)
1 lb elbow or other traditional macaroni shape, cooked and drained
4 tbsps butter
3 tbsps flour
1 pint whole milk, the best you can get (Jersey is my favourite)
1 1/2 lbs British cheeses (Wensleydale, Cheddar, Double Gloucester, anything!)
4 slices good old Dairylea, for creaminess
pinch or two Maldon sea salt
pinch white pepper (unless you don't mind the black pepper look)
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 parmesan cheese, grated
Now, make a roux with your butter and flour, melted nicely and bubbly, but not browned. Whisk in (the whisk is very important!) the milk and bring to a near-bubbling point, then add the cheeses, cut in cubes. As near as you can, whisk constantly until the cheese is melted, then add the seasonings and check to see that it's perfect.
Nonstick-spray a large glass baking dish (we like our macaroni and cheese deep and round, but some people like it shallow and rectangular) and throw in the cooked noodles. Pour over the cheese sauce and stir thoroughly to make sure that all the noodles are submerged and their little air bubbles released. Now, you can travel to the Cotswolds with this dish, covered in aluminium, and it will be fine for hours. When you're 45 minutes away from wanting to eat, bake it in a medium oven (375-ish) and there you go. With a couple of bangers on the side and a sauteed colourful veg or two (broccolini, peppers, asparagus, what you want is colour), you're good to go.
Evening saw us marching around the grounds, investigating the rabbit warrens where we always leave a little something (they don't like tomatoes, it turns out), watching the sunset light up the exquisite leaded windows facing west (and the West Banqueting House that's under renovation right now, no doubt financed by our series of holidays this year!). The sheep munched happily, some on their elbows, which completely cracked Avery up. One brown sheep! Just one.
Tuesday found us off to the nearby village of Stanton, home to Jill Carenza's riding establishment where Avery has been put, over the years, through tougher paces than at any other riding school she's tried (and Lord knows we've tried MANY). At first we were slightly miffed that Avery was not being taught by Jill herself, who I'd specifically asked for on the telephone, but it soon became apparent that whoever Anna the Instructor was, she was SERIOUS business. Big jumps! On a darling pony called Gypsy, with a rear end like an ottoman (how Avery hates it when I say that, but it screamed Ralph Lauren Home) and a heavenly little face. John and I kept thinking about the number of times Avery's grandfather leaned on the same fence we were leaning on, proudly saying over and over, "She has such a good seat. Look at that straight back," and on and on. The joy he took in her, and the pleasure she gave him, comforted us a bit, but not enough to make up for the loss. But honestly, what more can you do than provide a beloved grandfather with chances to enjoy his granddaughter? The fact that it cannot last forever seems almost impossible to believe. But her grandmother will be the first to smile at any picture of Avery on a pony and remember the times we all stood at the fence together, in totally fatuous admiration of Avery.
Lord, it was cold! But we couldn't say so, because Avery was pink-cheeked with exertion and bravery. Eight jumps in a course, and they got progressively higher as the hour went on. For whatever reason, as much of a worrier as I am, I don't really fret when she's riding. I think it's because after all the gazillions of hours I've put in hanging on a fence watching her, I have faith in her knowledge of her skills. She's the least reckless of children, and no matter how often she falls, she gets back up fearlessly. Can I tell you how I did fret, however, when I arrived to collect her at her London stable last week to be regaled with stories of how her pony ROLLED OVER with her on his back? Not a funny story. "I managed to get off before he actually crushed me," she said nonchalantly. Well, I guess that's SOMETHING.
Listen, I must go produce dinner. Tonight's going to be chicken fillets stuffed with parma ham, mozzarella and spinach. No recipe, because that's all it is! Just stuff them, toothpick them, and saute in olive oil with some oregano thrown in. I'll be back soon, though, with more stories from the Cotswolds. Now book your holiday, I mean it.