28 April, 2008

a food festival, a play and a furniture fair!















Well, Avery's been put on her coach, at 4:30 this morning (getting up in the dark in April is definitely too early), the incredibly youthful-looking teachers who are chaperoning the trip have herded them all together and pumped them up with words of girly encouragement. It was really a landmark sort of moment, a "this is the last time" sort of feeling: never again will we know every parent in her class, have happy memories of birthday parties, singing festivals, Michaelmas Fairs and Christmas parties with all the girls, know them all by name. The last two years with this group of people have been so happy, so defining. We all stood around on the pavement and commiserated about missing them, hoping they eat their lunches and don't get carsick, hoping they don't need a loo until they get to the ferry... and I think we all felt some combination of happy and melancholy. How odd it will be to have no schedule this week: no dropoff, no riding, no skating, no pickup. Ah well, soon it will be Friday and we'll be back to normal.

As it is, we've been in absolute Culture Mode, trying to take advantage of all the myriad opportunities there are in this lovely town. I was discussing this matter with my lovely mother in law over the weekend: she was very distressed that I feel our lives here are quite... ordinary! "No! Don't say that!" she wailed, and I do feel guilty that after being in London for two and a half years, it's not as exotic as it used to feel. I think that the reality is, the place where you grocery shop, clean the litter box, do laundry and pick your child up at school becomes... ordinary. But I mustn't let it! And life is definitely enhanced by doing something out of the ordinary.

In that vein, therefore, Friday morning found me at the Real Food Festival at Earl's Court. It's something for you to put on your map for next year (the festival finished at the weekend), and don't be put off by the rather heavy-handed sponsorship of Whole Foods Market. At first when I went in and was confronted by smiling Whole Foods people wearing aprons emblazoned with... "Whole Foods," passing out eco-friendly jute bags with... guess what, "Whole Foods" printed on the side, I thought, "this is merely an enormous advertisement for Whole Foods," and given the controversy here over the hugeness and extravagance of that place, I didn't really want to be spoon-fed an entire festival about how wonderful they are. But I persevered and soon was immersed in a beautiful maelstrom of admittedly twee sawdust-covered floors, but also hundreds of unique food purveyors, offering every sample under the sun. I succumbed to honey made in London's Royal Parks (it will make the perfect addition to my chicken wings' barbecue sauce later this week), kippers from the Isle of Man, deliciously salty and my first taste of that revered breakfast food! I am tempted to sell John on kippers by making a traditional kedgeree: boiled rice, kippers, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder. Doesn't that sound good?

Then there was the little lemon cake for Avery's journey lunch, from Country Fare in Cumbria, and hot chilli olive oil from Chilli Pepper Pete. Only DO NOT sample their "dragon's blood" if you value your life! I thought I would die. "Where are you from?" the cheery pepper lady asked, and when I answered "Originally New York," she beamed and said, "Oh, this dragon's blood sauce just won a competition there!" so I felt I must try it. OH NO! I cried. I gasped. I rooted around in my bag for a bottle of water. "That doesn't help," she said." You think? No, it doesn't. I nearly died. But the chilli oil is lovely! Although John felt it quite overpowered the crabmeat pasta dish I made that night, so I'll have to adjust the recipe and get it properly balanced before I blog it.

I sampled goat's cheese, garlic and chive cheddar cheese from Isle of Man Creameries, chorizo from Yorkshire, who knows what else. And: celebrity alert, I saw Matthew Fort, one of the judges from "Great British Menu," our favorite cookery programme on the BBC. I screwed up my courage and went over to tell him how much we enjoy the show, and he replied, "Oh, how lovely of you to tell me, I'm very pleased indeed!" Then he turned away to greet Tom Parker-Bowles, which was also cool, and they walked on together. My last purchase was not a sample, but a group of three spice blends from The Spice Specialist, where a lovely attentuated young man assured me that their celery salt is more celery and less salt, which is what I'm looking for when I make my cheesy spinach casserole. I'm finding that commercial celery salt is simply too salty, especially because I used a lot in order to get the celery flavor just right, and combined with the salt of the Gruyere is slightly off-putting, so I'm hoping this is the solution. Then, too, last time I made it I added chopped celery leaves and that made a difference.

I rode home on the bus feeling so fortunate to live in a country full of so many committed small producers, producing such extraordinary ingredients. I hope I'm wrong, but something tells me that the US is lagging behind in such a prevailing interest in honest ingredients, properly grown and reared. In time...

Saturday evening saw us heading off to Windsor to the Theatre Royal to see Agatha Christie's "Murder on Air." Well, I say that, but what actually happened is that I was at the front door, my tart for our picnic in my hands, ready to head off to Richmond to the theatre there, where I thought the play was to be, when I noticed that the ticket confirmation I was also holding said quite plainly "Theatre Royal WINDSOR." Good grief, I could have got us all the way to Richmond only to realise we were at the wrong theatre. John was briefly and silently apoplectic at my incompetence, Avery was defending me, and then we all calmed down and headed off to... Windsor. And in the end it didn't make any difference: we were in plenty of time to spread out our picnic by the swans floating down the river.

Goats Cheese Tart with Chiavennasca and Spinach
(serves 6)

1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in chunks
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup soft goats cheese
2 tbsps creme fraiche
3 handsful spinach leaves
8 slices Chiavennasca
2 tsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium white onion, minced
1/4 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

Now what, you ask, is Chiavennasca? Well, it's an Italian air-dried beef, marinated in spices and peppercorns and white wine and aged, then sliced thin. It is simply delicious, but if you can't find it, you can always use Parma ham, or indeed, skip the meat and keep it a vegetarian dish.

Put the flour and butter and thyme in your Magimix and whizz until the butter is wholly incorporated and the mixture begins to stick together as a dough. Add more butter if needed. Press evenly into a 12-inch tart pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the eggs, goats cheese and creme fraiche. Whizz the spinach leaves in the Magimix until finely chopped, then mix in with the cream mixture. Saute the garlic and onion in the butter and mix into the cream mixture. Roughly chop the dried beef and mix in with the cream mixture, then pour all into the tart pan and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until the grated cheese is slightly browned and bubbly. Delicious warm or cold!

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Along with the tart I packed up a light and refreshing crabmeat salad, and the two were delicious together.

Crabmeat Salad with Tomatoes and Lime
(serves 2)


1 cup lump white crabmeat, the best you can get
2 cups wild rocket
handful Santini tomatoes, quartered
1 tbsp snipped chives

dressing:
2 tbsps olive oil
2 tsps balsamic vinegar
juice and zest of 1 lime
pinch sea salt

Simply toss all the salad ingredients together and pack it up in a plastic box with a tight-fitting lid, and shake the dressing ingredients up in a glass jar (also with a tight-fitting lid), and they can travel separately, to be tossed together when you're ready to eat. Very springlike!

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The play itself, "Murder on Air," was such a pleasure! Avery and I are tremendous fans of the BBC full-cast dramatisations of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries that were originally broadcast as serials on the radio, and are now available on CD. I always felt envious of the audiences who heard them around their firesides, and jumped at the chance to see this play. It's actually playing through May 3, so you could go see it yourself. The concept is wonderful: the set is an authentic reproduction of a 1930s radio station, complete with the prop man sitting behind his tables full of implements to produce all the proper atmospheric sounds like doors shutting, coffee cups and spoons tinkling, glass breaking, etc. Then the cast came in: actors dressed in period 1930s costumes and taking their places at microphones to read the plays! Three 30-minute Agatha Christie original plays, being read by actors playing actors reading plays on the radio! Tremendous fun. And there was the added bonus of one of my all-time favorite actors, Hugh Fraser, famous for playing Captain Hastings to David Suchet's Hercule Poirot. There he was in the flesh, reading away. What fun.

Sunday we dropped Avery at the stable, all of us peering anxiously at the dark skies, but what can you do: someone has to polish all those bridles and saddles, and she always wants to go, no matter the weather. John and I headed to Battersea for the Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair, and while it's over now, you must make plans to go to the second opening at the end of September. Superb variety of displays, lots and lots of shops from all over the UK showing their wares. But you know what, as much as anything the fair was fun because it got us out of our rut and over to the other side of the river (such a gorgeous display of Chelsea houses to be seen from the Park), and into something NEW. And Avery would have been bored stiff, so it all worked out perfectly. We are in shocked awe at the prices, of course, of any of the things we wanted, but I think we'll be able to find some pieces we can live with. There was a wonderful warehouse represented called Retrouvius, a little pun on their stated purpose which is giving new life to abandoned objects. What caught our eye immediately was an elaborate Victorian shelving system from the gutted Patent Offices years ago. I think if Avery's bedroom ceiling is high enough, we'll get some of the shelves for her clothes and toys. There were also fabulous ceiling light fixtures taken from the abandoned Rover factory outside London, and a pair of old leather armchairs whose previous life was I know not where.

So we came away pretty excited! As well, on Church Street on Saturday we found a 1930s green leather Chesterfield sofa with what are called "drop ends," or "drop arms," so that it becomes a sort of settee you can stretch out on. So, once we get the keys on Wednesday we can scout out where to put things, and then pretend we can afford them. Went by today to visit the house just from the outside, and the vines over the door are beginning to flower, little pale pink flowers against dark-red vines, spilling over the blue door! It is really going to be fun, if a lot of work to get out of here and into there. Some potential renters have been coming through our flat, which is powerfully annoying as everything must be neat and tidy at all times. Wimsey seems to feel it's his personal duty to escort every visitor around the flat, whether they're cat people or not. "How many cats do you HAVE?" the estate agent asked John. "I don't have cats," he muttered. She looked at him as if he were daft, and finally he said, "My wife and child have four cats. I don't have any. Not a cat person." No wonder Wimsey and Keechie are insecure!

The house feels so empty! But no news is... as they say, and looking at the clock I think Avery is in the land of croissants and berets even as we speak. Hope she's having fun...

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