27 September, 2008

a thousand completely different reasons why I love this city

But first, before I tell you about any of my adventures, much less the most sublime and effortless chicken dish I invented this week, I must recommend a book to you: for anyone who loves England, whether a native or a visitor, Sarah Lyall's AngloFiles is a must-read. She is the London correspondent for the New York Times (lucky lady!) and her observations are hilarious, ranging from what the different classes call a ladies' room to the aristocracy's penchant for names that are pronounced with no relation to how they're spelled. You'll love it. I haven't got to any bits about food yet, but I'm sure I will.

She makes me envious, frankly. What fun to have a sort of JUSTIFIED curiosity about everything around her, and an authoritative stance from which to state her opinions! And she has opinions. It makes me wonder how her British friends feel about talking to her, but then she can often openly say she's researching a piece. Well, hey, couldn't I say the same? Researching for what? Well, my own education, I suppose. People are funny about being observed, analyzed and described, though, and I'd say the British are more funny about it than Americans, in general. I'm being much more open with my new friends about writing my "memoir cookbook," and telling them pretty much frankly that everything is material! It was funny: upon leaving the school class "coffee morning" (a dreadful time of day for me to get to know people, I must confess, 8:30 a.m.), I left early to get to my first writing class, and several people said, "Oh, are you writing about us?" Maybe being totally open about it will keep me out of trouble.

Devoting more and more of my time to writing is making me much more comfortable with telling people I am a writer. My friend Vincent insists on introducing me as an "author," which while strictly speaking true, might be a bit misleading. Having written countless words about art and art history doesn't really have much to do with my current endeavors, which are somewhere between Dr Johnson and Mrs Beeton!

Can I digress and report the conversation I just had with the secretary of our local tennis courts? I rang them up to book a court.

"Yes, please, could I book a tennis court for 11 a.m. tomorrow, Saturday?"
"What is your membership number?" [fair enough]
I gave it.
"What day did you want?" [hadn't I just said?]
"Tomorrow, please."
"The Saturday?"
Yes, please!"
"And what did you want to book for?"
"A tennis court!"
"Did you know what time you wanted?"
"Eleven a.m.!"
"And that was to play tennis, was it?"

Too funny. We're booked anyway, finally.

We've had our first writing class with the new, smaller, privately arranged group, and it's going to be very good. I submitted my cookbook chapter on "Vichyssoise," and it went down very well, with some extremely helpful suggestions as to where it could be expanded. The subject came up of recurring characters: did I want to make sure that the people who would reappear were fully described, tantalizingly set out? So I must first check with everyone to make sure it's all right that I mention them, and their recipes, if that's part of the story.

Today is Friday, so it must be time to take Avery skating. Her old friend Jamie has been kind enough (well, her mother has!) to drive us each week, which makes a huge difference as I don't honestly think we could get all the way there in time for the 5 p.m. lesson. I have such a love-hate relationship with that skating rink. On the one hand, it is almost unbearably sweet to see the two of them, so sophisticated in some ways, and growing up so fast, doing their little jumps and turns. On the other hand... I hate that place. It's loud, it smells horribly of the various noxious items passed off as comestibles (a warring meld of Belgian waffles, hot dogs, pizza and coffee, just awful). The children push and shove, the acoustics are mind-bendingly uncomfortable, and both little girls have developed an attitude, unique to the skating rink, that seems to imply that we mothers are mere repositories for all their clobber, so I live in fear that I will leave behind a backpack, leg warmers, trainers, eyeglasses, not to mention my own paltry items. Ah well, we're due for a break: their beloved teacher Nicky has got herself a two-week skating job in America! Oh joy.

Well, enough whinging. My point was to tell you about what makes living here so wonderful. But my first nice story could happen anywhere: Saturday I spent in one of my favorite ways: cooking all day long for our first really big dinner party in our new house! We decided to include everyone who had showed us hospitality in our new neighborhood, and then add a few more for good measure. The guest list was shortened by the non-appearance of the teenage members of these families. One mother explained to me, "Only our 11-year-old will be joining us; the older children will be out drinking, smoking and having sex." And there was only a suggestion of a laugh. I don't want to face the teenage years! Anyway, the dinner was a great success: ten adults and just Avery and her little friend Emily. But they were enough to entertain each other: they completely terrified poor Keechie by running up and down the five flights of stairs, claiming to see ghosts, to hear mysterious, unexplained wailing, to experience lights turning themselves off! Finally they settled down to edit Avery's magnum opus, "The Adventures of Jazzy." She is determined to write a real book this time (her drawers are filled with the pages of countless highly illustrated but extremely brief earlier attempts).

We ate everything in sight: grilled salmon marinated in lime juice, garlic, olive oil and Fox Point seasoning (a lovely blend of shallot, chive and some other mysterious flavors from Penzeys), cannellini beans in a sort of confit with olive oil, rosemary, toasted breadcrumbs and parmesan, to die for. And tomato-mozzarella towers with toasted pinenuts and lemon zest. My neighbor two doors down brought, at my request, her famous chocolate brownies. And the wine! Not being a wine drinker myself I was in a position to note with satisfaction that there were MANY empty bottles by the end of the night, and that did not come, dear readers, until 12:30 a.m. Yes, even the girls were up until that hour. The British are like the French when it comes to dinner parties, as far as I can see: everyone comes prepared to have a good time and to let their hair down. A fabulous, heart-warming evening that really cements my feelings that our new neighborhood is quite wonderful.

And then it was Horseman's Sunday! Another sunny September Sunday, another blessing ceremony. This year the vicar seemed marginally less terrified on the back of the trusty steed chosen for his transport, although he never looks as if he's having a good time. We trooped through the streets following the massive queue of horses, watched as they were individually blessed, and then... I started to sneeze. And I really have not stopped. That's something not to love about London in the autumn. Really, really (or as my new friend Elspeth says, "rully, rully," in the most plummy tones you can imagine) miserable. I simply could not stop, and the antihistamine I had thoughtfully brought along made not a dent. However, our social life stops for no allergies, so lunchtime found me at an outdoor table at Angelus, adjacent to the stable mews, with Vincent, Peter and John, for a lunch of unrivalled deliciousness. Of COURSE the foie gras creme brulee, quite possibly my favorite food ever. And then I had a gorgeously presented fillet of Dover sole wrapped around spinach leaves, stuffed with a lobster-scallop mousse and surrounded by little points of sugar snap peas and haricots verts. Of course I rave about this London restaurant when in point of fact I could probably get the same meal on every street in Paris. Nevertheless, it was an afternoon to savor: wonderful food, best friends, great conversation ranging from photography (of course, with John and Vincent there), to Pete's laser eye surgery... now I'm longing to do it myself.

Finally, however, we had to admit that the afternoon was getting on and we needed to put in an appearance at the annual post-blessing gymkhana, an event of (like skating) great sweetness, but also stunning boredom. And added to that mix, the inevitable sneezing for me. Avery rode around and around on Barrie, and then Enigma, the very first of the autumn leaves in the park fell and made little pools of color. And of course I got no credit with my child for showing up, only blame that I missed her on the most important pony, or the most important game, or something! Just my luck, really.

Monday I was rewarded by doing one of my very favorite things: food shopping, and not alone! My friend Janet, visiting from Los Angeles, is the single most knowledgeable person about ethnic ingredients that I have ever met. Our Chinatown adventure had given us an appetite for more wanderings, so we met up in a sublime (but unassuming, don't be fooled) Persian supermarket in North End Road, UR Supermarket. Numberless brands of beans, lentils, other pulses, many, many sorts of yogurt, sauces for every purpose you can imagine and a lot you cannot, spices of every description. And perhaps the best of all: a truly wonderful butcher counter with a lovely rotund little man who greeted me in French! And sold me a dozen of the best-looking lambchops you can imagine. When I got home I discovered that he had thrown in a pile of what looked at first glance like worthless bones, but grilled with a little salt and pepper, they proved of course to be ribs. Delicious.

Finally we repaired to a South Indian vegetarian restaurant in Drummond Street near Euston Station and had my first bhel-poori (a fascinating cold dish with tiny noodles, potatoes, turmeric, carrots and puffed rice!) and a bit of Janet's dhosa, which was an enormous folded pancake-like thing stuffed with potatoes crushed with spices. A bit bland, but interestingly novel. I myself went for the buffet and had chickpeas in every guise you can imagine, poppadums and deep-fried cauliflower and courgettes. mostly it was heaven to sit and chat, about politics, husbands, cooking, cats (she is crazy about my Tacy, you might remember). Girlfriends - I've said it before - are the staff of life, an absolute necessity. And here is the kind of person Janet is: we had noted that the wait staff were, how to put it, unwelcoming in a fairly amusing but offputting way. Her method of dealing with this was to ask, "Are you from Bangladesh?" when our waiter came to collect our plates. He stopped in astonishment. "Yes, I am." "Well, I love Bangladesh. Are you from [insert name of town I did not know]?" "Yes! Have you been there?" Long discussion ensued of the local gasworks and local customs, and all was well. He beamed at us, bowing us out, and Janet said, "That always works. Nearly all waiters in Indian restaurants are from Bangladesh, and since I've been there, it breaks the ice."

That afternoon I fulfilled a rash promise to Avery and took her to that mecca of sweet things, Cybercandy in Garrick Street. The ground floor is simply filled to the gills with every sort of foreign (and a few English) candy you have ever heard of. Super-expensive American brands, every type of Hello Kitty dispenser that exists, Danish things and weird Japanese jellies in flavors like lychee and cucumber. She stocked up! Then we headed to the nearby Waterstone's where she discovered to her chagrin that her latest obsession, the "Artemis Fowl" books, is not due for another volume in the series for a long time, alas. She simply devours them, thanks to our dear friend Olimpia who gave her the latest one this summer and then she worked her way up to it once we got home. I must say, our local library is wonderful, with a HUGE audiobook section, to my delight!

Now, Tuesday was a real adventure for us, and pretty spontaneous, for me. Just the night before, I got an email from my film-theatre friend Sue, telling me about a reading featuring one of my favorite new British actors, Ben Whishaw. So young, so vulnerable, so talented! He plays Sebastian Flyte in the new "Brideshead Revisited," which I managed to miss in the US and will open here next week. So off we went, right after school, rushed to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and oh! It was just spectacular. If you can get tickets for any of the remaining "readings" to celebrate the 70th birthday of playwright Caryl Churchill, do so. Wallace Shawn and Miranda Richardson were also part of the cast, and it seemed unbelievable to me when Sue said afterward that they rehearse for a day and a half ONLY! Avery was the only child there, but it wasn't inappropriate. What amused me was that the whole underlying theme of the play, "Ice Cream," was the different ways of Americans and British. And she understood everything! She had to explain a couple of the jokes to me because they were things only a British person found funny. I am constantly amazed at the things she knows: why, for example, does she know what a "shrink" is? Where could she possibly have come across that notion? Well, we had a superb, simply superb time. At the end, the actors applauded US! Such a joy, and for twelve pounds apiece. Scarcely more than a film.

I have conquered "Lost Property"! I was a little nervous to be all on my own last week, in charge of the whole set of color-coded keys, important notebooks, tins of the rully, rully valuable stuff like an iPod, a mobile phone, a set of housekeys! Oh dear. The girls trooped in and out, some to retrieve actual apparel they had left somewhere, and some to shop at the rack of unnamed (as in, no name tape!) clothing. One girl came in and said sheepishly, "I basically leave everything I have somewhere, so I have to come in here every day." I got to see Avery, too, waiting for her friends after her delicious lunch of rump steak with portobello mushrooms, AND a chocolate sponge. I can't tell you what a difference it makes in her, to eat a proper meal in the middle of the day. Heavenly to see her, in her own environment, and looking so happy, too. Although, I must say, the dreaded acronym "GCSE" has entered her vocabulary, at least two years before I planned to begin thinking about them! I have forbidden her to start obsessing. Yet. I must say, the teachers are tremendously creative with their homework, and it helps. For example, this week her piano teacher set her to the task of making as many words as she could out of the letters of the scale! And then, even cooler, to PLAY the words on the piano. "Mummy, here is what 'cabbage' sounds like!" she said gleefully. I cheated and gave her "accede." Ah well, a little help now and then...

I have to tell you how dumb I am: with all this dreaded credit crunch reportage in all the newspapers, every time I see the word "Darling" I wonder for a moment who on earth they're addressing! Only to remember that Alistair Darling is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I really am dim at times.

Lastly, in my paean to life in London, last night Sue and I met up at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Mall for... "Spooks: Behind the Scenes." It was SUCH good fun! The star-studded panel included my former crush (yes, sorry, former: now he's just a guy, sadly) Matthew Macfadyen, costar Miranda Raison, two former directors, the best writer of the best episodes Howard Brenton, just a superb panel. There were stunning clips (massively impressive on the giant screen when I've ever only seen them on telly or a computer screen), a Q and A. One hilarious story stands out: Matthew explained that in one episode, he had to dial a phone on the wall of a house, and to make it realistic, he dialed in his own mobile number. Some months later, his phone rang. "Is that you?" "Who is this?" "Is that Tom Quinn [the character!]?" "No, it's not." "I mean, is that Matthew Macfadyen?" "Yes, how did you get my number?" "Well, if you slow down the tape on last night's episode, it's easy!"

Laughter. He continued, "So I asked the guy if he was a nutter and I'd have to change my number, and he said no, no need." And a guy in the audience raised his hand and said. "That was me." Well, he'll HAVE to change his number now, after announcing the scheme to a packed audience!

Right, the skating rink beckons, poor me. But first, the next time you find yourself in need of a dinner that cooks itself, while you're off... watching your child skate perhaps, give this dish a try:

Slow Braised Chicken With Sour Cream, Tomatoes and Brandy
(serves 4 easily)

1 tbsp butter
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 medium roasting chicken
1 onion, roughly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans whole tomatoes
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup good brandy
salt and pepper

Butter the bottom and sides of a heavy pot with a lid and lay half the bunch of thyme on the bottom. Put the chicken BREAST-SIDE DOWN on the thyme. Scatter the onion and garlic around the chicken. Now, crush the tomatoes by hand onto a bowl and add the sour cream and brandy. Mix well. Pour over the chicken and salt and pepper the whole lot. Put the lid on tightly and braise in a very slow oven, 100 degrees celsius or 200 degrees fahrenheit, for at least three hours. You will find that the sauce is rather fatty on top when you take off the lid, so in serving, simply reach your ladle down under the surface for the less fatty bits. The fat won't hurt you, but it looks nicer if you can leave the fat behind. I think the fat issue could be dissolved if you skinned the chicken prior to cooking, but I worry that it could dry out. I'd rather a bit of fat.

When you get home, the aroma of this dish, cooking itself without any help from you, will make your heart sing. All that's required is that you boil a few potatoes and mash them, and saute a package of tenderstem broccoli. Perfect. And while it's something I love about living in London, it's also something you can love about living where YOU do.

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