24 October, 2008

a retreat

So we got away. Right away. Everyone in my household was in some sort of state or other of anxiety, pressure, frantic-ness of some kind. So on Friday morning, when John appeared from his mysterious travels, we simply... left. We packed the Mini within an inch of its life, to the gills, and yet we didn't take anything: Wellies, hot water bottles, books, but not really ANYTHING. And we just drove.

For the first 20 miles or so, we pretended to listen to a book on tape, but it was clearly putting John to sleep, so we turned it off and opened the windows. Avery asked what was up with the economy, and that took some explaining. Strangely it did not seem an upsetting task, to explain the disasters, so I let him go on. Finally we hit dead countryside and made a quick stop for supplies (but for future reference, anyone going to the Gothic Temple should bypass Bicester altogether and head straight to Buckingham, where there is a perfectly lovely butcher (more on that later), a Waitrose, and for emergencies, a tiny Tesco. But I digress.

We drove along according to our directions (I was in such a state of nerves that even my own unreliable sense of direction was seeming to take on penitentiary-bound proportions), and then... we entered the gates of Stowe School, landlords of the Gothic Temple, and as we passed folly after folly, a truly romantic stone bridge over a lake bordered by cows (all nicely variegated as the painting styles would dictate), we felt an unruly sort of calm descend: the sort of calm that says: this won't be easy, you'll have to struggle for it, but calm will prevail.

We passed a field of nettles and low-lying ancient trees and there, in the distance, was the place. Ridiculously majestic, windswept and seemingly abandoned, it was like a fictional building come to life, waiting for us. The very front door, as we pulled up, showed itself to be covered symmetrically with heads of gods: in bronze, patinaed, simply crazy.

We pushed our way in and carried our clobber up into the house and then couldn't resist exploring: the lower floor, everything ROUND because the whole building is round, so a little round bathroom, a little round kitchen (a very bad, bad kitchen as it turned out), and a round living room in which to read old log books, guide books, Jane Austen, play solitaire or double solitaire as the fancy took one. But upwards into the round (!) gallery, lined with window seats set over variously performing radiators (John snagged, naturally, the one working most vociferously right away), and on either end of the circle, bedrooms: just two, both... you guessed it... round!

The domed ceiling of the house is mosaic and tile, with little hidden treasures, like the owl one can see only from one bedroom and the figure of Neptune visible only from another. Windows looked out onto fields and follies and trees shaped like florets of broccoli, so ancient and enormous were their trunks, for such small trees. We all armed ourselves with things to read and to write, but truth to tell we suffered what we will always call "The Brooks House Syndrome," after a house we rented for several summers in Maine, where the porch view was so lovely as to prevent anyone's being able to read ANYTHING without looking up every two minutes and saying something tiresome about the view.

Macaroni and cheese the first night! Of course. With fairly decent Wiltshire bacon and sauteed red peppers, although... the hob could not have been worse. Prepare yourself, should you go. You can easily rest the palm of your intrepid hand on the surface of the hob when it is at its finest. The peppers took some cooking, I can assure you. But it was worth it for a delicious, dare I say it, dinner that first night. It was all we could do to stay up until the sun had definitely set.

On Saturday we explored. A hugely long and muddy walk among the 23 (I think) follies set in the grounds of the property known as Stowe School, a real live working school which bought the extensive properties left when a seriously massively wealthy English family sort of went under (sorry, an ignorant American's take on the situation that took several centuries to develop). In the interim between being massively wealthy and NOT (that must really suck), the family build a whole host of outbuildings to show their allegiance to British libertarianism. I wish I were making this up, but I'm not. That's why they did it. AND the show gardens designed by Capability ("please tell me his parents did not name him that?" Avery begged) Brown, of course christened "Lancelot," not all that much easier to swallow than "Capability," but these are British people we're talking about.

And very capable gardens they were. I could see a lot, if not all, of the strain John has been under melt away under the weight of the marbles, the down of the swans, a waterfall. Home for creamy mushroom soup, a nap for John, an afternoon of reading on the curving windowseats on the first floor for Avery and me. She is, typically, at a Landmark Trust house, obsessed with reading all the entries in all the green leather logbooks stacked in the bookshelves. To her delight last winter she found my entry from 1990 in the house we stayed in in Wales. I held a book and pretended to read while looking up constantly at the changing landscape. Bunnies in the distance hopping around an enormous warren, shifting clouds, setting sun, hordes of tourists walking the ground, pressing their faces against the windows of our Temple and reminding us to pull the shades in the bathroom before taking a bath! Roast chicken surrounded by carrots and parsnips, covered with good slabs of bacon... It was that sort of day.

On Sunday we walked again in the spitting rain until time for a spot of shopping, so into Buckingham we went. The first thing I noticed on leaving the car was the overwhelming sound of bells. Live, change-ringing bells. And if ever there was anything to make me love England, it is the sound of real live bells. Not for nothing did I name my cat Lord Peter Wimsey: what about those "Nine Tailors". I made my family follow me through the drizzle toward the sound of them, kicking through fallen red and orange leaves, smelling woodsmoke from someone's illicit fire... I was as happy as I could possibly be. We went into the church (of St Peter and St Paul) and looked for the bellchamber, but it was locked. But I got to hear actual Englishman calling out actual changes. I was HAPPY.

And then? Straight into the misery of a street fair. Seriously, bouncy castles, horrid high-flying acts, and mercifully a pair of miniature ponies to make Avery happy. We stopped in at Clays Family Butchers in the high street for a leg of indisputably high-quality lamb, a jar of goose fat. From there to the Buckingham Delicatessen where I looked longingly at the massive selection of cheeses and cured meats, forewent all the glorious ingredients because we had just the one dinner left... and that was to be Orlando's seven-hour lamb. I cannot recommend this recipe highly enough: get the very best lamb you can, the very best vegetables, homemade chicken stock and good wine. Then let the dish cook itself. Kudos to John for pulling this recipe out of the air on his iPhone (I had forgotten the cookbook).

Orlando's Seven-Hour Leg of Lamb
(serves six)

1 large leg of lamb, about 3 kg
4 onions, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
300 ml white wine
300 ml stock
2 tbsp Armagnac, to finish

Season the lamb and heat a braising pan on the hob. Brown the lamb on all sides thoroughly so it is nicely scorched - about ten minutes. It will not brown during braising, so this is your only chance. Lamb varies, so add a little oil if the pan seems dry, and pour away most of the fat if a lot has collected in the pan during the brownin.

Lift out the lamb and set aside. Add the onions and carrots and brown those - about 5 minutes - then add the garlic, lamb, wine and stock. Season and bring to the boil. Cut out a piece of baking paper [I had none and used aluminium foil, which was fine] and lay over the lamb to keep it moist.

Transfer to an oven heated to 120C (100C fan) and cook for seven hours, turning twice. After 5 hours the meat will be cooked; you can serve it now, or stick with tradition and give it a couple of hours more.

There is no need to rest the meat when it is cooked this way, but you need to finish the sauce. If you are planning to serve the meat on a dish, put it on the dish now. Use wide spatulas and arrange your serving dish in the most convenient spot before attempting to lift the extremely tender lamb out of its cooking pot. If you are planning to serve it in the cooking pot, drain all the cooking juices into a bowl.

Strain the juices - I discard the vegetables now but you can serve them - [we did and they were luscious, the carrots surprisingly holding their shape] and defat them (I use my gravy separator). Put the juices into a pot and boil quickly to a saucy consistency. Stir in the Armagnac, if you wish. Pour over the lamb or serve alongside.


Orlando tells us the lamb is often called "Lamb with a spoon" in France because it is so "meltingly tender," and I can attest to this. I was sceptical about the sauce because it was very dull-looking and quite thin, for the simple reason that I could not adequately heat up my hob to boil it down in time. However, once poured over the lamb, it was a revelation: deeply flavored and almost instantly absorbed by the meat. A true delight.

We spent the afternoon on another massive walk, leaving the path in the Deer Park and thereby giving the sheep and cows a great deal to talk about. Avery was terrified of being trampled, although it was clear they were a lot more afraid of us than we were of them.

Monday morning dawned all too soon, and we were off home. Fully recovered from stress? Nearly so. It's good to know that while you shouldn't ever let your husband get that tied up in knots, if it happens off your watch in an office thousands of miles away, you can fix it all by a long weekend, some long walks, and a leg of lamb.

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