29 February, 2008

back to normal





























Yes, I think we can declare ourselves open for business now, with all the various hurdles of the past months safely behind us and successfully brought to a close. It's no longer 1) exam-prep time, 2) exam-take time, 3) worrying period between exams and results time, or 4) recovery from results time. It's just been an ordinary week, with all the ordinary activities, which for some reason have left me completely drained! But I know in my heart that next week will begin to get better. Even WITH the ongoing, not to say newly-ever-present, spectre of real estate hanging over us.

Now that we know the neighborhood encompassing Avery's school for next year, there's nothing to stop us from choosing a house. Well, wait. There are two things to stop us: the completely unaffordable nature of any of the houses in this or any other London neighborhood, and the complete inability and disinclination of my beloved to make a decision. He just LOVES the search. I cannot concur.

What I can tell you is that a restorative visit to the Wallace Collection and a little snack in their enormous conservatory on a given afternoon after school is a lovely thing to do. I can't pretend that 18th century art or porcelain or ancient armour is really my thing, but it was very pleasant to wander through the rooms, trying to imagine that this all belonged to one family. Dozens of chain-mail suits! Clocks everywhere you turn, the occasional famous Watteau painting, but many more I had never heard of. Avery was particularly halted by the genre called "dead game I have known," lots of bleeding pheasants and deer with arrows shot through them, presided over by smug gun dogs and trailing ivy. Very odd! My favourite, I think: many little carved wax miniatures protected by heavy leather shades that you had to lift up to gaze, then lower again to protect them from the harsh gleam of your eye.

I have no real news to impart! It has been a week of all the usual things, culminating in Jamie coming to dinner and to spend the night last night. She has decided to go to St Barnabas as well, so the two girls were in heaven imagining what it will all be like next year. Avery is busy practicing songs for the "Form Six Entertainment" which will take place next Wednesday: it's a hilarious-sounding send-up of famous Shakespearean scenes (Romeo and Juliet reading Hello! magazine, the three witches from Macbeth singing Christina Aguilera songs, that sort of thing. We've heard the songs perhaps a few hundred times too many, but that's nothing to complain about.

Mostly I need to impart to you a fantastic new lamb recipe, and a side dish that will NOT lower your cholesterol but hey: everyone needs a little double cream now and then. This is so typical me: one of the VERY few ready-made foods that I ever buy is Waitrose's potatoes dauphinoise, because I can pronounce everything on the ingredient list, and they are much better than any dauphinoise I have ever produced. So naturally it was but the work of a moment to decide that I needed to up my game and make MINE just as good, instead of just being grateful that Waitrose were there to make them for me. And guess what: to enable me in this neurosis... mine were better. The secret? Don't just pour cream on the potatoes, make a proper cream sauce, with the judicious addition of a tiny shake of garlic granules and a pinch of nutmeg. Crazy good.

This lamb recipe is taken from the Waitrose Food Illustrated, a truly enjoyable foodie magazine sold at their tills. I always find something good in it, and the commentary is clever. Since I can never leave a recipe alone, we end up with an idea thrice removed, because the food writer Annie Bell has herself tweaked it from an original by Peter Graham, who writes so wonderfully about French village cooking. So feel free to play round with it yourself, why not.

Seven-Hour Leg of Lamb
(serves four for dinner and enough leftovers for another dinner)


1 white onion
15 whole cloves
handful flat leaf parsley
handful thyme
2 bay leaves
1 whole leg of lamb, preferably British but New Zealand is nice too
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
drizzle of olive oil
5 heads of whole garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup white wine
salt and pepper

Begin your preparations about 8 hours before dinner time!

Stud the peeled onion with cloves. Put it with the herbs into a deep casserole with a tight-fitting lid (I had to use aluminium foil as I don't have such a casserole...yet). The casserole must be big enough to accommodate the leg of lamb. Fill half full with water and bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Scoop the onion, herbs and bay leaves out with a slotted spoon and put the leg of lamb in the stock-filled casserole.

Bring the liquid back to the boil and cover and simmer for another 20 minutes. Then pour the stock down the drain and lay a whole sprig of rosemary under the lamb and another on top. Make sure the lamb is skin-side up. Drizzle olive oil over the lamb, then scatter the garlic cloves around it and pour over the wine. Season with salt and pepper.

Cover the casserole with aluminium foil and seal tightly, then clamp down the lid if you have one. Place in a 140 degree oven (280 fahrenheit) and prepare to leave it there for 7 hours, but you need to be available two hours into it to turn it, and another three after that to turn it again. At this last turning (the leg will be fat side up), remove the foil so the lamb can crisp up. You will notice that the lamb gives off a great deal of juice, and this will be the basis for your sauce. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, turn the oven up to 200 degrees (400 fahrenheit).

When the lamb has cooked for 7 hours, take it out and remove it to a platter and cover it with foil for 20 minutes. During this time, de-fat the juices with the garlic in them, and boil down to about half its original volume. Then whizz in a blender and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in a gravy boat. The meat will simply fall off the bone, I promise you. Heavenly! Serve with:

Potatoes Dauphinoise
(serves 8, enough for at least two dinners for us)


1 dozen Charlotte potatoes, peeled and sliced very thin
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
2 cups double cream
1 cup fresh-grated Gruyere cheese
dash of garlic granules or powder
dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Spray a 9x9 glass dish with nonstick spray. Trust me, do it!

Melt the butter and stir in the flour and let it cook lightly till it's bubbled awhile. Whisk in the cream and a handful of the Gruyere cheese and whisk continuously till thick. Add the seasonings and taste to make sure the balance is to your liking.

Put a layer of potato slices in the dish and pour over cream sauce to cover. Repeat this till all potatoes are used up, and finish with cream sauce. Scatter the rest of the Gruyere over top and bake for 1 hour at 200 degrees (400 fahrenheit). Half this time can be during the last 30 minutes of the lamb cooking time, then by the time the lamb has rested and been carved, your potatoes will be perfect. If they are getting too browned, simply turn down the heat towards the end.

Serve all this rich food with a good strong colorful veg: we had steamed broccoli, but tonight is roasted beetroot with balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!

***************

Well, my little equestrian has returned tired and filthy (but happy) from her day's labours and fun at the stable, so I will read to her during her bath. We're starting "A Room With a View," and I can relax completely because dinner is... leftovers!

26 February, 2008

Wales redux






















































Well, my celeriac soup is on the cooker for lunch and I'm kicking up my heels for 15 minutes or so, so here I am. With an amazing story to tell, as it turns out. It starts out very sad, but ends up quite miraculous.

Yesterday was, sadly, the first anniversary of my darling father in law's diagnosis with cancer. I felt the day approaching and knew it would be a hard one for everyone, especially my mother in law who has abandoned us and gone back to Iowa. Would that she could have stayed forever! But during our week in Wales, one day she was preparing for bed and realized that her precious gold link bracelet, nearly a twin to mine and a gift from John's dad, had disappeared. We spent all the next day retracing our steps from shop to shop in Langollen and Corwen, and reporting the loss to the police. So sad! It seemed terribly hard to have it gone, and although it was insured and Rosemary had every plan to replace it, it would not have been the same as the original gift from Jack. Much distress.

Well, yesterday we were all feeling down and preoccupied and not quite ourselves, when the phone rang near bedtime. It was Rosemary. "You will not believe this, but I found the bracelet, in the bottom of my handbag. I had looked, of course, but there it was, under the pile of pens and pencils I seem to keep there." There was a wonderful lilt in her voice, such a sense of relief. On the anniversary. It's hard not to believe that someone somewhere decided the loss was just too much, and... put it back. Even my Original Skeptic Husband has succumbed to this feeling! How lovely.

Let's see, I myself reread my Wales post and it made me terribly homesick to go back. There was something quite magical about the week: so removed from all the cares of normal life like schedules and backpacks and exams. We stayed in a little 14th century house called Plas Uchaf, a place John and I had stayed many years ago as newlyweds with our adored cat Chelsea. We briefly contemplated taking Tacy, but decided that the possibility of her getting out and being lost was too much. So it was a catless week, but other than that there were no complaints. When I describe it to you it will sound like some exercise in self-denial: no significant sources of heat, no telephone, television, or computer obviously, and for several days no hot water in the kitchen tap so that all the washing-up water had to be carried from the bathtub (which itself did not yield any exciting quantities of the precious substance, I can tell you: hip-baths!). O Pioneer! But for all that, it was absolutely idyllic.

From the evening we arrived, fresh (or not) from a very long drive complicated by a wreck on the M1, we all breathed a sigh of relaxation. I had brought along an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese, shades of our Exmoor adventure for Avery's birthday. The perfect thing to pop in the oven upon arrival, unpack a bit of luggage, and there was dinner. There's nothing like the smell of bubbling cheese to make everyone feel at home! And what a home! Rosemary and Avery headed immediately upstairs to find their bedroom: a marvel of antique furniture and rugs, with two little vertical windows looking down into the Great Hall. John immediately commandeered the enormous fireplace and from then on was the Compleat Pyromaniac, obsessing over coals, starter sticks, logs of every shape and size. "This batch of logs is damp," he would say bitterly, brandishing a hapless chunk. "They shouldn't sell damp wood." All afternoon he would tend his fire, so that we could eat in the FREEZING Great Hall, watching our breath in little white gusts, and then immediately huddle around the fire before bedtime.

To sit in bed after a long day walking and shopping and cooking and exploring, and listen to the hum of Avery's and Rosemary's voices across the landing, chuckling and chatting, was indescribably cozy! After so many weeks and months of fretting that we could not take care of her, or just look her in the eye and see how she was doing, it was absolute heaven just to hear her laugh and peek in at them in their twin beds, tucked up with hot water bottles, reading the piles of Log Books that all Landmark Trust houses boast: everyone's accounts of their stays from past years! We even found my original log from 1991! Amazing.

Food shopping! I think we patronised every single food-purveying establishment in a 30-mile radius. If you find yourself in North Wales, hightail it to the Rhug Farm Shop just outside Corwen and get some of the miraculous lamb, garlic and rosemary pate from Cottage Delight. Lovely for a picnic sandwich! Or even at midnight on a piece of toast, truth be told.

The sweet little fruit and veg shop in Corwen became our local mecca: new owners, very anxious to please and, I think, slightly curious about these American visitors who seemed to do nothing but buy fruit and veg! Trying to branch out a bit from our constant round of broccoli, red peppers, beetroot, spinach and asparagus, I tried a nice courgette recipe that, while it didn't make Avery sit up and beg, she ate. Warning: you have to like garlic.

Baked Courgettes with Garlic and Cheese
(serves four)


3 nice skinny courgettes
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp single cream
1/2 cup grated Cheddar or other strong cheese

Slice the courgettes nice and thin and layer them in a small glass baking dish. Sprinkle with the garlic and drizzle with the oil and cream. Scatter the cheese across the top and bake in a medium oven for about 30 minutes or until cheese is nice and bubbly.

****************

This is nice because the courgettes keep a little bit of a bite, and the olive oil is velvety.

Let's see, during the week we discovered that Avery has an irrational fear of walking DOWN hills. I've always known her to freak out slight at the top of very steep escalators, but this time, we were embarking on a huge hill just outside a gorgeous area called Horseshoe Pass, a valley filled with impossible mist, dotted with sheep and the occasional house. Avery got UP the hill with no problem, leaving us elderly adults puffing in her wake. But then we all reached the top and stopped to admire the view, and she absolutely lost it. Nearly in tears, poor gull. Rosemary taught her to walk diagonally, but even so, she was just terrified. Occasionally she left the path and clung to a scrubby little bush, trying not to cry. We felt so bad for her! Once we got to the bottom we discussed the nature of irrational fears (namely, they're irrational so people who don't share them should stop trying to talk you out of them). I thought some of my old fear-of-flying techniques might help, like continuing to do the thing and making yourself notice that nothing bad is happening. So the rest of the holiday we spent marching her up and down big hills, and I must say she got much better. Good old cognitive behavioral therapy at work.

But what really brought her out of her funk that particular day was the sight of a large and very dirty sheep, standing stockstill in the middle of the road. "It's escaped from its field!" Avery shouted. "We must save it!" So John drove ahead to try to block it, and we saw at the end of a field a gate and thought we might herd the thing toward the gate and let it in. Of course the sheep had other ideas and scuttled down a little lane, toward some compatriots in another field. "We should tell the farmer he's out," I said helpfully, so John drove down an even smaller lane toward a house we could see in the distance. As we did so, we noticed a cattle grid. "You know what," John said, "That sheep's not lost. All these sheep are MEANT to be over here. I can't believe we are such city idiots that we thought we needed to SAVE that sheep." So he began to back down the lane, until I suggested he turn around and go out straight. Sadly, my sense of where the back of the car was could not be trusted, and to Avery's dismay we nearly went through a very rickety fence and toppled off a precipice into oblivion. "We're going to die!" she shrieked, and "I'm getting out of this car." So she hopped out, and I hopped out to try to give some direction, but the back wheels were stuck in mud and the car was STRANDED.

Suddenly, from up another lane came not one, not two or three, but FOUR sturdy off-road Jeep-like trucks, and out popped four strapping young men, shouting, "Do you need help?" They just happened to be a Saturday club of off-road ramblers, and there they were in the nick of time, to save us. One of the men cleverly discovered a winchy thing in the front of the car, and produced a stout rope from his, and before we knew it, he was driving ahead and the protesting rental car was saved. We were clearly the biggest foreign idiots that the whole group had seen in some time, and the wives were not too subtly whipping out their mobile phones and taking pictures of us. "BRITAIN RESCUES AMERICA!" one man laughed, and his wife asked, "So how long have you been here?" and John, thinking she meant "here in Britain," answered, "Oh, about two years." Burst of laughter from all the ramblers, and another wife asked, "What, HERE, stranded, for two years?" Then we all laughed and I said we sometimes sent out for sandwiches and it hadn't been that bad.

And off they went! With a story to dine out on for weeks, no doubt.

That night we found ourselves with all food stores closed on our way home, and I had to think strategetically (my favourite Avery word of all time, along with "smallen") about what to produce from what I already had. What I came up with was a pretty good dish if you're on a diet. It contained, amazingly for me, no butter, no cream, no cheese. Give it a try if you're feeling virtuous.

Miso Marinated Chicken With Asparagus and Mushrooms
(serves four)


1 packet instant miso soup powder
juice of 1 lime
4 chicken breast fillets, cut in chunks
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces
1 lb button mushrooms, quartered


Mix the miso with the lime juice and stir to a paste. Pour over the chicken breasts chunks in a medium bowl and stir well to coat. Set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the asparagus and mushrooms until the asparagus is bright green and the mushrooms soft. Remove and set aside, leaving the oil behind as well as the mushroom liquid. Saute the chicken in the same skillet, and when it's done, toss in the vegetables, stirring until they are heated through again. Pretty good! Serve with steamed basmati rice.

******************

I'll never forget the coziness of sitting by the fire chatting with John while Rosemary and Avery settled themselves in their room, and looking up to their lighted little windows to see them waving at us and making faces. Avery invented a crazy voice in which to say "Hello," and we all began using it, "Hello? Hello!" And we played endless, positively endless games of solitaire, and double solitaire, Avery and her grandmother playing for hours at the kitchen table while I cooked. And Avery recited the entirety of "The Lady of Shalott" for us in a completely absurd, fruity English accent: "On either side the river lie long fields of barley and of rye," making Rosemary and me laugh until we cried, rolling her Rs and her eyes and milking it for all she was worth. She made Lady Bracknell look relaxed and down to earth. Too, too funny. And one evening John went out to the back garden to throw coffee grounds over the fence, to find two sheep with tiny lambs! Avery and I pursued them in a gentle sort of way, but to no avail. That would have been too perfect.

Well, I think that was our Wales adventure. Oh, and a darling little village called Llanrwst, no idea how you pronounce that with no useful vowels, but possessing a wonderful shop called Berry, filled with old books. I bought beautiful copies of lots of classics that I've never had time to read, like "Mansfield Park" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," for Avery to have on our shelves, and the entire huge back of books was 12 pounds! If you find yourself there, do go in.

Sadly we had to come home, although frankly my mother in law makes London so much fun it wasn't a tragedy to have the holiday end. We went to the Tate Modern to see the magnificent Doris Salcedo installation: a long, long crack in the cement floor, wide enough in some places to lose a foot, narrow as a piece of yarn in others. Really impressive! And a Juan Munoz exhibition of figurative work that is not my cup of tea, but made Rosemary really happy. And we went to Portobello Road, and the National Portrait Gallery, and shopping for food at Selfridges and the farmer's market, and out to dinner at the glorious "Star of India," truly the best Indian food in London, I believe. A starter that you must try: light as a feather kadek jhinga, prawns in a saffron batter, with tamarind chutney. Gorgeous! And a chicken dish that made Avery's heart sing, she who eat mushrooms in any form, murg khumb bahar, a breast stuffed with chopped mushrooms and onions, marinated with yogurt cream and swimming in a sauce of wild mushrooms and cashews. Simply superb. And so nice to have a night off cooking!

Well, it's John's birthday today and I am succumbing to something I normally would rather walk across hot coals than produce: tuna casserole. The notion of tinned tuna served HOT is to me like heating up a can of cat food. Urgh. But every year on his birthday he asks, and every year I say no. The one year I actually agreed to make it, I turned out to discover I was expecting Avery: right on his birthday! Isn't that amazing. So I thought, oh, go all out and make that awful dish as well. But I was so distracted by being five minutes pregnant that I forgot to cook the noodles ahead of time, and just threw them in with the hideous tinned tuna and mushroom soup. The result was something with a, how shall I put it, unique consistency. Neither wet nor solid, with odd crunchy bits that threatened to break one's teeth off, and overall a pervasive odor of... cat food. Ah well, I've learned since then. Nothing on earth could make me actually eat it, but tonight's version will be made with gourmet yellowtail suspended in extra virgin olive oil, organic celery, homemade mushroom soup and the best Italian noodles. COOKED. Happy Birthday, John!

life after (and before) The Big News















































Well, we've all taken a deep breath, the dust has settled, some of the euphoria has dissipated, but Avery's still pretty thrilled, pretty chuffed at her Big Achievement last week. The gulls have all congratulated each other with what looks like genuine support and pleasantry, the news has been extracted from each parent like crabmeat from the shell. You have to approach these things delicately. Parent Number One sidles over to Parent Number Two and there's a moment of awkward silence, then the sidler says to the sidlee, "I didn't want to appear as if I wasn't interested in Avery's 'choices' (the catch-all euphemism for 'where did she get in, anyway??"), so I didn't bother you." Then Parent Number Two says, "Oh, no, don't worry! And... what is...er, how did... have you made a decision yourselves?" It would be so much easier just to ask baldfaced, "So where's Little Whoever going to school next year?" But no, one must sidle, or be sidled.

I spent today writing nice little bread-and-butter letters to the schools we're turning down, and wrote a staggering cheque to the one we're accepting. In the interests of privacy (ha!), I've decided to call Avery's school for next year, "St Barnabas." Those who know, know, and those who don't, don't need to. Sound good to you?

And now we can all relax and think about other things. Like putting you in the picture with all the amazing adventures we had on our half-term Welsh odyssey! And all the adventures we had in London with my mother in law Rosemary, who was an absolute star about getting us off our desk chairs and out of our routine, and actually made us do things in London! Do you find that it takes a visitor to get you to appreciate your own home town? I certainly find this. Left to my own devices I would clean the litterbox, grocery shop, move Avery's belongings from one flat surface to another, and then be absolutely desperate because I haven't done anything blogworthy. But with Rosemary around, there was no question of being boring. She wouldn't stand for it!

So our Landmark Trust Welsh holiday was COMPLETELY successful, very heartwarming, just what the doctor ordered for all of us. A huge relief to get Rosemary all to ourselves, feed her, fill her hot water bottles, talk about important things or unimportant things as the whimsey took us. I had to post this photograph of the butcher shop because we spent SO much of our time hunting and gathering for things to eat! And did we eat. The best roast pork EVER (cooked in milk, white wine and rosemary, with quartered onions alongside), which then morphed into the best sandwiches ever, with Welsh goats cheese that was simply to die for. I love this website because not only does it extol the virtues of goats cheese, it does so by employing the priceless phrase, "goat management issues." I have always had such a lot of those issues. Then we had the best roast chicken ever which morphed into the perfect chicken stock for an innovation: cream of mushroom soup with rocket. Yes, I had a half a bag of baby rocket with nothing to be done with it and we were leaving the house: so, why not? It added a superb piquant flavour and who knows what nutrients. A definite score.

Creamy Mushroom Soup With Rocket
(serves four)

3 tbsps butter
1 white onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 lb mushrooms, any sort you like, roughly chopped
4 cups-ish fresh chicken stock
2 tbsps brandy
1 tbsp fresh chopped thyme leaves
fresh rocket, about a cup loosely packed
1/2 cup single cream
salt and pepper to taste

The rest couldn't be simpler. Saute the onions, garlic and mushrooms in the butter until slightly softened, then pour over the stock and brandy, simmer until mushrooms are soft. Add the thyme and rocket and cook just until rocket wilts, then whizz with your hand blender (I had to buy one in a nearby town!) and add the cream. Season to taste. Divine!

*********************

And did we WALK! Firstly we discovered a darling little village (not even, a town hall and a pub, a church and the local squire's magnificent pile, that was all) called Llanelidan, from which and around which we walked possibly five miles! Up the hill and down the hill, working off the magnificent picnic lunch we ate in the cemetery: pate and smoked trout sandwiches, cucumber, tomato and mozzarella salad, yum yum. We walked through sheep fields, over kissing stiles, up enormous hills (coming once on a very old and almost unidentifiable sheep's carcass, very dramatic), past babbling brooks and a gorgeous spring, springing into the air! Do take the time to go to Llanelidan if you get a chance and walk through the King George's Field.

And my favourite little town of all: Llangollen, streets lined with beautiful UNIQUE shops, like a place that time forgot and the Starbucks, Monsoons, and Tescos of the world have never discovered. Two butchers! Gorgeous delis, produce stands, bakeries, and a marvellous bookstore where I came away with a lovely copy of "Little Dorrit." I must read it before my darling Matthew Macfadyen appears in the upcoming BBC series! That's exciting news. It was such a pleasure to food-shop there that I'm afraid I dragged everyone to far too many little establishments. But they were all kind and said that if I was going to feed them three meals a day, they could put up with a little shopping. Now that's kind.

Want a breakfast idea for a little girl who's tired of eggs, and there are no precious Marks and Spencers apple turnovers to be had? How about goats cheese on toast? Avery devoured slice after slice as the week went on.

And castles! We visited four in the area: Denbigh (closed for the season, but that didn't stop us climbing over the wall and simply helping ourselves! scofflaws, we), Rhuddlan (pictured here), Caernarfon and Conwy. Each lovely in its own way: ruined, evocative of the 12th, 13th centuries. Now, it's a matter of taste, obviously, but while the Welsh Castles websites all seem to adore lots of commentary, wall text, silly films with actors playing warriors and gift shops, I myself prefer stark and lonely, with nothing to distract you from the feeling of ancient drama. You go on the links above and decide for yourselves which you want to visit.

Listen, I've loads more to tell you, but the dinner hour approaches and there's garlic and ginger to be chopped. Before I go, however, let me tell you about the world's nicest (well, one of them) chicken salads. Now, where Rosemary says she never met a chicken salad she didn't like, I must aver that most of them have to my taste far too much mayonnaise, and not enough contrast of textures. That's why this one is so nice. You should plan to have it when you have leftover roast chicken, but I am not above roasting one especially for it. You can even throw in a bit of the crispy skin for a special treat.

Roasted Chicken Salad With Pine Nuts
(serves four)


whole breast of roasted chicken, shredded by hand
bunch of salad onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 red onion, chopped fine
2 stalks celery, chopped quite small
handful baby rocket leaves
grated peel of 1 lemon
grated peel of 1 lime

spicy dressing:
3 tbsps spicy peperoncino olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
tiny dash chilli flakes
1 tbsp mayonnaise
salt and pepper
dash of dried thyme

Now, mix all the salad ingredients and shake up your dressing in a jar. Toss everything together carefully. You can easily pack up this salad and the dressing in its jar and have it on a picnic, whether at a castle or in a cemetery. It's LOVELY. The lemon and lime zest add such a fresh appeal that you could almost think it's spring in February!

*************

More tomorrow, especially the best story of the entire holiday: what to do when you find your rental car perched on the edge of a precipice with its wheels stuck in the mud? Tune in and find out...

22 February, 2008

unbelievable



















We have news: Avery got in EVERY school she applied to! Everywhere. We are all beyond proud of her, and so relieved and happy. More soon, but for now: hip, hip, HOORAY!!! Well done, Avery.

21 February, 2008

on tenterhooks


















This is not, by the way, a tenterhook. It appears that in the entire pantheon of images in Google, there is not a tenterhook. There is only the expression, "on tenterhooks." Well, fish hook or no, this image will have to suffice. Tenterhooks we are on and there shall we stay until the delivery of the post in the late morning tomorrow. Then, all six school letters shall arrive beginning either with, "We are thrilled to..." or "We regret to say..."

I must say that John's mom's presence has greatly enhanced our survival of the last week's ordeal. Her energy! We have been to the Tate Modern, we have been to the National Portrait Gallery, we have been real estate shopping, we have been food shopping! She is indefatigable. And the best company in the world. We have eaten at home (the best chicken salad I think I've ever made), we've eaten out (the best Indian in London I'm convinced).

But I have no time to tell you about these things! Nor about my near-genius presentation (I speak entirely objectively) at the King's College Parents' Education night this evening, on "From Proficiency to Passion: The Joy of Reading Aloud to Your Child." No! I have no time to discuss these fascinating subjects because I must go to sleep and get rested for... school notification. You'll be the first to know. And then it's full steam ahead, blog-wise, on our Wales trip and our frantic week of making London so appealing that we can convince my mum-in-law to move here... But more on all that later. To tomorrow's POST!

16 February, 2008

back from Wales






























What a week! I want to tell you all about it: what castles to visit, what walks to take, where to buy every ingredient you need for roast pork with cream and white wine, where to find the fluffiest sheep and even a lamb or two, in fact, a whole tour of our corner of North Wales. But today we are going to Portobello Market under the same perfect blue sky that graced our entire holiday (praise be), so all I will say for the present is this: with good enough company, three decks of playing cards for duelling Solitaire, and a huge pile of hot water bottles, your Landmark Trust holiday can be the highlight of your winter. No heat in the Great Hall to speak of, so John was the uber-Firemaster, no phone, telly, radio, internet or (for several days) hot water in the kitchen tap. But comforting company, endless chats, plenty of mashed potatoes and long LONG walks in the countryside more than sufficed for the slight paucity of amenities. Anyway, we knew what we were getting into, and that's what you go to the countryside for. Peace and quiet. More soon. In the meantime, get yourself a pot of:

Mixed Pepper Soup with Brandy and Thyme
(serves four, just barely)


3 tbsps butter
half an onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
6 peppers: red, yellow and orange, coarsely chopped
2 soup-size cans chicken stock
chopped fresh thyme to fit in the palm of your hand
splash of good brandy
1 cup light cream

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and add the onions and garlic and saute gently till soft, but NOT brown. Add the peppers, stock, thyme and brandy and simmer till the peppers are soft, about 35 minutes give or take. Whizz with a hand blender till completely blended, then add the cream and heat through. If your child is picky about tiny bits of pepper skin, strain the soup through a fine-mesh colander. DIVINE. With this soup, all you need are lots of slices of toasted baguette piled with everything but the kitchen sink: mozzarella, melted butter with mashed anchovy, pesto and goats cheese, tiny tomatoes cut in half. And don't forget the hot water bottles for that evening by the fire...

07 February, 2008

The Giggly Pig















No, sadly I did not take this lovely photograph (the BBC did), nor have I any access to an actual Saddleback pig. But I must tell you who does: The Giggly Pig Company. Let me tell you more.

It's become my Thursday ritual to stop at the dull but healthy-ish Pret a Manger in Hammersmith in King Street on my way to my writing class. There I sit eating my blameless half sandwich (I do love that they offer a half) and a miso soup, watching the world go by in the farmer's market outside in the square. Well, this particular day I felt perhaps a vegetarian, no-carb, no fat lunch was in order, so not even a half sandwich! Just a salad. Well, all that went by the wayside when I wandered through the market looking for a chicken or beef purveyor for Avery's dinner while we have scallops, and there I came upon "The Giggly Pig." The most charming, apple-cheeked, central casting farmer girl was there flogging her wares, and most convincingly because she was cooking up sausages right there and cutting them into bite-size pieces with kitchen shears, all the while keeping a running patter. "Pick up a stick there, now do, madam, and try this Stilton and Asparagus. Hot out of the pan, just right for a little nibble. Or there's also the Lime and Sweet Chilli, or my personal favourite, the Jalapeno. Made from our own Saddleback pigs, you know. Don't be shy now."

I wasn't! I tried them all, and ended up after some serious indecision with the Jalapeno. So look for this company at your local farmer's market: they appear at over 20 markets throughout greater London, from Epping to Dulwich. Just lovely. They will be perfect for tomorrow night's dinner in Wales, with John's mom! That's right, she's winging her way her from Iowa right now, one hopes, winter weather notwithstanding, for a much-needed two week visit. Right after half-day pickup tomorrow at school, we shall head out, with a dish of macaroni and cheese at the ready to pop in the oven when we arrive.

So I believe I shall be radio-silent for the next week. No internet access where we're headed, if you can imagine! I don't think we'll mind. After the past six weeks or so of pressure, sorrow, drama, more pressure and RAIN, we all need a holiday. A week, think of it, with no schedules, no goals, no wardrobe requirements. Just family, long walks, lots of cooking, and... hot water bottles. You know when the Landmark Trust warns you the house will be cold, the house will be COLD. See you in a week!

05 February, 2008

FINALLY!















Whew. But WHEW. Last interview today for Avery, at the lovely South Hampstead High School, on a perfect blue-sky day. Ever since our first visit there, it's been one of our favourite school choices, and today's experience only underscored what a nice place it is. Beautiful old brick building, sweet-faced helpful gulls to help us find out way, the wonderfully exuberant Head Girl chatting with our little ones as they waited for their appointments, and the effervescent and charming Deputy Head for Academic Affairs, as always making us feel welcome. I really do like the place, and Avery had an excellent interview with intelligent questions and a person who really listened. Double Whew.

And no, I don't really nurse secret hopes for her to end up at Magdalen College, Oxford, as this photograph so evocatively illustrates, but I did want to follow up on my plea for information in my last post: Magdalen or Maudlin? Well, thanks to one alert reader I now know all, or nearly all. This reader kindly sent me the following comment:

Regarding Magdalen Oxford, I believe the founding statutes in the mid 15th century gave instructions that the pronunciation should be 'Maudlin'. However, the two colleges in question - Magdalen (Oxford) and Magdalene (Cambridge) are both historically pronounced ‘maudlin’. The word maudlin shares the same root as Magdalen(e): (from SOED)

maudlin n. [(O)Fr. Madeleine f. eccl.L Magdalena: see MAGDALEN. In branch II f. the adj.]
1 = MAGDALEN 1. MEL16.b A penitent resembling Mary Magdalen. Cf. MAGDALEN 2. EM17.
maudlin a.E16. [f. the n., w. allus. to pictures of the Magdalen weeping.]
1 Tearful and emotional as a result of drink.


Lovely! Now we all know. And in my search for even more information (I didn't really find any) I came across an absolutely side-splitting forum for a society called eGullet, wonderfully clever discussions about all things food-related. This discussion will really make you laugh, if the way language sounds happens to make you laugh. Increasingly hilarious requests by members for help on how to pronounce various culinary terms from other languages, but also plenty of attention on just plain boffo British pronunciations. Do click.

Well, yesterday I learned something about myself. When feeling rather (can't help myself) maudlin, sad and pointless, the best thing for me to do is gather up a bunch of ingredients, some instructions from my new favourite cookery writer Tamasin Day-Lewis (her Tamasin's Kitchen Classics is just mouth-watering), and get cooking. Truly, I spent the whole day trying to change my mood: I tried a game of solitaire, a spot of emailing, a look at the pre-Super Tuesday telly coverage, a nice long walk. Nothing could break my gloom. But dinner prep comes to all of us, and armed with Tamasin's advice, I entered the kitchen, not feeling in much of a mood to be creative, but needs must. And I must tell you: chopping and straining, grating and mixing, stirring and sauteeing, TOTALLY changed my outlook on life! Plus at the end we all had a delicious meal to enjoy. But beware: the two side dishes are NOT for the fat-faint of heart. Two words: goose fat. Two more words: double cream. Read on... you know you want to.

Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Mixed Herbs and Pepper
(serves 4 with good side dishes)

1 pork tenderloin, any sinews removed
olive oil to fill the cup of your hand
1 tbsp each: Aleppo pepper flakes, sea salt, fresh chopped rosemary, fresh chopped thyme, fresh chopped parsley, minced garlic

Lay the tenderloin on a cutting board or a piece of greaseproof paper, and rub all over with the olive oil. Then scatter your mixed herbs and whatnot on the surface, the length of the tenderloin, and roll the meat around until you've pressed as much as possible of the mixture into the meat surface. Roast at 425 degrees (220-ish celsius) for 25 minutes, if you like the pork pink in the middle, longer for more well-done. Remove to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes while you put the finishing touches on:

Tamasin's Potatoes Lyonnaises
(serves four)


1 lb potatoes, in their jackets, scrubbed
1 large white onion
4 ounces goose fat
sea salt to taste

Boil the potatoes until just cooked and set aside to cool slightly. Then slice the onion very thin and saute it in half the goose fat, till crispy and brown. Set aside in a little dish, and DO NOT clean the skillet. Cube the potatoes into nice shapes (Avery did turn up her presentation-obsessed nose at my imprecise angles) and saute in the other half of the goose fat, in the onion skillet, turning frequently to brown on all sides as much as possible. Throw in the onions and toss till mixed. HEAVEN. Especially with...

Tamasin's Spinach Gratin
(serves four)


1 pound (two large bags) baby spinach, washed and chopped (you can do this in batches in the Cuisinart, but not too fine)
1/2 cup double cream
1 medium egg
sprinkle black pepper
sprinkle sea salt
sprinkle ground nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan

Bring a stockpot of water to boil and JUST cook the spinach, stirring thoroughly, just for 30 seconds. Then press into a sieve or colander and get ALL the water out. Press into a gratin or small-ish baking dish. Whisk together all the rest of the ingredients but the cheese and pour over the spinach, lifting the spinach lightly here and there with a fork to mix the creamy bits in. Top with the cheese and bake in a 425 degree oven (with the pork, why not?) for 20 minutes.

***************

Now doesn't that menu just make you want to sit up and beg like a dog? I would have, but hey, it was all in my kitchen, so I didn't have to. And I didn't even make Avery and John beg.

The beauty of this menu boggles the imagination on so many levels. The pork is lean, inexpensive and the herbs make it terribly flavoursome without any messing about with butter, wine, etc. Plus it cooks itself. The potatoes are cheap, succulent and evilly glossy with the goose fat (and how often do you have goose fat, anyway? not often enough to dwell on its doubtless artery-clogging nature). The spinach is virtuous in its brilliant green, but luxurious in its coat of creamy cheese.

Tamasin does not chop her spinach, but I do because both Avery and I object to whole cooked spinach leaves on sliminess principles. The key, too, is in timing. Get the potatoes boiled before you start anything else, and assemble the spinach. Then put the pork in, start sauteeing the potatoes and onions, and ten minutes before the pork is done, slide the spinach in the very same oven. Its last ten minutes are while the pork rests. It's the matter of two minutes to slice the pork and everything else will be ready.

I cannot blither on too much about how much the cosy, fragrant prep of this dinner cheered me up, not to mention the twin pleasures of gobbling it up and having my family be so happy with me! Totally changed my outlook on life, and if an activity can do that with just four ounces of goose fat, it goes on my list.

So after Avery's very happy time at SHHS, we drove quite the entire width of the city to take her to meet her class at the Ragged School Museum, just about as far away from Hampstead as you can get and still be in Central London. A lovely Victorian institution, the Ragged School was, and now the museum sits to teach our spoilt, indulged 21st century children what it was like to go to school only for the lentil stew at noon. Barefoot, and yes ragged, sad little creatures, lots of photographs lining the walls, and SUCH an attentive and enthusiastic volunteer, a little old man called Bryn, more than happy to show John and me around after we'd found her form and dropped her off. They're reputed to have activities during half-term, so we might have to give that a try.

From there it was across the river for lunch with Vincent and Peter, a never-fail pick-me-up should one's nerves be flagging after all these exams and interviews (I know, I know, I'm not even taking them, or doing anything, but you'd be surprised how stressful just getting her there has been).

Because Pete was feeling under the weather, we met them in their hood, the always-stimulating Bermondsey. It was our second visit to the delightful bistro Village East, and it did not disappoint. Except for the stifling temperature in the dining room, it was a wonderful lunch. Seared scallops and caramelised pork belly, with a carrot puree, so LIGHT and gorgeous, and then softshell crabs tempura, with a (I thought) rather watery and mysterious watermelon and wasabi sauce. The boys went for enormous things like burgers (with sauteed foie gras, can you imagine? my choice next time), lamb rump, and roasted halibut. Oh what a time we had. They are without a doubt two of my favorite people in the world, not the least because they play off each other so nicely: Vincent extravagant, authoritative, utterly at home in the world, and Pete gently mocking, wry, witty. I will never forget the first time I met him and I asked, "So how did you and Vincent meet?" and he replied without missing a beat, "I simply went into Starbucks and ordered a tall black Americano."

I put my conversational foot down and said that we were not going to spend the entire lunch talking about the boys' iPhones, so they sheepishly put them aside (not away, to be sure) and we moved on to our usual discussions of vacation possibilities, new recipes, discipline for daughters, and this time, how to turn my cookbook from just something I witter on about into REALITY. Everyone needs a friend like Vincent: he is absolutely convinced that I am better at everything than I really am, better-looking, more talented, more in demand, more... wonderful. One has to keep a tight grip on one's modesty and sense of proportion, because otherwise one could quite easily come away from a Vincent session with an enormously swelled head and visions of sugarplums dancing through publishers' offices. "You want the audience who are going for 'aspirational' cookbooks, darling," he avers, and I have to say, "But Vincent, darling, no one aspires to be me." Still, I did feel encouraged and rather excited at trying to make it all happen.

And apropos of our upcoming trip to Wales, Peter told a hilarious and complicated story about the cancellation of some Welsh cultural ministry, a so-called "Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation. "And the newspaper headline was," he finished up, "Last Qango in Powys." See, I'd like to be one of those people who can think of an appropriate, relevant and very funny story, and tell it accurately on the spur of the moment, but I never will be. This is one of the many reasons I must keep Pete in my life. Plus he let me nick a couple of his chips. I also asked Vincent if I could nick his gherkin, which sounded like I meant something else entirely.

Ah, well, it was soon school pickup time and went to get our Raggedy Little Girl who was full of excitement about the trip. We are all quite dropping with exhaustion so I foresee a quiet evening. Hope yours is, as well...

03 February, 2008

a busy Sunday















Let's see: why does a household with three children seem so much more...occupied than a household with one child? This is not a trick question. It's actually hard to answer, given that none of the children requires diaper changing, bottle feeding, or in fact much attention at all. It's just the necessity to keep track of and think about so many people all at once! Like a long dinner party, or a dinner party that turns into a sleepover and then lunch. I think people with multiple children are very patient and selfless people, and also have an amazing eye for safety and traffic hazards. I found myself absolutely convinced, all weekend, that cars would jump the pavement, vehicles with flashing lights and sirens appear at any moment to mow down my children, or that at the very least they'd merely be chatting away in the intersection as an unsuspecting Aston Martin took them out. Actually Avery would find that quite an acceptable method for leaving the known universe.

Then there's feeding time. Who likes what? Beverage preferences and knife skills! They were all delightful and appreciative and helpful: it's just the number of details that surprised me. Parents of only children have, granted, more peaceful dinners, but none with so much energy and giggling as a family of three girls would be. And I must say, it was very good for Avery to have as her solemn and sworn duty all weekend: keep Ellie safe and happy. She had her by the hand, marshalled her at the end of today's very crowded concert, shepherded her indoors when she fell on one of the jumps and waited until we had Ellie safely under a cashmere throw with a hot water bottle, before returning to the jumping course in the garden.

Sadly, they have gone home. I only hope their minders for the week understand what treasures they have, and no one tries to get Ellie's loose teeth out. If John cannot accomplish this, no one can, without tears and blood. For the record, I'd like to have all three girls ALL the time.

Now then: Controversy at the farmer's market! Are some of our stallholders fiddling the system? Are they selling fruit and veg that they themselves have purchased from a wholesaler's stall that morning at the crack of dawn? I confess I found this article hard to understand, or rather I couldn't see, in some situations, what the fuss was about. Take Isle of Wight Tomatoes, for example, admittedly very expensive, but with lovely people working the stall and the tomatoes always taste wonderful. Can it be true that they're merely BUYING their tomatoes from another Isle of Wight tomato purveyor and then bringing them to Marylebone to resell? And even more significantly, how much would I care if they were? As long as they are real organic tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, do I care if there was a middleman? I suppose I do, a bit. I suppose part of the farmer's market experience is feeling that you've just bought something from the person who grew it, or raised it. I think that's why I'm inclined to buy fruit and veg from a small stall rather than Sunnyfields, if I can. Sunnyfields feels that much closer to a supermarket themselves, because I know they supply the outrageously expensive Natural Kitchen up the High Street. But how pointlessly quixotic is that: surely selling to a large shop is a measure of their success? I'm really not built to work all these issues out. Oh, it's a conundrum, and a lot of trouble, just to feed one's family.

Well, I did get a mighty tasty new lettuce from Wild Country Organics called "miner's leaf", but I can't seem to find out a thing about it. There's something called "leaf miner" that is apparently the most pestilent garden pest you can imagine, but miner's leaf? Don't know. It looks like a cross between pea shoots and lamb's lettuce, and has a very nice bite to it. But the star of the show after my market trip yesterday was most definitely Vintage Lincolnshire Poacher, quite simply the most delicious cheese you will ever have toasted between two pieces of wholemeal bread. Of course real cheese conoisseurs will have it on a cheese board with the proper sort of cheese knife, but when you're feeding children, grilled cheese is the way to go. Nutty, strong, creamy and salty, it is an absolute winner.

And you can't beat Highland Sugarworks Blueberry Pancake Mix for breakfast to make any child happy. At first when I make the batter I am convinced there are no blueberries in it, but somehow they are dried so tiny that they hide in the flour (several different kinds of flour, actually) and then when the milk and oil and eggs go in, up pop the blueberries. I never obey the instructions on these bags: milk is ALWAYS better than water in any situation except swimming pools. Scrambled eggs with water? Cream is more like it.

Well, I have very little news to pass along. Avery is, as we speak, at her penultimate interview, at Francis Holland School in Sloane Square. It's not so much an interview as a morning spent in lessons at someone else's school. How tedious must that be? Then Wednesday is South Hampstead High School, and that's IT. Finally. I have a new game: thinking up pseudonyms for the school that we eventually choose. Because as I discovered with our current school, if certain types of parents find out about a certain mother's blog accurately identifying the real school, those certain parents can be predicted to freak out. So while those of you who know will know, those of you who won't won't, if that makes any sense at all.

Speaking of things not making sense, I would be ever so grateful if some British person could explain the following to me: why is the word "Magdalen" pronounced as it's spelled when it's the Mary who was devoted to Jesus, but if it's the college at Oxford it's pronounced "Maudlin"? For years I have assumed that the Oxford College was spelt the way it sounds. But then, watching "University Challenge" as I must say we do, I saw it spelt out properly, and there is was, "Magdalen." Why, one wonders? Someone please enlighten me. I am so fond of these British ways, but I like to know the reasoning if I can. If "reasoning" it be...

Oh! But I do have news, I nearly forgot. For my birthday John's giving me a week-long writing course in Devon! It doesn't come to pass until October, but it's my birthday present nonetheless. It seemed expensive to me until John pointed out that I'd spent more than that already on the various writing courses I've taken in London, the result of which has been merely to learn what I'm NOT good at writing. Well, this one is called "Food Writing," and it is run by the Arvon Foundation, a fascinating organisation led by two writers who were friends of Ted Hughes. I just read the description in the brochure: "cut off from the distractions of daily life: no friends, no family, no wifi, internet, virtually no mobile signals..." Eeek! Just writing all day long, and in the evening listening to readings by the tutors. My tutors will be Tamasin Day-Lewis (sister of Daniel, which description must make her crazy sometimes) and Orlando Murrin. Then there is a guest writer, Simon Parkes, whose function I'm not completely clear about. I'm suddenly very nervous! Why?

Well, for one thing I never leave home. And if I do, I am sensible enough to take my family with me. Second, I am addicted to email and to my blog. No computer! Eeek. Third, how on earth will I be able to pack enough books to keep me company with no family and no friends for four nights? And how will the food be? Apparently all of us on the course cook together every night, which should be good fun. What on earth is possessing me to do such a thing? What if I am the only American? Doubtless I will be. What if everyone else is a published food writer already, or restaurateur, or caterer, and I'm the only one whose sole contribution to the world of food is cooking dinner every night for a husband and one discerning 11-year-old? Waah!

Ah, well, I've paid my deposit and so I must go. And I think I have the tentative agreement of my dear mother in law to come and be cook and chief bottle washer here. Am I nuts? John leaves home, Avery leaves home, John and Avery both leave home, but I? Never. I think the last time I was away was in 1998 when I went to Los Angeles with my friend Sarah to investigate finding publishers for our book. It was for one night! Ten years ago. Well, perhaps it will be one of those opportunities people are always wittering on about, how it shows them parts of their characters they never knew they had. I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever is revealed to me belongs where it is now, hidden and unmissed. But we shall see! The good thing is that I will finally be concentrating on exactly what I want to write about: not sitcoms or films or short stories, but memoirs and food writing.

In the meantime, we are off to collect Avery from her morning spent being charming and intelligent, home for a belated lunch of bolognese, and then to school for whatever delights Monday afternoons offer. And I'm spending the afternoon making:

Slow-Cooked Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves four)


2 dozen chicken wings
1/3 cup each: maple syrup, chilli sauce, tomato juice, black treacle
2 tbsps sesame oil
juice of 1 lime
4 cloves garlic, minced
small knob ginger, peeled and minced

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large ziplock bag and toss the wings in, making sure they are adequately coated. Set aside for as long as you like in the fridge. If you're like me and have a very crowded fridge, the bag method is best, rather than trying to find room for a large Pyrex bowl as I used to do with my satisfyingly massive American fridge (one of two in my kitchen, I weep to say). With a bag you can squish it around and make room.

Line a baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the wings in a slow-ish oven (325f, 160c, about) for at least an hour and a half. You can turn your oven even lower and cook them longer. Turn at least once. Serve with:

Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves lots)


1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe below)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash garlic powder
dash salt
dash black pepper
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Mix all ingredients well with a whisk, then fold in crumbled blue cheese. Chill.

********************

Homemade Mayonnaise
(makes one cup)


1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp salt
pinch cayenne
pinch white pepper
pinch dry mustard
juice of half lemon
1 cup olive oil

With a wire whisk, beat egg yolk with salt, cayenne, pepper and mustard until thick and yellow as a lemon. Then add half the lemon juice slowly and beat again. Now, one drop at a time for about a minute, add olive oil. Then after the first minute, a steady but TINY stream of oil will do, whisking constantly until the oil is used up. Now whisk in remaining lemon juice slowly. Chill, and enjoy. And ask yourself: how do they get commercial mayo to be so... white? Doesn't make sense. One of those life mysteries.

*************

Well, I have to tell you Avery got back from her interview this morning and it was a very revealing little conversation they had with her. Thumbs down on this school, I'd say. Avery says she went into the interview speaking English as opposed to American as she'd been talking with a gaggle of English girls beforehand, and that's usually what happens. So the interviewing creature asked her if she had been a pupil at King's College back when it was under another name, and she answered, "No, I moved from New York just two years ago." "Oh. I did not realise you were an American." Pause while Avery declines to elaborate on the lady's statement. So then she asked Avery, "Do you find that people tend to have... different opinions about Americans than they do about people from other countries?" "What on earth did you find to say about that?" I asked in amazement. "Well," Avery said, "I didn't want to say that British people think Americans are fat and ignorant, so I just said that it depended upon the individual person one meets." Well done! "But she didn't stop there, with what I thought was a very diplomatic answer!" she wailed. "The lady said, 'Well, when people DO judge Americans differently, what do you think they think?', so I said, "I suppose some people think Americans are not as well informed as they might be," and that was all I could think of!" Poor child.

I don't think this is the school for us. What a question, or set of questions, to ask! It certainly gives an indication of the sort of social environment she'd be up against, doesn't it? I think she did extraordinarily well, not defensive, not silly, not pretending she didn't understand the undercurrent. But yuck. I am not, as you know, one to flag-wave mindlessly about my erstwhile home, but I will go out on a limb and say that the only people who should make snap judgments about Americans are... Americans themselves!

02 February, 2008

three girls for the price of one



















First, can I just say how HAPPY I am to see the end of the month of January? Everything has to start getting better now, just to have that awful month behind me.

To start things off, it's a bad news/good news thing. Well, the bad news is, Becky and her husband are jetted off to New York City to find a place to live and schools for their three girls. The bad news also is, this means Becky and her family are moving, alas, to New York. Not "alas, to New York," but "moving, alas." What on earth will I do without her? Over the last two years we have shared birthdays, illnesses, gossip, exams, family trials and tribulations and the total joy of watching our children become fast, fast friends. I am not even approaching imagining London without them. However, needs must and when Becky flies away, the good news is...

We get her children! Two of the three, at least. At thirteen, Ashley has moved on to greener pastures. Like Starbucks and sleepovers with friends. But at least we got Anna and Ellie, beginning this morning. The girls immediately set up the jumps in the garden, as you see, and spent a lovely time jumping, scoring, tormenting Tacy and generally getting more than our usual money's worth out of the space. A gorgeous lunch at La Caricatura, fast becoming our Saturday favorite. Today was a special of wild boar carpaccio, which was delicious (although I could not in all honesty countenance the raisins alongside), and the girls tucked into pizza and ravioli and wrote the lyrics for the songs of their upcoming evening play. Then it was onto Avery's acting class, so Anna and I went SHOPPING. Not for clothes or shoes, mind you, but for the raw ingredients of SLIME.

Yes, you read it correctly. Yesterday at school they all made SLIME, of ingredients surprisingly hard to obtain in our posh neighborhood of London. Food coloring, white glue and Borax. Boots, Marks and Spencer, Selfridges, Ryman's, we hit them all. We laughed over what a passerby would think should he see what was in our bags. "It's the beef mince that would put someone off the trail," I said. "No one would know that in addition to slime, we're having bolognese for dinner."

So they made slime, I made bolognese, they raided all Avery's cupboards and put on a very intriguing play about three (apparently) orphaned girls, no, actually the mother had gone inexplicably to Malta, fulfilling her principal role in fiction: absent. No good girls' stories have live, functioning mothers. Now they have been cajoled into cleaning up and are happily eating popcorn and watching "Ballet Shoes," a regrettably excellent BBC production of the Noel Streatfeild novel. I want to disapprove on some high moral ground about not letting children slob before the television set, but the casting is excellent, the original book adorable, and in general, it's lovely.

Tomorrow brings the Royal Academy of Music concert in aid of Children's Trust. They participated in this concert last year and it was very, very moving. I'm a little intimidated by making an extra lunch for a notoriously choosey little girl, and entertaining Anna in between dropping the other girls off and actually going to the concert. Wish me luck in my role as "Nanny."