09 April, 2009

springtime frolics

Spring has, well, sprung in Hammersmith. Has anyone any idea what this flower is? It struck both John and me as definitely Victorian: something in the combination of intensely sexy color and dropping shyness. So lovely. And just last week, this plaque to Henry Moore was dedicated, in a studio where he worked from 1924 to 1928. Right here in our neighborhood, very proud-making. The years I taught his work in my sculpture classes in New York, and here he had worked just steps from our house, all those years ago. I felt a bit silly walking around in the misty rain yesterday, my hair getting poodlier by the minute, looking for the plaque. But there it is.

So we've been to "Grease," sadly only the musical and not the lovely white beaches surrounded by puddles of ouzo and mounds of moussaka... and the musical was a huge pleasure! Firstly: a live band, suspended high above the stage: is there anything more thrilling than live music? I don't think so, and it was completely unexpected. The drama, the living people behind the instruments, the thumping excitement. Glorious! And why is the libretto so unconventional ("we take the pressures and we throw away conventionality... belongs to yesterday") and the script so intensely 1950s conventional? Avery adores the film AND now the musical but even she in her innocence had to ask, "Why does Sandy have to completely change her personality to get the boy?" But it was nearly a rhetorical question: she understood before I did, Sandy changes only her outward appearance but stays resolutely herself on the inside... We had a wonderful time. Not a single American in the cast but you won't know it.

But all this pales in comparison to the true adventure of our little lives lately: sous vide cooking. By which I mean: "under vacuum," which in these post-modernist, post deconstructionist cooking times means "bathing forever in a barely steaming pot of water, in a vacuum pack." I am not making this up. Let me explain.

John has longed for a vacuum packer for as long as I've longed for a laminator. Clearly the longings are related, but I hesitate to query any further the common denominators therein. Well, I still have no laminator and never plan to, but we are about to receive our vacuum packer, via Amazon, and God help any meat product after that. In the meantime, we acquired a vacuum-packed leg of Welsh lamb, and that was THAT. John resurrected from the cellar a stockpot that once had perhaps held a newborn baby, I don't really remember ever seeing it before, but it is LARGE. It was but the work of a moment for him to locate a thermometer, hook it up to a slotted spoon suspended over the pot, and we spent an entire day getting the allotted amount of water up to 55-62 degrees Celsius. And KEEPING it there. "Let's put it on before we go to 'Grease,'" John said blithely. "Get it up to speed while we're away. "Are you crazy?" I bleated. "With the cats in the house?" An insidious pause. "Don't answer that," I said hastily.

So it was. The water came up to and maintained its temperature, and when we arrived back after our musical and sushi, we plopped the leg of lamb into it and went blamelessly to bed. The next morning we checked the temperature, completely steady and predictable, so I went off to take Avery and her sleepover date to the skating rink... in short we did NOTHING in service of this piece of meat.

That evening at 6 or so, 20 hours since its immersion, the lamb came out of its vacuum pack COMPLETELY cooked, falling off the bone. So I smothered it on a marinade of garlic, rosemary, lemon juice and olive oil and left it for an hour, whereupon John grilled it for 10 minutes a side and...


Quite simply the most sublime, silky, gently tender, flavorsome piece of lamb we have ever tasted.

You must try it.

While this was all happening, we were visited by Roy the Piano Tuner, who (since it is my life) is a man about to celebrate his 50th birthday at Moro where he's well-known (as keyboard specialist to Radiohead he might well be). Roy, in between taking apart my piano before my very eyes and speaking quite slightingly of the piece of wood at the back that apparently is the very heart and mind of a piano, asked me if I'd heard of arrope. Have you? I haven't. It's a dark, syrupy grape liqueur from, variously, Spain, Argentina and the Canary Islands and he's convinced it's the next big thing in food. In fact, he said, "I've been alive long enough to see the advent of balsamic vinegar, and now I've lived to see this, the NEW balsamic vinegar. How scary is that." With which truism he trotted out some lovely homespun music, a few bars of Chopin, a bit of Bach, and then packed up his tools and went away. Avery was completely happy to find the results of his labors. I myself went back to "Chopin Made Easy" which I'm reduced to in this state of many years sans piano lessons. But the joy I get from the easy versions! As they say, priceless. When arrope makes the bigtime, thank Roy, my Piano Tuner. He's publishing his diaries soon ("the number of big stars who hire you under a pseudonym and then turn out to be Annie Lennox...").

As he packed up, he said musingly, "Everything about this piano should be wrong. It should be shoddy, soulless, empty. But I began to play it, and this piano spoke to me. It has a soul. It is alive. I hate to think what you'd get out of a really sublime piano in this space." The room really is magical: all skylight and kitchen and glass windows out to garden beyond. Mostly it's happy.

Today I braved the constant drizzle and my family's utter lack of interest - not even lack, distinct NEGATIVE interest would characterize it better, clearly I need different family members - and went across town and across the river to the Southbank Slow Food Festival, a once-a-month farmer's market-ish event in the spot in town most singularly uncomfortable to reach from Hammersmith even IF the entire transport system were not clogged with protestors from Sri Lanka desperate to reach the Embankment. Lest I seem unsupportive of their cause, I must aver that I know nothing whatever about it, BUT there were a lot of them at Embankment. An unrelated English guy brushed past me at the station stop, holding his girlfriend's hand. I heard him say plaintively, "I mean, let's be honest, no one LIKES genocide, fair enough."

The Slow Food market was LOVELY. Gear yourself up for VERY spicy smoke from the chilli pepper stand, and go hungry. The basic idea of Slow Food (although essentially quite political in its original Italian incarnation decades ago) is this: support local, support heirloom varieties, happy animal life, artisan production of lost skills, and SLOW DOWN to produce, sell, cook and eat. Appreciate and know where your food comes from, how it's raised, enjoy knowing those bits, cook it with respect and eat it slowly. This last is a dead failure with my family who seems intent on bridging the gap between food production time (at my house, an hour and a half or so every evening to produce dinner) and food consumption time (average 13 minutes).

I patronized Richard Haward, seventh-generation oysterman, providing both native and wild rock (much preferred tiny native) Colchester oysters, and The Arabica Food and Spice Company with their subtle spinach hummous. Then I brought home sauerkraut from Sarah Moore Artisan Caterers to serve with our Easter gammon joint (purchased in lieu of Avery's university education at Mr Stenton's butcher shop in our neighborhood this afternoon).

Then there is the luscious beef brisket from Woodwards Farm in Huntingdon, which I'm quite sure will end up getting the vacuum treatment later in the week... and scrumptious smoked mackerel pate from The Patchwork Traditional Food Company, started by a lady in Llangollen, northeast Wales, with 9 pounds extra in her housekeeping money one week in 1982!

I happily bought butter from Moorhayes Farm, sold by Neal's Yard, the first butter I've seen labelled with milk fat percentages (85%, as if I wanted to know! and salt, 1.5%). This butter and cheese is now being sold by Waitrose and Sainsbury's, as well as Neal's Yard: a very encouraging sign for the future!

Finally I succumbed to brie truffee, or "truffled brie," quite the most aromatic and luxurious cheese you can imagine, sold by the Fromagerie in Marylebone. I cannot tell you how this aroma meets the nostrils and even taste buds. Suddenly I was visited by an intense longing for my father-in-law, who not only loved to eat, but loved to graze, to sample, to get away with something, to investigate. How I longed for him to be with me, suddenly.

Tonight we were happily fed by friends nearby and all I brought was this cheese, plus a baguette whose end had been callously plundered by Avery in her usual fit of 4 p.m. starvation. Can I tell you what these dear friends fed us? Sixteen-year-old Lily produced two sublime roast chickens with tarragon, a salad bowl of pea shoots in a mustardy vinaigrette, and a DEADLY delicious dauphinoise of sweet potatoes with fresh sage, garlic and whipping cream. As soon as I make it myself I'll give you the recipe.

This teenage triumph was followed by pistachio shortbread and a flourless chocolate cake. The child is SIXTEEN! How we ate. If my friends get any better at feeding me, I'll end up looking like the Easter bunny myself. Is it too obvious? The beauty of a miserably wet day spent with a load of self-conscious food producers, followed by an evening cooked by a child, raised by the right parents, but not with a shovel over the head. Just fed the right food all her life, to lots of nice people, which makes it easier to swallow, one hopes. One would have to ask my daughter.

Now, Easter Eve, I must collapse. Happy Egg Hunting, everyone... and get thee to the Festival! It closes Monday so... buy a wedge of truffle brie and think of me.


A Work in Progress said...

I'm pretty sure that's a snake's head, or frittilary. I know this because we went to Savill Garden today, my daughter armed with her Usborne nature spotter's book, and we wondered exactly the same thing, though ours was a little more purple and less blue. Did you know that Ruth Reichl recommends the vacuum pack thingy? I had never heard of it, but it sounds interesting...

Renée said...

Here's a little trivia about the Snyder clan. Craig's first job in New York as a guitarist was in the pit of "Grease" on Broadway. (You can imagine what happened when I told people that Craig was in the pit of 'Grease' - same reactions that you got, but with really strange looks.) Heidi was 4 years old and went to every Wednesday and Sunday matinee, singing and dancing in the wings. I auditioned for the role of Rizzo, but didn't get it. 30 years later, Grease is still around. And so are we. Which only goes to show - we are really old.

jvs said...

Believe the flower may be a clematis -- either clematis alpina or clematis macropetala. There are many varieties of both the alpina and macropetala ... Several plants have blossoms that look somewhat like these, but the leaves are distinctive and seem to indicate clematis. Nice picture. Great blog.

Kristen In London said...

Well, let's see, there is obviously a diversity of opinion on these flowers... I'll have to do some more research (as in, any). Thanks for the suggestions!

Renee, why am I not surprised by this Snyder revelation? You would be a PERFECT Rizzo, needless to say.