27 May, 2009

All's Well... (well you know)

























I think that magical phrase can be uttered: Summer Has Arrived! Of course our standards in England are slightly different from those in America, some better, some worse. We can't count on the bright blue skies of Connecticut, but there are the English wildflowers that make the heart sing. To see a little girl roam through the countryside on a white pony through fields of tiny yellow buttercups is a lovely experience.

But probably the best of English summer, early summer, are the soft fruits, and the rhubarb. Avery had a lovely crumble last night before the theatre (more on that in a moment), and so I came home and created:

Summer Fruit Crumble
(serves 8 as a fine dessert or breakfast)


1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup light brown or Demarara sugar
1 tsp cinnamon (less if you're sensitive)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
dash ground cloves
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in small cubes

1 cup each:
chopped apple
sliced peeled rhubarb
raspberries
strawberries, quartered
1/4 cup light brown of Demarara sugar

Put the flour, sugar and spices in a food processor and turn it on. Through the hole in the top, drop the butter cubes one at a time, letting them process for several seconds after each drop.

Mix all the fruits and the sugar in a large bowl and stir well. Toss into a buttered 9-inch square glass dish and top with the flour mixture, covering all the fruit. Bake in a 350F, 280C oven for about half an hour or until fruit is bubbling up along the sides and the crumble topping is nicely browned.

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This was magical, even for me, a person who does not like sweet things. The rhubarb is intensely summery, and the better strawberries and raspberries you can get, the better, because the simple flavors really sing. A buttery, slightly crunchy crumble topping, plus you know ALL the ingredients and so have a clear conscience. A perfect breakfast for a schoolgirl, trust me.

Yes, the theatre last evening was "All's Well That Ends Well" at the National Theatre, a destination we seem to head to more than any other. I adore the little intimate Olivier Theatre within, with its seats around three-quarters of the stage. And what a magical, whimsical production it was. Still in previews, so there was a feeling of "what now?" about many of the moments: two particular bits of totally unexpected slow-motion at times of supreme drama: the action all slowed down almost imperceptibly while filigreed leaves filtered down from the ceiling... some brilliant touches of playing around with the original lines: during a particularly long list-sort of speech by a character, she turned to the audience in the middle and said wearily, "Etcetera..." Brilliant!

Look out for the single scene-stealing instant of the entire play: the third, or even fourth girl is offered up for the Count as wife, and as she looks at him through comic-book spectacles, clutching her knitting, she simply squeaks, "Minna minna minna!..." And as Avery pointed out, "for that moment, she had the whole theatre." Oliver Ford Davies and Clare Higgins were proper mainstays for the play, but the younger set (including the Count who, when he bared his chest to change his shirt, an audible gasp rippled through the audience!) were more than enough to hold up the energy. It is such fun to see a play early on in its run: the grins of sheer unabashed delight from the players at the bow was a joy!

We were home so very, very late. It's half-term break for Avery, but only in a way, because she and her other first-year compatriots in senior school are given fairly serious amounts of what's called "revision" to do, what I suppose we Americans call "studying." Piles of papers of geography, English, maths, Latin, science, art, French, everything, to dig through and try to remember everything the teachers have said since September. So I felt somewhat guilty throwing her into bed quite close to midnight, but thought self-righteously, "It's bl**dy Shakespeare!" She slept late, and stuck close to the kitchen today as I concocted my fruit crumble, pesto, watercress and sweetcorn soup for lunch, and for dinner, a quite magical new ingredient, not for the faint of heart: black garlic. It's not as evil as it sounds; rather, it's sweet, sticky, coal black and nearly weightless in its papery outer skin. Simply peel away the skin to reveal the shrivelly cloves, then squish the cloves into submission for the marinade of your life.

Pork Fillet in a Black Garlic Marinade, Served in Lettuce
(serves 4 easily)


2 medium pork tenderloins, completely trimmed of membranes and fat
1 whole head black garlic
2 tbsps soy sauce
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp sesame oil

1 red pepper, diced
1 large Portobello mushroom, diced
1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsps pinenuts, chopped
handful cilantro/coriander leaves
1/4 cup plum sauce

1 head Boston or iceberg lettuce, pulled into large leaves

Place the trimmed tenderloins in a Ziplock bag. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, soy sauce, lime juice and sesame oil and mash them together, then leave for 5 minutes or so to let the acid in the lime juice break down the garlic. Mash some more until nice and smooth, then pour all the marinade into the bag with the pork and seal well. Squish around until the tenderloins are completely coated with the marinade. Leave in the fridge for as long as you can, within reason: an hour to a day.

Jut before you're ready to eat, assemble the rest of the ingredients, and saute the peppers and mushrooms in the olive oil. Set aside. Cut the tenderloins into 1-inch slices and place in a food processor, then blitz until chopped but not pureed. Heat a heavy frying pan to very hot, then add the pork and saute, breaking up with a wooden spoon as you go. When cooked, remove to a bowl.

Serve all ingredients with lettuce leaves, and pile on as you like! Have plenty of napkins, as it's a messy dish.

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Light, diety, but satisfying. If your children don't like lettuce leaves, provide Chinese pancakes for them. It's all lovely and you can assemble each one as you like it.

Goodness, it's been a whirlwind since Monday. In fact, it all began Sunday evening when we picked up Avery's friend Lille and brought her home for pierrade and Eton Mess, then packing up for their lovely weekend away. It was that heartwarming combination of the familiar and the utterly luxurious. For many years our family, including John's mother and much-missed father, have travelled from London to the cradling beauty of the Cotswolds, for that occasional break from crazy daily life. Given our druthers, our destination has to be Lords of the Manor, simply my favorite little hotel in the world, tucked away in Upper Slaughter, a place where you can actually borrow Wellingtons if you need them, or order the finest single-malt Scotch in the world, and watch a helicopter land on the back garden, and sample the finest fried bread in an English breakfast you ever tasted.

When we first began to retreat there, and I truly can't remember why we ever first did, it was the ultimate in country shabby 17th century chic: worn Oriental rugs, family portraits in fire-stained oils, half-empty bottles of Calvados on the well-worn bar, leather fenders before the fireplaces. How we loved it. How many precious evenings we got dressed up, in our rooms above the dining rooms, dawdling in old-fashioned ceramic baths with feet, listening to "Wogan" drifting in from the telly in the bedroom, to meet up in the sitting room where a smiling waitress brought heavy menus of what was to me, then, very remarkable and unattainable food. We chose, over much laughter and Scotches, and then repaired to the dining room.

Well, all things must change, for better or worse, or probably in this case from wonderful to worse to better, but always changing. Two years ago we took a little friend of Avery's there to stay for a weekend while her mother had a baby, and it was lovely, but the food? I'm ashamed to say I'd outgrown it. It was nice hotel food. But I could do more than I could do in the old days, and I was loath to spend precious food money on something sort of tepid.

So this year I thought, "Right, we'll have a fabulous time in the country, but have dinner in a nice pub somewhere, save some money." In the end, after the girls had been put through their paces at Jill Carenza's, riding school (more on that in a moment!), all they and we wanted for the evening was to collapse and order room service. I noticed with a mixture of delight and alarm and nostalgia that the shabby chic had all gone, in favor of a muted elegance: all colors like mushroom, sage, brick red, stripes instead of flowers, lovely damask in the place of the old chintz and velvet. No more flocked wallpapers, no more shabby old mismatched books in the shelves, and the oil paintings had gone in favor of lovely Cotswolds landscapes in pastels. Gorgeous, but not quite the old days. John's father, I felt, would have felt it too posh. And yet...

Girls ensconced in their room of our suite, clutching the exciting gratuitous shampoos and lotions from a fancy French maker instead of the lovely Molton Brown the hotel used to stock, we all collapsed. "Room service!" the girls crowed, and scrubbed the horses from their hands. Tagliatelle all round, with ham and mushrooms, we decided. I opted for an additional "mixed salad."

WELL.

When the food arrived, John and I looked at each other. This was no sort of forgettable pasta with a dull sauce of button mushrooms and ham. Homemade noodles, mixed wild mushrooms in a subtle, slightly but lightly creamy sauce, with smoky chunks of some artisanal ham. What was going on here? Then I pulled toward me the salad. And my dear readers, you have never tasted such a salad. So lightly and yet skilfully dressed that it appeared naked at first, but the mustardy, olivey, slightly garlicky flavor clung to every leaf. And the leaves! Baby everything: minuscule leaves of baby cilantro, baby radicchio, baby endive, baby dandelion, baby beetroot. GORGEOUS. "What has happened here?" we asked silently. And then, the girls' desserts arrived. A single perfect hollow ball of spun sugar sitting on a bed of poached rhubarb and ice cream, a coffee praline souffle for Lille... and the most gorgeous petits fours you can imagine: a passionfruit jelly, a creamy caramely square the size of a postage stamp, a Turkish delight of the most perfect pistachios. Perfection.

I hightailed it straight to the front desk, and you know what? Since we there last, there is a new chef, a certain Matt Weedon, poached (as it were) from a Scottish castle restaurant who must have been devastated to lose him. With his arrival and hard work, the hotel restaurant has gained its first coveted Michelin star! How I wish we had sucked it up for the money and had the whole nine yards in the dining room! I had no idea. Next time. Perfection. Go!

In the morning we ended up repeating the girls' incredible experience at riding the day before: cross-country eventing! Quite simply, all the scary things that mothers the world round dread that their girls will want to do, when they begin riding. But I was fine! Jumping, in the countryside, farther than I could see, across unmovable jumps in the grass, on ponies they'd never ridden before. The skies were ultimately changeable: blue, grey, scudding white clouds, grey threatening drops, all smiling down on fields full of buttercups. I felt John's father all around us, he who had smiled his Irish eyes so many times on Avery jumping in just this place. How his pride in her shone from his smile: leaning against the fence, revelling in the jumps getting higher, never fearing for her safety, always confident that his granddaughter would be equal to the challenge. He was there, with us. And always will be. How he would have loved to see her red cheeks and grinning eyes, shouting, "That's the most fun I've EVER had!" as she brought her pony in from the faraway fields, where metaphorically and really, she had left me far behind.

And yet even there, things change: Avery and Lille were taught not by the famous Jill, who presides over the barn, but her up and coming daughter Emily. At first we harumphed silently a bit, "What about Jill!" but quickly saw that the new generation had taken over, and she gave as good as she got, shout for ear-piercing shout the image of her mother. And the girls were in heaven, hot, sweaty, scared to the point of exhilaration but never for a MOMENT wanting to say no, to do anything less than what they were offered. "More ring, you lot, or the field?" Emily asked at one point, and Lille shouted, "Field field field!" "Tell us what you REALLY think," John teased. What a complete joy to give this experience to them.

Back to the hotel, putting the top up in the poor tiny little convertible at one point for a brief rainstorm! Then to get food for the ducks in Lower Slaughter, another beloved tradition, ending once in a giant white duck taking a giant bite out of John's ancient Barbour coat! We always get duck food at the same place, where Avery always gets her favorite ice cream, and looks in the mirrored front of the "AVERY" scale set out in front of the shop. And we were off with duck food. But again: changes. Where were the ducks? There were just two, or three, and they weren't hungry, not surprisingly, since probably every tourist all morning had insisted on feeding them! "No ducks," Avery said mournfully, and just as I was planning to go buy some so she could continue her tradition, up popped a mother and at least seven tiny ducklings! "What we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality," John said, and all was well.

High tea at the hotel, the traditional searching through "Horse and Pony" Magazine for the ONE pony in the classifieds that they could agree on... and home. It's actually fun to go on a long drive with two highly academic near-teenagers: they spend the time singing their Latin noun declensions! And imitating their Latin teacher in her high-pitched cheery tones, and singing "The Grand Old Duke of York" while skipping various words... very entertaining.

As for me, the highlight was our visit to Stow, on the way home. Lambournes Butchers in Digbeth Street provided not only the divine pork fillet for our black garlic dinner tonight, but also the most flavorful and opportunistic tomatoes on the vine: why don't more butchers offer fresh vegetables? It's my favorite way to shop: "Hey, this would be good with that..." Then next door to the butcher was Hamptons Fine Foods, specializing in the sorts of luxury hampers we can only DREAM about (my birthday, anyone?) where I picked up local rapeseed oil and the BEST CHEESE EVER: Stow Soft, a sort of mildly smelly, intensely buttery and flavorful creamy cheese, the kind you slice the top off and then spoon out, like an Epoisse or a Vacherin, not to be too foodie all over you. But I wish so much I had bought more than two (I gave one to Lille's mother when we dropped her daughter off, dirty and nearly as smelly as the cheese, oh, ponies!).

Home in a stupor of fatigue, appreciation, extreme closeness from 48 hours in each others' company, dirty laundry, the smallest car ever, and so many memories. It's all we can do, in the end. Pull our children and our husbands through the toughest moments, give them a kick when they need it (and take our kicks when they come!) and then sit back and LOVE the blinky afternoons when you're watching a not-so-little girl on a white pony, in a flowery field, having the time of her life.

Then come home to a fruit crumble...

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