21 July, 2009

The Music Room

Big news from Red Gate Farm: our dining room, so recently converted into a library, has inched even further up the interior design ladder and morphed into a Music Room! Truly, and here is the photograph to prove it.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must aver that the newly-acquired piano pictured here is now on the adjacent wall, with the advice of the tuner extraordinaire who spent the afternoon with us. "Interior walls, only, and NOT in contact with any heat source," he instructed he, and so be it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I arrived in Connecticut two weeks ago with the definite dream of finding a piano. My mother will be so happy to hear how much I've loved getting a bit closer to where I was after the hundreds of dollars my parents spent getting me educated in the ways of piano playing. The hours I practiced! The recitals and sheet music and competitions (most of which involved me trying to get my friend Amy's brother Mark, on whom I had an enormous unrequited crush, to accompany me)... Well, here's the way it works to get a used piano in Connecticut. To set the comparative scene, in London, in order to get a piano, I ask my friend Becky who's moving away to sell me hers, and she does, and the London Piano Moving Company moves it the next day. Let me tell you it's not that simple in the Nutmeg State.

I began on Craigslist, at John's advice, and it's a brave new world out there, I can tell you. In the site for my small area of Connecticut ALONE there were hundreds of musical instruments for sale, many of them pianos, and I tracked down a fair number, some of whose details were a bit sob-making. "Looks OK, most keys don't work, no pedals, really heavy. Move it yourself." That's tempting! Finally I emailed six or so people who had pianos that sounded workable, and also found a mover in my neck of the woods who was happy to go get any number of the pianos I described to him, from their various locations. Steve of Astro Movers and I had several heartwarming conversations about my search for a piano, how expensive they were, how no one would tell me if they really worked or not, people were all secretive about how many steps up or down it required to reach the piano.

Finally, I had to call Steve and confess that my last piano hope sounded very dodgy. "Steve, the guy just says for me to come get it, he'll give it to me for free, but he doesn't have any idea if it WORKS or not!" And do you know what Steve said? In a typical laconic, easygoing tone, he said, "You know, I have a piano here you could have." Silence. "You have a WHAT?" "A piano. Beautiful little thing, let you have it for... [names an unbelievably low price], moving included."

It is not for me to wonder why this piano was not offered to me in any of the many early conversations I had with Steve. The point was, all I had to do was email all the people who were trying to get me to buy THEIR pianos and say no thank you, and get to the cash machine.

Sadly, not Steve ("he doesn't come out in the rain," his colleague explained simply) but three of his compatriots arrived this morning in, it has to be admitted, the rain, and delivered a lovely upright piano to my dining-room-turned-library. Well, it's the Music Room now! We could tell immediately several things: it fits perfectly into our space, it's a lovely old-fashioned thing that looks quite at home with our belongings, and... it was dreadfully out of tune. So this afternoon up turned a chap called Terry, with a bag full of tricks, among them his German grandfather's tuning fork and a handful of newspaper articles about him, an immigrant who brought his skills over with him to the New World. Also in Terry's bag was a DVD of his daughter's rendition of "Ave Maria" at the Sacred Heart Christmas concert. "Anybody can see what a big voice she has," he said, completely unable to conceal his enormous pride in her. Further conversation elicited that his son was a prodigy in the developmental pediatrics department at Yale. Is there anything more touching than the white heat of parental devotion?

Terry explained many things about our piano to us, including things about the length of the strings and therefore the tons of tension carried within them ("right to this solid cast-iron frame here,") and the trying nature of the pads or keys, or something which meant that some number of them could not be meant to play. He was here for three and a half hours, crashing through any number of Chopin, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff pieces to demonstrate his progress, or lack thereof. Many comments were uttered sotto voce, with no one really within hearing distance as I sliced sirloin for pierrade and John installed a shelf in the bathroom and Avery shelled peas, against her will. But he seemed to need to express himself.

Throughout the long, gray, cacophanous afternoon, the rain fell, the washer and dryer hummed, I sliced meat, made a slaw of red cabbage, Savoy cabbage and red peppers with a mustardy dressing, and my first Bearnaise sauce! It's a bit of trouble, but I think there is nothing more tempting to serve with beef.

Classic Bearnaise Sauce
(serves 6)

1 stick unsalted (important!) butter (about 120 grams)
1/4 cup each white wine, white wine vinegar
1 tbsp tarragon leaves
2 shallots, minced
pinch white pepper
2 egg yolks
cayenne pepper

Now, this may sound involved, but it's really not. Forget all the instructions about double boilers. I never heard of anything so silly. You merely need two saucepans of same or nearly same size. First, melt the butter JUST to melting, don't brown, in a microwave if you have one. If not, use a saucepan. Put the melted butter in a bowl somewhere and wash out the saucepan. In this pan, boil the wine and vinegar, tarragon, shallots and pepper until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain this into a bowl and throw away the solids. Now boil some water in a saucepan, rinse out the one you boiled the wine mixture in, and pour the strained mixture into this second saucepan. Before you place this on the boiling water pan, whisk in the egg yolks. Now place the saucepan on top of the one containing boiling water and whisk until the the MOMENT the eggs thicken. Take off the heat. Put four ice cubes in the boiling water and return the saucepan with the sauce in it to the top of the hot water one, whisking in the melted butter VERY gradually until thick and yellow and all the butter is used up. If at any time the sauce seems to be breaking up, simply remove from the hot bottom saucepan and whisk till smooth.

When all the butter is incorporated, add a dash of cayenne pepper and salt to taste.


This sauce is incredibly tasty, a little goes a long way, and it's the perfect accompaniment to beef of any kind. But especially our favorite, pierrade, with veal and duck (and its gorgeous satay sauce). Anne and David brought Kate across the road in the rain to join us (and Terry the tuner, for half an hour or so as he finished up). So cozy to sit on the dining room floor (I did find time today to scrub it, knowing we'd spend some time down there with a 1-year-old), kind indulgent Avery offering Kate hats to try on, watching her unique method of locomotion: hitching herself with one hand and two bent legs, surprisingly effective!

Finally Terry could do no more (a further visit is necessary for our problem piano child, but he enthused, "a great piano when it's all said and done," as all problem children are, I suppose). A fabulous, if frenetic dinner, with Dave looking on his family adoringly, Anne fetching dropped bananas, rejected raspberries, feeding her water from a coffee cup she found in our crazy kitchen, painted with kittens. The fat from the pierrade spattered us all, we passed sauces to and fro, the usual debate ensued: "Is this your duck bite? I forgot my veal and it's burning..." We managed to discuss Obama's reputation abroad, Avery's school, pianos and music in general... but there is never enough time with them. We finished up with the cabbage slaw, so crunchy and refreshing, and then sadly it was time for the baby to go to bed. How lucky we are in our neighbors, I thought, and wanted ridiculously to take a picture of them crossing the road through the red gate, carrying their longed-for and so-adored baby, heading across to their own white farmhouse in the rain. I realized that the photograph I imagined was only in my own head... just a snapshot of a lovely moment, on our road, in our lives, with our children.

I wandered around downstairs when everyone had gone separate ways, scrubbing up the pierrade stone, admiring the piano, curating my refrigerator, folding laundry, all the little tasks that make being home so predictable, so repetitive, and therefore so cozy!

We've had more than our fair share of fun lately. Anne and David came also on Saturday to meet up with Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly: the great encounter of the babies! I think no one was less interested in each other than Molly and Kate. We all oohed and aahed, but truth be told, the babies were MUCH more enthralled with Avery and Jane, who put on their bathing suits and braved the setting sun for some fun on the slip 'n slide. Were any four children ever more assiduously photographed? I think not! They're all so photogenic, we think, and we often laugh at us, like a row of paparazzi, documenting their every move. Irresistible, really. That night we feasted on a favorite of mine, although cooked for the first time in America.

Crab Tart with Scallions and Goats Cheese
(serves 12)

175 grams plain flour
75 grams cornflour (cornstarch)
1 tsp salt
120 grams cold butter
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
dash cayenne
2 eggs, beaten
sprinkles cold water

250 grams white crabmeat
250 grams goats cheese
1 bunch scallion, minced
600 ml double cream
6 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten

Make the pastry by mixing, in a food processor, the flour, cornflour, salt, butter (in little pieces, gradually), and thyme. Then add eggs and water to make a nice stiff dough and form into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

Roll out pastry to be at least 2 inches larger all round than the tart tin (21 cm diameter and 3 cm deep). Line the tin gently with the pastry, draping the extra over the sides (do not trim yet). Line with foil and weight with beans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then take out the foil and beans and check to see if the pastry is dry. If not, bake again for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the cream and season well. Beat the leftover egg and brush the baked pastry crust with it, all over. Scatter the scallions, goats cheese and crabmeat over the bottom, then pour over the cream and eggs. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C for another 40 minutes. Leave tart to cool to room temperature before serving.


Now, I realize making this for the first time in America, it's important to demystify the metrics. Just think: it's merely equal measures of crab and goats cheese (about a cup of each in the recipe, but I always use more), and basically a stick of butter (a bit more for good measure). It's a little more than a pint of whipping cream, not to worry.

And the pastry? You know what? Get a scale. You can measure all these things by volume, no doubt, as I've done all my life. But at the risk of seeming anti-American, it's heavenly simple to weigh things and then you KNOW. So much easier to put butter on a scale than to slodge it into a measuring cup, smash it down, then try to get it out again. And trying to remember to use your measuring cup for dry ingredients FIRST so the dry ones won't stick to the butter or cream you just put in the cup? Get a scale.

And before you get your knickers in a twist (one of my favorite English expressions) about temperature, figure to double the Celsius number for Fahrenheit. The legal conversion is much more complex, but doubling works.

Sunday morning found the kitchen immaculate as if a party had never happened (trust my organizational skills if not my poetry), and us in the car on the way to Brooklyn and a real trip down memory lane. Somehow, when we made our plans to see my fabulous former gallery assistant, the amazing photographer Rebecca Veit, in her studio in Brooklyn Heights, it didn't really occur to us that we'd be taking a virtual tour of Places John Has Lived in order to get there.

My goodness, the memories came flooding back. His first brownstone in 1987 on President Street, surrounded by Italian families who planted Nativity scenes in their gardens as if they were rhododenrons... I remember arriving there to visit during his second year at Goldman Sachs, I a first-year graduate student on the run from my thesis... Then the rather fab, modern loft on Schermerhorn Street, where I helped him move in and cook Szechuan chicken and watch "Flashdance"! Then finally a charming but dodgy apartment on Atlantic Avenue (how dishy that block has become now, all home decor and antiquey)... with the owner's huge smelly black labrador occupying the filthy walkup steps... and the owner's nightly ritual saying goodnight to him (fuelled, John recalls, by the owner's copious ingestion of beer). "Blackie, I love you. Blackie, you're my life."

How can so many years have flown by? I think of those times with enormous nostalgia: the glamor of John's job, my enrapturement with Deconstruction, Post-Structuralism, feminist art historical theory, dressing the part all in black, about as thin as a splinter. But you know what? We are much happier now. I have to be honest and remember that as much fun as those days sound in memory, we argued all the time! About John's work schedule, about my lack of money, about what we would do when and with whom. Either there was more to argue about or we just invented it! With the arrival of Avery there has seemed very little to argue about. We just sort of float through the days feeling lucky we all have each other, as sappy as that sounds.

But it was huge fun to do The Grand Tour, and show Avery all the sights. She manifests a polite and profound lack of belief that we were ever boyfriend and girlfriend, anxiously negotiating our passionate long-distance romance! Well, more power to her. The next big romance will be hers, and it will be very intriguing to see what form it takes.

From there we headed to Rebecca's place, which she shares with her wildly creative boyfriend Mason, he of the splendidly quirky and addictive blog "Daily Routines," which has now happily been suspended because it's coming out as a book next year! It's all about the daily routines of creative people (I count it as a matter of mere timing that he did not seek to interview moi). We did not get to meet Mason as he was (his daily routine) at the library, but it was wonderful to see Rebecca. She is a mysterious, dark-horseish person, with hidden depths that pop up now and then in conversation, and fully in her photography. With Rebecca, there's a curious anomaly of the daily/everyday being quite full of mystery, and yet enormously mysterious things being presented as quite everyday and commonplace. Through it all her dark eyes sparkle and her dark curls bob: a truly insouciant person who I've missed more than I let myself realize. Ah, well, we're now in the proud possession of two of her photographs which, when we hang them, I'll show you. What a pleasure to see her, and to re-introduce Avery to her. Fully a third of Avery's life has gone by since she saw Rebecca last, what a thing. Their hug was much more on a level than it was the last time they met.

Then it was on to Tribeca, another tour back into time (we moved away nearly four years ago). But you know what? With my best friend Alyssa as our guide, there is never room for sentiment (we save that for our post-visit emails which are positively tear-making). We marched off to Gigino, our old favorite pizzeria in the nabe, where Avery astonished me by remembering that every Wednesday I took her out of school and we had lunch there! How on earth does she remember that? The old pizza bianca with ricotta tasted just like those Wednesdays, when I had a much smaller daughter in tow, one who wanted to hold my hand when crossing the street. What wonderful afternoons those were, and how I cherished all my school volunteer jobs that allowed me to follow her back, walk in the doors with her, and keep my eye on her all the time.

Of course following us through our tour of the much-changed and yet still-wonderful Tribeca were countless terrible memories of September 11, which I find myself thinking of less and less. But surrounded by the past-saturated buildings, the street corner where I was standing when the first plane flew overhead, the restaurants who generously fed the firemen, the corners where countless news trucks were parked, the school where I ran to fetch Avery when it happened, the sandbox that had to be emptied by workers with hazmat gear before the children could play there again... so many memories came flooding back. One of the wonderful, unspoken things about my friendship with Alyssa is that all these things are in our minds, as we stroll along in the unbroken sunshine, passing the street where once, in a cold September rain after that awful day, she told me she was expecting Elliot... We never discuss these things, but the fact that we went through them together, scared stiff and yet still standing, are part of the glue that binds us.

It was so bloody hot on Sunday! We sweated our way, with Steve and Elliot, on a tour of the new buildings, the real estate that's switched hands and for how much (the never-ending passion of any true New Yorker, however transplanted across the pond), galleries that have closed (here's mine, now a LINGERIE store! how we laughed, the culture replaced by crotchless panties, ah well, we know which one made enough money to pay the rent)... restaurant spaces thrice changed over, and yet some dear places still the same: happily for John's wallet, Avery's beloved Shoofly shoe store was closed for Sunday! The child is definitely a shoe horse.

The single best addition to the hood? Whole Foods. I came away with simply the best salmon ever, and thus was hatched:

Grilled Salmon Teriyaki
(serves 4)

4 fillets salmon
1-inch knob ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
handful chives, loosely chopped
zest of 1/2 lemon or lime
drizzle sesame oil
generous drizzle soy sauce

Let all these ingredients rest together on a platter till the fish comes to room temperature. Then grill or bake in a very hot oven (425F, 220C) for four minutes, then turn over and cook for a further four minutes. Simply (and I mean that) irresistible. So light, so savory.


I stayed up very late Sunday night, thinking of all we had seen, done, felt, thought... One of the great and terrible things about moving far away is coming home, to find that as happy and secure as we are in our lives in London, there is an alternate life here that pulls at us, that was wonderfully warm and satisfying when we were here, and that is always here to come home to. It's important not to dwell on the past, though, as hard as that is: not to imagine myself back where an afternoon with Alyssa was a daily thing, not an opportunity to schedule on a calendar, look forward to for months, cherish for a couple of hours. Everything changes! It's the intense joy of several lives, each of which deserved living and would be nice to have running, on several channels, all the time.

Monday we recovered with a quiet day while John gardened to obsessive smelliness, bless his heart, Avery and I went to the library, the bookstore, then spent a lazy time on her trampoline, then to a riding lesson (more nostalgia thinking back to her showing days on the New Jersey circuit), a rough game of tennis and a quick freezing swim in our lovely grotty municipal pool. Today the rumors of storms came true, and tomorrow, who knows? Visitors from New York for lunch, more nostalgia as we have not seen them since Avery was a baby! And best of all, Rosemary! Here for her summer visit. How lucky are we... her room is settled with the traditional barn-red coverlet on the bed, the old red rug on the floor, a picture of John's dad, Scotch in hand, on the bedside table, a pile of tempting books carefully chosen from our laden shelves, a heavy brass whale to weight them down, a new green table lamp (will she notice? we'll see)... More fun in store.


Foxi Rosie said...

Oh Kristen, what a joy to read. A book and please hurry! All so poetic and packed with images.

Your description of the plane flying above your head in NY on 9/11 gave me goosebumps. I too, like many, will never forget that day in September when the world seemed to have gone mad as everything safe felt as though it had turned up-side-down.

Kristen In London said...

How lovely and supportive you are, dear Rosie... you make me believe that someday I will have a readership, small but loyal. I simply must persevere! You as well...